Melting up

So the videos from Umeå Institute of Design’s Interaction Design Spring Summit 2009 are finally up, and of course they’re all awesome and you should go watch them all. You’ll see diamond-hard minds like Cottam, Jones, Schulze and Arnall at work, doing what they do best: probing, questioning, provoking, opening up space. Believe me when I say it was a treat to witness these talks in person and that it delights me that the clips are up, so more of you will now be able to avail yourselves of the goodness therein.

But if you’ll forgive me for doing so, the video I really want to talk to you about is my own, because what you’ll be watching when you click “play” is nothing less than someone falling apart in real time.

You know: losing the script. Wandering off the reservation. Going off-piste. Call it what you please, it all basically amounts to the same thing. What happened that day in Umeå – for the first and, I devoutly hope, last time in my public speaking career – is that roughly sixteen minutes into my talk, I seized up. It wasn’t because I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say next. It was because all of the words and ideas I’d so neatly lined up to present suddenly started to seem posturing, evasive, dissembling. Or, better, to call things for what they are: like ashes-in-the-mouth lies.

There was nothing I could do but shut my laptop, take a deeeep breath, and try to figure out what it was that I really wanted to say. Live, in real time, with a few dozen curious pairs of eyes pointed straight at me.

I wish I could claim it was some grand Howard Beale transport of clarity. In fact, somatically, it felt pretty wretched: hammering heart, clammy sweat, trouble swallowing. (From personal experience with both, I’d call it something less than a full-blown nervous breakdown, but uncomfortably more than a panic attack.) But of course I was already on stage, fully committed, and under such circumstances the only conceivable way out was pressing forward.

And so that’s what you see in this clip. I went to the edge of the stage, sat down, and said what I thought actually needed saying, for another fifteen minutes or so…all with my heart threatening to beat its way right up my throat and out into the world. The weird thing is that, watching the video now, I can almost see why one or two people in the audience complimented me afterward on my canny stagecraft: but for some nervous, high-pitched giggles, atypically misstated facts, tics (“substantiate”?) and Freudian slips (“criminality” for “criminology”) – all of which might have slipped under the radar if you don’t know me well – there’s no particularly overt sign that the guy in front of you is in the throes of a moderately significant psychosomatic crisis.

And for all that, I’m really pleased with what streamed out of me. It wasn’t any kind of fun, but it was honest and forthright, which are among the qualities I value most in the world. And it hung together, and maybe even resonated, in a way I’m not at all sure my prepared presentation would have. Matt Jones later gave me the beautiful gift of calling what he’d seen a “meltup,” and so that’s how I like to think of what happened that day.

Why did things break that way? Obviously, I have some ideas. Some of it likely had to do with a contingency I should have been better prepared for, which you can hear me alluding to in the video’s first few moments: that in the course of the day’s talks, Matt and Jack and Timo had already covered most of the points I’d wanted to make, and better than I would have been able to. Some of it is down to me traveling too much, not ever getting quite enough sleep, and pushing myself at almost all times (and especially in situations like this) way past the natural limits of my capacity to be social. And some of it, frankly, has to do with things which are my business and mine alone; you can safely assume these are already in the course of being dealt with.

My apologies, then, for all the melodrama and squishy grossness of the above. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to say anything at all about this, but now that the video’s making the rounds, I thought you deserved some kind of context for what it is you’ll see in it. I want to thank Matt Cottam for having made the day possible in the first place; Rahul Sen and Camille Moussette and their cohorts at Umeå for having parried the weirdness so elegantly; and these gentlemen for their constant support and encouragement far beyond the call of duty.

And if something like this ever happens to you? The only advice I feel qualified to give is this: Breathe deep. Be present. And start over, from what you know in your heart to be true.

14 responses to “Melting up”

  1. Stefan Constantinesc says :

    From someone who has seen you speak on the speaker circuit, giving the same well rehearsed presentation to multiple crowds at internationality acclaimed venues, even criticizing people who upload a video of your talk without your permission because you know that a video destroys the value of you actually giving said talk in person, I have to say that the presentation you gave at IxD Spring Summit 2009 was one of your best performances.

    If you’re not going from the heart at each and every one of your talks, then why would you bother to give a talk in the first place?

    It was fantastic Adam, and if you ever want to talk about why you think this “meltdown” occurred, feel free to ping me for some beers. I still live in Helsinki.

  2. nicolas says :

    insightful personal spontaneous emotional genuine (and moving because I know you)

  3. Janne says :

    Whee! You had a revelation. Inconvenient moment perhaps, but a good revelation nonetheless. It may take time to pull the stuff back together, but I think you’re onto something here.

    Yes, cities should be easier to use. What would be the Apple Store experience of a city? Or perhaps airports are a better metaphor? Both of these are transient spaces, but how do you design for permanent space?

    (Love the way your eyes start to shine when you sit down and ramble. ;-)

  4. Gene says :

    I like you this way. Not quite as earthy as your epic 1IMC rant, but still.

  5. blam! says :

    Maybe it’s time to breathe deep and let go of things?

  6. @envirotainment says :

    Unfortunately I have not seen you speak in person (tho I am almost too excited about hearing you speak live at Webstock, New Zealand 2010).
    As a recent graduate & now a masters student who has long admired your brain, I found the above mentioned talk the most heartfelt and honest you have ever given.
    I have been in the same situation of sizing up on stage and wish I had the same courage to be able to put my fears aside and speak from the heart so eloquently.
    This talk reminded me ‘why’ I am doing my masters, and helped me reconnect with the essential truth that we are all human, we all stumble at times (some more publicly than others).
    If a great thinker like you can stumble there is hope for the rest of us.
    Thank you

  7. Andrew says :

    We’ve never met, but I just wanted to say thank you – both for your messages and ideas from this talk and for your courage in sharing it with us.

    I’m really sorry that you wound up going through that experience. I have no idea how I’d cope if that were me, but if it happens, I hope I show the same grace and bravery you did.

  8. Matt says :

    You are the goddamn batman.

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