Getting lucky at trade shows (DesignCon special!)

-January 22, 2013

This month has the coolest tradeshow, CES (consumer electronics show)  in Las Vegas, the most garden variety tradeshow, STMA (sports turf management association) in Daytona Beach, and the geekiest tradeshow of them all, acronym-free DesignCon in Silicon Valley.

Figure: Chip Head getting lucky at DesignCon!

Why bother? Networking, finding solutions to problems, catching up with the state of the art, generating sales leads, fishing for better paying jobs, grabbing some swag, and blah blah blah—the real reason you go to tradeshows is to get lucky.

[Click here to register for DesignCon 2013, Jan. 28-31 at the Santa Clara Convention Center. Options range from an All-Access Pass to Free Expo Admission, which includes the option to attend a dozen tech training sessions.]

By analyzing serendipity and people’s response to it, psychologists  have determined some features common to people who have good luck. Psychologists perceive someone who is lucky as someone who gets more than an average number of opportunities and manages to take advantage of lots of them.

Each item in the list above (networking, finding solutions, …, swag) boils down to exposing yourself to opportunity. Here are Dr. Wiseman’s four principles along with my interpretation for tradeshows:

1.    Expect good fortune (i.e., have a plan)

Define your personal goals. What problems do you need solved?

Cast a wide net, DesignCon is packed with genius that covers far more than design engineering. Comb through the program and find papers that address both your design issues and subjects that interest you. You’re there for opportunities, seek them out.

And if you’re just there for the free beer, start asking people if you can have their beer tickets early. I’ve discovered that 23% of people will give you their beer ticket if you ask (don’t ask for mine, it’ll screw up the statistics).

2.    Maximize your chance opportunities (i.e., be flexible)

Be on the lookout for opportunities that deviate from your plan. What if someone mentions a job opening? It’s easy to knee-jerk that you already have a job and keep moseying. Listen. There’s gold to be found here.

Ask questions at presentations. Engineers firmly believe that there are, in fact, dumb questions, but if you didn’t understand something, ask to have it clarified. Talk to the presenters and people around you, worst case: they’re good targets for free beer coupons.

And if, on your way to a presentation, you’re interrupted by someone, stick with the person, you can read the papers later.

3.    Listen to your lucky hunches

Only a small fraction of the information processed by your brain surfaces in conscious thoughts. Everything you’ve experienced in your life, both achievements and mistakes, create neural networks that identify patterns. Many (though certainly not all) of your hunches float up to consciousness as ambiguous desires when they fit a pattern that has worked for you before.

Less useful hunches emerge from instincts in the more primitive parts of the brain; these can you get you in trouble by encouraging you to “get lucky” in ways contrary to the sort of luck you’re after at a tradeshow. Others might just come from our brains finding patterns in noise. They’re all worth listening to.

4.    Turn bad luck into good (i.e., keep on chooglin’ )

Seeking out opportunities boils down to generating lateral thought, the heart of creativity and, by that, genius.

Learn how other people think about problems in their field. The farther the field is from yours, the less likely their insight will help, but if it does help, the more likely that you’ll learn something that can disrupt an industry. Balance your risk-reward by spending time in presentations and with exhibitors who work in your field (high probability of low reward) with those that work in a disparate field (low probability of high reward).

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