A picture of me standing at a lectern, working on a laptop computer, on the stage of the FWD50 digital government conference

Hi! I’m Alistair. I write surprisingly useful books, run unexpectedly interesting events, & build things humans need for the future.

Why we all need adult geek camp

For much of my life, I’ve been often told to calm down (or be quiet), that I am weird, that I’m different, and that I shouldn’t snort when I laugh.

I’ve also often been asked why I’m so passionate about things like cloud computing, or technology in general, or fast cars, or musical theatre.

When we’re young, we learn that sometimes kids are just mean, like when for two years I was called “doggy dawson” (yes, it was an “awkward period ,” as my mom would say). While fortunately this wonderful moniker faded away, the other comments persist to this day, because grownups can be mean, too, or just scared of anything different from them.

And I don’t think I’m alone.

Fortunately, I have learned to love my quirks (and snorting) and passion through conscious effort, good friends, and thousands of dollars in therapy J. But even as we gain acceptance of who we are, it’s still helpful to receive some healthy affirmation. Which is why I think everyone should have a chance to go to adult geek camp. That’s the only way to describe the event I went to this past weekend.

Here, I was surrounded by other people like me. Well, like me in that they would probably be seen as different, or, most likely, geeks. Most of us were from the technology industry, but other than that we came in all shapes, sizes, and colors. We were from different parts of the world. And we were forced to disconnect from our digital lives (no coverage) and spend 2 ½ days with many strangers in the wilderness of Canada (outside Montreal). And this was camp, albeit a nice camp, but still, rustic.

More importantly, this place was like a “safe” place for anyone who just longs to be themselves and be affirmed for it. I didn’t know I still needed that environment—but I did. Unlike some camps, we didn’t just swim and canoe and do crafts (well, there were crafts, actually).

Some of this was hard work. Everyone that went to the camp had to present. And while I really wanted to dust off my cloud computing and big data slides, that was not allowed. We had to present on something we were passionate about personally, outside our comfort zone, so to speak.

Over a long Saturday, I learned how to break a board with my bare hands, how to play ultimate Frisbee, how 3D printing works, how Michelangelo painted the Sistine chapel ceiling, details about crop circles, how to parent after divorce, and dozens of other topics and themes. And while a long day, it was incredible, because in one day, we learned so much, and all were challenged to think about the world in a different way. When not presenting or working on group projects, you could find people hanging out with each other talking politics or coding or organic gardening and nearly every other topic imaginable.

I asked the organizer what he saw as the key “criteria” behind who he invites to the event, and he said the three most important things are:

  • That the person can really “geek” out about something. “Geek out” doesn’t mean “geek” in a technology sense. Rather, it’s more about being really passionate about something, and having something they just really love and want to share.
  • The person is someone you would want to party with. So, they need to be fun and someone you’d want to just hang out with, and importantly, have an open mind.
  • The person must be curious. This word came up a lot. I think we underestimate the power of curiosity. He described this as people who want to learn more about many things, and want to hear about other people and their geeky passions, and ask questions to others and about life.

Monday morning, it was back to reality. But what I learned at camp has stayed with me. Not just what I learned about the multitude of topics, but a lesson of appreciating people for who they are and remembering to never stop craving new knowledge. Maybe the camp I went to isn’t for you—but what if we all had a camp with people that made us feel safe and that challenged us to be better people.

I think everyone of all ages should have a chance to go to camp. If for no other reason than it gives us a really good excuse to have a camp fire and roast marshmallows (while sneaking in discussions of cloud computing and big data J).

Photos for the fifth year by the amazing Eva Blue. You can see the whole photoset on Flickr.