19 March 2019

SMELL - self-education conference - participant reflections


SMELL was a peer conference on self-education using the open space format...

Peer conference?
Well basically a conference where everyone participates on equal terms (same right to influence, same expectations to contribute and all costs shared equally).

Open space?
I'll explain our implementation in detail in part 2 (and you can find plenty of information online) but a very short explanation: Participants suggest sessions at the conference and together they create a schedule based on these sessions. Sessions can be anything from "I'd like to try this exercise on some people" to "I have this presentation if you want to listen" to "I'd like to talk about this topic".

If you happen to be fluent in Swedish and/or trust Google Translate you can find more information about the event on the invite page.

Participants and thus contributors to of the ideas below: Patrik Åkerman, Daniel Johnsson, Gunilla Zachrisson, Caitlinn Loftus, Natalia Wall, Olle Karlsson, Johan Jonasson, Tobias Fors, Jörgen Hartman, Jonas Breisel, Klaus Nohlås,  Erik Brickarp, Andreas Cederholm, Sebastian Lindholm, Frida Tell, Göran Bakken, Robert Gistvik, Martin Berggren, Markus Wall, Henrik Brattander.


All participants were instructed to learn something in a new way and then share their experience in an up to 5 minutes long presentation at the conference.

These presentations were meant to get people in the right mode and create some new ideas for topics during open space so I didn't expect these presentations to render many insights...

... but I was wrong.

The presentations were actually a highlight of the conference as people had went in all sorts of different and interesting directions!

Here are my own lessons from the presentations:

I'm curious to try some learning apps as I haven't toyed around with them much before.

A great reminder that turning my learnings into actions is important but not always easy.

Mundane tasks can be turned into great learning opportunities e.g. by listening to podcasts while running or by reading a book while waiting in a queue.

A great reminder to expand my visual language (standard visualizations to use in my notes).

A great reminder to include experts (as in actually talking to them) when I learn.

I should go and interview some kick-ass coach if I want to become a better coach!

Having both the audio book (easier to consume) and physical book (easier to use as reference) can be a very powerful combo.

It's easy to get stuck in a procrastination/fear loop and it's important to remind myself that pushing through is most likely nowhere near as complicated/risky as I imagine.

Skilled instructors can greatly boost my progress when learning something.

Break down complicated sequences into small steps and master these steps individually.

Testing my skills (tests, public challenges etc.) is a useful step to help me stay on course as well as motivate myself to continue learning.

Schedule time for learning!

His talk was focused around bullet journaling but my biggest takeaway was: Dare to break patterns!

Mentoring programs can be a great way to boost colleagues especially if the program is well organized (the mentors know how to actually mentor others).

I can improve my reading speed by not subvocalizing as I read.

Daily retrospectives is something I've stopped doing after doing them daily last autumn. This was a great reminder as well as inspiration to pick that up again.

Mix in what I'm trying to learn in everything; e.g. if I try to learn a language: Change the language on my phone, read news in that language, in my head translate things as I go etc.

Mentoring another person can be a great way to enhance my own understanding of a subject as well as create motivation to learn more.

To immediately discuss/share something after I've processed it myself can be a great way to both make myself learn it (if the sharing is a pre-planned activity) as well as reinforce the learning.

My own assignment:
I don't necessarily need new information to deepen my understanding of a topic; often there's already more than enough "unprocessed"/disconnected information in my head I can revisit.


I won't go through all sessions, tips and material I picked up, instead I'll simply list some of my greatest takeaways in general; this includes conversations from lunches, evening and breaks. Notice I won't share any lessons learned about the format itself, these will be added in the next part instead.
  • Gamification can be a powerful way to create motivation; this is a topic I should revisit.
  • To get started more easily, prepare yourself the day before by looking into and preparing what you need, make necessary bookings, tease yourself by just glancing at what you're about to do, place the stuff you need in a way that makes them accessible etc.
  • Without the right level of challenge and feedback, flow is hard/impossible to achieve.
  • Michael Bolton's Unless heuristic: "Do X unless <a scenario where X is not the right approach>" to better understand the limitations of that practice.
  • When designing experiential learning exercises I often get stuck on "what experience could display this specific thing I want to teach". A different approach I think will help me is to do it the other way around: Design an experience first then think of what that experience could teach. This way I can slowly build a library as well as learn the mechanics.
  • When designing experiential learning exercises trust the participants! Don't guide them to the end, trust them to find it themselves and even if they don't, trust them to learn from the experience as long as you provide enough support.
  • A great experiential learning exercise has a good balance between directed (get to the conclusion wanted) and undirected (allow the participants to find their own way and lessons).
  • Some ideas for daily retrospectives:
    • Focus on one thing per day
    • Dare to experiment and evaluate
    • Try to run these retrospectives with someone else
    • Don't forget to include positives, not just "improvements".
    • I wonder what else from e.g. Scrum I could be implemented in my own life (a personal daily standup... refinements of tasks ahead... sprint planning)
  • A pretty fun way to put it: "good coaching is when it's not mentoring"
  • Spend time with people who've achieved the things you want to achieve
  • Change patterns rather than solve specific challenges.
  • "What stops you... now?"
  • Answer "yes" without thinking too much as well as stop and reflect on your "no:s"; why did you answer no, was it really the right choice, if not how can you avoid making that mistake again and check if you can change your answer ("I know I said no but I've changed my mind, is it okay if I join you?").
  • Creating the ultimate conference (though experiment) turned out to be hard but here are some parts most of us seemed to agree on:
    • Don't include sponsored talks
    • Avoid sponsor booths if possible (include sponsors in other ways as the booths distract)
    • Conferences with the primary goal to "make money" won't attract top notch people as participants
    • The invite should be just as much of a deterrent of the wrong people as it is to include the right people
    • A venue where people automatically run into each others (not mixed with other events, have all participants live at the same hotel, optimal venue size for the number of participants etc.).
    • To attract top notch people, focus the content around actual experiences of people dealing with genuinely difficult problems preferably with a somewhat unique approach or outcome.
  • Create your standard language when you take notes so you can easily find what's important to you later. Colors, symbols and size can all be great ways to help make title, date, quotes, questions, own reflections, key insights, things to check out, action points, exercises etc. easier to find.
  • Shu-ha-ri: Follow the rules => Break/test the rules => Create your own rules.
  • Some interesting insights from a conversation about "when did you learn the best":
    • "Best" can either mean "effective short term", which often included some level of tight deadline, or finding a way to make learning happen for a very long time. We focused on the latter.
    • Common denominators of "best learning":
      • Some partner (group or person) progressing at a similar pace as yourself.
      • This partner was not just a "learning tool" but also a fun relationship
      • A clear structure; either a plan of action or a clear end goal.
      • Regularity; learning being more of a "habit" than an event.
  • Accept your own priorities instead of regretting what you missed.


Göran and I had a dream of a conference where great autodidacts gathered with the sole purpose to become even better autodidacts: Thank you for making that happen!

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