What I learned at Vibecamp
and what I'm going to do about it
About a month ago I spent 11 days in Austin Texas with some of the most alive, vibrant, and beautiful people I’ve ever met in my life. While there I also encountered some of the saddest, depressive and status fixated people I’ve ever met in my life. To call the experience an emotional whirlwind doesn’t do it justice. This is what I learned at Vibecamp (and the pre + post parties).
1. I didn’t realize how much I wanted to be around people with a shared cultural reference.
It’s something I was explicitly looking for (hence this trip) but almost immediately I felt at ease in a way that I haven’t in 12 years. There’s something deeply satisfying about being able to strike up a conversation with anyone around you and not having to self-censor or pause to explain the history or meaning of every tenth word out of your mouth.
I was home educated my entire life and was also verboten from most media consumption so I spent my free time reading. For several years in a row I averaged well over 300 books a year. As I got older and spent more time online, most of that reading shifted to blogs, internet forums, and economics and medical journals. Since leaving the religious bubble I grew up in I found myself practically having to learn a new language. People spoke in cultural idioms and memes that I had simply no reference for. Discussions about pop culture were a complete mystery to me. Who were all of these people, what were their relationships, and why did everyone around me care so much about them? One Halloween my friend Alex asked me to guess who he was dressed up as.
Alex: “Did the red suit not give it away? Michael Jackson, obviously.”
Me: “Who’s Michael Jackson?”
Suffice to say, it wasn’t until after leaving my religious fundamentalist house and community that I gained fluency in the dominant cultural memes. In contrast to this during my first day in Austin I was asked by someone at a party what thinker or ideas I found myself unable to get away from and I answered ‘Lao Tzu.’ The person who asked me didn’t need me to follow up my answer with introduction to wuwei, because they had already read more translations of the Tao Te Ching than I had. I could use economics and finance jargon without having to regularly stop and explain the words I was using, and if I did I often wouldn’t even have to finish because the idea wasn’t new to someone, only the word for it. When I said something and then followed it up with my epistemic confidence level and relevant experience, as I often do, someone listening thanked me for it. I’m used to getting eye-rolls for qualifying things I say, not receiving praise for epistemic humility. This experience was a revelation.
2. Above all else, I seek out novelty.
I can predict what most people think or will say very quickly after meeting them. I can identify the power dynamics at play within an institution or a social scene or a room almost immediately from body language alone. The systems, institutions, and people I find most captivating are all those that I don’t immediately understand. When people say things I don’t expect, or are working on problems I didn’t know existed, I’m immediately drawn to them.
During this trip I could talk with someone for thirty minutes and still have no idea how they make money. Most people’s domain of expertise is trivially easy to identify and correlates almost perfectly with how they make money because it’s usually the only area where they’ve spent enough time to develop a nuanced vocabulary and jargon from that field such that it slips into their regular speech (when is the last time you heard someone who didn’t work in medicine refer to their ‘esophagus’ rather than their ‘throat’ for example?) At Vibecamp I had no idea what most of the people I met did, because they used jargon from several domains. If I saw someone reading a 1930’s sexology book this gave me no information about the person other than it was a curiosity for them. If someone started using bio-pharma jargon it didn’t necessarily mean they worked in a lab, they were just as likely to have picked up the vocabulary from a curiosity about the field or from reading biohacking forums and blogs for fun.
Most people are profoundly incurious, and when they hear about something they don’t understand, they only feign interest for social reasons. During this trip, the people I met engaged critically with ideas as they encountered them for the first time and expressed sincere interest in the people they’d never met who were explaining them. I’ve found a few of these people before, and we quickly became fast friends, but I’ve never been in a social context where they were the majority. Not only did I meet a plethora of curious people, but my conversations with several people inspired novel thoughts. There were several conversations that not only took turns I didn’t expect but also required me to update my model of the world. Usually when I encounter ideas that challenge my worldview they come from books or listening to interviews. I’m used to going months between conversations with people that challenge my thinking, not mere hours. It was addicting, and I want more of it.
3. Beautiful people exist.
The last time I met someone beautiful enough to make my heart stop looking at her was 10 years ago. For a couple years I actually said “I’m asexual” as a way to turn people down who expressed a romantic interest in me ‘cause it was easier than telling people I didn’t find them attractive. Even when it comes to celebrities for most of my life I didn’t ‘get it’ when people called them hot. Regrettably, I even talked myself into two relationships with people I wasn’t attracted to (do not recommend). Well, during this trip I met not one but two people who made my heart stop upon seeing them the first time, and one of them is the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen in my life (and during our first conversation I had to update my worldview at least three times, which was an immense pleasure). Whether or not this means anything is as yet to be determined, but the knowledge that there are two more beautiful people in the world of whom I was previously unaware is just as Significant a development as the other things I learned during this trip.
4. Status obsessed people exist.
Regrettably I had extended interactions with two separate people who during our interactions appeared singularly obsessed with status. One spent thirty minutes detailing all of the ways they felt bad, lonely, or inadequate because of not getting invited to a certain party. I spent thirty minutes mirroring their feelings in hopes that they would feel Seen before I eventually gave up. I had three later interactions with this person and during all of them they expressed a desire to be more Known and Liked so they could be party to conversations with who they saw as the Cool People. I’ve met people who behaved as if their social status is all that matters, but I’d never met someone who verbalized it so explicitly before. The other person talked at length about how they felt like certain people at Vibecamp didn’t care about them, which they attributed to their own low Twitter follower count. They then asked me “which of the big accounts did you get to meet?” which I declined to answer. For how much some of my friends and I talk about Finite and Infinite Games, these interactions were a much needed reminder that there is still work to be done on this front, even in the highly self-selected social scene that was Vibecamp.
5. I need to move, ASAP.
The most important thing I learned on this trip is that I need to do whatever is necessary to spend more time around some of these people. During my time in Austin I met over a dozen people whose conversation and company brought me absolute delight and I hope to become close with them all. Luckily for me, the majority of them reside in four cities on the West Coast, and flights between them all are relatively affordable. I suspect I will be traveling regularly for the foreseeable future until I decide where to relocate.
Thank you to all of the gratious party hosts and the Vibecamp organizers! This experience was wholly unique and y’all introduced me to some truly wonderful people.