When You Attend our National Meeting, Who Will You Be?

The ASC Annual Scientific Meeting is next month – the highlight of the year for lots of our members. Our Society takes pride in the close-knit family feeling that attendees say is one of the special aspects of our Meeting. But do you always feel like part of the family? Maybe you have sometime shared these thoughts: “I often feel awkward when I go to a conference. Reluctant to sidle up to a stranger and introduce myself, I roam, like I did at college parties, self-conscious, seltzer water in hand, not fitting in. In the midst of a sea of people chatting away enthusiastically, I am uncomfortable and alone.”

No, this was not written by a trainee, or a young pathologist or cytotechnologist right out of training, and it was not even from any of our conference evaluations. This was written by Peter Bregman, a blogger for Harvard Business Review who is also a strategic advisor to CEOs and leadership teams. Mr. Bregman was describing his experience after serving as a panelist at a big conference where he was also doing a book-signing event. In essence, he was a celebrity at the meeting – someone that you think others would be clamoring to meet and talk to – he was not just your average conference attendee. So if this guy felt awkward and alone, what about just the average everyday meeting attendee??

I really laughed when I read Mr. Bregman’s comments. Besides really liking the analogy to a college party, his description really struck a note with me since I’ve definitely experienced similar awkward feelings at conferences and meetings. I’ve often wondered why everyone else had lots of friends to talk to at various meeting receptions or during the breaks, but not me. In his blog post, Mr. Bregman said he decided to explore his awkwardness rather than give in to the feeling that he’d really rather leave. As he did this, he realized that he was having a conference-generated identity crisis: “Once I finished the panel, I had no role and no purpose…. My sense of self is dangerously close to my sense of role. I’m a writer, a speaker, a consultant, a father, a husband, a skier, etc. But who am I when I’m not actively being those things? Who am I without my accomplishments — past, present, or future? Just me. Which, it turns out, was unsettling.”

I think that Mr.Bregman is right about our identities being tied – perhaps even too closely — to our professional roles and accomplishments. Not too long ago, I attended a golf tournament dinner with my husband. I arrived before he got off the course, so I was alone at the cocktail hour, experiencing a similar awkward moment, unsure if there was anyone in the crowded room for me to talk to. I’m not a golfer, so I didn’t have that identity to help me fit into the group, and no one knew me as a department chair, society president, professor, or cytopathologist. To my annoyance, my only identity was as a non-golfer wife. I seriously thought of just hiding out in the bathroom for a while until my husband showed up. Totally ridiculous, I know.

Too bad I didn’t read Mr. Bregman’s blog before that event. He decided that he’d try something unique by shedding his roles and identity at his conference cocktail party. He introduced himself to others just as Peter and resisted the urge to add anything else. Amazingly, he found he had great conversations with many other attendees which actually led to meaningful connections. He concluded that it is important to know and trust yourself without the crutch of your role and accomplishments, so that others will trust you and get to know you, too. This may even be how the most meaningful connections get made, the kind that can ultimately benefit you and your career.
Networking with others in our profession is an important part of attending a national meeting like the ASC’s. Personal networks can make a big difference in obtaining a position and in other aspects of career success. But it is possible that our roles get in the way of making effective connections for networking. Have you ever talked to someone at a conference reception who is constantly scanning the room even as you spoke, looking for someone more prestigious (and therefore more useful) to move on to? Or have you ever been intimidated to approach someone at a meeting because of that person’s prominent roles and accomplishments – a faculty member, society officer, book author, or well-published expert? Or did you think that others wouldn’t want to talk to you unless they knew where you worked, or who you trained with, or some other accomplishment that you thought provided you with identity?

Effective networking is also important to the career lattice – have you heard of the lattice concept as an alternative to the career ladder? The career lattice, according to Joanne Cleaver who authored a book by that name, is about making lateral and diagonal moves to acquire new skills that will eventually lead to new, bigger positions. In the ASC and in cytopathology in general, we talk a lot about how cytotechs and even cytopathologists need to take on new skills and assume new roles – including those previously not associated with our discipline – in order to ensure vitality and career growth in this profession. Talking to others through networking at a national meeting is the best way to find out just what skills others find valuable and are looking for in future additions to their lab, or in healthcare in general. Don’t let your current role or those of others get in the way of making those important connections.

At our Meeting in Las Vegas in just a few weeks, we will have plenty of time for networking and connecting with other members – there are several receptions in which we’ll celebrate our Diamond Jubilee, plus lots of breaks between sessions, and even a special reception to welcome first-time attendees to our Society. Will you reach out to others, shed your usual roles, and attend the Meeting as yourself, as Peter Bregman did? I think that it will make for a fun and meaningful experience, enliven our Meeting, and position the ASC well for the next 60 years – I hope you think so, too. See you in Las Vegas!

Lydia Pleotis Howell, MD
ASC President