This blue cloth banner stood loosely over the sidewalks at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa where I took part in a weekend WordCamp event recently.
Of course, I just had to whip out the iPhone and snap an Instagram shot of it, including the obligatory tilt-shift effect. I’m so sorry I did, too… because this little blue sign has been haunting me ever since.
WordCamps are self-organizing computer conferences where adults teach and help each other code WordPress, a programming framework for online publishing… but you knew that. We talked, learned and laughed about everything from internet security, to the WebKing.com, to Google Analytics, to REST(ful)/JSON APIs. But you know all about that stuff already….
Did you know your story matters, though?
I didn’t–and try as I may–I’m just not buying it.
It’s that last word that has me reeling. Matters. What does that really mean, as a verb?
(Yeah, it just got mad existential up in here. Hang with me, though….)
- “Oh, that doesn’t matter.” Translation: Don’t bother me with that detail. Superfluous information.
- “You matter.” Translation: I value you (probably a stand-in for: I need you, or I love you).
- “Work that matters.” Translation: Lofty purposeful endeavors.
It comes down to measuring value, no matter how you slice it. The confounding thing is… to whom? (Yeah, I said ‘whom’… again, all existential up in here, and of course, we better keep our grammer in line or we’ll loose all pretentions.)
What matters to me is different from what matters to you. What matters in life is a matter of opinion.
I’ve been trying way too hard to drum up a life that matters, to conjure out of thin air a sense of self-worth by dutifully accomplishing an endless string of ungratifying tasks for one nonprofit organization or another. I forgot the ending part, though… it’s what matters TO ME that matters.
The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others;… has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without.
We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait… evidence of our willingness to give.
— Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
I’ve been trying to flatter the pants off myself (ok, we can all just let that one go, right? Moving on…). Trying to provide evidence of my self worth by giving endlessly of my skills, time and treasure is a futile and misguided endeavor.
Apparently this is why that soft blue sign haunts me so; “your story matters.” Because I did not want to acknowledge that my life in fact does not matter. The only way I can get behind this concept is to have the courage to complete that phrase: my life can only matter to me.
Ok, with the navel-gazing portion of our program over, back to the WordCamp event.
WordCamp events are only useful because of the essentially selfless giving of those who take part; the unfettered sharing of ideas, knowledge, expertise, council, advice and resources.
At this WordCamp, like at many others, I watched talented people do just that: give of their knowledge and expertise with total disregard for their own reputation. More often than not, these professional computer programmers (aka code poets) engage in this essentially philanthropic endeavor without any clear self-serving reason. Well, that’s not totally true.
One recurring conversation among these WordPress folks goes like this: “so many people before me helped develop whatever WordPress skills I now have, that I want to give back to the open-source community by doing the same for others.” Giving back to the community is a fundamental responsibility in the world of WordPress developers.
That can take the form of donating useful plugins, or mentoring other developers, or simply taking an active part in WordCamp events. (You know, the “class participation” portion of your 8th grade civics class.)
Nearly every WordPress developer I’ve met is committed to giving back to the WP community not so much because we want to flatter ourselves by giving “evidence of our willingness to give” as Joan Didion put it, but because giving back matters to each of us for our own reasons.