I just returned from the SD Marketplace  conference with lots of food for thought.
I was there mostly on the hunt for story ideas for our next issue of the magazine, which has a topic of “Workplaces” (if you have some ideas, you’re welcome to send them along!), so anything I gleaned from the speakers was really a bonus. And there was a lot of good information—I learned of a solution to a marketing problem that had been bothering me for a while from Scott Meyer from 9 Clouds , and Craig Schroeder of the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship  renewed my conviction that reviving our rural communities will require the engagement of our young people. (Check on our recent story that quotes Schroeder here .)
But some of the discussions I heard there bothered me, and as I drove home from Huron, I tried to figure out why.
One example was given by Dr. Connie Reimers-Hild , who gave a motivational talk over the lunch hour. She was discussing her own endeavors to get her book published and gave the example of best-selling author Wayne Dyer, who bought out the first and second printings of his first book himself, presumably so the next version could say “In its third printing!” and so that the publisher would spend more of its resources on promoting the book. Dr. Reimers-Hild gave this as an example of a person doing what it takes to succeed.
But wait a minute—wasn’t that dishonest? Dyer can of course do what he wants to with his own money, including buying his own books, but shouldn’t he have told his publisher what he was doing? What about the other authors who didn’t get as much attention from the publisher because of what he did? Nowadays, most authors (especially newly published ones) are expected to do a whole lot of their own promotion for their books—contacting bloggers, doing readings and book signings and more. I don’t know that Dyer didn’t do those things—but it seems that he was taking a shortcut because he could afford to do so.
Another argument that made me uneasy was given by Cory Geffre, who gave a list of reasons why you should declare yourself an expert. And what makes you an expert? Putting your stake in the ground and calling yourself an expert. And once someone else calls you an expert, it’s confirmed.
Geffre was arguing that people in the Midwest are in general too humble—we need to toot our own horns a little more, and declare our positions with more confidence. I agree with that, to some extent. But there’s also perhaps a reason Midwesterners are not likely to shout their expertise: They know enough to know they are not experts. And frankly, that may well be a good thing. The Sunday morning talk shows are filled with people professing their expertise on many topics. A crazy percentage of the predictions these “experts” make turn out to be wrong.  If those Sunday morning experts were all a little more Midwestern and humbler in their assertions, we might well have a better, more respectful discussion of the issues.
Geffre did also show that he has done a lot of research to develop his own expertise, and encouraged his audience to do the same—so a declaration of expertise should be backed up by actual expertise. But I’d argue it would be better to do more to show expertise through how you run your business or practice your trade than declaring it for the purpose of marketing yourself—there’s less risk of leading others astray by offering expertise that isn’t supported by evidence that way.
The thing missing from these and some of the other discussions at the conference was community. We set out Dakotafire’s editorial mission  in this question: How does this help the community? It is arguably better for Wayne Dyer to create the impression that his books are selling out, but is that better for the larger community of authors and readers? It is good for a person’s career and paycheck to declare yourself an expert, but is it better for the people who are trying to make decisions based on what they hear from you? Maybe it is—but maybe it isn’t. It’s important to ask the question.
I really like conferences—I like the chance to discuss and ponder the “big picture” of a topic, the things that don’t get discussed in other aspects of our busy lives. I’ve gone to a number of conferences based on journalism topics, and others focused on sustainable agriculture and rural issues. In my recollection of those conferences, the messages given have taken community into account. Journalists debate the ethics of what they do often—they don’t always agree where the line is on a given topic, but their role in society and how their actions affect the community are a central part of the discussion. The idea at the center sustainable agriculture conferences is how farming affects the community in which it resides (a community that Aldo Leopold argued has to include the nonhuman residents of the community as well).
Community did show up in some discussions at the SD Marketplace conference, notably Schroeder’s discussion of engaging youth. But I have to say it didn’t feel like a driving force. Instead, the focus was on self-fulfillment.
I’m not opposed to self-fulfillment. (Serving as editor of Dakotafire is the ultimate self-fulfillment for me!) But I think setting self-fulfillment as a goal gets things out of order. Asking “what can do to serve the community?” is a whole lot more likely to lead to self-fulfillment than asking “what can I do to make myself happy?” or “what can I do that will make more money?”
New York Times columnist David Brooks addressed this in a great column  last year:
If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.
But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front. …
Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.
Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.
(The article is really worth reading in its entirety.)
The business owners who were at the SD Marketplace conference are definitely helping their rural communities, and we desperately need more people to develop that entrepreneurial spirit. But if we don’t consider community when giving advice on how to make businesses better, the community may well suffer—and all the people living in that community, including business owners themselves, would likely be worse off as well.