Past, Present, and Future in Philadelphia

Years ago (two, in fact) I wrote to you about a little thing called Bloghouse. Still some of you think it’s like a reality TV show for bloggers — which, while not entirely untrue, is not its purpose.

What is Bloghouse then? It’s an offline gathering of bloggers new and old that somehow transforms a group of strangers into blogging gurus and new best friends. (Not exaggerating.)

I had no idea what I was getting into when I applied (let alone showed up) for the workshop in Chicago. But since then I’ve often looked back fondly on those four days, and I’ve been able to see all the little ways it changed my life personally and professionally.

So when the opportunity arose to go back to Bloghouse, I didn’t hesitate. Sure, from the outside things were a bit different this time around: it was to be held in Philadelphia (not Chicago,) in a hotel (not a house,) and I was to return not as a student…but as a teacher.

View of Philadelphia from One Liberty Observation Deck

I put a lot of thought into the wisdom I wanted to impart, the experience I wanted to share. But I also knew that speaking from the heart (on the fly) and sharing openly and honestly was was made Bloghouse the magical thing that it is.

Now that Bloghouse: Round Two is over, I’ve given even more thought as to what it all means. Of course, the advice meant for blogging also applies to travel and life (because that is what I do.) And it wouldn’t be travel and life without some contradiction…

It’s About the True You

The world just doesn’t need more generic travel blogs. Come to think of it, the world doesn’t need more generic anything. If I want travel advice, I’ll pick up a Lonely Planet. If I want packing tips, there are hundreds of blog posts that already exist on the topic (and counting.) What there isn’t, what you must create…is what you alone can uniquely contribute. How do you do this?

So began the discussion of personal brand, which to me is simply: what do you/your story/your experiences/your perspective bring that no one else can? And how are you communicating this? Another way to think about it: what do you wish existed for travelers, on the Internet, that you’re not finding? What is it you wish you could read? Go write that.

For me it’s always a struggle reconciling who someone is in person versus who they are online. At times I’ve found someone disappointing in person that I enjoyed reading online (though I’ll never say who!) The opposite is also true. More often than not, and as was the case at Bloghouse, I found these vibrantly alive, unique, and fascinating people to be more compelling in person than on the page.

Why is this? My belief is that there’s a certain mold that we’re told to fit, a model for what success is and how its measured. Blogging and social media, while newer than most pursuits and constantly evolving, is not immune to this.

While adopting some of the established mindset is helpful, it doesn’t always leave much room for us to be ourselves. Now more than ever we’re being asked to pave our own roads to success, to define our own days, and do things in our own ways. I’ve seen this be labeled with a number of different names, but they usually fall under the umbrella term that is thrown around more than I’d like: authenticity.

I used to hear the advice, “be yourself!” and react like, “awesome, will do!” When someone tells me they think our conversation or my writing is genuine or authentic, I think of that as the biggest compliment I could get.

Yet I’ve come to see it in a more complicated light. I once saved this quote:

We’re in this weird culture where you’ve got to sell yourself aggressively while remaining “authentic”. You think you need to be perfect but you also need to feel free to fail. You need to be yourself and more! It’s all set up to make you feel like a fraud. This problem is only getting worse as more of us rely on our online presences.

To me there’s a difference between sharing your authentic self — whether in a conversation or on a blog — and being yourself without regard for what people will think of you. I believe that’s another reason so many of us follow the rules, the prescribed route to success. It’s predictable, and we don’t have to worry as much about being criticized. Because when we’re sharing our real selves, and we receive negative feedback…it feels so much more, well, personal.

So often, whether we realize it or not, we naturally turn away from sharing what makes us different. In doing so, we also shy away from what makes us stand out.

Think of it this way: you’ve got an empty room (or a blank page.) Would you rush to fill it with things, just so that you had somewhere to sit or something to look at? I would argue that most blogs are putting up IKEA furniture (no offense, IKEA) that’s cheap, comes with instructions, and while it often comes together well enough…you can find its items in nearly all the homes. (It’s called a ‘homepage’ for a reason.)

What if instead, we took the time and care to be particularly thoughtful about what we build and where we place it, if each piece reflected something about ourselves? What if every thing in the room was custom built, by hand, as an expression of joy or individuality? Quality must take precedence over quantity in this case. It requires more time, and you must risk your vulnerability to do it well. Still — I know which room I’d rather spend time in.

The same goes for life, whether you have a little home on the Internet or not. It’s not just about finding friends, it’s about finding the right friends. It’s not just about finding customers, it’s about finding the right customers. And it’s not just about attracting readers (hi there!) or increasing your traffic numbers, it’s about bringing the right people to you, who stick around and actually care what you have to say. The only way to do this (and stand out in the sea of blogs at the same time) is to write well, share openly, and highlight what it is that makes you unique.

The problem is that the Internet is a nasty, judge place where trolls reign not just under bridges but on top of them. Suddenly they’re standing in our pretty little rooms.

Still, the walls come down at Bloghouse. It’s a safe place to ask any question, share any doubt, express any unedited thought.

We should be doing more of this on our blogs, in our lives.

Philadelphia LOVE sign in Dilworth Park

 It’s Not About You

As difficult and as rewarding as putting your real self out there is, ultimately it has nothing to do with you. If you wanted to write just for yourself, you could pen a diary. Even if we write for ourselves, we publish it to connect with others.

The exciting thing about sharing your ‘true’ self online, with others? About highlighting the experiences and perspectives that are unique to only you? You open the door to true connection. You find your people.

Beyond this, why do we write? Is the point of posting a pretty picture of your trip to Amsterdam just to show how amazing your life is?  Is the reason you’re wearing that outfit or pasting that Facebook status because other people will like it, or because you do? I’d be willing to bet that your real intention is to inspire, entertain, or inform, something I believe every blog post should strive to do.

Maybe you’re scared of flying. Perhaps you have a passion for languages, or you toil with traveling gluten-free, or you’ve spent thirty years behind the kitchen door as a chef. You may think no one cares — that they’d rather read another “10 Things to Do in Florence,” or see another room resembling an IKEA store. But we only care if you give us something real to connect with you on.

It’s much, much easier to convey your individuality in person than it is online.  The truth is that I didn’t care as much as much about what any of my new blogger friends were writing…until I met them. Why? Because they had no choice but to be their authentic selves in that Bloghouse room.

I don’t know exactly what to call that, but the Internet needs more of it. It’s a quiet confidence that says: here’s who I am, what I’m about, and what I’m into. No one wants to stand in a room talking to people who are faking that they care (or worse, not even listening) as you pour your heart out — why do we want that when we’re in a conversation online?

And a good blog is just that — a conversation. It’s not a diary. It’s not brag book, or a raised platform from which you give sermons. It’s a discussion with your readers, even if there aren’t any comments at the end of the post.  True influence comes from authentically connecting with people. And this is a shift away from buying followers or gaming social media to appear as if you have more people that care what you have to say than actually do (and so many people do this.)

Downtown Philadelphia photography

Strangely enough, this is exactly what I liked about Philly as a city. I’ve often equated cities or places to relationships, and while Philadelphia and I are now acquaintances, I’m still just getting to know it. What I like most about it so far is that it’s unapologetically itself. You might come to eat a cheesesteak and see the Liberty Bell, but you could stay for the hammocks by the river, the strolls through historic streets, or the beer gardens that pop up in the summertime.

The best trips are those in which the place informs the experience, one that shows us another side of ourselves and prompts us to think differently. A city with a rich past, like Philadelphia, stands there like a confident person. It knows and honors its past, it’s been there before you came and it will still be standing after you leave. It might not even care if you like it.

That’s the character of Philly and that’s the magic of Bloghouse.  It’s people getting together in a shared space, letting down their guards, connecting on mutual goals, keeping it real. Sometimes we have to try this on in person before we can do it online. It’s all an exercise in expressing ourselves openly, connecting with, and maybe even inspiring others. It’s what makes for a compelling person (and an interesting blog.) Whether you blog or not…

Find a city, a community, and a craft that honors the real you.

Two years later, I’ve learned this: whether in your writing, at a conference, or in a city, it pays to be yourself.

That’s true — past, present, and future.

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// Then and now //

Bloghouse 2016 was made possible with the support of Visit Philly, Sonesta Philadelphia, and Context Travel.

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  1. Interesting what you say about authenticity. To some thinkers, such as the existentialists, it is the most important purpose, if not the only purpose, in life. What is it to be oneself, at one with oneself, or truly representing one’s self? The term ‘authentic’ is used either in the strong sense of being “of undisputed origin or authorship”, or in a weaker sense of being “faithful to an original” or a “reliable, accurate representation”. It is good you were able to reconcile these ideas in the city of brotherly love but can one ever truly gain authenticity through travel? Let me put forth this idea: that some merely put their travel experiences on their true self, like decorations on an overcoat.

    • Anne Lowrey

      I love what you wrote about true self and travel experiences.
      Authenticity is essentially honesty, which can be at odds with seeking love and acceptance…so I appreciate your points here.

  2. Anne –

    I absolutely love this post and everything you said about authenticity. Thanks so much for being a great mentor! You helped me TONS!

    • I’m so happy to have met you Rachel. Looking forward to reading the unique posts that only you can write! Hugs!


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