Attending a conference that you ran for most of your career is a bit surreal, sort of like Joe Torre might feel sitting in the bleachers at a Yankees game. This summer I went to the Pacific Coast Builders Conference as just another participant—not as guy-in-a-headset-directing-the-event, which had been my role for the previous eighteen years.

I’ve long suspected that conferences are largely an excuse to eat and drink with colleagues and friends—that the sessions and learning objectives are simply the rationale we use to justify a social investment—and my recent experience only solidifies that hunch. While I heard some fantastic speakers there (Sir Ken Robinson and Gary Vaynerchuk among them), my enduring memories will be the conversations and laughter over dinner.

If people are the heart of community, then place and context are its connective tissue. So when a group of us gathered in the courtyard at Sociale—a gem of a restaurant that bills itself as a “neighborhood gathering spot,” tucked down a brick-lined, ivy-leafed alley in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights—how could we feel anything less than convivial in a setting so warm and welcoming?

Sociale’s founder and proprietor, David Nichol, came from a fast-paced career in the tech sector that ended with the dotcom crash. He described that experience to me as “a passage” that brought him to the things he really loves: food, wine and social gatherings, which prompted him to open his restaurant.

The Great Recession has been brutal, wiping out businesses and derailing careers. But if we choose to see it David’s way, it can also be a passage to something better. Ask yourself this question: are you more passionate about, and fulfilled by, the work you’re doing today than you were four years ago? For a lot of us, myself included, the money to be made during the booming economy was an obstacle to something more meaningful.

One of the women who was at that dinner shared a wonderful quote from Slow Food that has become a touchstone of hers: “Make sure what you do has a story behind it that you are proud of.”

A story contains emotion. A story that you’re proud of contains substance. A life worth living has both in abundance.

May we all, by design or by accident, find the passage to it.

A version of this article previously ran on


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