XOXO. I had no expectations going in; I didn’t go last year, and I did little to no research about the speakers or the conference in general. I knew that the New York times said it was cool, which made me skeptical, but I am always open to hearing creative people talk about their work.
For the purpose of not writing a blog post that goes on for days, I just want to focus on a few of the conference talks (they were all amazing and I want to mention every single one but it’s already become a huge blur of awesome in my mind). The speakers were varied, from “internet musicians” to painters to video game designers to software company owners, which was a nice change from the conferences I usually go to which are generally focused around some technology or other. XO is all about learning from other people who Make Things, people who devote themselves to creativity and actually shipping their work.
There were a number of reoccurring themes throughout the two days, a number of which really struck a chord with me, as someone who’s been pretty much ignoring their creative side for the better part of a decade. I used to write books and spend every spare second playing music and painting and drawing. I feel like a huge part of who I am disappeared during my 20s; I always defined myself first by the label Artist. But I got into my work, I started a few businesses, I met boys, I raced bikes. I also sold off my instruments, I boxed up my painting supplies, and other than a few special cases (like National Novel Writing Month 2 years ago), my writing has been pretty much restricted to writing blog posts about bike racing and CSS. To say that these people blew my mind and woke me the fuck up is an understatement.
It’s not that I haven’t thought about writing or painting or music. But when I think about starting a project, I am completely overwhelmed–by fear of being terrible, by fear of not being original, by fear of putting myself out there and being shunned, by my own and others’ expectations. Erica Moen mentioned authenticity–she said, Yes, everything has been done before. But only you can tell your story, you’re the only one with your experiences and voice. Tell the story only you can tell. I often find myself struggling to come up with the Big Idea, the thing that No One has Ever Done Before…Ever. Which is ridiculous. Marco Arment mentioned this too, about always wanting to be the only person in a particular space. As soon as compitition arrived, he would abandon the product and find some other market for himself. But he’s giving that up and entering a crowded market, because he knows he can do better–he can do something different. My story is worth telling and my voice is worth hearing, even if I’m retelling a story that’s been told a million times before.
Along those same lines, I find myself trapped by always wanting to pen the Next Great American Novel or thinking that the next painting I do has to by me magnum opus. Jack Conte talked about that fear–his fear of #1 Hit. He got so wrapped up in trying to create the next chart topper he grew completely stymied. They basically called a 3 year hiatus of a popular and successful band because of it. Rather then rising with their existing momentum, they tried to outdo everything they’d done before and create the Best Ever Song. That kind of pressure and expectation is completely paralyzing, and I do it to myself all the time. I sat at XO, writing this down in my notebook, thinking about how I want to take all this inspiration and do something with it, and I immediatly imagined how I’m going to go home and Do Something Huge and Amazing that will be unlike anything before it. WTF!? Or I could just do something, anything, the smallest thing I’ve ever done, and honestly I’d be pretty happy with that.
Part of my own fear of creation is the fear of failure. And sadly my definition of success generally revolves around being wildly popular, both with audiences and with people in the industry. But as Adrian Holovaty and Jack Cheng both mentioned, chasing fame and chasing outside approval is phony. That’s why JD Salinger stopped publishing books after The Catcher in the Rye. He starting chasing fame. You start to bend your own goals and dreams and ideas around what other people want, instead of your own authenticity. I have always wanted to be famous (who hasn’t), at least within my own small world. But I’m setting myself up for failure by placing my own self worth and value on what other people think about me. That’s a measure of success that’s outside my control. I need my success to be about me–about being honest with myself and doing the things that actually really matter to me. I really, really struggle with this. Even after writing down all these high-minded thoughts, I think to myself: “I’ll finally come to grips with being okay without outside approval. And then I’ll create something totally amazing and get asked to speak at XO next year!” WTF woman, read your own goddam writing!
Fame is a shadow–you think that once you get to some level of success, you will be content. But once you get there, you find yourself with that very same thought –”but if only ___, then I’ll be happy”. You will never achieve enough to fill that void in you that needs outside approval. Only you can fill it yourself. And I can tell myself this again and again but I still haven’t taken this to heart. I suppose it stems from being brought up in a family where only A grades were acceptable, I still feel like that 8th grader worried what mom would say if I brought home a C (I did find that out once, I had a D, and trust me, it wasn’t pretty).
What really struck me on the last day of speakers was just the shear, brutal honesty displayed on stage. I felt like I was in maker’s group therapy. We heard about some seriously dark moments, about how everyone, no matter how successful, is full of self-doubt and fear and all those other things that everyone struggles with every day. It’s not something I can easily written about without sounds cliche–but damn did it hit straight to the heart. The whole thing made me sad and excited and inspired. So, what will I actually do with this? I can check number one off the list (write blog post), so on to #2. Do something small. Do anything. No one will ever have to see it, so if it sucks no one will know but me.
As Jonathan Coulton, Internet Musician, said, “Fuck em”.