XOXO 2014

To work creatively and independently is to coax a reluctant muse, to grind away at often undesirable tasks, and to fear that your debt will forever outweigh your earnings. As a freelancer, I’m often faced with challenges posed by clients, by a looming lack of clients, and most of the time, by my own self.

So far, I’ve made so many mistakes on this journey that it’s easy to overlook the successes.

XOXO, a conference held in Portland, OR, is a place for independent creatives (mostly in tech) to congregate and share their experiences. This year, I was lucky enough to attend with my partner (it is a fairly exclusive event). We stayed in an Airbnb 10 blocks away from The Redd, a warehouse-turned-event-space that served as the central hub for the conference and festival.

While Portland itself is a wonderful experience, XOXO knocked my socks off. The opening party, full of really cool people, was waning slightly when someone came to the group that I’d joined and whispered in excitement, “Pendleton Ward and Natasha Allegri are here.” In hushed voices, we discussed strategies for approaching two of our animation heroes. The next day, my jaw nearly fell off when I discovered that David O’Reilly was that guy I’d just brushed elbows with in a group outside XOXO Arcade.

In the end, what we discovered is that even these people who we admired were also just flesh and blood human beings. All of my problems were their problems, only different names and places and projects, and some of their problems were ones I may only ever experience in the face of a higher degree of success.

Success and failure were intertwined in all of the speakers’ talks. Specifically, when Anita Sarkeesian took the XOXO stage (thankfully, not from any XOXO attendees), most of us could only think about the failure of the gaming community to turn away from an insidious and dangerous ideology, even while in awe of Sarkeesian’s ability to consistently defy her terrorizers. Her work is about pointing out the larger failures of an industry, and her success reflects a huge reaction against hate.

When Jonathan Mann talked about his Song-a-Day work, he outlined some notable songs that had gained attention, but the song he chose to focus on was the one he was able to create and sing to his grandmother before she passed away. Our success is defined by ourselves, not just by a number of clicks or a dollar amount.

Rachel Binx surprised us all with how familiar her story sounded. Her successes so far haven’t translated to substantial money, but her world is open and full of opportunity, and she seems thankful regardless of the challenges she faces.

Many people at the talk viewed their work as a kind of lottery (Darius Kazemi certainly did). The odds of one of their projects to make a mark on humanity were low, but they played enough to win big once in a while.

BUT timing is everything. Hank Green stepped into the Youtube scene with his brother and blew everyone’s minds. His message at XOXO was simple: your dreams can change, and you can be happy doing unexpected things. Success is what we strive for, but our vision of it can and should change over time.

I met and saw tons of people with varying degrees of fame in various circles. My awe over the animators and Youtubers was not echoed by a friend who was most excited to hear John Gruber and Paul Ford, while others fawned over the data viz experts or the game developers. We can be important in our own circles and never achieve notability beyond, and that is totally cool. In this digital age, it is possible to work within a very niche community and still have the support needed to Make Things Happen.

All these thoughts swirl around my head as I settle back into my regular feverish work pace, but I am setting aside time to properly digest the wisdom these creative people, who are just as fallible as you and I, and choose what kind of success I want to work toward next.

I made some great friends over at XOXO, too many to count. I am so thankful for all of you. I learned so much. <3