This weekend Portland hosted the 2nd iteration of the XOXO Conference. My first experience was nothing short of spectacular. I had fun, I met amazing people, I witnessed creativity and genius.I grew as designer and a person.
It started, with an act of kindness.
I showed up waaaay too early on Friday. I grabbed a coffee and the ridiculously amazing conference swag and sat down at a table in the YU Market. Folks in pink XOXO volunteer shirts whirled around, frantically setting up tables and chairs, building things, and making this thing happen. I felt like I should get up and help but decided staying out of the way was the best course of action.
As I was pondering this an attendee set up his MacBook Air and bag at a newly completed table. A bearded volunteer saw this and rushed over. The table had just been painted. With immense empathy and caring this volunteer helped make sure the gear was not damaged. With so much last minute prep going on, it was incredible to see someone just stop everything to genuinely care for someone. This moment defined the tone of the conference.
Later on, when I saw that volunteer get up on stage with Andy Baio and talk about starting XOXO, things became even more clear. MacBook Air Rescuing Superhero Andy McMillan and Andy told us the origin story of XOXO. The founding principles of collaboration, making things, and openness. At the end of the opening remarks they challenged everyone there to find someone standing alone and make a friend.
Every attendee made good on that challenge.
Passionate People, Obsessed with Making Things
There were so many amazing speakers and events I could go on and on. The Arcade & Tabletop events blew my mind and let me tell creators like Shaun Inman (a design hero) about it over a beer. Vi Hart was a whirlwind of inspiration. Down in the market, listening to Chris McClelland exuberantly explain the Brewbot system was a delight.
I feel blessed to have the opportunity to share with these people. It made me think hard about my own work and what I am doing. These same conversations also made me realize that it’s okay to do that. Everyone does.
It’s important to look at people who have “made it” and know they are human, just like you are.
Gatekeepers, “The MAN”, and Phoneys
The common thread in the talks was the concept of bypassing obstacles. Go around the gatekeepers, ignore The Man, and ditch the phoneys and find out who you really are.
There were varying interpretations on the thread. Molly Crabapple’s perspective came from the Occupy Movement and New York’s art scene. She struck out against the privileged with a Kickstarter funded art series.
Her perspective was juxtaposed with Ev Williams. His sheltered existence was connected to the rest of the world by the internet. He shared the simple idea that every tweet, like, post, share, retweet, mention, fave was a connection. Instead of a world where the rich kids are somehow aliens from another world, Ev proffered that we are humans who have simple desires and that the Internet provides simple convenience. Do that simple thing and people will want it.
He also shared his Internet PowerPak video. Evidently, Andy Baio has a copy. Maybe next year we’ll all see it on Twitter.
Jack Cheng spoke about J.D. Salinger’s distaste for the publishing world and the phonies that judged his work. I loved Catcher in the Rye as a teenager. Just as Salinger used his writing to get himself through WWII, I used his writing to get through high school. Salinger couldn’t accept the idea that publishing a book could be so difficult so he never published again. Jack Cheng couldn’t either so he published with Kickstarter.
Christina Xu flipped all this Salingerian angst on it’s head with the simple idea that publishers can serve artists rather than the other way around. She shared the story of James Erwin. A post on Reddit got him a movie deal. But like Salinger, his break wasn’t all good news. He lost creative control. Christina’s Breadpig shop is helping people like Erwin create through Kickstarter but also provide publishing support and guidance.
This rhythm of ideas left me asking questions about where I am going and what I am doing. I decided to be an artist in high school. My parents, teachers, and community supported me. I grew up in Portland after all.
So who is my gatekeeper? Who is my “The Man”? I found out who at XOXO.
I Am My Own Personal El Guapo
In a way, all of us has an El Guapo to face. For some, shyness might be their El Guapo. For others, a lack of education might be their El Guapo. For us, El Guapo is a big, dangerous man who wants to kill us. But as sure as my name is Lucky Day, the people of Santa Poco can conquer their own personal El Guapo, who also happens to be *the actual* El Guapo!
—Steve Martin, as Lucky Day in The Three Amigos
I came in to XOXO having enjoyed my share of success in this little town. I didn’t rise up against privilege like Molly. I didn’t strike out from the middle of nowhere like Ev. Just like Lucky Day, I just did what I wanted to and everyone around me supported it. Not to take this whole Three Amigos metaphor too far, but it wasn’t until I wandered in to XOXO that I learned what it meant to really make something.
On Sunday, stories from Jonathan Coulton, Cabel, and Tim Schafer brought tears to my eyes. Each one had a part of their story that echoes mine. Especially, Cabel. He shared something personal and painful. At times, I felt as if he was telling us he was done, that he’d had enough. Then he hit the low part. He described the pressure of shipping Coda 2. It forced him to ask himself what the end of Panic would be like.
He’s a Beaverton-boy like me and his “cliche” story of his moment of crisis wasn’t cliche. It’s Jon Coulton’s story. It’s my story.
When you hear these people tell their stories you realize that they are humans just like you. They all had their battles. Hell, they all still have battles. Do the gatekeepers have their own battles? Who does The Man have to fight? This is what I learned:
We are the gatekeepers.
We choose to follow the path or make or own. We choose to fight The Man or go around him. We choose to go through the gate, drive around, or destroy it altogether.
Will I quit my job? Finally make that app, or that other app, or that other app? Move to Australia?
No, yes, and no… well, maybe New Zealand.They say it is just like Portland without the rest of the United States. Sounds nice. No matter what I do, I will do so knowing who the gatekeepers are. The bad ones and the good ones (they exist) and the one in the mirror. I leave XOXO with eyes wide open to the potential around me. I don’t know exactly what I will do next (besides get those ideas shipped) but I know the path I will take. And I know it will be my own path. And I will also know this:
Whatever I do, there will be a community of incredible people who went to XOXO who know me and who have been there before.
Thanks to Andy & Andy and all the people who made XOXO. I hope this post makes you want to do it again and again.