September 13, 2015 #,  #,  #,  #

XOXO: no way back, but every way forward

I’m sitting on the train home from XOXO, and one of the biggest things I learned from the festival—and there were many learnings, technical and personal and everything in between—was that stories should be told with the rawness of immediacy, as they happen or as close as possible, in order for us to benefit from them. So while I want to write lots of retrospectives on the conference, this is the one I want to write right now, for me and nobody else.

I was in a car accident on the way to Portland for the conference. Nobody was hurt— not physically, anyway. The damage to the other vehicle was minimal, while the whole front bumper of my car (and a good deal of the radiator) was ripped off. It wasn’t pretty. I have insurance. Logistics are taken care of, even if the car might have to be scrapped. But that isn’t where the damage was done. The damage has been psychological, and that is the damage I don’t want to reflect on, but need to.

For someone whose brain often tries to sabotage them at the best of times, largely due to a healthy dose of impostor syndrome, being in that accident absolutely torpedoed my self-perception and my plans for the weekend. I’m a planner. A control freak. I had been looking forward to this weekend so desperately; both me and my wife had been working hard in the preceding days and weeks, and a road trip together to a city we’d never explored was the antidote that I had placed far too much stock in and now, I— in one fell swoop of a lane change—had shattered our plans. Blame from an insurance perspective was irrelevant. I had ruined everything.

“You don’t deserve a good weekend,” I told myself. “You damaged the car. Your family will think less of you. Your wife will think less of you. You’re not as capable as you think you are. Why should you enjoy this conference, this weekend, or the nice dinner you planned? You don’t deserve to.” On the surface, dealing with the immediate logistical aftermath, I was fine, but my brain most definitely wasn’t.

The only thing that saved me from dismantling the weekend from the inside out was my supportive wife, who balanced empathy with reason just enough to remind me that sabotaging our conference/holiday as a form of self-punishment would hurt not only me, but her, too, and this gave me pause. She performed the gargantuan task of guiding my focus to the immediate moment rather than the future and the multitude of imaginary repercussions. She made me focus on the train that we could still take to Portland to put our weekend back on track (as it were), to sit down and make lemons from lemonade, to enjoy the snacks we’d bought an hour earlier, to just breathe and not see the car accident as a larger, more overwhelming thing that could engulf not just the weekend but the foreseeable future, and my perception of myself. She made me focus on the fact that she’d always wanted to ride in a police car, and that a friendly ride to a train station was the best way to do so.

Focus. Focus on right now. We’re alive. We’re lucky. We’re happy.

So that’s what I tried to do. We sat down on the train, and I ate the lunch I’d been saving. My wife cracked open a beer, smiled, and read her book. We arrived in Portland. We went to dinner. And in the morning, I went to XOXO. I was inspired. I listened to Spike Trotman and Mallory Ortberg, Zoe Quinn and Eric Meyer (among others) share stories of hardship and perseverance in their lives, and how technology had both failed and helped them, broken and mended them. They spoke about documenting emotional processes and putting things out into the world that you want in it, that reflect a world you want to live in. So that’s what I’m trying to do now, and what I tried to do in the moments that followed our accident.

I had moments where I failed. On the walk to the last morning of talks, on the Morrison Street Bridge, I saw a sign for the I-5 that we should have been driving on and felt so overwhelmingly guilty that I had to stop walking. But from my vantage point, I could still see the hotel we were lucky enough to stay in, the restaurant we’d been lucky enough to eat in and share a great meal together. I could see the sidewalk that would take me to the conference where I could listen to people who had led lives far more difficult and far more different, by whom I could be inspired. I could enjoy the immediate moment. I could just be. I could learn from how I was feeling, but not be engulfed by it.

As I stumble forward into life, into trying to be a decent human being and a decent maker of things, I want to let these anxieties inform my work, but in a way that doesn’t make me feel upset or ashamed. Whatever I’m working on, I want my anxieties and my processes to be a part of it in a way that ensures that whatever I create is a reflection of me and the world I want to live in. I want to hear the stories of the people who don’t always get it right; to do that, I first have to share my own. Lisa Hanawalt and Nicky Case encompassed this the most for me: you can adapt, mend your own cracks and make yourself a better person for having put the pieces back together— in any way. There is no right way. There are infinite ways.

Going forward, I’m going to try and take this quote to heart:

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” (Joseph Campbell).

It was in Amit Gupta’s talk. I’m also going to read this book. It’s been on deck for a while. I need to embrace more imperfection in my life, and stop putting so much stock in best-laid plans.

I crashed the car on the way to the conference, but I learned that it shouldn’t define me as a person. It shouldn’t define my capabilities. It shouldn’t define my weekend or my relationship with my family. And I learned this while at a technology conference, watching inspiring people give talks, and watching my brilliant wife walk smiling to the hotel bar and order two beers. Plans were irrelevant. We were going to make a new story, one that was just as good as the one I’d planned, if not better.

Other posts— ones about writing, about techniques and storytelling and development— will follow, because I have been energized by the conference. I just need time to process it all. But for now, this was enough, because I wanted to get the details right in all their imperfect, momentary, unfiltered, fearful recency.

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