My First XOXO: Impressions, Thoughts, Feels


September 10, 2019

XOXO exists at that intersection of art and technology, quite literally one of Artsy’s 5 company values. I’ve wanted to go for years, but it never quite worked out, so I was very excited to get a ticket this year. XOXO is “an experimental festival for independent artists who live and work online”, which is very much my kind of event.

I don’t really want to re-cap the festival events or the conference talks; instead, I’m going to discuss some high-level thoughts that the conference has given me. It’s a kind of reflection exercise for me, I suppose, but I’m hoping it might be valuable to others too.

First off, I wanted to celebrate a small personal victory for me: I successfully avoided getting a migraine, a condition that’s consistently been a damper on exciting events since I was a kid. For me, avoiding migraines involves getting enough sleep; which is difficult to do when both excited and jet-lagged. I had to miss some evening festival activities for the sake of resting, but I’d rather miss an evening meetup than the next day’s conference talks.

# Vulnerability

The most important thing you need to know about XOXO is that it is a space created where people can be vulnerable. The conference creates a space where speakers can share some of the most difficult aspects of their lives. I’m struggling to describe this kind of atmosphere of openness in words, to be honest. It kind of just surrounded the whole conference.

I think you actually need to provide that kind of atmosphere to get the kinds of presentations XOXO was hosting. The speakers were discussing really deep, personal topics. How they handled adversity, or didn’t. How they’re still picking themselves up. How they’re dealing with other people’s expectations about their art. You need a safe space to discuss these topics.

At a few points between talks, I found myself talking about some of my own difficult experiences with people that I’d just met. Not in like a weird way, in a kind of… they were being vulnerable so then we were vulnerable together. I was kind of surprised, to be honest, because I’m actually quite shy about discussing my own emotions in real life; I find it easier to write about things than talk about them. But XOXO created a space where we could be open to vulnerability. Everyone I met was supportive, which I reciprocated.

The closest thing I’ve ever seen to this kind of atmosphere was Open Source & Feelings back in 2016. Another excellent conference – I wouldn’t be surprised if the organizers of XOXO and OS&F were trading notes.

# Burnout

I’ve burned out before, twice. First in university, and then later after a very bad working experience at a startup in Toronto. And I’ve since come dangerously close to burnout, but I now have the skills to recognize and deal with burnout and stress when I see them coming. I’m still getting better at proactively avoiding it, though.

I learned a lot from the different talks about handling burnout, especially as a creative professional. Only a single talk was specifically on the subject of burnout, but many of the talks referenced it. For instance, Jenny Odell discussed how her feelings towards her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy shifted after it was published. About how it felt to see her book, arguing against self-promotion, get promoted itself.

Emily and Amelia Nagoski wrote a book together about burnout, describing stress as an emotional cycle that needs to run its course. Interrupting the cycle is where problems really happen – your body really needs to know that everything is okay. One of the best ways to tell your body that it’s out of danger is to physically move your body (away from the danger). And that’s something I’ve learned recently. But they also talked about some of the barriers to exercise, which I hadn’t heard anyone do before. Let me expand.

It’s taken me over six months to get the point where I’m doing exercise regularly and, importantly, safely. If I had just one day signed up for a gym, with no direction, I’d probably have hurt myself. I needed to learn a lot about form, and develop very specific muscles groups. Not everyone has access to a physical therapist or person trainer. And not everyone has access to or is comfortable in a gym; I am mildly terrified. So exercise as a means to stress relief can also cause stress.

There’s a lot more they discussed, and I’m still processing it. I’m confident that I can balance work and life to avoid burnout again, but the more skills I have, the better.

# My Blog

I was flattered to get recognized by several other attendees. I’ve mostly gotten used to this but it still kind of freaks me out a little. A person gets this look on their face, and I can see it coming. I recognize them recognizing me. “Are you Ash… Furrow?”

But something remarkable happened. Each person who recognized me, every one of them, they all cited my blog as the thing they’ve been following. Many of them thanked me for my blog posts. Not for my tweets, or my open source, but my writing. I wasn’t expecting that, and I’m really humbled by it.

One of XOXO’s co-founders, Andy Baio, often talks about the importance of owning your own work online. And this really resonates here, because I’ve spent nearly a decade writing here. It hasn’t all been good, but it’s all been a journey.

This experience at XOXO has made me realize that I need to write more. Writing blog posts for sure, but maybe other kinds of writing too. Writing songs for sure, writing code also, but who knows what else? I’ll discuss more about creative expression later.

# Connections

I made a lot of new friends at XOXO. And I caught up with a lot of old friends who just happened to be there. That was so cool! And a special highlight of my trip was getting to reconnect with a former colleague and close friend from Toronto, Tom. As luck would have it, we were staying at the same hotel literally next door to each other. I spent a lot of the weekend with him and his friend Elizabeth, who were attending XOXO together. It was awesome to get to catch up in-person, and any friend of Tom’s is obviously worth getting to know.

The experience relates to some reflection I’ve done recently, on how professional and personal connections change over time. I’ve been in the industry long enough to have worked very closely with people, and really gotten to know them over a long time, and then parted ways. It’s a sad fact, I suppose, that connections tend to fade quickly. You really have to make an effort to maintain them, and you need the wisdom to figure out which connections need what maintenance. So I’d been thinking about how to do that lately, about the connections I want to maintain, and the ones I want to re-establish.

Anyway, I really appreciated getting to spend time with Tom and Elizabeth. Conferences you attend solo are a very different experience from conferences you attend with a group. I expected to have a solo experience. This being XOXO, I guess I should have known better.

# Tools

As a software engineer, I think about my relationship to my tools a lot. I think about, for example, how both the product and tool of software engineering is: software. We use software to build software, and that means we can build tools that make us better at building software. I think of it like an ouroboros, actually.

But XOXO has really changed how I think about tools, and about my relation to them. When I heard a developer speak about living aboard a small sail boat, crossing the Pacific Ocean, frustrated that they couldn’t download multi-gigabyte Xcode updates, I was like “haha omg 😣” They then talked about how they were relying on their iPhone’s GPS for critical navigating, but met other sailors whose iPhones had stopped working, refusing to turn on until they connected to the internet. Or how Adobe’s Creative Cloud refused to run until it could validate its license.

And I was like “haha omg 😡”: I realized just how contingent our tools really are.

Tools designed to break.

I’m still processing this, and I’m sure I will write a follow-up blog post. I’m angry about the state of developer tooling, but that anger is still inarticulate. The talk about the sailors, Hundred Rabbits, was fairly early in the conference schedule and remained in the back of my mind whenever I heard a speaker discuss their tools.

What I’ve realized so far is that I need a more expansive definition of “tool”, and that definition needs to account for the dependencies of a tool. Like how the sailing developer can only work during sunny days so the solar panels eke out enough power to run a computer with a throttled-down CPU. Or how when their onboard refrigerator broke, they had to decide if they needed to fix it, or if they could live without.

Someone’s tools in that situation have tonnes of dependencies. And I guess mine do, too. I need to think more about this.

# Gender Euphoria

Oh, wow, haha, a really personal section. Okay, so let’s do this.

I came out as bisexual about three months ago, and what I have realized since then is that coming out isn’t just an event, it’s an ongoing process. I’ve been working through lots of feelings and memories and whatnot. In that blog post, I wrote how in high school I had walled-off parts of myself out of a sense of internalized homophobia. But that those walls had been “imprecise.” Hold that thought for a minute.

One of the XOXO speakers briefly mentioned a concept from the transgender community that I hadn’t heard before: gender euphoria. I had heard of gender dysphoria, the discomfort felt when someone’s gender doesn’t match their assigned gender, but I’d never heard of gender euphoria. The term describes the feeling of embodying and belonging in one’s gender. I don’t know much else beyond that, but it’s something I want to learn more about, since gender euphoria describes something that I’ve actually experienced since coming out as bi.

Those walls? The imprecise ones? They were there to cut myself off from the sexual feelings I had towards men. But, like, I am a man, right? So… that had to really mess with how I navigated my sexuality, even just in heterosexual relationships, right? Right. Oops. And even though my gender expression hasn’t radically changed since coming out as bi, my experience of my gender has definitely changed.

I’m tearing down the walls, trying to be myself, and I have started to experience a kind of at-one-ness with myself and my own masculinity. I wasn’t dysphoric before, more like… unphoric, if that distinction makes sense. I never noticed its absence, which is making its sudden appearance so notable to me.

When I heard the term “gender euphoria”, it really resonated with me. By learning more about trans experiences, I gained new vocabulary with which to understand and express myself. And I feel a new level of empathy for trans and non-binary people.

# Creative Expression

A conference for artists has obviously given me a lot to think about, specifically about creative expression. I feel an intense desire to be creative and express myself, but I also feel a strong sense that I’m not doing enough.

I set expectations for my creativity pretty high. As one speaker at XOXO put it, adults don’t like to be bad at things. And the first song I write? It’ll probably be bad. But it’s more than just music – I’m not satisfied with my creative output. I’ve had ideas for Processing projects for months that I haven’t touched. My contributions on Artsy’s blog have fallen behind. It’s been too long since I’ve made any new, original open source projects.

But I’m also aware that I set expectations for myself a little too high. It’s been a busy year, and I’ve gone through a lot. I’ve done my best, and I’ve grown a lot. And while it’s natural to want to have had done more, or done better, my brain tends to magnify this feeling far out of proportion.

Recovering from depression is an ongoing process, and for me, it’s been a tick-tock cycle. I get more capable of living a full life, and then I have to push myself to live that life. And that leads to being more capable of living a full life, and so on and so forth. But between each step, there’s a sense that I’m “not doing enough”, and it’s about time that I get… creative about dealing with that 😉


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