I don’t like epiphanies.
Or, rather, I love epiphanies, but I don’t trust them. They’re too easy — too simple and too addictive. Epiphanies don’t tell the whole story. They’re joyous little nuggets of surprise that present themselves whole and complete, as if all they require of you is to soak up the adrenaline and check off a box. Epiphanies don’t acknowledge the hard work that comes before, that comes after — the grinding effort of preparing and putting your newly won self-knowledge into practice.
XOXO is a festival of epiphanies. It’s loaded with them. In 2016 — as with every year previous — you couldn’t go half a day without having an epiphany, without having your heart suddenly and unexpectedly sprung open and the person on the stage going to work on it with a wrench. You can laugh and cry and laugh again, all in the course of a single talk, covering a fleeting twenty minutes of your life. XOXO will tear your heart out, and then carefully stitch it back in, straighter and truer and stronger than before.
Noting this is not new or insightful. The impact of XOXO on the culture of the Web and its surrounding creative environments is well documented, through hundreds of posts and thousands of tweets and, I’d bet, more than a couple of babies. Epiphanies have an undeniable power, in all their heart-stopping, brain-freeing glory. And if they were all that XOXO had to offer, it would still be an astonishing accomplishment.
But the festival has been so, so, so much more. I’ve been privileged — in at least a couple senses of the word — to attend each of the five years of XOXO, and beyond the heady rush of each year’s new epiphanies is the hard work that makes those insights possible. XOXO leaves a jaw-dropping legacy of constant, iterative, nuts-and-bolts improvement in its wake; half a decade of thoughtful, continuous effort applied toward the single goal of becoming better. And better and better. And better.
I’ve waited a week to post this, because I wanted to make sure that the feeling didn’t fade, that the notion wasn’t shallow, that I wasn’t fooling myself. I wanted the endorphins to wear off. And here, back deep in the grind, it remains:
The real accomplishment of XOXO isn’t just creating an environment where honesty and empathy and encouragement allow creative expression to bloom, but doing it every year, year after year after year, each time better than the last. If epiphanies are the beating heart of XOXO, then relentless hard work is its indefatigable lungs, providing the oxygen that allows the climb to happen at all.
The final epiphany of XOXO is that the festival itself is a perfect example of how to create something wonderful. It belongs on its own stage, teaching us its lessons.
Five years ago, people took cabs between their hotels and the venue. Two years later, a free shuttle made a continuous loop through Portland, tracked by an app you could put on your phone. This year, that free, app-tracked shuttle was both ADA-compliant and stocked with donuts.
It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of XOXO. It’s easy to get get swept away. But what was on stage was only half of what the festival had to offer. The full depth of the experience requires an understanding and appreciation for everything that went on in the months before, and off in the wings, and while you were asleep. It’s there, in the dark and when it’s lonely, that the preparation and follow-up happen, the work that makes everything else possible.
This year, XOXO provided a dozen epiphanies, shared a hundred ideas, from the stage and in conversation and over drinks. But among all of those, the first and the last, is the fundamental, underlying insight that the festival itself has demonstrated, over and over, for the last five years: you can get better, no matter how good you are, if you do the work — tirelessly, relentlessly and with a profound and abiding belief that what you are doing matters.
Thank you, XOXO — Andy, Andy, the volunteers, the staff, the vendors, the attendees — for everything. I am a better person for what you taught me. And will be a better person still for the work you showed me I have yet to do.
Hi there! My name's GREG KNAUSS and I like to make things.
Some of those things are software (like Romantimatic and Buzz Clock), Web sites (like the Webby-nominated Metababy and The American People) and stories (for Web sites like Suck and Fray, print magazines like Worth and Macworld, and books like "Things I Learned About My Dad" and "Rainy Day Fun and Games for Toddler and Total Bastard").
My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to hear from you!