RE: The Inferno of Independence

September 26th, 2013

A friend recently sent me to an article by Frank Chimero regarding the XOXO Festival which just took place last week.

The post was long but it touched on a number of important points which I have been thinking about for the past year. It was refreshing to know I’m not the only one thinking some of these things.

Frank asks a lot of difficult questions and I wanted to take some time to respond to what he said and ask some questions of my own. If you haven’t read his article, check out The Inferno of Independence” and then come back here to see my response.

I hope that I am not misrepresenting any of Frank’s ideas or diverging from his original intent, but he got me to think about some of these things in some depth. Okay, here we go:

“After several talks, an unstated theme began to emerge, providing fuel for many of the stories and ideas expressed throughout the two days. It was often hinted upon, but only directly stated in Christina Xu’s talk. It came out as bright and searing as magnified daylight: “Independence is lonely.””

I get the sense that this isn’t anything new, but I also get the sense that this is all in spite of the technology we have at our disposal. I’m torn on this issue. Personally, over the last 12 months I have made a concerted effort to stay in touch with the people I care about. Sometimes that’s a google hangout, other times it’s just a text message or a photo sent via SMS, and thanks to technology, I am in better contact with close friends than ever before. Yet at the same time, all the togetherness is through impersonal objects. It’s screens talking to screens. There’s no face to face and so loneliness is maintained.

But Frank isn’t just talking about technology. This goes deeper than that. Loneliness is internal. It stems from a dissatisfaction with personal relationships. It stems from fear. It stems from desires for things which you don’t necessarily have any control over. While it’s very easy to say “just get over it” it’s very hard to actually do. People who are lonely need empathy and help to get back to where they need to be. This isn’t always something you can ask for, because in some of these situations it’s far more meaningful to be given help unasked, than to get help that was requested.

“There are lone wolves, but wolves are also pack animals, so how do you reconcile the two? How can we be independent together?”

The loneliness described by Frank is like a void in your person. You’re physically missing something (maybe emotionally). So what need is not being fulfilled? What would it take to fill this need? Or better yet, what would need to happen to put you at peace with this situation?

What is your (personal) expectation for independence? What do you hope to get (or achieve) with “togetherness?” To some extent, you have to know what a solution might look like before you can try to solve a problem.

“XOXO’s talks had a deep undercurrent of mental health: dealing with stress, depression, impostor syndrome, and doubt. Emotions are good, especially when aired, and stress can be beneficial, but they are not meant to derail you.”

Self-perception. Self-worth. Self-esteem. Self-expectations. I don’t claim to know a lot about psychology, but I do claim to know a lot about me. There’s a lot that could be said about mental-health and some of it might have to do with all the processed chemicals we’re ingesting on a daily basis, but I also think a lot of it has to do with self-perception.

What are you desires, wants, and needs? What do you expect out of life? What do you want to do? The problem with self-help books is that sometimes the things you want do not live within the realm of your control. Let me say that again, slightly differently, sometimes you want things that you cannot regulate.

If you want to be really good at something you can *usually* work your tail off until you are actually good at it. Practice makes better. Repetition is the key to learning. But sometimes you want something you can’t control. I WANT it to rain tomorrow. There is nothing you can do, one way or another.

So how do you cope when things don’t go your way? Is there a good way to cope? Some people are really good at brushing things off and getting on with their life. I don’t know how to encapsulate that, though.

On one hand we have successful people telling us to follow our dreams. We have people like Steve Jobs who pushed the boundaries of the impossible. They bent the world to their will. Yet some people try that and fail hard.

Which begs the question, when should you be realistic? When do you push the boundaries and when do you know it’s a lost cause? When do you need to abandon your expectations and make them conform with reality?

For me, this is the hard part. How do you give up on your dreams? How do you come to terms with the fact that the thing you long for, the thing you’ve been striving for, is truly impossible. How do you tell yourself that you’ve put a lot of energy into being wrong and now you have to be okay with that?

That’s not an easy place to be.

“…clearly we have some corrosive expectations of ourselves and one another, and things need to change…”

I see this a lot these days, and I don’t know if it’s because there is more of it or just that I’m more aware of it. These “corrosive expectations,” how did this happen? When did it start? Is it because we idolized the wrong people and used them as our examples? Is it because we fail to recognize our limitations and rush headlong into everything without stopping to consider consequences? Has the tech culture encouraged this behavior or is this simply a byproduct of the 21st century in general?

Do we expect too much from ourselves? Have we forgotten how to properly take care of our mental, physical, and emotional well being? Are these “corrosive expectations” just a result of “us” trying to fill the void in our lives with something meaningful?

“How can you build a system where working for yourself doesn’t mean working by yourself?”

For whatever reason, I’m reminded of Nerds-On-Site with this. The concept that each person “works for themselves” but everything is handled through a central system and the resources to succeed are readily available when they are required. I wonder if this model is applicable to the things Frank is talking about.

“Autonomy should be for everyone.”

This is a powerful statement and has a lot of far reaching ramifications in a number of different disciplines, not least of which would be social and political. I’m not going to go there today, but I like this idea.

“We need to build better services for creators, and do a better job of documenting processes to make this stuff accessible and learnable to anyone.”

Frank talks later about moving too fast, but it applies here as well. People are rushing to make new tools and applications which means there is no time to make things easy to use. The bleeding edge of tech is messy. It’s not clean because it’s the bleeding edge. Geeks build hard to use tools. They strive for functionality first, because what good is something if it looks nice and doesn’t work. That’s fine, but the tools never get cleaned up.

When I build things, I usually build it for myself. I put it together how I think it would make sense and that’s fine, because I don’t expect anyone else to use it. It will have all kinds of little nuances that I can manipulate, which would be totally unintuitive to anyone who is just picking up the program. Even things like Twitter can be hard to explain if you don’t have a specific use case for it. Maybe we need to slow down.

“And, as someone who supports independent creative people, how can I be better and more supportive, not only financially, but also in how I behave and interact with those creators? Cabel Sasser of Panic shared his difficulties in managing the ravenous expectations of the company’s customers while producing their hit web development software Coda 2. It nearly led to a personal breakdown. This is common, and I refuse to believe that it is part of the cost of success, because I would like to be as successful as Cabel one day, and I do not want to have a breakdown, thank you.”

I really like the way twitter, facebook, and kickstarter have allowed me to connect with people doing really cool things and “be a part” of what is going on. At the same time, I know I can’t continue to give money to every cool project, I don’t have enough to go around. So what other ways can I be supportive? Similarly, how can I have meaningful interactions with these people? When everyone’s a 32px image, how do you make that mean something?

What’s more, can you implement something that fits into our current conglomeration of technologies? Can we add better functionality to what we have without having to start something new?

“…I refuse to believe that it is part of the cost of success, because I would like to be as successful as Cabel one day, and I do not want to have a breakdown, thank you.”

I love this sentence. There is a toxicity to environments that expect this type of 110% effort. I cringe (mentally) when I hear certain students talking about their futures where they expect to be working 80-90 hours a week to keep their personal business going and expect that they will have no social time for friends or even family.


There are so many things wrong with this I don’t know where to start. If this is your idea of heaven, then more power too you, but I simply cannot abide that this is the only way. I know, for a fact, that this is not true.

“And, most importantly, how do we disabuse creative people from the idea that they must suffer for their art?”

I get the sense that there has been a little bit of pushback in this direction lately. I remember several months ago seeing a number of articles about employees at Facebook who said they go home everyday at 5:00pm, while their colleagues are working late. I’ve seen some news articles talking about the importance of taking care of yourself and working harder is sometimes worse. (I remember seeing someone talking about how the original Mac computer might have not been years late if they would not have been working 90 hour work weeks. I guess that’s open to debate.)

Some of this goes back to my question earlier, are we idolizing the wrong people? When people make amazing things, do we glorify the long hours they put in? Do we praise their blood, sweat, and tears? And in doing this, do we imply that anything worth doing is worth killing yourself over?

I’ve had a few people in my life push themselves too hard. There were consequences. Consequences that are still being lived with today.

“I am beginning to think we are using the wrong words to describe what it means to be an “independent artist” and it’s setting the stage for these kinds of breakdowns.”

Semantics are important, words have connotations and the words we use have meanings. Is this a self-fulfilling prophecy where we set ourselves up for massive breakdowns?

While on the topic of semantics, Frank says he’s not smart enough to have that conversation, but I question whether it’s entirely worth our time. On one hand, it would be good to be able to talk about these things without bias or implication, yet on the other hand, do we need to spend our time talking about these things or should we actually be doing something to make a difference?

This next paragraph and a following paragraph seem to go together so I’m going to jump around a little here.

“Let me give you an example of a story I’ve been telling myself. I have a tendency to change my work every couple years. I’ve gone from packaging design, to user interfaces, to illustration, to writing. I’ve always shielded myself by saying, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” It makes for a funny meme, but you know what? I’ve tried this for years and it only trips me up and makes me feel worse.”

Then, jumping ahead a few paragraphs:

“There’s about a million miles between saying “I have no idea what I’m doing,” and “I’m making it up as I go.” This is verging on Stuart Smalley stuff, but goddamn—I am sick of hearing the people I respect the most undercutting themselves. You are awesome and big, and I will carry you on my shoulders for miles if that’s what it takes to get you to a place where you can see how great you are.”

Why do I undercut myself? Specifically, there are two reasons which I can point to.

  1. It’s easy. I can joke about my shortcomings and even if I believe it just a little bit, it still makes me smile and it still can cause a laugh, and in the end it’s really just me wanting attention because deep down I’m lonely and sad.

  2. I want to be wrong. I don’t really think my work is terrible, but I’m looking for eternal confirmation. I’ll joke about how my writing is worthless so that when someone tells me that it’s actually okay, or maybe even pretty good, it’ll mean something to me. It won’t just be someone agreeing with me, it’s because they actually thought it was worth commenting on.

It could just be the mess of chemicals in my brain, but it doesn’t feel right to talk about my own work. Maybe I don’t fully believe in it, maybe I think I could do better, and maybe I’m just looking for someone to tell me that my stuff is actually worth something.

For the logically minded individual, external factors can massively influence self-perception. This isn’t right. This isn’t good. But it’s hard to disregard. Sometimes you’re just hoping that someone will come along and tell you that something you did was good. Sometimes that’s all you need. Most the time it’s your mom, and there’s still that copy of a finger painting you did 25 years ago on the fridge, so her comments don’t hold as much weight as someone else.

When you type this all out and read it through, it’s idiotic. It is irrational. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s not something that you can just brush aside. It’s mentally engrained and takes a lot of time and effort to un-learn this behavior. “That’s fine for Merlin.”

Touching back on “impostor syndrome…” When you look up to someone, when you have someone you respect or admire, we tend to forget that they are people too. “I want to be like < insert name here > but I can never be that < funny / smart / creative >.”

It’s worse than humility, it’s less than an attempt to not be vain, it’s a problem with self-perception. While we’re sitting and believing that we “can’t” be something, aren’t we also thinking we would rather not be? If I’m better than < insert name here > at < this one thing >, can I still look up them? How can I be as admired if I know all these undesirable things about me? There’s a difference between respecting someone else for what they do and exulting them to an unattainable height.

Self-worth is tricky. It needs to come from *internal* factors (SELF), but far too often it hinges on *external* influences. It’s not always intuitive how to handle this mentally.

The desire to be really, really good at something does not necessarily include an indication of what success looks like. This brings me full circle back to some of the first questions I asked. What would need to happen to put you at peace with this situation?

You cannot feel successful if you don’t know your parameters for success. How will you know you’ve arrived if you don’t know your destination?

They say goals are really important. Is goal setting a lost art or am I just horribly, horribly bad at it? People who are successful have set goals and develop plans to achieve these goals. Headed out for success without goals is like taking a trip without a map. You can do a lot of fun stuff, but you’re probably going to miss a lot of things along the way.

“It’s nearly impossible to organize and change things if everyone is moving fast.”

Recap. Debrief. In an educational setting I would love to see more of this. Granted, there are many things that people can only learn by experience. Our mental processes refuse to understand certain concepts until we have lived them out. But it is possible to learn from your mistakes and the mistakes of others. This is how you grow. You take a step back and analyze what worked and what didn’t so you can make changes next time.

“You’re also told that you should fail harder, because failure is the gateway to success. Oddly, only successful people say failure is necessary, because anyone who has truly failed in a meaningful, unrecoverable way would advise you to stay away from that shit at all costs. Believe me, I know.”

It’s not the failure that is really necessary, it’s what you learn from the failure that is necessary. It’s confronting your fear of failure and learning to overcome the things holding you back. The only reason failure might be necessary is because it’s gosh-darn hard to learn these things when it’s not a first hand experience. Again, this is how you grow.

“Speed kills detail and increases noise. Speed lets you run fast and go further, but you don’t actually get to see any of what you’re passing for what it actually is. You blur out the details and miss the real picture.”

How many times are we trying little solutions to solve symptoms when we should be taking a step back to understand the large problem and a way to cure the disease? Small picture solutions don’t fix big picture problems.

“Revolutionary, disruptive, magical, wizards, and on and on—contemporary digital culture has co-opted the language of revolution and magic without the muscle, ethics, conviction, or imagination of either. And it’s not that those things aren’t possible, we just aren’t living up to their meaning and instead saturating ourselves with hyperbole. These are words you have to earn, and slinging them around strips the words of their powerful meaning. Can you take a real revolution seriously if you are bombarded with messaging that says your phone is revolutionary?”

Words have meaning. As a culture I think we have been desensitized to connotation. “Uber” and “epic” are overused and commonplace. Vulgar, as you would say in latin. Words have meaning. They NEED to have meaning. That’s the difference between a high school athlete’s twitter feed and a novel by George R. R. Martin. George knows when to use appropriate verbiage. Can we just tone everything down a notch?

“If you’re living your dream, you need all the help you can get. Dreams are hard, and much too much work for just one person alone.”

Support systems are vital. I think having a properly designed and utilized support structure can help alleviate loneliness, as well as allow you to achieve the things you want to do.

Is your support system reliable? Can you count on people when you need them most? Perhaps more important, what do you do if you don’t have a reliable support system? What happens when you don’t have someone there to watch your back or catch you when you fall? How do you find a support system? How do you use one properly so that you are not entirely relying on a too-small group of people?

Then there’s the flip side. How can you be a support to others? If you want to be proper support to those you care about, you have to have something left to give them. You have to be available when the time comes. You have to be able to help in an appropriate manner. Reliability is vital.

Frank finally ends with a dichotomy.

“There is no independence. There is only subservience or co-dependence. And I choose you. I choose community.”

I dislike dichotomies, but this one seems appropriate. You can work for someone else or you can work with someone else. People are import. People give us hope. They give us optimism. They give us purpose. And I choose people too.

I don’t know if I helped to shed any light on any of these issues, but you need to start somewhere. We need to begin a dialogue and start allowing ourselves to think things over so that future conversations can provide the necessary depth to make meaningful changes.

I asked a lot of questions here. I hope they made sense, they did to me. I don’t have a lot of answers, and I’m guessing you don’t either. But maybe you have a few answers, or at least some ideas, or perhaps some better questions.

This is how we can help each other be independent. Discussion. Dialogue. Communication. Encouragement. Which leaves me with a final question, where do we go from here?