It’s been fifteen days since Mars came into the world. He arrived in a dimly lit room to the soft murmurings of a practiced nurse and the wide-eyed amazement of my husband, Joe. Mars’ actual birth was, for the most part, smooth and efficient. I pushed like I dance – specifically and brainily. Hyper-focused on the instructions and compliant with critique. Unaware of the tearing. Unaware of the bleeding. Only aware of the release and relief I felt as they slid my son onto my chest and Joe cried for the first time since I’ve known him.
In that moment, we blasted ourselves out of the quiet, restless limbo of a late-term pregnancy into the strangest time warp – where we’re rocketing through the days, barely blinking, but the minutes themselves are both beautifully and excruciatingly long.
It’s been a shock to every system.
Some of our parent friends tried to explain the newborn experience to us before Mars was born. They told us it would be amazing and tiring. They said things like, “Prepare to never sleep again lol” in that glib-but-I’m-serious way that made me uneasy. They gave us advice. And promptly told us to ignore their advice because babies are individuals and it’s impossible to predict what they’ll be like.
These last couple weeks have been HARD. Not hard like physical exertion or hard like grief, but there have been, honestly, elements of both. This hardness draws on aspects of every other hardness out there and then reaches straight into your center and pulls out a deep, aching love. It’s a love that feels like hope and terror and exhaustion all at once. This love physically intertwines two rapidly changing bodies – both of them in recovery and both struggling to keep up with life’s new demands.
I’m in awe of every mom who’s ever lived.
In the midst of the hardness, things that might seem small and insignificant are amazing and enormous. His first poopy diaper! His obsession with windows! My first post-partum bowel movement! (Real talk: pooping after birth is its own, special kind of labor.) I’m not kidding when I say that the first time we breastfed and I didn’t grimace and whisper curses into the night felt like the day I completed my graduate thesis. (FYI, we are back to cursing. This is an ongoing saga.) And some things are ridiculous and delightful, like when I catch Joe, covered in pee and laughing, congratulating Mars on a surprisingly strong spray.
We think everything Mars does is interesting. Every sigh. Every grimace. We’re proud of his new folds and rolls, tickled by his punches and kicks, and wrecked when we can’t calm his shuddering cries. He’s a mystery to us – but it’s our job to know him, so we keep waking up and trying our best. And the next time we see just a hint of a smile, love will come bubbling out of our throats and make the nighttime curses seem a little less potent.
It’s been hard to put together coherent thoughts on my time at XOXO 2016. As my coworker Braden acknowledged, “That thing was designed to not be recap-able.”
It’s because, much like the internet herself, the XOXO festival is organized chaos—a structured, shared space to build ambiguous relationships, create content, and consume everything you find interesting. It’s an experience, not a set of takeaways.
When I first heard about XOXO, it was billed an “experimental festival” that celebrated independent internet artists, from developers and designers to writers and animators. It sounded cool. Earlier this year, Heben Nigatu tweeted that she was going to be one of the speakers on the same day that William, our developer at Zeus Jones, posted about it on our team Slack—so I figured I’d apply for a ticket.
Yes, apply for a ticket. If I remember right, I had to share what I do, what I work on, and something that I’m really proud of making. I also had to share that I identify as someone who hasn’t always been well represented at XOXO—in this case, as a female. The cofounders, Andy McMillan and Andy Baio, were up-front about the fact that their past attendee rosters haven’t been as diverse as they hoped. I think they also wanted to weed out people trying to attend for nefarious reasons, like for trolling famous internet personalities or poaching UX designers.
So I made it through the initial screening and into the ticket lottery, and wound up getting a spot. The pre-conference set-up was unlike anything I’ve experienced. I was immediately invited into the XOXO Slack team, a universe of 200-some channels, filled with hyper-intelligent unicorn people, all hustling on the coolest projects I’d ever heard of. As a gal with a 9-5 (let’s be honest, 8-7. and maybe again at 9.), and some small—nothing major—performing and writing gigs on the side, I felt like I might not belong there. These people were so impressive. They solved problems, they made art, they wrote books, they CODED. My ability to bold text and possibly make it italic was, er, not something I wanted to share.
But I poked around. Gently prodded. Tried to preemptively figure out where I fit in, and if I could bring any useful nuggets back to the folks at Zeus Jones, who awesomely agreed to pay my conference fee in exchange for shared knowledge.
What I ended up learning, in no short feat (for real; this post is long), is:
1. Most people feel like imposters 2. Most people are just trying to give something to the world 3. Some people are particularly good at being exactly who they are and giving things to the world 4. We can all be one of those number 3 people
So, let’s break these down.
1. Most people feel like imposters
During their Friday morning introductions, Andy and Andy shared this tweet on the big screen behind them.
People in the audience tittered and tweeted, and there was a collective sense that, yes, this tweet represented all of us. We were all asking if we deserved to be there—heck, some of the speakers were asking if they deserved to be there. So in our collective discomfort, we could all just relax.
On its very best days, Imposter Syndrome can manifest as humility (and I do mean humility and not modesty… modesty is just pretentious, amiright?). But overall, it’s the worst. It can trick the most intelligent and innovative humans into believing that their voices aren’t valid or their ideas aren’t worth pursuing. That they’re frauds. Until that tweet, I hadn’t recognized that I fall into the same trap. Every day, I work in an environment where a good idea can come from anywhere. Truly. But because XOXO is framed around the internet, and the internet is an endless trove of cool shit, it can be hard to feel like a meaningful contributor.
"Imposter syndrome is real but you the realest." –@heavenrants
2) Most people are just trying to give something to the world
From the people I met on the “XOXO street” to the official conference speakers, it was clear that this idea of meaningful contribution weighed heavy on people’s minds, matched by a desire to unite it with the work they found most personally inspiring.
Starlee Kine (of Mystery Show) may have said it best, when—after a hilarious and meandering sidebar about how she really hates giving people her bio so it’s not surprising that her XOXO bio included producing on Marketplace even though she really only did it once and it was a long time ago but what else was Andy supposed to use—she gave the audience permission do to what inspires them. More specifically, she said that it’s okay to do what doesn’t make you feel tired.
Said another way by shitty robot-maker Simone Geritz: “If you find the thing you do interesting, chances are someone else will too.”
Through that lens, doing inspiring work and making a meaningful contribution are the same thing.
Starlee also brought up that when you do this kind of work, it can be hard to clarify private versus public. She’s not always sure when a thought in her head is for her or when it’s for work. Should she explore it in Mystery Show? Should it go into a tweet? David Rees (of Going Deep with David Rees… also Artisanal Pencil Sharpening) asked a similar question. After running through the list of political and news publications he used to browse all day while writing political cartoons for Rolling Stone Magazine, his question was, “Is this work or am I avoiding working?”
Maybe it’s both.
3) Some people are particularly good at being exactly who they are and giving things to the world
Before calling out specific presenters, I’ll say that I attended almost every talk, presentation and screening, and think every presenter is doing this well—whether they’d describe it that way or not.
(Much) more importantly than her age, she lives by clear principals. She’s committed to her home country. She works in Bahrain, with other female, queer, Middle Eastern developers. When her stuff gets shut down, she figures out how to get it back online—maybe in a different format. Mideast Tunes was born out of the realization that art can be a powerful way to speak one’s truth without being censored.
She’s also incredibly funny. Whenever she recounted an exchange with another person, she’d effortlessly switch into high-register cartoon voice. In her struggles to establish that she actually, legitimately knows what she’s doing when meeting with potential funders, she squeaked a typical response from an older, male foundation VP: “You know what you need? A mentor! I know just the guy.”
“Giving things to the world” takes many different forms, and it’s not always the most obvious ones. Case in point: Jenn Schiffer, your typical lady code troll. She is intelligently, satirically, and relentlessly changing the narrative about what software development is and who gets to do it well.
If you don’t think mansplaining is a real thing that really happens, especially to non-male developers who actually know what they’re doing, check out the comments on Jenn’s satirical article, A Call for Web Developers to Deprecate their CSS. Even with my (very) (seriously, very) limited understanding of development, I know this is satire. CSS does not refer to California Style Sheets (lol tho) and a quick Google proves Jenn is a legit developer with legit jobs, and legit coworkers and bosses who find her work to be excellent. So I’d assume that in one reading, actual developers would catch on, enjoy the piece for what it is, and move on. But nope.
I left XOXO reinforced that I, too, give things to the world. I solve problems. I make art. I provide insight. Sometimes, I’m even funny. And after spending four days in a vortex of intelligent, good-intentioned people who straddle the line between humility and debilitating Imposter Syndrome with such grace, I’m inspired to do more.
“For a long time, I believed in the myth of no effort.” – John Roderick
“You don’t know what’ll happen if you put your vulnerability in the wrong hands. Invest time finding the right hands.” – Sammus
And, finally, the key to all monetary successes, as evidenced by his frank and open reveal of the (lack of) money he’s made over the last 15 years: “All you need is a white guy in a black apron and the word artisan.” – David Rees
Around this time last year, I was struggling to find my rhythm.
My version of work-life integration looked more like work-work integration, and it was taking a toll on my relationships. So I faced a conundrum: how could I maintain the stimulating fast pace of the job I love while making space for the people I love? And what about personal development outside of work?
Put simply, how could I work smarter?
There’s a ton of advice on this topic—everything from “turn off your phone for two hours each evening” to “drink more water.” But those are tactics. What I needed was a new perspective.
So I turned to a tool we employ with our clients at Zeus Jones, when the businesses we work with need their own guiding light. It’s called Belief, Purpose, and Pursuits (BPP). On the surface, it’s a simple framework. The Belief is what the brand believes about the world. The Purpose is the brand’s mission—what they’re going to do about their belief. And Pursuits are principles that help brands take action. The BPP serves to guide everything brands do, from hiring to product development to marketing and communications. For more on the BPP and how we’re working to evolve it, check out Christian’s post from earlier this year, “An Evolving Model for Modern Brands – Beyond “Belief, Purpose, Pursuits.”
In thinking about how to create my own personal BPP, I had some questions: 1) Can a BPP be useful to an individual? 2) Will it have a positive influence on my life and my decision-making? 3) Will this process uncover any flaws in the framework itself?
To find the answers, I basically followed the process we use here at Zeus Jones:
Immersion and Research
I wanted to be thorough, so I started by digging into my existing equities, perceived problems, and questions. I interviewed my parents to get their perspectives on my strengths, weaknesses, and potential paths forward. I looked back on some of my more reflective personal blog posts and half-done journal entries to better understand some of my previous thinking. And I reflected on what has made me feel balanced and fulfilled at each stage of my life and career.
This phase started to tease out some common themes around what’s important to me: learning, creating, being challenged, working hard, helping others, knowing the people around me are taken care of, and—overall—a sense that I’m making something, somewhere, a little bit better.
While my key themes were personal and meaningful to me, they weren’t necessarily unique. As often happens when we go through the process with brands, the themes and values that began to emerge could apply to others. But, just as it is for our clients, the BPP is only as good as what you do with it. So I took the ideas and moved into the drafting phase, with the goal of crafting something that would be right for me.
I shared an early version with my parents. My mom (a natural creative) wanted to know what actions I would take with it. My dad (a natural strategist) was more curious about how I would evaluate whether or not it was working. Good questions. As I thought through the answers and refined my draft, I also shared it with Jason, a friend and coworker who, as a result, began his own personal BPP quest.
My resulting framework (forever a draft) looks like this:
My Pursuits are purposefully a mixture of guardrails and open doors, at work and at home. Focus close is designed to keep me grounded in my home life and immediate relationships, instead of taking them for granted. Create beautiful moments gives me permission (and pushes me) to continue making art, at work and in my personal time. Seek and support provides a lens for all of my projects and decisions, wherever they come from.
To keep ourselves on track, Jason and I met and shared our BPPs and our “phase 1 plans” for taking action. Mine consisted of 1) dedicating sacred no-work dinner hours each evening and 2) booking and paying for consistent dance studio rehearsal time (I’ve learned that pre-paying is an excellent motivator).
Months later, I’ve been in the studio seven times and counting, my husband and I eat dinner together almost every night when I’m in town (and we recently took a truly adventurous adventure in the backcountry of Alaska), I’ve become much more vocal and action-oriented about issues that I care about, and Jason and I still do accountability check-ins on our BPPs from time to time. It’s also helped me to be happier and more efficient with my work—when cool opportunities come up that involve extra time or travel, I can take them and feel good about them, knowing that I balance them out with my Focus Close efforts.
My framework isn’t something I consult every day—or even every month—and it’s certainly not something I use formally to make all of my decisions. But I know my purpose, and can use it intuitively. It functions as the great balancer when things get out of whack, which, you know, still happens sometimes.
So, what about my questions?
1) Can a BPP be useful to an individual?
Yes. People are, in fact, just as complex as businesses, with competing priorities, literal and figurative arms and legs, and struggles to stay flexible and relevant while also being purposeful. What I thought would be a small, easy exercise turned out to be not so small or easy, with one major exception: I was the only approver.
2) Will it have a positive influence on my life and my decision-making?
So far, yes. But as things change, I’ll need to change as well. This framework may not be the answer to all my future questions.
3) Will this process uncover any flaws in the framework itself?
One thing I learned is that the answer to my dad’s initial question—how I’ll evaluate the success of this BPP—is still a little ambiguous. It tends to be a tricky task with our client BPPs as well, because the full effects of the framework manifest over months and years of shifting perspectives. That said, when the framework is successful, it results in real actions, which should be measurable in and of themselves.
Evaluation is another piece of our ongoing mission to define and refine the future of brand frameworks. And as we do that, I’m excited to bring a personal perspective to the table. After all, even the biggest businesses are made up of individual people. And—as I can attest—sometimes we all need a little help figuring out what to do next.
I grew up believing that everyone is equal, and that equality is impermeable. It’s protected. A given. Your sexual orientation, skin color, country of origin, family situation, gender, how much money your parents have… none of those things make you any better or worse than anyone else, or affect your chances of success. You have complete control of your destiny, and America is an amazing place because of that.
And that attitude has served me incredibly well. I’m a confident, passionate and curious person who generally doesn’t find anything off-limits. If I see an opportunity, I take it. And there are many open to me. People are nice to me. I trust law enforcement to protect me. I feel safe almost all the time. I’m white.
And while I know, know that all human beings are equal, and retain a fundamental right to be treated equally, I now understand that we aren’t all playing the same game, on the same field, with the same umps. My chances of hitting a home run are fundamentally better than many others’ chances (even if I totally stink at baseball, as it were).
The depth of racial inequality in this country I truly love is something I’m still learning about, and a conversation I want to participate in. I want to make this better. I want to be a white ally and understand what that means. I want to hear about and recognize what’s wrong, and help dismantle systematic racism.
This is a sensitive topic for much of white America. I recently read a post by John Metta about why – as a black man – he doesn’t talk about race with white people, because he often finds it futile. You should read the whole thing, but here are a couple of points I found salient:
“White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals… They have no need, nor often any real desire, to think in terms of a group. They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it.”
This is an important point, because it digs into why white people tend to find accusations of racism so offensive. If you are thinking as an individual instead of as one member of a much larger society – one that incidentally has enjoyed a historic position of power – the question of whether or not systematic racism is real and pervasive becomes personal. And from a personal point of view, it’s combatable.
Simply, if I am not racist, racism doesn’t exist.
“A white person smoking pot is a “Hippie” and a Black person doing it is a “criminal.”
When you begin even a cursory study into how language is used in concert with race, there’s an undeniable, if sometimes subtle, difference between how black and white subjects are treated. White killers are shooters, black killers are killers. And while I have to believe the majority of language discrepancies are unintentional, un-intention is kind of the point. If you don’t have to think about those nuances, it’s because the system benefits you already.
“White people are good as a whole, and only act badly as individuals.”
This insight really gets to me, because I’m starting to notice it more and more. As a different angle on the group/individual point above, it means that when one or two or 100 black people do something wrong, it reinforces that the entire community is bad, with individual good exceptions (likely, the people you know and love). But when one or two or 100 white people do something wrong, as a media/social community we’re embarrassed and devastated, but only briefly. The bad seeds are the exceptions. As individuals, they just had bad upbringings, or bad brain chemistry. It’s not a race of bad people.
And while it’s intellectually obvious that a handful of people could never represent a full community, we only arrive there when we’re thinking with intention. Given a snap input, we make snap judgments, and slowly but surely reinforce the very attitudes we abhor.
It can be hard to push past the sense that maybe, just maybe, there’s more you or I could be doing than being open-minded, “colorblind,” equality-loving people. Blindness is a cop-out for not doing the observational work. And it hasn’t proven itself to be a very good solution so far.
To wrap this up, I’m not trying to chide the white people in my life who are compassionate and intelligent, and find the racism discussion frustrating or uncomfortable. I get it. But it doesn’t hurt to pay closer attention and be open to new conclusions – in fact, it’s a necessity. If more of us ask questions, listen harder and work to fix the system, we CAN end racism. We just have to believe it exists.
Almost three years ago, one of my favorite friends and mentors had a baby boy. His name is Colin, and he has always been one cool cat, even at seven months old when I first blogged about him.
Because it’s been a few years (no idea how that happened), I asked Colleen if I could interview her again – this time, about about motherhood, wifehood, babyhood, toddlerhood, and what she would say to a new mother who receives the same diagnosis for their baby that was given to Colin.
Colin is a measured performer and a quick study. He can figure out what makes you laugh and then milk the situation before you even know what’s going on. I asked Colleen what Colin’s personality is developing into, and what she sees in Colin of herself and her husband, Chris.
“Reading and entertaining rank high for Colin. Book was his first word. I think he would spend the entire afternoon being read to, if he could. And while you are reading to him, he will inevitably make a funny face, snort or try to get you to smile – that’s the entertainer in him.
He’s a huge fan of Louis Armstrong. And he loves to swing, be surprised,” [Interjection from me: it’s true – he loves to be surprised. Whereas I’d probably cry and pee my pants a little, he just laughs.], “sing along to any number of songs, and play ball. He throws better than I do.
Case in point.
He has Chris’ sense of perfection. Before he was walking, he would practice pulling himself up in hiding before he did it in person. We would watch him on the baby monitor. He has the persistence to keep trying something over and over until he is happy with it.”
As a nearly three-year-old, Colin walks, runs and takes exuberant leaps off one of the chairs in the living room (which has since been turned around to face the wall as a preventative measure). He’s also one of about 400,000 people in the U.S. living with Down Syndrome.
The original diagnosis was an admittedly scary and difficult one for Chris and Colleen. They received it moments after Colin was born, and they weren’t sure how to react. True to form, they made it through the initial tumbling and came out smiling on the other end.
“I knew Chris would be a good dad, but there is a whole other level of falling in love with your partner when you see them as a loving parent. I couldn’t really understand what that looked like until I saw it firsthand.”
Knowing what she and Chris know now, I asked Colleen what she would say to new parents of a baby with Down Syndrome.
“Recently I read something that really rings true, so I’m going to steal the thought. If you were to go to a new parent and tell them all the things that would go wrong in their child’s life – like, when they are six months old they’ll get really sick and you will be up with them for nights on end trying to figure out what’s wrong. Or at seven, they’ll fracture their arm jumping off the bed. Or their best friend won’t be their friend anymore when they’re 11, and it will really hurt their feelings – If you told a new parent all the bad things that would happen in the future, instead of helping them be overjoyed with their new child, they would be scared to death. How can a mom protect her kid from that? But that’s not how it happens for most new mothers, thank God.
We were told (or read on the Internet) all the things that could/might happen to Colin throughout every stage of his life. But the truth is, some might happen and some might not. So I would tell a new parent to throw all the opinions, presumptions and thoughts aside and know that someday very soon, you will not see your child as any different.”
Colin’s first selfie. JK, mom took it.
She also offered some incredibly sage advice to all the new mothers of all the babies, regardless of their situations:
“Go easy on yourself. In the beginning you can become delusional due to lack of sleep. Everyone will say ‘sleep when the baby sleeps.’ If you can do that, great. If not, then do what you can do to relax. I couldn’t sleep when he slept, and I beat myself up for it over and over.
Find a small group of people you trust, who will listen and talk with you. Thankfully, I had a handful of people who would answer the phone or text me back at 3 am. Remember that someday these people are going to need you to return the favor.
If you don’t have a doctor (or occupational therapist or physical therapist) you trust, then get out of your current relationship and find a new one as soon as possible. And don’t be embarrassed to do it.
Take time to allow yourself to welcome this little one into your home. This baby needs the same things from you any other child would need.
Surround yourself with the people who look at your child the way you want the world to look at your child.
Remember that people mean well. Really. I’m sure I said some stupid things to new parents when I didn’t really know what being a new parent meant. (They either forgave me or were so tired they weren’t even listening.) People will have opinions about your child and what you are doing/should be doing/shouldn’t be doing, and so on. That’s ok. They want to support you any way they know how, and they probably have no clue what is going on in your life. So listen, say thank you, and then call someone in the group from #2 to talk about it.
For the proud new mamas of a child with Down Syndrome, you may want to run and hide right now, and it doesn’t feel fair. But once you come to terms with reality, just know that the child in front of you will blow your mind someday soon. Their capacity to reach their goals is the same as any other child when given opportunities and support.
Remember that your child will be their own person even if they share the same diagnosis as someone else. People will make generalizations, like, ‘Oh, those Downs kids are so stubborn/sweet/easy/loving, etc.’ Is that true of Colin? Sure, sometimes. It reminds me of when people used to assume I played basketball because I’m tall. My son and your kid will be different from each other. Will they share similar characteristics? Sure. Do I share similar characteristics with some WNBA players? Sure.”
Right? Sit with that advice from my wise friend and pass it along to the people in your life who need it. And if you want to learn more and support people with Down Syndrome, check out these great organizations: