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Insights from Brené Brown, Cal Newport, Gretchen Rubin & More at the 2013 99U Conference

Embrace vulnerability. Stop chasing a passion. Cultivate a “get better” (rather than a “be good”) mindset. That’s just a taste of the counter-intuitive insights on idea execution that were shared last week at the 2013 99U Conference, presented by GE.

Over the course of two action-packed days, 25 leading researchers and creatives minds came together at 99U to impart pragmatic insights on how to make ideas happen. It was the fifth anniversary of 99U and the event was bigger and better than ever—almost 1,000 creatives from all over the world came together at our breathtaking new venue, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center.

So, after 25 speakers, 48 hours, eight studio sessions, and six master classes, what did we learn? Below, we share the first in a series of posts highlighting some of the key insights shared at the 2013 99U Conference:

Brené Brown

Photo: Julian Mackler / MACKME.COM

Photo: MACKME.COM

Author & Vulnerability Researcher /// Daring Greatly

Researcher and writer Brené Brown dug into the vulnerability inherent in the creative process by sharing a bit of personal experience. After her TED talk went viral, the negative comments started to affect her process until a Theodore Roosevelt quote changed her entire perspective: “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.” Other insights from Brown:

  • Without vulnerability you cannot create. “There is only one guarantee,” Brown stated. “You will get your ass kicked.” Listening to criticism inspires you to stay small. Fear, self-doubt, comparison, anxiety, and uncertainty will keep you in the basement instead of charging into the arena. However, go too far ignoring criticism, she says, and you risk becoming numb and unable to create. Find a balance of when to listen to your detractors and when to keep charging forward.
  • The three critics that will always be there are shame, scarcity, and comparison. Know who your critics are and what they will say. Face your doubts on these three fronts and be your own preemptive critic by asking “What am I doing that’s original? What if everyone else is better than me?” Then, quickly move past it.
  • Don’t die thinking–”What if I’d stood up?” Say to the critics, “I see you, I hear you, but I’m showing up anyway.  I’m not interested in your feedback.”

Cal Newport

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Photo: MACKME.COM

Author /// So Good They Can’t Ignore You

When everyone else heard Steve Jobs’ now-legendary commencement address at Stanford in 2005, the common takeaway was that we should “follow our passion.” But writer, computer scientist, and professor Cal Newport argues that following your passion isn’t actually the path to happiness. A few choice thoughts from his talk:

  • Chasing a passion can lead to frustration and unhappiness. American culture is obsessed with the idea that the only way to end up happy is to follow your passion, but this assumes that you have a pre-existing passion to follow. The world is filled with passionate amateur photographers and passionate amateur bakers who end up unhappy and often unsuccessful.
  • Systematically build up a rare and valuable skill and use it as leverage to change your working life. Environmental writer Bill McKibben started out his writing career with his college newspaper where he wasn’t immediately a great writer. But McKibben was tenacious and had a legendary work ethic. Over the years, he built up his writing skills and then applied it to a passion he had developed for the topic of the environment—ultimately writing the now-legendary book on climate change, The End of Nature. Conclusion: People who have an exceptional amount of skill, don’t necessarily start with inborn talent or a passion for that field.
  • “Deep work is like pullups—it’s easy to understand what it is, but it’s hard to do a lot of it without training.” How do you develop a rare and valuable skill? Start with deep work: focusing persistently and without distraction on a cognitively demanding and valuable task. Deep work is energy-intensive, and something you have to train, or even force, your mind to do. Newport suggests setting a goal for deep work sessions called an “artifact”— a core output you must achieve from the session that forces your deep work to challenge you.

Tony Schwartz

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Photo: MACKME.COM

Founder & CEO /// The Energy Project

Tony Schwartz began with the question, “How do we solve what feel like are impossible problems?” (e.g. world hunger, climate change, poverty). He believes that these big, nagging problems will never be solved by a single approach; instead, we must embrace a more holistic way of viewing the world and the creative process. On a practical level this means training ourselves to strategically switch between right-brain and left-brain thinking when problem solving. Here’s how:

  • We each stand on the shoulders of what’s come before us. If you don’t immerse yourself in the known (e.g. those who have come before), you can’t take advantage of all that a strong foundation gives you. Knowledge is power. Dive into the work of the forefathers of your industry — be they in graphic design, journalism, filmmaking, etc. — and build a foundation for your own thinking.
  • Frustration leads to incubation. When you can’t solve the problem, at some point you need to step away, rest, give up. There is a shift that occurs and you move from the analytical left hemisphere—from trying to think of a solution — to the state of subconcious processing that occurs when you stop seeking an answer. Then, all of a sudden — in nature, on a run, in the shower — the solution just seems to present itself. There’s great value in turning off the mind when you’re stuck and having faith that the answer will come of its own accord.
  • Value what is valuable in others. A productive workplace is not simply about getting people to expend more energy, it’s about balancing the expenditure of energy with the intermittent renewal of energy. Invest in people, free them, and inspire them so they bring more of themselves to work everyday. Use this foundation, this left/right brain switching, to meet people where they live instead of where you live.

Gretchen Rubin

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Photo: MACKME.COM

Author /// Happier at Home

Whether it’s going to the gym, making time for passion projects, or quitting your email addiction, we’re always trying to make and break new habits. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, explains that determination alone won’t get the job done — the key to success is having insight into your own nature before going after a goal. A few insights:

  • Making a habit = Following rules. Some personality types thrive when given rules, and some rebel against them. To successfully adapt our habits, we need to be aware of how we deal with rules we impose on ourselves (“inner rules”) and rules imposed on us by others (“outer rules”).
  • The Four Personality Types: The Upholder (great at adhering to inner rules and outer rules); The Questioner (good at inner rules, questions all outer rules); The Rebel (doesn’t like any rules, inner or outer); The Obliger (bad at sticking with inner rules, great at working with outer rules).
  •  “The better you know yourself, the better able you are to be happy.” If you’re a “questioner” who loves to experiment and ask tough questions, you’ll be miserable in a job meant for an “upholder” who loves routine and consistency. Make self-awareness central in your pursuit of your dream job.

Tina Seelig

Photo: Julian Mackler / MACKME.COM

Photo: MACKME.COM

Author /// inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity

For Tina Seelig, bringing ideas to life is all about reframing perspective. As executive director for the Standford Technology Ventures Program and author of inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity, she helps entrepreneurs challenge assumptions and use an “Innovation Engine” to reframe a problem and boost imagination. A few takeaways:

  • Be a quilt-maker, not a puzzle-builder. Too many of us approach a problem in a way that kills creativity—by putting the expected pieces where they’re supposed to go. Get innovative and use unexpected materials and techniques to forge a new solution.
  • Scientists have another name for failure: data. Expecting that your first stab at a big project will succeed is not only unrealistic, but a bit lazy. We should consider ourselves “tinkering scientists” on our quest to create, with each failure just another data point.
  • Your workspace should look like stage set for whatever you’re doing. As most of us remember from High School, an uninspired environment yields uninspired work. If your goal is creativity and inspiration, design your environment to match—colorful, open, and full of ways to “play.”

Heidi Grant Halvorson

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Photo: MACKME.COM

Associate Director /// Columbia University Motivation Science Center

Upon reading story after story about geniuses, prodigies, and other successful people, Heidi Grant Halvorson found herself noticing that people in the U.S. tend to attribute failure and success not to controllable factors such as work ethic, but rather to innate ability or talent. She walked attendees through a series of studies and experiments that show how powerful your perspective can be in pushing toward success. Here are a few tweaks you can make:

  • Do you have a “Be Good” mentality or a “Get Better” mentality? First, there is the “Be Good” mindset: trying to prove yourself and validate your skills to look better (or smarter) than those around you. Alternatively, a person with a “Get Better” mindset focuses on constant improvement — instead of focusing on perfection they focus on performing better than previous efforts, which gives them room to fail, learn, and grow. In study after study, Halvorson found that a Get Better mentality improved chances of success and happiness.
  • Don’t visualize success. Visualize the steps you will take to make success happen. When you encounter challenges with a Be Good mindset, anxiety and depression set in and start to affect performance. Your skills and your intelligence can feel compromised and/or threatened. When faced with similar challenges, a Get Better allows you to focus on improving or refining your efforts — as well as the external process — rather than feeling like your intrinsic skills or intelligence are at stake.
  • If you want your employees to thrive, tell them it’s O.K. to make mistakes.  When passing along feedback to your employees or just on a daily basis, compare their work and effort today to their work and effort yesterday — don’t make comparisons to others. This approach places employees in a “Get Better” mindset, which is more conducive to success.

More 2013 99U Conference Recaps:

Part One: Brené Brown, Cal Newport, Gretchen Rubin, & More
Part Two: A.J. Jacobs, Joe Gebbia, Charlie Todd, & More
Part Three: Ramit Sethi, Leah Busque, Jeff Sheng, & More
Part Four: Hosain Rahman, Josh Reich, Heather Payne, & More

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