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Creative Blocks

Tap Into Your Creative Genius: 99U Conference Recap 5

Getting rejected, embracing conflict, and facing the looming doubt that your work isn’t “good enough” can all lead to more creative thinking.


Creativity is not just an opportunity, it’s a responsibility that each of us has as entrepreneurs and creators. To tap into it, we must deeply analyze our creative process, and nothing should be off the table.

How can moving past rejection, embracing conflict, and facing the looming doubt that your work isn’t “good enough” lead to more creative thinking? Paola Antonelli, Rochelle King, and Christoph Niemann shared their unique answers.

Paola Antonelli. Photo by Mackler Studios.

Paola Antonelli. Photo by Mackler Studios.

Paola Antonelli

Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, Director of R&D at MoMA

For more than 21 years, Paola Antonelli has been a curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Her career has been devoted to curating provocative exhibits that spark new ways of thinking. Doing that, Antonelli explained, requires a unique perspective on breaking canon and handling rejection.

  • Don’t be afraid to shock (and sometimes fail). “Before one can break the canon, one must make a few people mad,” Antonelli advised. The greatest ideas are often the ones that cause some level of debate, because those are the ideas that get people thinking. For Antonelli, this means using her role as curator to do more than “putting together cute chairs and arranging them.” As she explained, “Museums can be weapons to help people understand how to be better citizens, but only if we’re allowed to do exhibitions that shock and sometimes fail.”
  • Use rejection as a signal. “Sometimes you let them be, other times you don’t accept the rejection,” declared Antonelli. By evaluating the source of a rejection and determining whether to push past it or not, you’ll often end up in surprising places. For Antonelli, one rejected exhibit idea led to exploring the manifestation of violence in contemporary society. After a year and a half of publishing on a WordPress blog she set up for Design and Violence independently, MoMA saw the success the project could have and incorporated it into the official MoMA.org site. Now, a book is on the way. Nobody could have envisioned where the project would go, but Antonelli knew she had to try.
  • Look outside the digital world. “The convergence of the digital and physical is inspiring,” Antonelli said. What makes the convergence such a worthwhile place to look for creativity is because it’s changing the way we think about common principles. “Form doesn’t follow function anymore,” Antonelli explained, “Because when you take something, like an iPhone, until you turn it on you don’t know what the function will be.”
Rochelle King. Photo by Mackler Studios.

Rochelle King. Photo by Mackler Studios.

Rochelle King

Global VP of Design and User Experience at Spotify

As Global VP of Design at Spotify, King has learned how to become comfortable with conflict in order to move good ideas forward and effectively manage her team. While conflict can be distressful, it’s something we should learn to master if we’re to do our best work.

  • Use conflict as an opportunity. “If you think about it, some of the richest conversations we have are the ones where there are really divergent perspectives,” King began. Those divergent perspectives can make us feel uncomfortable, but they also help push us to grow our ideas. “Conflict helps facilitate and encourage a better conversation,” she explained. It does this by widening our perspective and helping us see ideas or issues we may not have otherwise been able to see, but only if we approach conflict with the clear intent of learning something from it.
  • Define expectations before debating. “This isn’t about disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing,” said King, “Conflict is exhausting.” Any debate—friendly or not—can leave all parties involved feeling metaphorically cut and bruised. Before starting any debate, ask yourself if the debate is really about something that will have a clear impact. King also explains how it’s important to ensure your team is aligned before moving forward. To tackle both of these points, King stated, “Have clear success metrics at the beginning.”
  • Build relationships with your workplace enemy. “There’s someone at work you constantly butt heads with because you disagree on every single point,” King said, “Seek out that person to critique your ideas.” The idea of actively seeking out your workplace “enemy” doesn’t sound like fun, but by getting feedback from them on your ideas you expose yourself to exactly the type of feedback you need in order to solidify (or throw out) the idea. To make this work, King recommends being upfront about it; “Say, ‘You and I always disagree, and that’s why I want to run this idea by you.’”
Christoph Niemann. Photo by Mackler Studios.

Christoph Niemann. Photo by Mackler Studios.

Christoph Niemann

Illustrator, Artist, and Author

There are three primary fears creatives, like artist Christoph Niemann, face: the fear of not being good enough, the fear that our work will be irrelevant, and the fear of running out of ideas. Riemann explains how these fears are very real, but that there are solutions we can apply to each:

  • When you feel inadequate, focus on practice. “It takes exactly 10,000 hours,” Niemann stated. “If I think my work isn’t up to it, I have to sit down and practice. It’s like guitar, piano, or tennis. Over the years, I will become better.” He clarifies that practice can only get you so far, however. “Through sheer craft you can create extremely good work. For great work, you still need the craft, but you also need a lot of luck.” The only way to encounter luck, Niemann explained, is to be at your desk doing the work when it strikes.
  • Create a safety zone for your work. Niemann believes we should look to create buffer, or “safety zones,” in our lives where we can temporarily step away from worries (like paying rent) in order to focus. “How can you focus on your work when you actually have to be worried about money?” he asked. For Niemann this means creating a six-month buffer of finances in his bank account, which frees him up to focus on the work, which in return allows him to make more money.
  • Give yourself creative life insurance. What’s creative life insurance? It’s the work we do in the form of play, the work that doesn’t need a “Like” or dollar sign to matter. “Give yourself time to step away and play,” Niemann advised. An example of “creative life insurance” is Niemann’s “Sunday Sketches” series, where he regularly sits down to look at a physical object and simply see what his mind can do with it on paper. In his own words: “It’s not about the ‘Aha’ moment—that’s overrated. It’s small steps. Very slowly you get to something that will work, or be decent.”


We’ll be publishing more insights from #99conf over the coming days. Stay tuned!

More 2015 Conference Recaps:

Part One: How to Fuel Collaboration & Innovation
Part Two: Rewiring Your Mindset & Avoiding Burnout
Part Three: Self-Awareness is Key
Part Four: How to Build a Business

Part Five: Tap Into Your Creative Genius
Part Six: How to Change the World

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