Last week we brought together 400+ leading creatives and 18 visionary speakers in New York City for the fourth annual 99U Conference, presented by GE. For two days we devoted our full attention to exploring the inner-workings of idea execution. The attendees came with a laser-like focus on taking action on big, bold creative projects, and the energy in the crowd was absolutely electric.As a production team, we challenged ourselves to take everything up a notch – curating a killer studio session lineup, adding still more incredible speakers, expanding our branded conference materials, and even including a TinType photobooth.So what did we learn? Below, we give you the full monty on making ideas happen with an exhaustive recap of the insights shared by our 2012 99U speakers.
Berlin-based designer & illustrator Rilla Alexander opened the conference with an all-too-familiar question: “Which idea is the right one to focus on?” While showcasing illustrations from her all-ages book Her Idea, we followed one idea on its winding journey to completion, with all the procrastinations, about-faces, and false-starts along the way.
- “Without the doing, the dreaming is useless.” Most creative professionals are dreamers. Sure, a tendency to be struck with ideas and inspiration means you’re in the right field, but it takes discipline to persevere past the “dreaming stage” and start chipping away at really making it happen.
- There will always be another idea that looks better than the one you’re working on. Rilla reframes “the grass is always greener” trope through a creative lense: Don’t abandon your idea just because another one strikes you. Be aware of the temptation to change direction and give your idea a fighting chance to succeed first.
- Don’t let your high expectations hold you back. Rilla says, “Even something that fails to meet my expectations would be better than nothing.” Sometimes, we let our fear of not living up to our own high standards prevent us from even beginning. Her advice? Just start. You can always iterate later.
In a fascinating talk, bestselling author Jonah Lehrer argued that “the science of creativity can make us just a little more creative.” He went on to unpack the research behind creative insights – those mysterious, magical moments when everything aligns – as well as the mysterious ingredient that drives great creative achievements.
- “The answer will only arrive after we stop looking for it.” It turns out that scientists can actually predict when you’re most likely to have an epiphany. In fact, being relaxed and not thinking about the problem you’d like to solve ups your chances of having that “aha!” moment. Ergo, the most productive thing we can do when we’re stuck is: Forget all about work. Force yourself to waste time – take a walk, a shower, a day off – and you just may find what you’ve been searching for.
- “When in doubt, imitate the city.” Cities are immortal, but companies die. Why? Lehrer says that cities are inherently productive: “When we cram ourselves together, we have more ideas. The serendipity of the city keeps it alive.” Companies tend to micro-manage, stifling the very productivity they’re trying to engineer. Inject some spontaneity and chance into your work life to reach new levels of creativity.
Grit, the stubborn refusal to quit, is the single best predictor of success. There’s one feature that sets highly successful creative people apart from the rest of the pack. Single-minded dedication and the resolve to push through in spite of all obstacles – aka “grit” – is what drives great achievements. In other words, how you react to the inevitable failures along the way will be an important indicator of the end game.
Keith Yamashita is one of the masterminds behind SYPartners, a creative firm that has helped brands from Apple to IBM to Starbucks define their futures and reinvent themselves. Drawing on decades of experience with creative teams, Yamashita outlined a handful of the habits that lead to incredible collaborative performances.
- Creative greatness is the result of an ensemble. We often think of creativity as happening in isolation, but this is rarely the case. Navigating your dual role as a soloist and a member of the ensemble will help drive your dream to its full potential.
- Find your unique superpower. When teams are at their best, every person serves a unique and essential role that plays to their individual strengths. SYPartners developed a deck of “superpower cards” to help attendees identify their superpower, which could be anything from Grit to Peace-Making to Energy.
- Create an environment where people can be their best selves. Respect what each teammate’s “superpower” is, and give them every chance to use it by calling on them in specific situations that demand their expertise. “Great teams don’t come about through chance – they cultivate a set of positive habits that lead to greatness.”
—TERESA AMABILE /// Professor, Harvard Business School
Harvard Business School professor and researcher Teresa Amabile studies our “inner work life” – the emotions, perceptions and motivations we experience at work. Based on a study she conducted collecting over 12,000 daily diary entries from over 200 professionals, Amabile shared some key takeaways about how to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work.
- Keep a work diary because you’re busy. Being busy and overwhelmed means it’s even more important for you to be able to take a step back and reflect. In the whirlwind of professional life, things get lost in the shuffle that can be rediscovered only through the daily ritual of keeping a diary. Find your own favorite medium – whether it’s a moleskine, an online app, or a sketchbook – and make a habit of it.
- Celebrate your small wins. When you’re bogged down by seemingly never-ending projects or ongoing daily tasks, it can be tough to find perspective. By recording what you do on the daily, you can recognize and celebrate your small wins. According to Amabile, incremental progress is the single most powerful motivator in the workplace.
- We’re most productive when we’re doing meaningful work. It’s important to recognize what aspects of our work reward us the most. Reading through your diary entries can help you learn which projects and tasks you’re most passionate about. Then you’re empowered to redistribute (or phase out) those tasks that don’t resonate with you, and bring the most meaningful ones to the forefront.
Alexis Ohanian is no stranger to starting websites, but heed his warning: “you’re competing with a lot of cute cat photos.” Co-founder of social news site Reddit, along with BreadPig and Hipmunk, Ohanian is out to “make the world suck less.” In an age when “the best minds of [our generation] are thinking about how to make people click ads,”* Ohanion had some refreshing advice on how to make websites that people will truly love.
- “The quality of your UX shows how much you respect or disrespect your customers.” Perhaps the most shared quote of the week, this gem really resonated with the web-obsessed 99U audience. An online experience should be all about the people who use it, and it’s glaringly obvious when this isn’t the case. Reddit’s UX takes “customer respect” to an extreme, as the very order of the content is defined by users voting topics up or down.
- You need to earn every single user who visits your site. As its creator, the success or failure of a site is all on you – take nothing for granted. If users aren’t flocking to sign up, blame it on yourself. Then, take a hard look at how you can make it better, and make the necessary changes.
- Give a damn. Have doubts, change directions, get discouraged, but don’t ever half-ass anything. The personality, passion and intentions of a site’s creator are evident in every corner of the site – your users will know if you didn’t give it your all (and call you out on it).
From the Grand Central Station Freeze project to the No Pants Subway Ride, Charlie Todd has been rallying people to perform incredible improv stunts for over a decade. We asked him to join us for a master class at 99U to share insights on how the techniques of improv comedy can help us in our creative and work lives.
- Always say “Yes, and…” This is the most basic rule of improv comedy: The idea that you must accept whatever your comedy partners say and run with it. If you stop to analyze or criticize, you’re dead in the water. It may sound easy, but the open-ness required to always respond with a “yes, and” attitude takes some serious effort as Charlie’s students rapidly learned.
- “Be positive, be real, and act confidently what you are.” The tenets that underpin improv comedy and great creative feats have a lot in common. To start, they both demand that you embrace risk, put yourself out there, and take action – again and again and again. Shyness and negativity hold us back, while confidence and positivity can unlock the doors to incredible achievements.