‘A picture of a samurai sword’

“Ambition requires a war against hesitation” Scott Belsky

Last week I attended the 7th annual 99U conference hosted by Behance at the Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. 99U aims to shift focus from idea generation to idea execution. Scott Belsky, Behance and 99U Founder, refers to Thomas Alva Edison as the “patron saint” of 99U and the spirit of 99U is embodied in the famous Edison quote, “Genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration.” In other words: ideas are easy, execution is the hard part. In Scott Belsky’s 2010 book Making Ideas Happen, he argues that in addition to new ideas, creative people need to be sure to focus on the 99%; the hard work.

During his opening remarks, Scott challenged the attendees to seek three key insights that we felt would would help us and our teams make ideas happen. He announced that if he had an opportunity to speak to us at the after party at MoMA on Friday night, that he would be sure to inquire. As I sit here and review my notes from the conference, here are my three take-aways.

1. Leverage Discomfort

“Just because you’re not a bad guy doesn’t mean you get to be a good guy.” Kelly Sue DeConnick, Comic Book Writer

Make yourself uncomfortable

Christoph Niemann is an illustrator, artist, and author whose work has appeared in publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Wired. Chistoph made the case for making yourself uncomfortable because if you’re not working really hard, you’re probably not doing great work. He used the example of an athlete in training; if the training is too easy the athlete is not improving. Similarly, if you become complacent in your work you are not training yourself to be better. You should be scared of this happening. He encouraged the crowd to be their own harshest critic and to absolutely ignore advice to the contrary. You should “worry, doubt, and agonize,” he said. The work should be hard; sometimes it should be uncomfortable.

Make other people uncomfortable

Kelly Sue DeConnick, renowned comic book writer known best for her work on Bitch Planet and Captain Marvel was asked to speak on the topic of “Changing the World” - a topic which she admitted to being very intimidated by. She didn’t feel qualified to tell us how to go about changing the world. If she could change the world through comic books, she explained, many of the world’s problems would already be solved and she would gladly explain how she had done it. Instead, she offered to share something she did feel qualified to talk about: making people uncomfortable. Kelly Sue shared the following five tips for making other people uncomfortable. First, lead with your heart. Take action with courage and always seek Truth (with a capital ‘T’). Second, find your people. People who are able to be vulnerable together can also push each other to be uncomfortable and grow. Third, foster community. When people started to get the Nonconformist Tattoo found in Bitch Planet, Kelly Sue realized that people weren’t getting tattoos to celebrate something in Bitch Planet; they were getting tattoos because Bitch Planet celebrated something in them. Fourth, listen. It is our job as creatives to “transcend ourselves” and really listening to and reflecting what people are actually saying can be unsettling. Finally, seek to be uncomfortable yourself. Doing the right thing is not a passive act and it’s often uncomfortable.

Make society uncomfortable

Paola Antonelli is a Senior Curator at MoMA. She was one of the best presenters I have ever seen. Paola focused on a handful of controversial exhibits presented over the last 100 years

  • ones that had sparked heated debate and harsh reviews by critics. Many of the examples she cited went on to define aspects of modern art as we understand it today even though they initially made the public very uncomfortable. Her closing example was a challenging conversation going on right now about Design & Violence. Does the 3D printed gun belong in MoMA? Can we celebrate the design of shooting range targets? What is the artistic value of a device designed for torture? Design is not always done for good. It is important to let discomfort push our cultural ideas and ideals so that we can all move forward.

2. Consider your privilege

“There’s no line item called ‘give a damn’ but it’s the most valuable thing an agency can offer you.” Dave Scott via Casey Gerald

Who builds our apps?

Anil Dash started the sessions off on Friday morning with a wonderful wakeup call: features affect culture. What we build can have a profound effect on how people interact with and experience the world. But who is building these apps? When you buy a record, a tape, or a CD, you often get liner notes that tell you every person that was involved in making that recording. The same is true with movie credits - down to every assistant. But when you install an app, you rarely know who the actual people were who helped create it. Yet like music, movies, and books, apps have the ability to make meaningful impacts on culture. As we are designing and developing apps and other digital products, we have a unique privilege and it’s important that we consider the possible cultural impact of what we are building. Additionally, those of us making digital products are fortunate to have this opportunity; we need to make sure we’re affording the same opportunity to others. Perhaps the more important question isn’t who is building our apps but instead, who isn’t?

Own up to your biases

Kimberly Bryant is the Founder and Executive Director of black girls CODE - a Bay area non-profit organization that is dedicated to increasing the number of women of color who are participating in the digital space. Kimberly started her presentation by relaying a story that revealed her own bias and then went on to cite multiple studies focusing on the pervasiveness of unconscious biases present in all of us. While we may not be able to eradicate or eliminate biases, acknowledging them can be an important first step in making the decision to act differently. The tech industry in facing a diversity crisis and being honest about A) the existence of this crisis and B) that we all play a role in the problem is at the very least a place to start. But we need to do more. Substantial is embarking on internal initiatives to reflect on ourselves and the role we play the diversity problem and to explore ways that we can be part of the solution. We all need to be doing our part to combat biases. We should aim to improve ourselves, our industry, and our society. We need to be honest and we need to take action.

Purpose is the new bottom line

Casey Gerald closed the conference out with a inspiring presentation and an earnest call for action. An MBA graduate of Harvard Business School, rather than going to Wall Street he founded MBAs Across America with the mission of using his education to help entrepreneurs all over the country build businesses that matter to themselves and their communities. He told of one of his HBS professors, Rebecca Henderson who explained the difference between Doing Well and Doing Good. At the intersection of Doing Well and Doing Good you have Improvements: these may be things that are good for business but are also good for society. The next level away from Doing Well and toward Doing Good is Innovation: a bet on the future and the belief that you can make that future better. The third level is Social Awakening: when the world wakes up to the fact that it needs to change. Casey Gerald made a very eloquent case for what Gerald calls The New Playbook for Change. 1. The Hierarchy is Dead, 2. We’re all entrepreneurs now, 3. Purpose is the new bottom line.

Casey Gerald made waves last year when he gave the HBS Class Day speech. It’s worth watching.

3. Broaden your understanding of constraints

”Design is the art of gradually applying constraints until only one solution remains.” (unknown via Stewart Butterfield, Founder/CEO Slack)

Outcomes over Outputs

Wil Reynolds, Founder of Seer Interactive, started this years conference off on the topic of Fueling Collaboration and Innovation. One thing Wil said that resonated with me was to focus on the difference between outcomes and outputs. We have recently started to use OKR at Substantial and are attempting to align ourselves around the idea of key results (outcomes) that are distinctly different from completing tasks (outputs). When talking about making ideas happen, it’s important to keep in mind what you hope to achieve beyond what you can simply complete. Wil talked about his wife who runs a non-profit organization that helps provide clean drinking water to a small rural community in Nicaragua. He told the story of how his wife’s group had helped the community build a clean water system but the system was an output. The outcome would be better health in the community or children spending more time in school rather than helping their families find clean water. Outputs can certainly be important but they should be in service of Outcomes. What is your idea ultimately trying to achieve?

Getting Things Done means Giving Things Up

There are probably a million time management books, blogs, systems, and applications out there. Teaching people time management is a cottage industry but at the end of the day every person needs to come up with a system that works for them. One thing that is often overlooked when we’re talking about managing your time and “getting more done” is that you have to “give more up.” Rather than simply trying to “manage” his time, Wil Reynolds carefully collected data about where he was spending his time. Eventually, he was able to identify key insights into what he needed to give up in order to A) do something new or B) dedicate more time to doing something better. Wil took this to the extreme and stepped down from running his own business so that he could spend more time on what he loved and was really good at. In exchange for replacing himself, he got a leader who has helped evolve the business much better than he feels he could have done and he spends more time on things that he is really passionate about. More business leaders should consider this; could your company be better if you weren’t in charge? Another insight I thought was helpful was how he broke the Edison genius quote down: instead of 99% perspiration, Wil said it’s 5% preparation, 5% delegation, and 89% perspiration. Sometimes planning and sharing the load is a large part of the battle.

Have a process…that includes an anti-process

One of the things that many successful creatives are often asked is to describe their process. How do you do your work!? There are coffee table books, collections of essays, websites and documentaries on this topic. But the key is, you have to have a process that constrains you and is designed to help you produce new work. The act of creating a process for yourself is constraining. It requires discipline and hard work. You need to practice and do the work in order to ever hope to produce anything. But not only do you need a process that allows you to create new things but you also need to insure that your process allows you to be open to new ideas. Make time and space in your process to explore new things and be open to where they take you. Christoph Niemann adopted the idea of 20% time to explore things outside of his normal work to insure that he is always pushing himself to make new things in new ways. He views this as an insurance policy against getting stagnant and stale. Christoph, an illustrator, decided to teach himself to program not really sure what he would use these skills for. Eventually, the knowledge he gained by experimenting with programming led to the creation of Petting Zoo, a whimsical game for iOS and Android. While he didn’t do all of the programming himself, the experience of learning to program helped him come up with the idea for the game and an appreciation of the work that was required to make it.

If you want to change the world…

“If you want to change the world…stop trying to change the world. Fix something broken. Make something. Make something better. Make something beautiful…” Franklin Leonard Founder/CEO, Black List

I think all of the speakers at this year’s conference tasked with addressing the topic of Changing the World were intimidated by the magnitude of the challenge. They had no easy answers and wrestled with their own humility, competence, and general uncertainty for how to move forward. They each pointed to challenges we are facing in the world today and invited us to hold a mirror up to ourselves and reflect on what we can do to fix things that are broken. They shined lights on big problems but they also shined light on hope for creating a better tomorrow. I don’t know if 99U set out the change the world but they have certainly succeeded to making something, making something better, and making something beautiful. It was a thought provoking and exciting two days and I hope I have a chance to go back someday. I met wonderful people from around the world and left inspired to get to doing the hard work of making ideas happen.