My top five-takeaways from the 99U Conference

By Justine Clay

Last week, the sixth 99U conference took place in NYC.  Two days (and three nights) were dedicated to helping creative professionals ‘shift the focus from idea generation to idea execution’. The location (Alice Tully Hal) and events (the after party was held at the MOMA) were just as inspiring as the speakers.  All in all, the event was thoughtfully curated, perfectly executed (just as well, given their mission!) and a real shot in the arm.

Ideas are the easy part. It’s making them happen that counts. So what does it take to make ideas happen? Each speaker had a different perspective, but I discerned five over-arching themes:

  1. Differentiating your talent
  2. Being true to yourself and sharing your values
  3. Building a strong network
  4. Collaborating with the right people and optimizing your process
  5. Managing your mindset

Oliver Burkeman (author)
For me, this was one of the most entertaining and enlightening of the talks. As a self-confessed proponent of positive thinking, I found Burkeman’s rejection of the ‘the cult of optimism’ oddly validating and refreshing.  He believes that our fixation on goal setting and reaching an end point can be a barrier to our happiness and success and that we would all benefit from loosening our grip on those goals.  All too often we state a big goal and then invest everything in achieving it.  But what about when questions or uncertainty arises?  Studies show that that it’s human nature for us to commit further to that goal, even if the outcome is detrimental.  The greater the uncertainties, the more likely we are to invest in our strategy.

So what do successful entrepreneurs do differently?  They don’t have a clear idea of where they’re headed, instead they adapt and change course at any moment. For them, deviations are the norm.

Take-away: We need to learn how to thrive in and on uncertainty.  “Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers’ Erich Fromm

I’ve added Oliver’s book, The Antidote Happiness Positive Thinking to my ever-growing book list.

Jason Fried (founder of Basecamp) 
I loved Jason Fried’s book ‘Rework’ (which he co-authored with David Heinemeier Hansson), so I was excited to learn more about him and his work-style.  What came across so clearly was his commitment to creating an excellent product, fostering a great culture and never leaving a customer hanging.  Oh, and that he really likes old things!  On May 6th he’s launching an on-line magazine called dedicated to businesses that have been around for 25 years or more.  

“Longevity is something that needs to be celebrated more. I’m awestruck when I walk into a dry cleaner that’s been around for 60 years”. There’s something beautiful about the simplicity of being of use”

Take-away: if you’re looking for a job, apply for one at Basecamp.  Their philosophy is to invest in the lives of their employees today, not later, so they send their employees on amazing vacations and will even pitch in on hobbies such as flying lessons. 

Scott Belsky (co-creator of Behance)
“What are the forces that make ideas happen”?  Belsky decided that the best way to find out would be to interview companies and people who made things happen and learn their best practices.  Here’s what he learned:

  • Creativity + organization = impact
  • When dreamers and doers share ideas liberally it creates accountability
  • Competition is often the impetus to act 
  • Conflict within creative teams helps them fight their way to breakthroughs 
  • Don’t give in to consensus – pick one or two things you won’t move on and compromise on the rest

Take-away: Organization is a competitive advantage in the creative world.  Organize with a bias to action.

Seth Godin
Instead of doing a talk, this section was a Q&A from the audience.  I was not prepared with a question and kicked myself once in the auditorium and a second time in the lobby when I saw only 2 people lining up to speak with him.

Take-away: Always, always, always be prepared with a really great question.  

Joshua Klein (hacker, author)
Joshua is currently working on a project about the future of networking and shared his thoughts on why our network is the most valuable thing that we have. 

Joshua illustrated his point by sharing a story about a great idea that he’d been working on for a networking platform.  He’d got the project a certain point, but without the significant resources and talent he needed to make his idea happen, he wasn’t able to get it off the ground.  That is, until he started “blabbing to anyone that would listen” about his idea.  Miraculously, people within his network who possessed the front-end design, legal and back-end skills that he needed offered their services for free!  

Take-away: “if you invest in your network, your network will invest in you”

His new book ‘Reputation Ecomonics‘ is also on my book list.


Sarah Lewis (author and cultural historian)
Sarah’s interest in the role failure plays in the creative process led her to interviewe 150 artists, inventors and explorers to understand why mistakes, surrender and stuck-ness are essential parts of the creative process. 

She found that successful artists shared the following traits:

  • They had the ability to believe in something before it happened
  • They protected their inner domain 
  • They understood that putting something into the world required a temporary removal from it (apparently Maya Angelou used to take herself off to a hotel room with a bottle of sherry!)

Take-away: “We need to honor our inner domain as much as networking and putting it out here”

Of course, I’ve barely scratched the surface, but I hope I’ve given you a little window into the event.  What struck me the most was how genuine and down-to-earth all of the speakers were.  They inspired me, not only with their creative vision, but their commitment to creating healthy cultures, making products with meaning and doing the right thing by their customers.  

Did you attend the conference? Do you have other creative conferences that you enjoy? Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

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