Creative Inspiration Served Up at the 99U Conference

By Anthony Vengrove

Tony Schwartz, Author and Founder & CEO of The Energy Project

Tony Schwartz, Author and Founder & CEO of The Energy Project

One week ago today, I sat in the fourth row of New York City’s Alice Tully Hall eager to participate in my first 99U Conference.  The preceding weeks proved to be grueling and draining, so I entered the event feeling a bit burned out and ready for a jolt of inspiration.  A two-day conference focused on creativity was just the remedy and I am pleased to say 99u delivered both a fresh dose of inspiration and tangible advice I am already putting into practice.

This post highlights some of my favorites moments that struck a chord and caused me to reflect.  The Twitter feed from the event (#99uconf) is loaded with additional quotations, images, and sketch notes.  I urge you peruse it for further inspiration.

“The willingness to show up changes us.  It makes us a little braver each time.”

Author Brené Brown kicked-off the event with an inspiring talk about vulnerability; urging us “to show up and be seen.”  All too often, we fear our critics and talk ourselves out of “walking into the arena.”  Of course, the biggest critic is usually ourself and Ms. Brown provided her own candid experiences with dealing with her fears and naysayers.  Notably, she warned us to be wary of using the mental concepts of scarcity (hundreds of others have already done this idea) or comparison (I’m not nearly as good as others) to talk ourselves out of showing up and being vulnerable.

Our ego would have us think we are ‘protecting’ ourselves from harm by not taking risk.  This avoidance strategy might make us feel good in the short-term, but could lead to regrets about missed opportunities. “You don’t want to get to the end of your life and wonder what it would have been like if you showed up,” stated Ms. Brown towards the end of her talk.  It’s OK to feel vulnerable for that pushes us toward courage — and that is usually the territory in which we learn the most.

“Sometimes to make miracles happen, you just have to dive in.”

Similarly, author AJ Jacobs‘ talk on “The Power of Faking it” echoed similar themes.  His core thesis challenged the belief that thinking is the pathway to changing behavior.  Mr. Jacobs instead contends that it is our behavior that influences our thinking.  He encourages people to simply start taking action and allow our mind “to catch up.”  If you’re a writer, just start writing, for example.  Once action takes place, the mind becomes engaged in the behavior which leads to increased productivity and change.

We all face times in our personal and business lives where we’re not excited or thrilled to be doing what we need to do.  Rather than wallow in despair, embrace these moments as a chance to reframe your negative mind chatter into something productive.  “Even if you’re not optimistic, ask yourself, ‘What would an optimistic person do?’ and then do that,” said Jacobs.  I particularly like this advice for it essentially challenges us to utilize creative thinking to transform uninspiring moments into engaging experiences.

“Wisdom:  The ability to embrace paradox”

Tony Schwartz, Founder & CEO of The Energy Project

Tony Schwartz, Founder & CEO of The Energy Project

When it comes to left brain or right brain thinking, author Tony Schwartz claims we’re often forced to choose sides.  At Miles Finch Innovation, we discuss this tension regularly with our clients during our Idea Climate Equation® training.  Mr. Schwartz suggests we have the ability to embrace both sides of our brain and by doing so, we gain the advantage of “whole brain thinking.”  We describe this as Innovation Agility, whereby teams and organizations build a core competency of shifting between creative thinking (right brain) and logical thinking (left brain) to effectively create and execute ideas.

One consequence of whole brain thinking is that it will inevitably uncover paradoxes.  No worries, offers Mr. Schwartz, for there is a certain wisdom associated with embracing a paradox.  In fact, he referenced a great F. Scott Fitzgerald quote to support this concept:  “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind and still retain the ability to function.”

Any frustration fueled by the tension of paradox or left/right brain thinking ultimately fuels creativity and the search for new solutions.  If we heed Mr. Schwartz’s advice to “substitute certainty for curiosity” we help invite a consciousness that allows us to see more deeply and recognize new patterns and, ultimately, new ideas.

“A great idea is not an invention, it’s a discovery.”

Quote from Leah Busque, Founder & CEO of TaskRabbit

Quote from Leah Busque, Founder & CEO of TaskRabbit

Leah Busque, founder and CEO of TaskRabbit, shared this quote which I found to be a fresh description of ideas and creativity.  I think it’s fair to say that discovery can only happen if you’re out looking and exploring.  Creating the discipline to carve out time to do so is a challenge most of us face in our jobs.  The “commitment,” as described Ms. Busque, is the key takeaway — the commitment to a creative work ethic should be valued to the degree where it’s not easily sacrificed to reactionary or administrative work.

“Push your curiosity until it’s almost unbearable — that triggers imagination.”

For designer and creative advisor, Michael Wolff asking “why?” is critical to being able to deliver the highest quality work.  Asking “why” stretches the muscles of curiosity – muscles that must be used frequently in order to maintain their acuity.  Mr. Wolf contends that a commitment to curiosity leads to questioning which then leads to empathy.  With the arrival of empathy we possess both the rational and emotional knowledge to start creating “it can be like this instead” solutions.

Mr. Wolff also shared the importance of thoughtlessness confessing that many of his ideas come from a state where he has shut-off his mind and stopped thinking.  This has also been my experience — once the mind clears, it seems new ideas have the space to present themselves.

“Incubate for failure to learn where your boundaries are.”

Ben Shaffer, Studio Director at Nike

Ben Shaffer, Studio Director at Nike

Ben Shaffer runs the Innovation Kitchen at Nike and provided a nice addendum to the oft-used cliche, “embrace failure.”  He argues that failure not only provides lessons and learning but reveals where your boundaries are.

Boundaries are a funny thing.  You can either stay fenced in, or figure out a way to break through.  Most boundaries appear with the “we can’t do that” or “that’s impossible” responses to “what if” questions.  I find these to be critical places to pause and study, for they represent problems and opportunities that can lead game changing solutions.  Some may get frustrated with your persistance to understand the why’s surrounding the impossible.  Nike might simply call you an instigator.

“Start small and make it good.”

Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, Inventor & CEO of Sugru

Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, Inventor & CEO of Sugru

This brilliantly simple advice from inventor Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh is the quotation I keep repeating to myself post conference.  Her story of bringing Sugru to market is one filled with passion, tears, optimism, resilience and humbleness.  Her story was rewarded with a standing ovation.

“Making things happen is really f*@^in’ difficult,” she admitted candidly.  Her advice to address this challenge of execution?  “Start small and make it good.”  For her, it worked brilliantly.  Her initial small consumer base was highly enthusiastic and engaged which led to glowing blog posts and rampant sharing on social media.  The response and experience was so humbling, Ms. Ní Dhulchaointigh was only left to conclude that “people are awesome.”

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Quote from Cal Newport, author of "So Good They Can't Ignore You"

Quote from Cal Newport, author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”

In addition to getting inspired, I walked away from this wonderful conference committed to changing some bad habits.  The first one in my cross-hairs is managing email and social media requirements in a non-reactionary manner so I can devote my most productive hours to my deepest and most stimulating work.  The conference’s focus on idea execution was a friendly kick-in-the-rear that some of my ideas are simply taking too long to get into market.  It’s time to ramp-up, get focused and step in the arena.