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Insights from A.J. Jacobs, Joe Gebbia, Charlie Todd, & More at the 2013 99U Conference

Part two of our recap of the 2013 99U Conference.

More insights on making ideas happen from the 2013 edition of the 99U Conference, presented by GE.

Michael Wolff



Designer & Creative Advisor /// Michael Wolff and Company

Michael Wolff, the world-renowned designer and creative advisor who formerly co-founded Wolff Olins, sat down with 99U Editor-in-Chief Jocelyn Glei and Behance’s Chief of Design Matias Corea to share some insights from his incredible design career. Among the nuggets shared:

  • “Brands become successful because of how they make people feel.”  Wolff believes that people won’t remember what you did or what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.
  • “It’s really easy to pat yourself on the back.” One of the pitfalls of young designers is that they are easily satisfied. If you stay satisfied, Wolff warns, you may find yourself knowing a great deal about very little and very little about a great deal.
  • “People can see how you behave.” In a story from his youth, Wolff described the time when he realized everything about your behavior can be seen. He suggests that very few companies realize just how transparent their actions are to their customers.

A.J. Jacobs



Author /// Drop Dead Healthy

In an animated talk, New York Times bestselling author A.J. Jacobs discussed lessons learned while writing The Year of Living Biblically (his account of spending a year trying to follow every rule of the Bible as literally as possible). He shared advice on facing fears, the creative process, and the benefits of “faking it till you make it.” Other lessons learned from his year of being a guinea pig:

  • “Self-delusion is one of the greatest inventions in human history.” Our behavior greatly affects our thoughts and attitudes. If you are feeling a lack of confidence or have an urge to change something within yourself, you must “act your way into a new way of thinking,” rather than trying to think your way into a new way of acting.
  • How we carry and move our bodies affects our mood. Research shows that “walking the walk” is important. How we hold our bodies affects our minds and our confidence and our performance. For instance, if you stand up straight and walk with purposeful long strides, it will actually make you feel more assured and powerful.
  • “Sometimes to make miracles happen, you just have to dive in.” Embracing the act of walking in someone else’s shoes is the basis for all of Jacobs’ research. By treating yourself like a “human guinea pig,” you can actually change your outlook and mindset in the process.

Charlie Todd



Founder /// Improv Everywhere

Charlie Todd, the mastermind behind projects like No Pants Subway Ride and Seeing Eye People (though, “Those aren’t improv at all,” he admits), showed students at his master class how the tenets of improv can carry over to the creative process. The main lessons:

  • “Yes, and…” is the foundation of improv and something we should implement in everyday life. By agreeing with others’ suggestions and keeping the forward momentum going, you become a better collaborator and open up creative possibilities that wouldn’t otherwise be available.
  • “When you stall by asking questions and bickering, you halt the creative flow.” Students also learned how criticism and questions can break up the creative rhythm. Todd showed how, rather than questioning others, we benefit more from adding onto and expanding their statements — even if the ideas seem crazy. You never know where an idea can lead if you give it a chance.

Scott Belsky



Co-founder of Behance and VP of Community at Adobe

Scott Belsky opened with a bracing statement: “Most ideas never happen, and even the greatest ideas suffer horrible odds.” So how do some teams defy the odds and actually make their ideas happen? Belsky revealed the sweet spot – that it’s about more than creativity, great idea execution takes organization, community, and great leadership. A few key insights:

  • Have a culture of “capturing” at meetings. No one should ever leave a meeting without a list of “actionable tasks” to move a project forward. If there are no tasks to “capture” after a meeting, then the meeting probably shouldn’t have happened.
  • Find your beacons, then don’t look away. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of a project, but identify those “sacred extremes,” the two or three things at the heart of what you’re trying to accomplish, and look to them for guidance.
  • Silence the visionary; leaders should talk last. Naturally, a team will respect the opinions of their leaders, which can be a disservice to the team. In meetings, let the leader speak last to give the team a chance to voice their unbiased ideas.

Aaron Dignan



CEO /// Undercurrent

As the CEO of Undercurrent, a digital strategy firm that advises global brands like GE, American Express, and Ford, Dignan spends his days inventing new solutions that get used — and ladder up to a larger plan. Some takeaways he shared:

  • Mission comes before strategy. How do you want to make a dent in the universe? Once you can answer this bold question, you’re ready to start strategizing.
  • The landscape for what is possible has changed, and the speed at which things happens is faster than ever. With that in mind, we can no longer react. Instead, we have to anticipate how others will react.
  • The four pillars for a great digital strategy are: people (who’s your team?), process (how will you make decisions?), product (what will you create?), and platform (how will others build upon it?).

Joe Gebbia



Co-founder & Chief Product Officer /// Airbnb

As the co-founder and chief product officer at Airbnb, Gebbia let us in on the history of the company and how his vision came to be what it is today. Leading the audience through an interactive exercise, Gebbia asked attendees to visualize their goals by storyboarding. Some highlights:

  • “Go meet people. It’s okay to do things that don’t scale.” If you are faced with a problem, you don’t always have to solve it in a “scalable” way. When Airbnb was struggling in its early days, actually going out and spending time one-on-one with customers was a game changer. It wasn’t scalable over the long term, but it made all the difference in the short term.
  • “Storyboards show you things that words can’t, and they help bridge words to experience.” Airbnb created a common vision for its staff by storyboarding the entire customer flow and experience and putting those storyboards on display in their San Francisco offices. Visualizing where you are and where you want to be, through sketches, is an extremely powerful tool for setting your goals and staying on track.
  • Take the next step. Gebbia encouraged the 99U audience to write down an idea and aspiration of their own, and using a storyboard, envision and draw that snapshot moment where the idea enters the world. Everyone was left with the question, “What is one thing you can do next to forward your idea?”

More 2013 99U Conference Recaps:

Part One: Brené Brown, Cal Newport, Gretchen Rubin, & More
Part Two: A.J. Jacobs, Joe Gebbia, Charlie Todd, & More
Part Three: Ramit Sethi, Leah Busque, Jeff Sheng, & More
Part Four: Hosain Rahman, Josh Reich, Heather Payne, & More

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