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99U Conference 2011: Key Insights on Idea Execution

How failures can be made into heroes, why you don't always need to know what you're doing, and how we can push through the "OK plateau."

Just over a week ago, 400 creative professionals from around the world packed the Times Center in New York City for the third annual 99U Conference, presented by GE. With tickets sold out over five months in advance, anticipation was high, and the audience arrived buzzing with energy – ready for a deep dive into the mechanics of making ideas happen. Lucky for us, with an expanded lineup of 14 speakers and 3 master classes, we had an incredible group on hand to deliver actionable insights.

Making ideas happen is a unique process for everyone – and the speakers tackled the topic from a variety of fascinating angles. Here’s a recap of the wisdom shared at the 2011 99U Conference.


Aaron Dignan onstage at the 99U Conference.

AARON DIGNAN /// Author, Game Frame

Game Frame author Aaron Dignan is out to help apply “the power of play” and the excitement of games to other, less stimulating places – namely, school and work. It’s no secret that kids and adults alike are much more engaged when playing video games than they are when they’re doing humdrum daily tasks. So how can game dynamics be applied to our everyday lives and creative endeavors?

  • “Most people are bored.”

    If you’re one of them, you’re not feeling anything unusual. Whereas games set out a clear path and put tasks and challenges in your way, real life can be vague, and it certainly isn’t guaranteed to be satisfying.

  • To be interested in something, you have to get challenge and skills in balance.
  • If these two are off-kilter, you’ll either end up bored, or too anxious to enjoy yourself.
  • All great experiences that engage us have an element of uncertainty at their core.

    Think about the last project that you were really excited about – chances are, it didn’t have a clear outcome, but had some structure in place.

  • Anything can be transformed into a game…

    if the activity can be learned, the player’s performance measured, the feedback delivered. These rules apply to everything – even email can be turned into a game!

Andrew Zuckerman onstage at the 99U Conference.

ANDREW ZUCKERMAN /// Photographer & Filmmaker

New York based-photographer and filmmaker Andrew Zuckerman took the stage and offered his learnings from his famous WISDOM Project. With the support of archbishop Desmond Tutu, Zuckerman traveled the world to take portraits of and interview extraordinary individuals over the age of 65, including Nelson Mandela, Chuck Close, Judi Dench, and Bill Withers. Zuckerman spoke to a rapt audience about rigor, honesty, and how we’re never done learning.

  • “What gets projects done for me is not inspiration. It’s curiosity and rigor.”

    Being interested and inspired is never going to be enough to propel a project to completion. Being thorough and exhaustive isn’t the most glamorous part of a project, but it’s necessary.

  • “You don’t need to know what you’re doing. The most important thing is to be honest.”

    Though Zuckerman is now one of the most highly regarded portrait artists, he remembered one of his first portraits, saying ‘I’ve never done this before, so just bear with me while I learn how it all works.’

  • It’s the aptitude for hard work that separates the ones who reach a different level of stardom.

    Zuckerman travels the globe, spending days transporting heavy equipment for an end result of as little as 30 minutes of shooting. “It’s about getting to the place where we can make our stuff.” For all of us, getting to “that place” will require hard work.

  • “You can’t get to wonderful without passing through alright.”

    Zuckerman cited this Bill Withers quote as one his learnings from WISDOM. Though this seems like common sense, being too hard on ourselves, or lacking patience while we learn is a common downfall. Cut yourself some slack, hunker down, and in time, you’ll get to wonderful.

Beth Comstock & Scott Belsky onstage at the 99U Conference. Image: Julian Mackler / MACKME.COM

BETH COMSTOCK /// SVP & Chief Marketing Officer, GE

As GE‘s Chief Marketing Officer and SVP, Beth Comstock navigates the challenging position of operating within a large, 130-year-old corporation, while working to encourage the kind of innovation and risk-taking that’s more common in start-ups. In conversation with Behance CEO Scott Belsky, Comstock spoke candidly, sharing valuable insights from her experiences at GE.

  • Being “great at failing” is something to strive for.

    Even the model innovators at GE admit that “it’s really hard to fail.” Comstock advises us to be resilient and nimble in dealing with failures and iterating after each one one.

  • “The more passionate that someone is about something, the more you have to listen to them.”

    Genuine passion commands attention,  no matter how unusual the idea.

  • “Make heros out of the failures. Pay attention to the learnings.”

    Re-framing key failures as “discoveries” will help foster an environment of risk-taking.

  • “Design is all about usability.”

    It’s not about the product, it’s about “designing your way to solve problems.” How people interact with your product is as important as the product’s qualities itself.


Jared Cohen onstage at the 99U Conference.

JARED COHEN /// Director, Google Ideas

Jared Cohen, a former State Department employee, is the director of Google Ideas, loosely framed as Google’s “think/do tank.” Interested in the causes of radicalization, Cohen has traveled extensively in the Middle East and South America, at times interviewing terrorists, to help “foster an intellectual collision” surrounding radicalization.
 He brought his expertise to The 99U to help us understand how technology impacts youth identity, and how pursuing controversial ideas can work in our favor.

  • “Technology is part of every problem, and every solution.”

    From recruiting members to extremists groups, to fueling pro-democracy movements, technology’s impact is widespread and never one-sided.

  • “Radicalization is much less of an ideological issue, and more of a youth issue.”

    With more than 50% of the world’s population under the age of 30, many young people around the world are at risk for extremist recruitment. They “dance in an out of different identities,” and extremism gives alienated youth a support group/identity.

  • “If you’re not creating waves, then you’re not pushing enough.”

    Cohen urges us to “be controversial.” Pursuing ideas with obvious conclusions won’t create the change we need to see in the world.

  • Be the most excited about everything you do.

    Cohen is proof of the incredible achievements one can reach at a young age by having a targeted attention and “owning” your passion, honing in on it no matter how unconventional it may be.


Joshua Foer onstage at the 99U Conference.

JOSHUA FOER /// Author, Moonwalking with Einstein

Writer Joshua Foer, whose new book Moonwalking with Einstein just came out, is resurrecting the forgotten art of remembering. In an age where our devices do the remembering for us, Foer urges us to tap into these neglected abilities. By studying ourselves and getting past mental barriers of what are limits are, we can achieve anything.

  • “The ‘Ok Plateau’ is the point when we turn on autopilot and stop getting better at a certain thing.”

    It is possible to continue to improve at most tasks, but not if we expect it to happen automatically. Always be engaged in what you’re doing, and push yourself to improve.

  • Experts treat what they do like a science.

    As humans, we’re not inclined to treat ourselves like a scientific study, but observing yourself and making adjustments is exactly how experts achieve what they do. Study how and when you fail, and record feedback whenever possible.

  • “When the 4-minute mile was broken, this thing that had seemed an impenetrable barrier turned out to become a flood gate.”

    There’s something about knowing what’s physically possible that determines how far we can push ourselves. Don’t take barriers or “limits” seriously – see what you can achieve if you mentally erase barriers.

  • Geeking out is extraordinarily useful.

    Though speaking specifically about collecting data and feedback, if you’re “geeking out,” you’re probably doing something right. Don’t be afraid to reach that next level of involvement, and really delve deep into what you’re working on.


Chris Guillebeau leading a master class at the 99U Conference. 

CHRIS GUILLEBEAU /// Author, The Art of Non-Conformity

The Art of Non-Conformity‘s Chris Guillebeau conducted a highly interactive master class in the Times Center gallery that explored strategies for managing the risk inherent in being a solo entrepreneur.

  • “Avoid the false narrative of pro-risk and anti-risk.”

    Not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, but almost everyone wants to create freedom and independence. For those of us who don’t want to risk it all, what steps can we take to create more stability and confidence?

  • “Instead of reflecting on the past, predict the future.”

    A pre-mortem is like a debriefing—where you meet to reflect on a recent project or experience—but conducted in advance. With a pre-mortem, you look ahead to a project or experience and identify everything that could go wrong. It helps to raise the stakes by asking, “How will this end in disaster?”

  • “Just as we gain confidence from disaster-and-recovery stories, we also gain from key moments of success.”

    The group closed by sharing stories of “the moment they knew” something about their unconventional career would succeed.

–> KEEP READING for more insights from 99U 2011

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Comments (3)
  • preorder

     Looking forward to the videos of the conference!

  • Christopher Barley


  • Vitanovision

    almost all Jewish?

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