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99U Conference Recap 2: Rethinking the Way We Work

99U Conference Recap 2: Rethinking the Way We Work
Published May 7, 2014 by Sasha VanHoven
In a continuation of our 2014 99U Conference recaps we bring you more insights from our yearly gathering focused on idea execution. The speakers in today's edition all challenge (and urge) us to rethink the way we work. 

Whether by pursuing the uncomfortable, sharing often and loudly, or by building a safe space for creation, the modes in which we create need to go past the cubicle door. As Winston Churchill said, "to improve is to change. To perfect is to change often."


Josh Klein


Hacker & Author

In the age of the internet, our lives are shaped by our online social systems. The word "friend" could be a noun to describe a person you are endeared to, or it could be a verb to describe the act of adding someone to your Facebook. With so many opportunities to find your next customer or collaborator, networking has become our most valuable skill. Hacker and author of Reputation Economics, Joshua Klein believes that we now work primarily in a "relationship economy," one where we trade skills and labor as favors for our friends and coworkers. This network, Klein says, is your most underrated asset.

  • Optimize for relationships first. Think about how, why, and what kind of relationships you are hoping to engender. Myspace and Uber did this in making their transactions social exchanges. The now-defunct Friendster did not. When reaching out for help or trade from others, don't start out with what you've done for them in the past or what they owe you: just help them out. The favors will come back around in turn. As Klein says, "If you invest in your network, your network will in turn invest in you."
  • Engage customers as people. Too often we think of our network and contacts are personal relationships, and the ones we forge with customers or clients at work as separate. They're not — your customers provide invaluable feedback of the most honest kind, and can become an integral part of your network.
  • Don't be afraid of sharing. Without sharing your ideas with others, your network doesn't have the chance to help you or get involved. Forget NDAs: your ideas are made better by the more people who see it and hear it.


Sarah Lewis


Author & Cultural Historian

Sarah Lewis has thought a lot about the processes behind creative work — at one point she even charted out the processes behind every artist/writer interviewed by The Paris Review. While every creative has their own particular quirks, Lewis found they all prioritized having a safe space free of outside and internal pressure. In order to do our best work, we need to make sure it is ready before releasing it out for critique. "Putting something out into the world means a temporary removal from it," she explains. Lewis shared some of her insights from her book, The Rise, to illustrate the different ways you can find your own safe haven:

  • Work in a physical space that is only for work. Many geniuses used physical boundaries to create private domains for themselves. Einstein worked in a patent office that he called a "worldly cloister." Some writers use a separate office or location in which they only do work there.
  • "Keep your eye on your inner world." Develop a mindset inside yourself, a kind of workflow in which you can create without self-judgment. Allowing ourselves to improvise shuts off internal sensors in the same way dreaming does: studies found that when musicians were improvising, versus playing a learned, set tune, their brains were able to suppress the ability to judge themselves.
  • Avoid groupthink. In her research, Lewis found that when working in a group, our process changes throughout. We don't want to be out of context or misaligned with our peers, and so our creativity becomes narrowed with the herd. A better idea: brainstorm or create separately, and afterwards come together to go over ideas.


Wendy McNaughton


Illustrator & Graphic Journalist

Wendy McNaughton spent weeks putting herself in uncomfortable situations while doing research for her book on the city of San Francisco, Meanwhile in San Francisco: A City in Its Own Words. She sat on street corners she was unaccustomed to, and maybe a little scared of, but she did it while observing and disarming those around her with her drawings. By opening herself up to perspectives she had never had the chance to come into contact with before, she was able to discover entirely different sides and versions of San Francisco.

  • Get out of your own head. Wendy put herself in new places, but it could be as simple as putting yourself into a new routine. The street corner that was empty every morning at 9 a.m. might be a mecca of characters come 12 p.m. Change your outlook, from a different location, time, or source, will always change your approach and lead to fresh insights.
  • "Listen to strangers." Wendy discovered whole new versions of San Francisco by asking to hear other's takes on the city. An area of seemingly innocuous little shops she passed by for years for work ended up being a teeming economy and hot spot for Mahjong. Once she discovered it, she noticed people playing the game in parlors and outdoors all over the city. Being open to new suggestions and viewpoints will always provide you with a brand new approach to things. Otherwise, we'll always be stuck in our own, narrow views. As Wendy put it, "See what happens when we stop assuming we know the story."


More 2014 Conference Recaps:

Part One: What Are Your Creative Values?
Part Two: Rethinking the Way We Work
Part Three: Rethinking the Way We Lead
Part Four: The Best Way to Complain Is to Make Things
Part FiveCreating a Business That Withstands the Test of Time

Part Six: Innovation Lessons from the Trenches

More about Sasha VanHoven

Sasha is the Associate Editor of 99U. You can watch her tweet here.

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