It’s not about ideas. It’s about making ideas happen.
I recently participated in the fifth annual 99U Conference, hosted by Behance, which convenes some of the world’s most creative minds to share the latest insights on leadership and idea execution. This year the conference drew an eclectic mix of 1,000 creative professionals around one common theme: What brings good ideas to life?
Inspired by the rich tapestry of experiences, I turned the question to the audience. Several common threads emerged after interviewing 25 participants.
Most participants saw personal traits, such as perseverance, courage, self-accountability, and confidence, as being most critical in making their ideas happen. To a lesser extent, yet still significant, they also highlighted social capital (surrounding yourself with mentors and building trustworthy client relationships), effective management (planning, focusing and staying flexible), and expertise (knowing how to articulate your story and being good at what you do).
Overwhelmingly, one trait in particular stood out: perseverance. That begs the question, why should perseverance play such a critical role? As I listened to the powerhouse lineup of speakers, piecing together the various insights into my own mental tapestry of what makes ideas happen, it became clear that perseverance is not a blind, brute show of force. Instead, perseverance is a skillful balancing act.
Balance active thinking and downtime
As you generate new ideas, perseverance is knowing when to press on and when to slow down. Cal Newport, author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” emphasizes that mastering a skill requires deep concentration, which occurs in a state of cognitive strain that our brains try to avoid because the brain is lazy. Pressing on is crucial in order to “tackle items that your mind doesn’t want to.” To do deep work, Newport suggests blocking off time for it in your schedule, setting clear outcomes, and training your focus. The goal is to practice the discipline it takes to work through hard problems, and to recognize when “won’t” is not the same as “can’t.”
However, self-discipline does not mean forcing yourself to do a task. Mark McGuinness, author of “Lateral Action,” explains that forcing yourself to do something can backfire. Instead, as he advises, create a ritual in order to ease your mind into it—such as doing the work during the same part of your day, in the same location, listening to the same type of music, etc.
Perseverance is also knowing when to step away from active thinking. Tony Schwartz, founder of the Energy Project, notes that you need to immerse yourself in the known in order to understand what you do not know, but that you also need to be able to turn off your mind because “the time you get your best ideas is not when you’re trying to get your best ideas.”
Tina Seelig, director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, captures this symbiosis beautifully: “The more you know about [something], the more tools you have for your imagination to work with.” The goal is to allow for your unconscious mind to see new, unlikely connections (the big aha moments). You can stimulate this process by choosing to work on creative ideas in the non-optimal part of your day or by deliberately distracting your conscious mind with mentally challenging activities, as research shows.
Know when to take a step back and when to move forward
As you execute, perseverance is knowing when to stop and when to keep going. As John Cadell, author of “The Mistake Bank,” points out, one of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is chasing losses, i.e. persevering even when something is clearly not working in the hope that you can win it all back, which is also known as the sunk cost fallacy. This is particularly hard to recognize when you have made big investments into your venture, which is why Cadell suggests that before investing a tremendous amount of time and money you should instead look for quick steps to prove your ideas first.
Leah Busque, founder of Task Rabbit, puts this idea forward as a question: “What is the smallest possible test we can run to understand if this is a viable direction or not, [and to] get customers using it, because customers have the ability to tell you if it’s really working or not.”
For Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, founder of Sugru, starting small was the best advice she ever got. The lesson is two-fold: develop through concrete steps and do not over-invest at each stage without some proof of concept.
Paradoxically, perseverance is not the absence of self-doubt. As Behance founder Scott Belsky puts it, “it’s fine to not do something, but it’s not fine to not try something [because] fear binds you to the status quo.” As Belsky adds, if we see ourselves as “tinkering scientists,” we will learn to see “failure as data,” a view that Ben Shaffer at Nike’s Innovation Kitchen pursues head-on “to learn where our boundaries are.”
“It’s not about winning or losing,” as Brené Brown, author of “Daring Greatly,” explains, “but about showing up in the arena [so that one day] you do not ask yourself what if?” The goal is to prove value not to prove self.
Leverage opposing worldviews to generate superior ideas
As you grow, perseverance is not about being married to your ideas, but about questioning and refining them by being open to new perspectives and worldviews, even when they conflict with yours. Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management, describes this ability as integrative thinking – the ability to constructively face the tensions of opposing models, and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a new model that is superior to both.
This includes being open to ideas coming from people who do not have expertise in your area of work, because such ideas can actually increase your chance of success on problem – solving by 10 percent, according to a Harvard University study. ”The further the problem from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they are to solve it,” Karim Lakhani and his co-authors concluded. “Innovation happens when someone comes in from a different perspective and breaks a problem open, but rarely do we have mechanisms in place so this happens systematically.”
To accept new ideas, you need to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. It requires that you go back to being a student and remain in a state of wonder, as artist Joshua Davis advises. Sebastian Thrun, this year’s Alva Award winner (an honor named after Thomas Alva Edison) and best known for leading the development of Google’s self-driving car, suggests that you pick a ‘mountain’ and make up the route as you go, establishing clear milestones and doing rapid iteration. “If you do this long enough,” he said, “eventually you succeed.”
In that sense, innovation is not an end in itself, but a step in a process of constant evolution. Persevering is achieving, for every time you push your boundaries, you find a better self.
Linda Peia has worked with Ashoka in Mexico, Brazil, and currently D.C. An economist by training, she loves to explore the intersection between behavioral economics, neuroscience, and entrepreneurship.
About the 99U Conference: The 99U annual conference is organized by Behance, an online community for showcasing and discovering creative work, which attracts over 2.5 million creative professionals. Behance’s mission is to connect and empower the creative world to make ideas happen.