Eight months ago, after spending one too many hours alone in my studio thinking about what my next project would be, I hit the streets of New York to connect with strangers. My intent was both to get outside my comfort zone and to better understand what was going on in the hearts and minds of the people I live near. I’m a huge believer in “clues,” which I think of as guides that pop up on our journey to bring us closer to our purpose and potential. I had an inclination that random conversations might have wisdom for me, and so I headed to my local coffee shop to find out.
“Hi, can I ask you a few questions?” I said to the friendly looking stranger sitting near me. “Sure,” he said, with a half smile. I gently launched into a series of questions, asking about his greatest aspirations, biggest fears, and the world he wanted to live in.
That one connection led to over 200 and a discovery that I didn’t expect: People have a voice they want to express, and they don’t have a safe space to communicate it. Of all the people I spoke with, about half said, “No one has ever asked me questions like this before.” Many others began sharing their story with, “I’ve never told anyone this before . . . ”
I was in awe.
We laughed. We cried. We hugged. We experienced “aha!” moments together. The conversations were so moving that I couldn’t stop thinking about how to encourage this sort of dialogue in public spaces. Through a blend of hustle and luck, we launched our first installation called “The World We Want” at the Dumbo Arts Festival in Brooklyn last September. Over 200,000 people came out, many of whom expressed their vision for themselves and the world. Since then, hundreds of local communities have reached out to get involved, and this September, more than 250 walls are launching around the world.
From the seed of the idea to going global, here are seven lessons we’ve learned along the way:
Ideas that stick grab people at a visceral level and ignite something within. They make you feel. By the fifth conversation, for example, it became clear how simple questions moved and inspired people to share. Even though I didn’t know where the project was going, I knew I was on to something based on the emotional response. If you have an idea or a even just a seed of an idea, get out there and begin to see, feel, and experience how people respond.
When I was struck with the idea to bring these questions into public spaces through art, I immediately felt overwhelmed by the fear of “not being a trained artist.” I had never done work like this before, and I wondered: “Who am I to do this?” When I stepped beyond the label, and reflected on why I wanted to do the project, there was a consistent theme that linked with all of the work I do: inspiring individuals and communities to thrive. So I got out of my own way, and carried forward.
Get to the core of the idea, and communicate the single most essential point. The first version of the project, for example, included five questions around fear, gratitude, purpose, freedom, and love. After 20-plus prototypes on how we might design the installation, a friend asked: “What is the number one takeaway for the participant?” Immediately, I responded, “That they can create the world they want to live in.” Bingo! We narrowed the project theme to “The World We Want” and cut four of the questions, landing on the two that got to the heart of the project: “I want to live in a world where . . . ” and “To create this world, I will . . . ”
Be open to “no” as you make your way to the right “yes.” When I learned that an arts festival was happening in my neighborhood in just three weeks, I immediately looked into who was involved and how I could participate. It turned out that applications had closed three months prior, and people in my community said it was way too late.
Just as I was about to give up, a friend encouraged me to “aim for rejection.” I tracked down the email of the woman in charge and sent her a pitch. In it, I outlined both the purpose of the project and how we would make the process really easy for her. She said yes.
After launching the first wall, we quickly spread to Chicago and Boulder. From there, dozens of emails came in each week, inviting me to build a wall in their community. I became paralyzed over what to do next and how to grow the project. On one hand, I feared losing control, and on the other hand, I knew that I couldn’t scale. I started asking myself: “How can I get out of the way of the idea?” This led me and a small team to create a how-to “playbook” with everything one would need to successfully build a wall in their community.
While getting out of the way of the idea is essential for spreading it, so too is maintaining the integrity of the project. Also part of our playbook is the mission of the project and the values that guide our decision-making. We have a small core team that’s responsible for supporting the community and to help navigate challenges and answer questions. At any point when something feels misaligned with the vision, we’ll step in and reference the values.
At every decision point, we’re asking, “Can we say yes to doing this for 500 people?” and, “Is this action scalable?” and, “How can we simplify the process here?” On our website, it takes one click and one form to be involved, for example, which felt like a healthy balance between “simple enough” and “filters for those who really care.” We’re creating systems that enable us to be as hands off as possible so we can put our hearts where they really matter: in leading the vision, supporting the community, and continually bringing the project closer to its mission of capturing and catalyzing the world’s visions.
Want to get involved? Head here to learn more.