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Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull

One of the best books I read about management. Ed Catmull was the head of Pixar which is still to this day one of the most creative studios to create movies at. Ed shares a lot of his wisdom and experiences from his role there. It's a great book to understand what was going behind the scenes at Pixar, learn how to embrace your creativity, battle through uncertainty, and get some good ideas on how to better create the right culture in an organization. Ed talks a lot about the important role the people in the organization play.


To ensure that [it] succeeded, I needed to put my insecurities away. The lesson of ARPA had lodged in my brain: when faced with a challenge, get smarter.

The importance of culture and environment in setting up your work office based on the thought process George Lucas put into setting up his office: “Lucasfilm was based in Marin County, one hour north of Silicon Valley by car and one hour from Hollywood by plane. This was no accident. George saw himself, first and foremost, as a film maker, so Silicon Valley wasn’t for him. But he also had no desire to be too close to Los Angeles, because he thought there was something a bit unseemly and inbred about it. Thus, he created his own island, a community that embraced films and computers but pledged allegiance to neither of the prevailing cultures that defined those businesses.”

Analogy from George Lucas about building a company “building a company was like being on a wagon train headed west. On the long journey to the land of plenty, the pioneers would be full of purpose and united by the goal of reaching their destination. Once they arrived, he’d say, people would come and go, and that was as it should be. But the process of moving toward something – of having not yet arrived was what he idealized.”

You will find that all the directors that Ed mentions in this book have some type of analogy similar to this one from George Lucas about the wagon train in order to help them get through creating a movie.

Pg 32 - This page has a story about how George Lucas bet on himself by retaining ownership of the licensing and merchandising rights to Star Wars instead of asking for a higher salary.

There is nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning. I know this from firsthand experience. In 1986, I became the president of a new hardware company whose main business was selling the Pixar Image Computer.

Whatever those forces are that make people do dumb things, they are powerful, they are often invisible, and they lurk even in the best of environments.

Pg 52 - Talks about lots of losses for Pixar and Steve Jobs already sank $54 million of his own money into the company.

When downsides coexist with upsides, as they often do, people are reluctant to explore what’s bugging them, for fear of being labeled complainers. I also realized that this kind of thing, if left unaddressed, could fester and destroy Pixar.

We realized that our purpose was not merely to build a studio that made hit films but to foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions. Questions like: If we had done some things right to achieve success, how could we ensure that we understood what those things were?

Human interaction is far more complex than relativity or string theory, of course, but that only made it more interesting and important; it constantly challenged my presumptions.

Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture – one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality, and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable that became – wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full time job. And one that I wanted to do.

If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better. The takeaway here is worth repeating: Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right. IT is easy to say you want talented people, and you do, but the way those people interact with one another is the real key. Even the smartest people can form an ineffective team if they are mismatched. That means it is better to focus on how a team is performing, not on the talents of the individuals within it.

Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.

Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas.

To reiterate, it is the focus on people – their work habits, their talents, their values – that is absolutely central to any creative venture.

But the fact is, there are often good reasons not to be honest. When it comes to interacting with other people in a work environment, there are times when we choose not to say what we really think.

You can’t address or eliminate the blocks to candor once and for all. The fear of saying something stupid and looking bad, of offending someone or being intimidated, of retaliating or being retaliated against – they all have a way of reasserting themselves, even once you think they’ve been vanquished. And when they do, you must address them quickly.

Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process – reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul.

People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things – in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence.

We believe that ideas – and thus, films – only become great when they are challenged and test.

For most of us, failure comes with baggage – a lot of baggage – that I believe is traced directly back to our days in school. From a very early age, the message is drilled into our heads: failure is bad; failure means you didn’t study or prepare; failure means you slacked off or – worse! – aren’t smart enough to begin with.

We need to think about failure differently. I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).

Failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders, especially, this strategy – trying to avoid failure by outthinking it – dooms you to fail.

It isn’t enough to pick a path – you must go down it. By doing so, you see things you couldn’t possibly see when yo started out; you may not like what you see, some of it may be confusing, but at least you will have, as we like to say, “explore the neighborhood.”

In general, I have found that people who pour their energy into thinking about an approach and insisting that it is too early to act are wrong just as often as people who dive in and work quickly. The overplanners just take longer to be wrong (and, when things inevitably go awry, are more crushed by the feeling that they have failed.) There’s a corollary to this, as well: The more time you spend mapping out an approach, the more likely you are to get attached to it. The nonworking idea gets worn into your brain, like a rut in the mud.

The antidote to fear is trust, and we all have a desire to find something to trust in an uncertain world. Fear and trust are powerful forces, and while they are not opposites, exactly, trust is the best tool for driving out fear. There will always be plenty to be afraid of, especially when you are doing something new. Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it. Fear can be created quickly; trust can’t. Leaders must demonstrate their trust worthiness, over time through their actions – and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure.

We are always changing, because change is a good thing.

It’s folly to think you can avoid change, no matter how much you might want to. But also, to my mind, you shouldn’t want to. There is no growth or success without change.

"One trick I’ve learned is to force myself to make a list of what’s actually wrong. Usually, soon into making the list, I find I can group most of the issues into two or three larger all-encompassing problems. So it’s really not all that bad. Having a finite list of problems is much better than having an illogical feeling that everything is wrong.” - Peter, director of Monsters, Inc. at Pixar

Sometimes a big event happens that changes everything. When it does, it tends to affirm the human tendency to treat big events as fundamentally different from smaller ones. That’s a problem, inside companies. When we put setbacks into two buckets – “the business as usual” bucket and the “holy cow” bucket – and use a different mindset for each, we are signing up for trouble. We become so caught up in our big problems that we ignore the little ones, failing to realize that some of our small problems will have long-term consequences – and are, therefore, big problems in making. What’s needed, in my view, is t approach big and small problems with the same set of values and emotions, because they are, in fact, self-similar. In other words, it is important that we don’t freak out or start blaming people when some threshold – “the holy cow” bucket I referred to earlier – is reached. We need to be humble enough to recognize that unforeseen things can and do happen that are nobody’s fault.

When you begin to grasp that big and little problems are structure similarly, then that helps you maintain a calmer perspective.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the limits of perception. In the management context, particularly, it behooves us to ask ourselves constantly: How much are we able to see? And how much is obscured from view? Is there a Cassandra out there we are failing to listen to? In other words, despite our best intentions, are we cursed, too?

We were going to screw up, it was inevitable. And we didn’t know when or how. We had to prepare, then, for an unknown problem – a hidden problem. From that day on, I resolved to bring as many hidden problems as possible to light, a process that would require what might seem like an uncommon commitment to self-assessment. Having a financial cushion would help us recover from failure, and Steve was right to secure one.

One of Ed’s core management principals is if you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.

Here’s what turns a successful hierarchy into one that impedes progress: when too many people begin, subconsciously, to equate their own value and that of others with where they fall in the pecking order. Thus, they focus their energies on managing upward while treating people beneath them on the organizational chart poorly. The people I have seen do this seem to be acting on animal instinct, unaware of what they are doing. This problem is not caused by hierarchy itself but by individual or cultural delusions associated with hierarchy, chiefly those that assign personal worth based on rank. By not thinking about how and why we value people, we can fall into this trap almost by default.

Acknowledging what you can’t see – getting comfortable with the fact that there are a large number of two - inch events occurring right now out of our sight, that will affect us for better or worse, in myriad ways – helps promote flexibility. You might say I’m an advocate for humility in leaders. But to be truly humble, those leaders must first understand how many of the factors that shape their lives and businesses are – and will always be – out of sight.

Hindsight is not 20-20. Not even close. Our view of the past, in fact, is hardly clearer than our view of the future. While we know more about a past event than a future one, our understanding of the factors that shaped it is severely limited. Not only that, because we think we see what happened clearly – hindsight being 20-20 and all – we often aren’t open to knowing more.

The past should be our teacher, not our master.

Our brain has a difficult job: The actual amount of visual detail in front of us is vast, and our eyes are only able to take in a tiny fraction through that little spot at the back of our eyeball, the fovea. Basically, we either don’t perceive or have to ignore most of what is outside of us. However, we do have to function, so simultaneously, the brain fills in the details we miss. We fill in or make up a great deal more than we think we do. What I’m really talking about here are our mental models, which play a major role in our perception of the world.

We aren’t aware that the majority of what we think we see is actually our brain filling in the gaps.

Once a [mental] model of how we should work gets in our head, it is difficult to change. We’ve all experienced times when other people see the same event we see but remember it differently. (Typically, we think our view is the correct one.) The differences arise because of the ways our separate mental models shape what we see. I’ll say it again: Our mental models aren’t reality. They are tools, like the models weather forecasters use to predict the weather. But, as we know all too well, sometimes the forecast says rain and, boom, the sun comes out. The tool is not reality. The key is knowing the difference.

While the allure of safety and predictability is strong, achieving true balance means engaging in activities whose outcomes and payoffs are not yet apparent. The most creative people are willing to work in the shadow of uncertainty.

The hidden – and our acknowledgement of it – is an absolutely essential part of rooting out what impedes our progress: clinging to what works, fearing change, and deluding ourselves about our roles in our own success.

Our models of the world so distort what we perceive that they can make it hard to see what is right in front of us. (I’m using model somewhat generally here to mean the preconceptions we have built up over time that we use to evaluate what we see and hear as well as to reason and anticipate.) The second is that we don’t typically see the boundary between new information coming in from the outside and our old, established mental models – we perceive both together, as a unified experience. The third is that when we unknowingly get caught up in our own interpretations, we become inflexible, less able to deal with the problems at hand. And the fourth idea is that people who work or live together – please like Dick and Anne, for example – have, by virtue of proximity and shared history, models of the world that are deeply (sometimes hopelessly) intertwined with one another. If my wife and I had been traveling with just Dick or just Anne, he or she almost certainly would have responded appropriately, but because they were together, their combined model was more complex – and more limiting – than either of their models would have been on its own. [My note: The fourth idea relates to a story about how a married couple, Dick and Anne, were traveling together and one made a mistake but had trouble admitting it because of his past relationship with his wife, Anne.]

In this section, Ed talks about the importance of learning to draw. He mentions that a lot of people think that drawing classes are about learning to draw but that isn’t true. Drawing classes are about learning to see because of how drawing helps turn off the mind’s tendency to jump to conclusions. Think about how when you see a lake. You will most likely see blue and you will go to the canvas to draw a lake and color it blue. Then you realize it doesn’t look like the lake. But when you look at the lake closer you will see that there is some green and yellow and black and flashes of white.

A postmortem is a meeting held shortly after the completion of every movie in which we explore what did and didn’t work and attempt to consolidate lessons learned. Companies, like individuals, do not become exceptional by believing they are exceptional but by understanding the ways in which they aren’t exceptional. Postmortems are one route into that understanding.

There are limits to data, however, and some people rely on it too heavily. Analyzing it correctly is difficult, and it is dangerous to assume that you always know what it means. It is very easy to find false patterns in data. Instead, I prefer to think of data as one way of seeing, one of many tools we can use to look for what’s hidden. If we think data alone provides answers, then we have misapplied the tool. It is important to get this right. Some people swing to the extremes of either having no interest in the data or believing that the facts of measurement alone should drive our management. Either extreme can lead to false conclusions. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure” is a maxim that is taught and believed by many in both the business and education sectors. But in fact, the phrase is ridiculous – something said by people who are unaware of how much is hidden. A large portion of what we manage can’t be measured, and not realizing this has unintended consequences.

When a new company is formed its founders must have a startup mentality – a beginner’s mind, open to everything because, well, what do we have to lose?

By resisting the beginner’s mind, you make yourself more prone to repeat yourself than to create something new. The attempt to avoid failure, in other words, makes failure more likely.

In my experience, creative people discover and realize their visions over time and through dedicated, protracted struggle. In that way, creativity is more like a marathon than a sprint. You have to pace yourself.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” – Alan Kay, Apple’s Chief Scientist

Most people have heard of the Eastern teaching that it is important to exist in the moment. It can be hard to train yourself to observe what is right now (and not to bog down in thoughts of what was and what will be), but the philosophical teaching that underlies that idea – the reason that staying in the moment is so vital – is equally important: Everything is changing. All the time. And you can’t stop it. And your attempts to stop it actually puts you in a bad place. It causes pain, but we don’t seem to learn from it. Worse than that, resisting change robs you of your beginner’s mind – your openness to the new.

Pg 248-249 - These two pages include a list of bullet points that must remain at Pixar after it merges with Disney. Some of the bullet points are: #1 Ensure that Pixar’s executives could still reward employees with bonuses. #11 Pixar employees must remain free to exercise their creative freedom with their titles and names on their business cards. #33 Pixar people could continue to decorate their personal cube, office, space to reflect that person’s individuality. #29 No assigned parking for any employee, including executives. All spaces are first come first serve. #12 Event parties that were present at Pixar are prevalent after the merger.

The future is not a destination – it is a direction. It is our job, then, to work each day to chart the right course and make corrections when, inevitably, we stray. I already can sense the next crisis coming around the corner. To keep a creative culture vibrant, we must not be afraid of constant uncertainty. We must accept it, just as we accept the weather. Uncertainty and changes are life’s constants. And that’s the fun part.

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