Book of the Week 5: Creativity, Inc.

To broaden the employees’ minds and exposing them to new thoughts, my employer had just started a book club this past summer, talking about a new book every two to three months. Those who participate in the book club discussions, online or off, are fortunate enough to get their purchase of the book fully reimbursed, me included with this new book Creativity, Inc. by Pixar Animation and Disney Animation president Ed Catmull. A book I’ve already had on my reading list, as soon as I heard this news I instantly jumped on it and read within a super quick half week! Let’s jump into it!

Rating: 6/5. Yes, six!

Verdict: Absolutely required for any professional, even in a non-creative field.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way Of True Inspiration. A business/company perspective of how one of the most successful creative companies approach innovation and inspiration. What’s the secret to their every single move being a success? From Toy Story, the first ever fully computer-digitized 3D animation film, to Brave, there must have been some secret that Pixar knows that nobody other company is aware of. All the secrets are right here in this book.

Although this book speaks from a company’s perspective, ideally for business managers, the advice in this book is more than applicable to any creative. We just have to keep in mind that the word “creative” is actually quite broad. Not just visually, not even just in coming up with ideas. How to solve engineering problems, how to scale the company from 42 employees to over a thousand, how to recover from an unknown DELETE ALL FILES command in their Linux system. Catmull discusses it all right here.

There is so much valuable content in this book; here are what I believe are the themes he had covered the most.

  1. Expect failure; embrace failure. No matter what you do, no matter how much you plan to prevent it, it’s going to happen. No matter how quickly or how many factors you take into consideration which idea is going to be “more successful,” you’ll always be in for a bumpy ride.

    If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.

    Which is actually similar to one of the most resonating quotes in my mind from another creative, J.K. Rowling in her book Very Good Lives (the text of her speech to Harvard’s graduating class of 2008):

    It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

    From this, he lets his team have full creative freedom. Try anything and everything. New ideas are expected to be unpolished; don’t attack the idea just because it’s not perfectly refined; critique its potential. The 80-20 Paretal Principle comes in mind here; spend 20% of your time exploring, and 80% of all the work you do will originate from your creative exploration.

    Pixar has been creating shorts – those five to ten minute films before the actual movie starts – for the sheer sake of exploration (he classifies this as “research and development” in the financial reports). While they’re still releasing work, these shorts have much fewer risks, both creative and financial. Does this film ring a bell?

  2. Candor, not honesty. Candor. With honesty, Catmull claims that people will often choose not to say what they think, remaining in silence. That’s what comes with honesty – the fear of judgment, of demotion. He explains that candor is basically honesty, but without that extra baggage, without reserve. He had come up with the idea of the Braintrust, a monthly activity in which the entire company spends an entire day discussing what is working, what isn’t, attacking any and every idea pondering around within Pixar. It enforces the motivation of bettering ideas, not belittling the people who have come up with them.

    Candor isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves. The need to stroke one’s own ego, to get the credit we feel we deserve – we strive to chuck those impulses at the door. The Braintrust is fueled by the idea that every note we give is in the service of a common goal: supporting and helping each other as we try to make better movies.

    Catmull’s career goal is currently to strive to create the greatest environment to innovative success, now that he had reached his initial goal of creating the first computer animation after over twenty years of his life’s endeavors. He’s constantly searching ways for employees to be more candid. This has been ranging from anyone and everyone having equal importance, trusting in all of them (that is why they were hired!), to “good notes” which concisely addresses problems in a timely matter and without demands.

  3. Expect change. Expect randomness. Ideas. Software. People. They all change. Without change, there cannot be any improvement. Pixar would eventually die. Fortunately or unfortunately, change also comes with problems, novel problems which nobody will have the solution to. Instead of choking up on these problems, blaming whomever or whichever team caused it (if any), the team should approach the problem with confidence, even with gratitude, as it’s another learning lesson along the road.

    The deleting all files I mentioned earlier? Catmull discusses this incident where this Linux command (for those who are the least bit Linux savvy) was invoked: /bin/rm -r -f *. This command basically deletes anything and everything in the /bin folder, which contained all their work: artwork, code, characters, objects, backgrounds, lighting. The -f in the command means to call the command without asking to confirm (‘f’ for force). When they unplugged the computer system calling this command, they had lost 90% of the entire film’s work. There’s no undo command for this. How did they solve this problem? An employee had just recalled having to work from home several months ago, having to back up all the files onto her local computer on a weekly basis. Although a few months of work were lost, that is much better than 90% of the film! This could not have been possible if Pixar were to jump into the blame game, asking who in the world would pull out that command (and why it was so easily accessible in the first place). Focus on the solution. Focus on excellence. Focus on the product.

  4. Excellent, not easy. Do everything it takes to create excellent work. This company does everything from research trips to France for Ratatouille to get a feel and all the minute details they need, to rendering an entire stack of CD’s in Monsters, Inc. being on screen just to fall and shatter in mere seconds, to merging with Disney, a large company that had been on a constant downfall with animation but was much more successful than Pixar in business and sales. Easy shuts out potential, shuts out ideas, shuts out creativity (and for those in software, I’m sure you’ve heard of the term technical debt).  Do all the research you can, otherwise you’re just “creating” work based on what’s in your mind. Expose yourself to new things, every day, with an open and analyzing mind.

Catmull’s anecdotes are personal and emotional, yet perfectly back up the arguments he claim in this book. His adventures from working with George Lucas thanks to a random phone call to working side by side with “the relentless” Steve Jobs make this an exciting read, almost like an autobiography but not intentionally so. Embrace failure. Embrace candor. Expect change. Expect excellence. Next time someone brings up Toy Story, Finding Nemo, or A Bug’s Life, you’ll know exactly why and how it’s a success, and you’ll be able to say that Ed Catmull himself told you his life story on how Pixar is what it is today.


Author: Kevin Who

Developer. Designer. Smasher. Reader. Creator.

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