I’ve been obsessed with Pixar for a while, and I’ve never marked up a business book like my reading of Ed Catmull’s book Creativity Inc. I looked on the Kindle website today and realized that I marked 63 passages in the book last May. I had previously posted favorite quotes from Pixar alumni. Here are my highlighted passages from the book:
What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.
What interested me was not that companies rose and fell or that the landscape continually shifted as technology changed but that the leaders of these companies seemed so focused on the competition that they never developed any deep introspection about other destructive forces that were at work.
We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them.
the most compelling mechanisms to me are those that deal with uncertainty, instability, lack of candor, and the things we cannot see.
They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear.
When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless.
ARPA’s mandate—to support smart people in a variety of areas—was carried out based on the unwavering presumption that researchers would try to do the right thing and, in ARPA’s view, overmanaging them was counterproductive. ARPA’s administrators did not hover over the shoulders of those of us working on the projects they funded, nor did they demand that our work have direct military applications. They simply trusted us to innovate.
For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right.
Steve [Jobs] used aggressive interplay as a kind of biological sonar. It was how he sized up the world.
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.
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.
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.
Because too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.
Going forward, the development department’s charter would be not to develop scripts but to hire good people, figure out what they needed, assign them to projects that matched their skills, and make sure they functioned well together.
Toy Story 2 was a case study in how something that is usually considered a plus—a motivated, workaholic workforce pulling together to make a deadline—could destroy itself if left unchecked.
“the process” has no agenda and doesn’t have taste. It is just a tool—a framework. We needed to take more responsibility and ownership of our own work, our need for self-discipline, and our goals.
When we trust the process—or perhaps more accurately, when we trust the people who use the process—we are optimistic but also realistic. The trust comes from knowing that we are safe, that our colleagues will not judge us for failures but will encourage us to keep pushing the boundaries. But to me, the key is not to let this trust, our faith, lull us into the abdication of personal responsibility. When that happens, we fall into dull repetition, producing empty versions of what was made before.
Quality is the best business plan.
We would be a company that would never settle. That didn’t mean that we wouldn’t make mistakes. Mistakes are part of creativity. But when we did, we would strive to face them without defensiveness and with a willingness to change.
candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I make a point of repeating it often, and I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions of our films really are.
People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process.
All directors, no matter how talented, organized, or clear of vision, become lost somewhere along the way.
The second difference is that the Braintrust has no authority. This is crucial: The director does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions given.
The Braintrust’s notes, then, are intended to bring the true causes of problems to the surface—not to demand a specific remedy.
Moreover, we don’t want the Braintrust to solve a director’s problem because we believe that, in all likelihood, our solution won’t be as good as the one the director and his or her creative team comes up with.
We believe that ideas—and thus, films—only become great when they are challenged and tested.
Frank talk, spirited debate, laughter, and love.
To the extent there is “argument,” it seeks only to excavate the truth.
A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense. A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix the problem. A good note doesn’t make demands; it doesn’t even have to include a proposed fix. But if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe an answer. Most of all, though, a good note is specific. “I’m writhing with boredom,” is not a good note.
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). And yet, even as I say that embracing failure is an important part of learning, I also acknowledge that acknowledging this truth is not enough. That’s because failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to screw up our understanding of its worth. To disentangle the good and the bad parts of failure, we have to recognize both the reality of the pain and the benefit of the resulting growth.
To be wrong as fast as you can is to sign up for aggressive, rapid learning.
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 out-thinking it—dooms you to fail.
While we don’t want too many failures, we must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.
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. It can be difficult to get free of it and head in a different direction. Which, more often than not, is exactly what you must do.
When it comes to creative endeavors, the concept of zero failures is worse than useless. It is counterproductive.
Being too risk-averse causes many companies to stop innovating and to reject new ideas, which is the first step on the path to irrelevance.
To be a truly creative company, you must start things that might fail.
The criteria we use is that we step in if a director loses the confidence of his or her crew.
If the crew is confused, then their leader is, too.
The implication of being director-led is that the director must lead.
There are two parts to any failure: There is the event itself, with all its attendant disappointment, confusion, and shame, and then there is our reaction to it. It is this second part that we control. Do we become introspective, or do we bury our heads in the sand? Do we make it safe for others to acknowledge and learn from problems, or do we shut down discussion by looking for people to blame? We must remember that failure gives us chances to grow, and we ignore those chances at our own peril.
We discussed how we had been blinded by the fact that the directors of our first films—John, Andrew, and Pete—had each figured out how to be a director without formal training, something that we now saw was much rarer than we’d previously believed.
Are there ways to prove to your employees that your company doesn’t stigmatize failure?
Rather than trying to prevent all errors, we should assume, as is almost always the case, that our people’s intentions are good and that they want to solve problems. Give them responsibility, let the mistakes happen, and let people fix them. If there is fear, there is a reason—our job is to find the reason and to remedy it. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.
Originality is fragile. And, in its first moments, it’s often far from pretty.
Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on—but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.
In an unhealthy culture, each group believes that if their objectives trump the goals of the other groups, the company will be better off. In a healthy culture, all constituencies recognize the importance of balancing competing desires—they want to be heard, but they don’t have to win. Their interaction with one another—the push and pull that occurs naturally when talented people are given clear goals—yields the balance we seek. But that only happens if they understand that achieving balance is a central goal of the company.
As director Brad Bird sees it, every creative organization—be it an animation studio or a record label—is an ecosystem. “You need all the seasons,” he says. “You need storms. It’s like an ecology. To view lack of conflict as optimum is like saying a sunny day is optimum. A sunny day is when the sun wins out over the rain. There’s no conflict. You have a clear winner. But if every day is sunny and it doesn’t rain, things don’t grow. And if it’s sunny all the time—if, in fact, we don’t ever even have night—all kinds of things don’t happen and the planet dries up. The key is to view conflict as essential, because that’s how we know the best ideas will be tested and survive. You know, it can’t only be sunlight.
I often say that managers of creative enterprises must hold lightly to goals and firmly to intentions.
At Pixar, protection means populating story meetings with idea protectors, people who understand the difficult, ephemeral process of developing the new.
I believe life should not be easy. We’re meant to push ourselves and try new things—which will definitely make us feel uncomfortable. Living through a few big catastrophes helps. After people survived A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2, they realized the pressure led to some pretty cool ideas.
when it comes to creativity, the unknown is not our enemy. If we make room for it instead of shunning it, the unknown can bring inspiration and originality. How, then, do we make friends with the random and unknowable? How do we get more comfortable with our lack of control? It helps to understand just how pervasive randomness is.
There is nothing quite as effective, when it comes to shutting down alternative viewpoints, as being convinced you are right.
The oversight group had been put in place without anyone asking a fundamental question: How do we enable our people to solve problems? Instead, they asked: How do we prevent our people from screwing up? That approach never encourages a creative response. My rule of thumb is that any time we impose limits or procedures, we should ask how they will aid in enabling people to respond creatively. If the answer is that they won’t, then the proposals are ill suited to the task at hand.
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.
when that company becomes successful, its leaders often cast off that startup mentality because, they tell themselves, they have figured out what to do. They don’t want to be beginners anymore. That may be human nature, but I believe it is a part of our nature that should be resisted. 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.
“To Whom it May Inspire,” Austin wrote. “I, like many of you artists out there, constantly shift between two states. The first (and far more preferable of the two) is white-hot, ‘in the zone’ seat-of-the-pants, firing on all cylinders creative mode. This is when you lay your pen down and the ideas pour out like wine from a royal chalice! This happens about 3% of the time. The other 97% of the time I am in the frustrated, struggling, office-corner-full-of-crumpled-up-paper mode. The important thing is to slog diligently through this quagmire of discouragement and despair. Put on some audio commentary and listen to the stories of professionals who have been making films for decades going through the same slings and arrows of outrageous production problems. In a word: PERSIST. PERSIST on telling your story. PERSIST on reaching your audience. PERSIST on staying true to your vision.… ”
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 change are life’s constants. And that’s the fun part.
Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear. Doing all these things won’t necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier. But ease isn’t the goal; excellence is.
Steve [Jobs] put a premium on both sides of this equation, logic and emotion, and the way he maintained that balance was key to understanding him.