Book Notes: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

This is the second installment of the book notes series. These aren't book reviews but a place to record some notes and a place to think out loud about what is to be gained from the book.

The Big Idea

Creativity isn't a magic process, there are concrete, repeatable steps that will produce more and better ideas. Catmull, the current president of Pixar and a former computer engineer, takes a systems approach to increasing the quality of the creativity of the people working for him and showcases the way they come to think about their work.

As Brad Bird… likes to say, "The process either makes you or unmakes you."

Katherine Sarafian… tells me she prefers to envision triggering the process over trusting it–observing it to see where it's faltering, then slapping it around a bit to make sure it's awake.

Pink Highlights

At too many companies, the schedule (that is, the need for product) drives the output, not the strength of the ideas at the front end.

The pressure to create–and quickly!–became the order of the day… and its unintended effect is always the same. It lessens quality across the board.

It's been my experience that deadlines are anti-creative. Videos I've produced under deadlines usually come out worse.

Also useful is the notion of 'The Beast', the part of your business that needs charts and numbers that go ever upward.

The Beast cannot be sated. It is one of life's cruel ironies that when it comes to feeding the Beast, success only creates more pressure to hurry up and succeed again. Which is why at too many companies the schedule drives the output, not the strength of the ideas.

When I set up Subbable -- my first attempt at crowdfunding -- it ended up increasing stress in an unexpected way. Subbable billed people automatically every month. I had created for myself a 30-day production deadline when the natural life cycle of my projects is closer to six weeks. While I produced videos like Humans Need Not Apply under that system, the biggest result was guilt and stress every month there was no video. Creativity, Inc is one reason why, when setting up my Patreon page for the eventual merger of the two companies, I made funding be per video. It's early days now, but I think this is an improvement to the process worth the decrease in revenue for months when no videos are made. (Though I can already tell that the trade-off is worrying about videos that are 'too small' to charge for.)

Actionable Items

This section caught my attention:

In December 2009, more than three years before the movie premiered in theaters, a dozen people from Pixar… flew east to visit MIT, Harvard, and Princeton. "Monsters University was to be one of the most prestigious campuses for scaring, so we wanted to visit big-name, old-world, prestigious schools"… They visited dorm rooms, lecture halls, research labs, and frat houses; they hung out on the campus lawns, ate pizza at dives that students frequented and took a lot of pictures and notes–"documenting everything, right down to the details of how pathways integrated into the quads and what the graffiti scratches looked like on the wooden desks." The finished film was loaded with these kinds of details… all of which gave audiences a feeling of reality.
Research trips challenge our preconceived notions and keep clichés at bay. They fuel inspiration. They are, I believe, what keeps us creating rather than copying.

This is something I'd like to try and work into my own processes. My work tends to be extremely insular, if I can work more with experts or visit locations related to the topic of my video, it might introduce some beneficial randomness into the information-gathering process.

Miscellaneous Highlights

You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.

Having a finite list of problems is much better than having an illogical feeling that everything is wrong.

Easy isn't the goal. Quality is the goal.

There is a bit of a weird creed passing around business circles about how amazing failure is. This is a good explanation of the process on a more individual level:

The better, more subtle interpretation is that 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.

Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.

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 above matches my (limited) personal experience in working with other people.

… copying what's come before is a guaranteed path to mediocrity, it appears to be a safe choice, and the desire to be safe–to succeed with minimal risk.

Buy The Book:

You can get Creativity, Inc from Amazon or iBooks.