In the Uffizi gallery in Florence sit two Rembrandt self-portraits, one of the artist as a young man in his late 20s, the other, drawn when he was nearly sixty.  The contrast between the two images reveals both the passage of time and the evolution of wisdom.  We see before our eyes a young, confident emerging artist become an accomplished, reflective master able to brilliantly capture the essential humanity and humility of his subject.  The mature painting seems to be rendered with less precise detail, yet achieves a far greater emotional impact.

Creativity Inc

I’ve been similarly struck by the contrast between many of the young doctors I encountered during my training — interns and residents who seemed sure they knew everything, and exuded an almost desperate, preposterous confidence —  and the more experienced clinicians to whom almost everyone turned to for advice, introspective doctors who were far more comfortable acknowledging the limitations of their knowledge, and the uncertainties of their endeavor.

In reading the recently-published Creativity, Inc., by Pixar President Ed Catmull (co-authored with business writer Amy Wallace), it’s hard not to recognize the same wisdom and thoughtful self-reflection.  While ostensibly pitched as an instructional business book that might teach you how to run a creative company, it’s apparent that Creativity Inc might more appropriately be understood as a meditation by a serially successful executive about how incredibly difficult, contingent, and ephemeral creative accomplishment can be to achieve, and especially, to sustain.

Sandwiched between a section describing the company’s evolution from a hardware enterprise into a wildly successful film studio and a section capturing the key lessons learned (details reviewed elsewhere, eg here) lies the heart of the book, Catmull’s reflections on the challenge of building and sustaining creative enterprises.

Emergent Phenomena

First, Catmull emphasizes that most creative works, such as movies, are emergent phenomena, the result of a multiplicity of interacting forces into which we only have limited understanding.   Great projects aren’t born, but develop over time, and are inevitably associated with a vast number of false steps and dead-ends.

“Early on, all of our movies suck,” he bluntly writes, acknowledging that this “idea – that all the movies we now think of as brilliant were at one time, terrible – is a hard concept for many to grasp.”  Getting from sucking to not sucking is the essence of film development, and requires candid feedback and the willingness to iterate.

Finally: A Business Memoir That Owes More To Nassim Taleb Than To Jack Welch via Forbes.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull (Author), Amy Wallace (Author)

Creativity, Inc. Description

From Ed Catmull, co-founder (with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter) of Pixar Animation Studios, comes an incisive book about creativity in business—sure to appeal to readers of Daniel Pink, Tom Peters, and Chip and Dan Heath. Forbes raves that Creativity, Inc. “just might be the business book ever written.”

Creativity, Inc.is a book for managers who want to lead their employees to new heights, a manual for anyone who strives for originality, and the first-ever, all-access trip into the nerve center of Pixar Animation—into the meetings, postmortems, and “Braintrust” sessions where some of the most successful films in history are made. It is, at heart, a book about how to build a creative culture—but it is also, as Pixar co-founder and president Ed Catmull writes, “an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.”

For nearly twenty years, Pixar has dominated the world of animation, producing such beloved films as the Toy Story trilogy, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, and WALL-E, which have gone on to set box-office records and garner thirty Academy Awards. The joyousness of the storytelling, the inventive plots, the emotional authenticity: In some ways, Pixar movies are an object lesson in what creativity really is. Here, in this book, Catmull reveals the ideals and techniques that have made Pixar so widely admired—and so profitable.

As a young man, Ed Catmull had a dream: to make the first computer-animated movie. He nurtured that dream as a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah, where many computer science pioneers got their start, and then forged a partnership with George Lucas that led, indirectly, to his founding Pixar with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter in 1986. Nine years later, Toy Story was released, changing animation forever. The essential ingredient in that movie’s success—and in the thirteen movies that followed—was the unique environment that Catmull and his colleagues built at Pixar, based on philosophies that protect the creative process and defy convention, such as:

  • Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. But give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better.
  • If you don’t strive to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.
  • It’s not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It’s the manager’s job to make it safe for others to take them.
  • The cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.
  • A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.
  • Do not assume that general agreement will lead to change—it takes substantial energy to move a group, even when all are on board.