Creativity, Inc | Ed Catmull

Published: 2014

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Edwin Catmull was one of the driving forces behind Pixar Animation. In this book he shares his thoughts on organizational philosophy, decision making, mental models and much more.

DARE TO SHARE. The ego, prestige and marking of territory slows down the development process and complicates problem solving. When animated film was in its infancy, Catmull and his peers shared their lessons and discoveries as they broke new ground. Some thought it was too generous. But he thought they were so far from a finished product and by sharing, the development could be accelerated by the feedback from other knowledgeable people.

REJECT INNER INSECURITIES. When Catmull was new as a manager, he hired a very competent and experienced guy named Alvy. At first, Catmull was worried that Alvy would replace him as manager. In time, it would turn out that they would end up having a very successful collaboration. Had Catmull given in to his inner insecurities and instead hired a less competent person, he himself would not have developed as well.

BUILDING INTUITION. Being at the forefront of new areas requires a combination of intuition and adaptation to new data. How much you can trust your intuition depends on how well it has developed. Pixar’s main owner, Steve Jobs, had a reputation for getting into every detail within Apple. But in Pixar, he handed over the filmmaking to the employees. Jobs understood that intuition and instincts can only be built by letting his conscious and subconscious mind work very actively with something over a very long period of time.

DON’T WAIT FOR ”HOLY COW!”. Do not put problems in two baskets – “business as usual” and “holy cow!” – and then use different approaches for either one of them. Small problems can be future big problems building up. It is easier to deal with the problems at an early stage.

ANALYSIS-PARALYSIS. The number of factors that can be controlled in a creative environment is limited. But some people feel good about control and therefore engage in over-planning. These people usually take longer to make mistakes than those who tested through “trial-and-error”. Also, the over-planner often becomes more overwhelmed when things go wrong.

“You wouldn’t say to somebody who is first learning to play the guitar, ’you better think really hard about where you put your fingers on the guitar neck before you strum, because you only get to strum once, and that’s it. And if you get that wrong, we’re going to move on’ That’s no way to learn, is it?” – Andrew Stanton, Pixar

BE WRONG AS FAST AS POSSIBLE. You have to fall a few times as you learn how to ride a bike. You would want to start with the “lowest” possible bike and preferably use elbow pads and knee pads. In the same spirit, business development is about trying without hurting yourself too much. All outcomes are good outcomes since they provide new information. Costs for failed projects can be considered as R&D expenses.

CREATIVITY EMERGE FROM THE UNKNOWN. Discomfort facing uncertainty makes people long for security and stability. However, there are no such guarantees. The world is more random than people want to feel. Randomness is inevitable but is also the beauty of life. It is in the unforeseen that creativity emerges, because creativity can be defined as “unexpected connections between independent concepts or ideas”.

MENTAL MODELS AS TOOLS. Almost all Pixar and Disney employees had developed their own mental models in order to get through an uncertain process. Some thought of filmmaking in terms of “a walk through a dark tunnel”. This calms the emotional part of the brain that get stressed by uncertainty, as the rational brain knows that the tunnel has two entrances. At the beginning of a project, mental models are all that exists.

BE HUMBLE. Brain researchers believe that only 40% of what we “see” comes from our eyes, the rest comes from our memories and pattern recognition. Man is evolutionarily created to identify patterns, which means that we can see patterns even when there are none.

“We aren’t aware that the majority of what we think we see is actually our brain filling in the gaps. The illusion that we have a complex picture is extraordinarily persuasive. Most of us walk around thinking that our view is best – probably because it is the only one we really know. That’s because when humans see things that challenge our mental models, we tend not just to resist them but to ignore them. That has been scientifically proven. Confirmation bias.”

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