A lot going on the past few days, so I’m coming in a little late, but here’s September in books, movies, and more.
Pixar Animation is one of my favorite movie making studios. Not every flick is my cup of tea, but they seem to approach each project with a sense of innovation and heart. How they manage to consistently maintain that level of creativity in an industry that tends to churn our generic blockbusters on a regular basis is presented Creativity, Inc. Written by by Ed Catmull (one of the founders of Pixar) with Amy Wallace, the book is simultaneously a history of the computer animation industry, a memoir of Pixar with all its ongoing success and challenges, and a guide for approaching the management of creative teams.
One of the main ideas behind his management philosophy is that it’s impossible for one person to know everything, and that, in fact, it is certain that there are things unknown that are influencing the flow of creativity. He writes,
“I believe the best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know—not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. 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. Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.”
This acknowledgement of unknown factors influencing the dynamics of a creative environment enables the initiation of a process of self reflection and analysis — not as a one time solution but as an ongoing process of growth. As one solution proves to be successful, another litany of challenges will present themselves and it’s important to know how to navigate those new challenges and change tactics as they arise. One of the many things I love about this book is how it shies away from simple, trite catch phrases that are usually presented as rules for success. Phrases such as “Trust the process” sound wise at first glance, but can often come to be meaningless. The reality is that finding solutions often requires adaptability and a willingness to address problems, failure, and change.
One of the great flaws, he finds in many operations is how they address failure as something to be avoided at all costs, a believe that often stifles creativity and risk taking. Catmull asserts that failure is “a necessary consequence of doing something new.” The very act of forging ahead on a new project, whether creating a film or writing a book, means that there will be inevitable failures along the way. Rather than seeing these failures as doom, seeing them as inevitable enables people to work through the frustration of not getting it right the first time (or second or tenth). It’s something that I’ve learned (and am still learning) to accept as I’ve attempted and failed again and again at finishing my stupid novel — each failed attempt getting me closer and closer to understanding the heart of the story, getting closer to learning how to get it right.
I also rather likes what Catmull had to say about change (similar to failure, in that people tend to be terrified of it):
“Here’s what we all know, deep down, even though we might wish it weren’t true: Change is going to happen, whether we like it or not. Some people see random, unforeseen events as something to fear. I am not one of those people. To my mind, randomness is not just inevitable; it is part of the beauty of life. Acknowledging it and appreciating it helps us respond constructively when we are surprised. Fear makes people reach for certainty and stability, neither of which guarantee the safety they imply. I take a different approach. Rather than fear randomness, I believe we can make choices to see it for what it is and to let it work for us. The unpredictable is the ground on which creativity occurs.”
I could probably quote passages and passages of this book, and examine each one closely, but I would quickly run out of space here. Having listened to Creativity, Inc. on audio book (narrated by Peter Altschuler), I’m eager to buying a print copy so that I can peruse the text more closely to better absorb the information and examine it for concepts that might help my own creative life.