Books: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

I wouldn't even have known about this book except I turned the TV on one night, and it's perpetually set to PBS, and Ed Catmull was doing an interview/author talk thing. I was immediately pulled in, so then I knew I wanted to read the book. Which is, I suppose, the whole point of the author book talk thing. Call me a sucker.

Still, I enjoyed reading Catmull's insights. For those who don't recognize the name, Ed Catmull is President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. It says so right on the cover of the book. But Catmull has been in this for the long haul, way back before Pixar was Pixar. And Creativity, Inc. charts the workflow of Pixar and later Disney.

This is key: Creativity, Inc. is not a history of Pixar. It's not full of juicy tidbits. Well, it is, but not as many as some readers might be looking for. This book is about building, managing, maintaining a creative workforce. Unearthing the hidden problems and solving them. Engaging the employees so they feel they have a stake in what's being done and so are willing to go all in. Setting up processes that don't box people in and therefore block creative thought.

As a writer, a lot of what Catmull discusses hit home for me. I don't work in an office, but my job is a creative one. And I have my own version of what Catmull calls the Braintrust: my writing critique group. Whenever one of us is stuck on a project, it's time to meet and hash and toss ideas. And also as Catmull points out, we have to remember to focus on the problem and the project, not make it personal. Which, because we have genuine affection for one another, we do.

Genuine affection. Can you imagine working in a place where you have genuine affection among employees? Where people love their work? From the outside, Pixar seems like a fantasy. (I know people who work there, and I'll admit to being a wee bit jealous!) But Catmull is quick to point out it isn't perfect. They have their problems and weaknesses. He talks about the need for people to be candid, which can be difficult. Constructive criticism is required in creative work, but sometimes people don't want to hear the bad news, and just as often people are leery of being the messenger.

Really, Creativity, Inc. is a new kind of management book. In the back is a section called "Starting Points" which more or less boils the rest of the book down into choice thoughts. It's kind of a shame because having that section may encourage people to only read those points and never mind the rest—a Cliffs Notes if you will. But I believe there is value in the text itself, in the anecdotes and examples Catmull gives of problems Pixar (and later Disney) has faced and how they solved them. Mistakes they made, too, which is important to note as well: Creativity is messy and never perfect. Mistakes will be made. Instead of playing the blame game, best to focus on fixing what you can and doing better next time. Mistakes are a learning process, a growing pain.

I've often said the three hardest words to say are not "I love you" but "I don't know." For some reason we see that as weakness or failure. So I really like that Catmull points out how important it is to know what you don't know. Basically, to know when to say, "I don't know" and then follow it with, "but I'll find out" or "I'll learn." The minute a person thinks he (or she) knows everything, he becomes closed. And closed people are boring, and often difficult to work with. They get stubborn and set in their ways. Catmull discusses the "beginner's mind" idea of approaching things with an open mind and a willingness to learn, or re-think what has already been learned.

Likewise, I would hope managers or would-be corporate leaders would read this book with an open mind and a willingness to think about ways to implement some of the suggestions.

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