Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Part history, part memoir, part management guide, Creativity Inc. is an engrossing read filled with behind the scenes tours and sage advice. The authors (Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace) mix detailed examples of Ed Catmull’s management philosophy with background on Catmull’s path to Pixar, Pixar’s development, and their transition to working within Disney.

This book isn’t just for Pixar people, entertainment executives, or animators. It is for anyone who wants to work in an environment that fosters creativity and problem solving. My belief is that good leadership can help creative people stay on the path to excellence no matter what business they’re in. (xv)

So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the theme of art and technology’s beneficial relationship spoke to me. I work at a technology-focused nonprofit while my background is in history, the humanities, and the liberal arts. The authors frame this theme by talking about Catmull’s childhood admiration of Walt Disney and Albert Einstein. While his academic career followed a more Einstein-ian path (working on cutting-edge computer science work at the University of Utah), his childhood love of Disney ultimately led his pursuits back to film-making and storytelling. As much as Pixar created and worked with state-of-the-art technology, most of the book’s anecdotes center on storytelling and the difficulty of (and importance of) getting the story right.

This was my first encounter with a phenomenon I would notice again and again, throughout my career: For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right. (37)

The Authors give great detail behind the creative process of taking a film from idea to theater, highlighting the importance of revision and the prevalence of failure in creative ventures. His emphasis on rigorously testing ideas and giving candid criticism is certainly something I loved about working in an academic environment and his insistence that all films suck in their early stages was a familiar sentiment about creating something good. However, the amount of revision that went into writing a film was still astounding. They completely rewrote Up several times. Nearly the entire content of the film’s story had changed. Even then, the emotion underlying the story not only remained, but was articulated in a much truer fashion.

The film itself — not the filmmaker — is under the microscope. This principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation — you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person. (94)

Just as the importance of the story is central to Pixar’s success, the importance of organizational chemistry is behind Catmull’s success as a manager. It’s not just about assembling plenty of smart people, but having them work together in a way that is productive and supportive. After they were able to create the first computer animated feature film (Toy Story), Catmull made it his professional ambition (obsession?) to sustain Pixar’s creative culture. He quickly found that an organization’s need to communicate openly and candidly was vital to its success.

That they liked so much of what they were doing allowed them to put up with the parts of the job they came to resent. This was a revelation to me: The good stuff was hiding the bad stuff. I realized that this was something I needed to look out for: When downsides coexist with upsides, as they often do, people are reluctant to explore what’s bugging them, for fear of being labeled complainer…Being on the lookout for problems, I realized, was not the same as seeing problems. (62)

The way the book connects so many important themes (art and technology, candid communication, the creative process – to name my favorites) while engrossing the reader in the world of Pixar and the life of Ed Catmull is a testament to the authors and their storytelling. A truly fascinating read, Creativity Inc. is difficult to summarize succinctly, but I can assure you, that it is well-worth your time to read it.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Next time: How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Brian is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

Blockchain Revolution

The big question facing technology following the huge changes brought by the expansion of the internet is what will be the “Next Big Thing”? The Blockchain Revolution seemed like a good juxtaposition to the open hardware revolution detailed in Makers: The New Industrial Revolution (My Review Here).

The Tapscotts make the problem the Blockchain Revolution will address clear: there are too many middle men collecting and exposing our personal data. Why expose all our data when only some is needed? Why have a middle man determine our credibility when we can work one-on-one with another person? Blockchains (Bitcoin being the most famous) are the solution.

So blockchains are anonymous but still public. They’re encrypted and … *begins mumbling* … math … Bitcoin … algorithm … *indistinct mumbling*

But Brian, how did you read an entire book on blockchains and still can’t explain it?

Well, dear reader, that is a good question. The short answer is I did not read the entire book. I read fifty-two pages (the first of three “Parts”) and learned that blockchains are like a ledger. But that’s about it. I skimmed the rest of the book – and boy was I vindicated.

Perhaps the Tapscotts make sense to someone who already knows about Bitcoins and blockchains, but to someone who isn’t already well-versed, their attempts at explanation are more confusing than informative.

…also expects to see bitcoin applications in the Metaverse (a virtual world) where you can convert bitcoin into Kongbucks and hire Hiro Protagonist to hack you some data. Or jack yourself into the OASIS (a world of multiple virtual utopias) where you actually do discover the Easter egg, win Halliday’s estate, license OASIS’s virtual positioning rights to Google, and buy a self-driving car to navigate Toronto. (38)

The book doesn’t rely on a narrative and is largely composed of independent sections, subsections, and lists. Several lists even get names: the seven design principles of the blockchain economy (27), the golden eight (61), the big seven (128), and ten implementation challenges (253).

So I read the jumbled explanation that is Part 1. Part 2 looked to be essentially “What if everything used blockchains?” Blockchain finance. Blockchain real estate. Blockchain voting. Blockchain justice. In this section, the Tapscotts wonder what if Airbnb used Blockchain (115-7)? What about Wikipedia (130-2)? Uber (164-5)? The music and art industries (chapter 9)? Part 3 looked to be: Will Blockchain succeed? Maybe!

I hate to be so negative because a good deal of my dislike of the book stems from mismatched expectations. I needed a book that would walk me through what blockchains are, how they are used, how they can be used, and why they will benefit people in the future. I needed to be converted to the gospel of blockchain. This book is for those already converted. Unfortunately for me, the Tapscotts are simply preaching to the choir.

Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World

Next time: Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Brian is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

BattleBots

Nerdy. Cheesy. Fun.

That’s essentially all you need to know about the first episode of this year’s BattleBots. I missed it live so watched it on ABC’s website. The first 10 minutes is full of completely cheesy build up, but as the episode progresses the terrible poetry of introductions gets more humorous with each battle. An entry of twin robots named Gemini got introduced as: “Your horoscope reads: you’re about to die. It’s the real zodiac killer…” My favorite though was “The Roomba of Doomba.”

But, the 3 minutes of action in each round is surprisingly awesome. Flames and clashing metal abound. There’s not much in terms education, but there are surprises about which type of robot performs well. Will the robot trying to flip others prevail over the hammer-wielding robot? What about the one with flames versus the spinner? I imagine the hope is for kids to see the carnage and get inspired to see how it works. Well, technically the hope is for ratings, but you get the point. This was also the qualifying round so I’ll have to see if they delve more into the science behind it in future episodes.

The only real complaint I had was that it’s just soooo many white guys. Each robot had a team behind it and even those led by non-white men were filled with white dudes. Again, maybe the full field will do a better job of showcasing the tech field as more than just white men, but I’ll have to wait and see.




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Brian is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution

In Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Chris Anderson presents a future of inventor-entrepreneurs spearheading the return of manufacturing to the United States. Customizable goods made by desktop fabricators like 3D printers sold globally on the Internet allow artisan manufacturers to occupy a space between mass produced oversees goods and specialty handmade items. Though his historical comparisons are often less than inspiring, his knowledge of the present’s maker culture and manufacturing economy make his book worth the read.

Reading as someone who has spent many years in a graduate history program, my face contorted with skepticism at many of his attempts to connect the industrial revolution to the maker movement. There are connections, but I don’t think Anderson is the person to make them. I think framing his book as discussing “The New Industrial Revolution” put too much pressure to add historical examples. The power of the book is in the present and the future. His best historical analogies are comparing 3D printers to the first desktop ink printers of the 1980s – both initially used by companies and for at-home entertainment (hardcover p.58). His less convincing historical examples often use a “this was then, this is now, look how now is better” framework. His analysis that looks at the present and imagines the future is far stronger and much more convincing. While I could detail my historical gripes fully, like most academic exercises, it’d be needlessly nit-picky. The bulk of the book is quite good. I’d just recommend picking it up at chapter 4.

The core of his argument, in fact, is rather convincing: the web made commerce global, 3D printing will make production ubiquitous. Together, they’ll remake the production of consumer goods. And he’s quite reasonable about it. He’s a supporter, but he does not preach a gospel. He recognizes that at certain economies of scale, there won’t be much change. Producing a million things in China or another low wage country will still be cheaper than 3D printing them in your garage. Instead, the power of 3D printing is in manufacturing items that cost the same, regardless of alterations made to the design. It’s just as efficient to print 1,000 custom products as 1,000 of the same item on a 3D printer. This makes sense for certain production scenarios, as he says, “markets of ten thousand” (196). Economies of scale still matter, but it’s not just big and small. There will be production runs of every size in between.

It is the reverse of mass production, which favors repetition and standardization. Instead, 3-D printing favors individualization and customization. The big win of the digital manufacturing age is that we can have our choice between the two without having to fall back on expensive handcrafting: both mass and custom are now viable automated manufacturing methods (87).

He’s terrific when breaking down and projecting into the future the best practices of current businesses. Anderson argues that expertise will be/are more important that geography and technology will/can trump labor costs. Companies that adapt to recruiting and retaining the best contributors, regardless of where they live, do get an advantage. Particularly interesting is his favoring communities over companies. His model of a business emerging from an open source community as a common economic path of the future didn’t fully win me over, but I can see it becoming much more prevalent and desirable. Similarly, the automation of production emphasizes design and lessens the influence of labor costs. He’s persuasive when suggesting that proximity to supply networks is more important to the overall cost than employee wages.

Anderson has a wealth of experience and insight into the maker movement and small to medium scale manufacturing. And he’s great at explaining it. My favorite examples is his appendix on how to become a digital maker, suggesting hardware and software options free and paid. Anderson’s ability to convey his expertise turning DIY into manufacturing makes Makers a worthwhile read for beginners and established makers alike.

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution


Next time: Fish: A Proven Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results

Brian is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com