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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

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Published in Brian Reads Business Monday Review Public Humanities Technology

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