Book notes: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull book summary.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull


Synopsis: “Creativity, Inc. is a book for managers who want to lead their employees to new heights, a manual for anyone who strives for originality, and the first-ever, all-access trip into the nerve center of Pixar Animation – into the meetings, postmortems, and “Braintrust” sessions where some of the most successful films in history are made. It is, at heart, a book about how to build a creative culture – but it is also, as Pixar co-founder and president Ed Catmull writes, “an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.”

In some ways, Pixar movies are an object lesson in what creativity really is. Here, in this book, Catmull reveals the ideals and techniques that have made Pixar so widely admired – and so profitable.

As a young man, Ed Catmull had a dream: to make the first computer-animated movie. Nine years later, Toy Story was released, changing animation forever. The essential ingredient in that movie’s success – and in the 13 movies that followed – was the unique environment that Catmull and his colleagues built at Pixar, based on philosophies that protect the creative process and defy convention.” -Audible

Opening thoughts:

As with most other books, I bought this one because it had good ratings and reviews on Audible. I believe that someone may have referenced this book in Tim Ferriss’s podcast as well, or maybe it was on a book list I found. Either way, it seemed like a good book. From the sub-header, I believe the book will touch upon creativity and inspiration, most likely in relation to the lessons learned from the team at Pixar. Pretty excited about this book actually as I really enjoy books that have a biographical nature and teach lessons based on real life stories, companies, and people.

Key notes:

  • The underlying principle of the building and campus design wise to facilitate community and collaboration
  • They value self-expression and creativity
  • The financially-strained company of 100 people struggled for five years to create Toy Story their way
    • They figured if they created a movie they wanted to see, other people would want to see it
  • After the success of Toy Story and going public to ensure their future, he felt that succeeding in the goal that defined his professional life left him feeling a bit empty and without a driving goal
  • He believes his job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it
    • He believes at his core that everyone has the potential to be creative
  • Identifying these destructive forces is a crucial, central mission
  • Part one: Getting sStarted
  • Chapter 1: Animated
  • When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless
    • Unhindered communication was key no matter what your position
  • Disney and Einstein represented the two poles of creativity
    • Disney was all about inventing the new, bringing things into being both artistically and technologically
    • Einstein was a master of explaining that which already was
  • To create a fertile laboratory, you have to assemble different kinds of thinkers and encourage their autonomy
    • They had to offer feedback we needed but also to be willing to stand back and give them room
  • Chapter 2: Pixar is Born
  • He admired that his first boss had total confidence in the people that he hired
  • When faced with a challenge, get smarter
    • Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening
  • There were so much secrecy around different companies trying to do animation in a feature film. They took the opposite approach by sharing everything they learned because he felt everyone was so far that keeping secrets would only impede their overall progress
  • George Lucas pave the way for special-effects in Hollywood. The success of Star Wars allowed him to do it the right way by having the resources to allocate to an animation apartment
  • When they asked him who else should be considered for the job, he listed off the top people in his industry
    • What he didn’t know is that they had already interviewed all of them, and none of them gave anyone else’s names. This showed his worldview in that the brightest minds it should be on the hardest problems
  • Later, George said he hired him because of his honesty, clarity of vision, and steadfast belief in what computers could do
  • The human resistance to change is a real impediment
  • It isn’t enough for managers to have good ideas, they have to be able to engender support for those ideas among the people who would be charged with employing them
  • For George Lucas, the process of moving toward something, a common goal, of having not yet arrived is what he idealized
    • George didn’t bump up his salary quotes, he instead ask for licensing rights and bet on himself. He ended up winning
  • A conversation with Steve Jobs took you places you didn’t expect. It forced you not just to defend but also to engage, and that in itself had value
    • Steve Jobs bought their computer department from George Lucas for $5 million, and promised an additional 5 million in funding to the department once the sale was closed
  • Chapter 3: A defining goal
  • There’s nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning
  • He made the mistake of asking for simple answers to complex questions instead of asking the more fundamental questions
  • Total quality control: The responsibility for finding and fixing problems should be assigned it to every employee, from the very top to the very bottom
    • If anyone spots any problem, they should be encouraged and expected to stop the assembly line
  • This idea gave ownership of and responsibility for a products quality to the people who are most involved in it’s creation
    • Workers could suggest changes, call out problems, and feel the pride when they helped fix what was broken. This resulted in continuous improvement
  • While Steve could be brilliant and inspirational, he was also extremely difficult to work with
    • At this point, he completely lacked any empathy and his sense of humor was nonexistent
  • He used Steve’s own technique of conflict resolution against him by taking the time to explain his position several times until it was resolved
    • And even if it wasn’t resolved, Steve would let him take the reins if he was passionate about it. Steve respected passion. If Ed believed in something that strongly, it couldn’t be all wrong
    • When stakes were highest, Steve could go to another level of play. He successfully negotiated the partnership with Disney for creating their next feature film
    • Steve accurately predicted and executed the plan of going public after Toy Story became a hit and then renegotiating the contract with Disney for a better deal
  • After accomplishing his goal of making Toy Story, the first feature animated film, he felt like he lost his purpose
  • Sometimes the good sides hide the bad sides. When downsides coincide with upsides, people are reluctant to explore what’s bugging them for fear of being labeled as complainers
  • One change they implemented was removing a hierarchical structure from communication channels so that anyone could talk to anyone else without having to go through a supervisor
  • Chapter 4: Establishing Pixar’s identity
    • Their first mantra was: Story is king
    • Many people said Toy Story success was how the story made them feel
    • Second mantra: trust the process
  • As one of their core values, they felt proud that they insisted on quality
    • Decisions like that, he believed, ensured future success
  • What Toy Story to lacked was drama, something that the viewers would believe was a real dilemma they could relate to
    • The creative team phrased it as: would you choose to live forever without love?
    • When you can feel the agony of that choice, you have a movie
    • What he says, “I can’t stop Andy from growing up, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world”
  • The success of toy story to prove that they can do the impossible
  •  Lesson: if you give a great idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you given a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better
  • Takeaway: getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right. The way people interact with one another is key. Even the smartest people can form an ineffective team if they are mismatched
  • A good team is made up of people to complement each other. Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea
  • What is more important: people or ideas? The answer should be obvious. Ideas come from people, therefore people are more important
    • A movie is not one idea, it’s a multitude of them. And behind these ideas are people
    • It is the focus on people, their work habits, their talents, their values, that is absolutely central to any creative venture
  • It was management job to take the long view, to intervene and protect our people from their willingness to pursue excellence at all costs. Not to do so would be irresponsible
    • Trust in people, not in processes
  • It is the responsibility of good leaders to make sure that words remain attached to the meanings and ideals they represent
  • Lesson: we must always be alert to shifting dynamics because our future depends on it
  • New phrase: quality is the best business plan
    • Quality is not a consequence of following some set of behaviors, rather it is a prerequisite and a mindset you must have before you decide what you’re setting out to do
  • Part two: Protecting the New
  • Chapter 5: Honesty and Candor
  • A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that it’s people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Lack of candor if left unchecked ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments
  • Principle: You are not your idea, and if you identify do you 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
    • Focus on the problem, not the person
  • If Pixar is a hospital and the movies are their patients, the brain trust is when the director and producer, or whomever is the filmmaker in charge, is bringing together a group of doctors to consult on the problems and then ultimately make a decision on how to address it
  • A lively debate in a brain trust meeting and argument serves only to excavate the truth
    • Steve Jobs stayed out of brain trust meetings because he trusted the people in those meetings that knew better than he did
  • The key is to look at the view points being offered in any successful feedback group as additive, not competitive
    • A comparative approach measures other ideas against your own, turning the discussion into a debate to be one or lost
    • An additive approach starts with the understanding that each participant contribute something, even if it’s only an idea that fuels the discussion and ultimately doesn’t work
  • The brain trust is valuable because it broadens your perspective, allowing you to peer at least briefly through others eyes
  • There’s a difference between criticism and constructive criticism
    • The latter builds up while breaking down. That’s an art form in itself. Whatever notes you are giving should inspire the recipient
  • Sometimes you have to act like a teacher
    • This can require talking about the problem in 50 different ways until you find that one sentence that you can see makes their eyes pop, until they’re thinking that they want to do it
  • Qualifications for a brain trust member: The people you choose must:
    • A) make you think smarter
    • B) put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time
  • He came to think of their meltdowns as necessary part of doing their business like investments in R&D
    • Failure is not something to be ashamed of, like how they teach you in school as a kid
    • Failures aren’t a necessary evil, in fact they aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new, and as such should I be seen as valuable. Without them, we would have no originality
    • Failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making it far worse mistake. You are being driven by the desire to avoid it
      • As a leader, this strategy dooms you to fail
  • Do you make failure into something people can face without fear?
    • If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others. You don’t run from it or pretend it doesn’t exist. That is why they make it a point to be open about their meltdowns at Pixar
    • Being open about problems is the first step towards learning from them
  • Principle of Iterative Trial and Failure: Any outcome is good outcome because it yields New information
  • The more time you spend mapping out an approach, the more you’ll get attached to it
  • As leaders we must always think of ourselves as teachers
  • The antidote to fear is trust
  • It is managements job to figure out how to help others see conflict as healthy, as a route to balance which benefits us all in the long run
  • With certain jobs, there isn’t any other way to learn then by doing
    • By putting yourself in the unstable place and then feeling your way, similar to learning how to stand on a balance board
  • Negative feedback may be fun, but it is far less brave than endorsing something unproven and providing room for it to grow
  • The new needs protection, whether it is people or ideas, to thrive. Eventually it will need to transition into engagement
  • There is no growth or success without change
  • People have a natural tendency to want to hold onto things that work
  • Rather than fear randomness, he believes you can make choices to see it for what it is and to let it work for you
    • The unpredictable is the ground on which creativity occurs
  • Having a finite list of problems is much better than having ideological feeling that everything is going wrong
  • Another trick is to encourage people to play. Some of the best ideas come out of joking around which only comes when you or the boss give yourself permission to do it
    • It can feel like a waste of time to watch videos or tell stories about last weekend, but it can actually be very productive in the long run
  • He’s heard some people describe creativity as unexpected connections between unrelated concepts or ideas. If that’s true, you have to be in a certain mindset to make those connections
  • Occam’s Razor: if there are competing explanations for why something occurs the way does, you should pick the one that relies on the fewest assumptions and is thus the simplest
    • In reality, not everything is simple, and to try to force it to be is to misrepresent reality
  • To think you can control or prevent random problems by making an example of someone is naïve and wrongheaded
    • We must meet unexpected problems with unexpected responses
    • The key is to create a response structure that matches the problem structure
  •  Nobody, not wall Disney, Steve Jobs, or people at Pixar, ever achieved creative success by simply clinging to what used to work
  • A core management belief: if you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead
  • The better approach is to accept that we can’t understand every facet of a complex environment and to focus instead on techniques to deal with combining different viewpoints
    • If we start with the attitude that different new points are additive rather than competitive, we become more effective because our ideas or decisions are honed and tempered by that discourse
  • He is an advocate for humility in leaders. But to be truly humble, those leaders must understand that many of the factors that shape their lives in businesses are and will always be out of sight
  • Our mental models play a major role in our perception of the world
  • Honoring the viewpoints of others can be a difficult principle to put into practice throughout your company
  • Confirmation bias: The tendency of people to favor information, true or not, that confirms their pre-existing beliefs
  • Our mental models are not reality. They are simply tools just like a weather forecaster stools which are always prone to be wrong
  •  They had a balance between technology, art, and business between Ed, John, and Steve
    • Art challenges technology, technology inspires art
  • Their shorts accomplished different goals such as giving the teams more experience and time to deep in their relationships with each other
  • Art classes aren’t for learning how to draw, they are for learning how to see
  • Doing a postmortem (retrospective) is a way to sit down and consolidate all that you’ve learned before you forget it
    • They are a rare opportunity to do an analysis that was not possible in the heat of the project
    •  It is also a chance to teach others who weren’t there
    • Postmortems are also a way to not let resentments fester
    • It is a way to force people to think, reflect, and evaluate
    • The value of data in postmortems is that it is neutral
  • Through Pixar University, communication thrived because simply by providing an excuse for them to toil side-by-side, humbled by the challenge of learning various skills and crafts, it changed them for the better and taught everyone that no matter their title, to respect the work their colleagues did
    • It provided and environments without hierarchy because they were all beginners again
  • Pixar University stressed how important it was for each of them to keep learning new things
    • That keeps them flexible and their brains nimble by pushing themselves to try things they’ve never tried before
  • Fear hinders creativity, as it is shown by second and third graders drawings compared to fourth and fifth graders who became more aware and subconscious
  • Creative people discover and realize their visions over time, and through dedicated, protracted struggle
    • In that way, creativity is more like a marathon than a sprint. You have to pace yourself
  • As long as you commit to a destination and drive toward it with all your might, people will accept when you correct course
    • People want decisiveness, but they also want honesty when you’ve effed up.
    • Include people in your problems, not just your solutions
  • What’s important as you construct a mental model that works best for you is to be thoughtful about the problems it is helping you to solve
  • Steve spearheaded the merger of Disney Animation and Pixar, but made sure that Ed and John remained the heads of both entities
    • They also to make sure that their traditions wouldn’t be overtaken by the larger Disney entity
  • After the merger, John and Ed kept Pixar and Disney animation completely separate. But they started to try and apply the principles they learned at Pixar and reconstruct Disney animation
  • He felt that contracts were bad for both the employee and the employe
  • Keeping the studios separate forced them to be able to solve their own problems, instead of masking it
  • Ed gave Disney animation the Toyota speech, where he said they strive to empower the smart people they hired to solve their own problems
    • Timidity won’t make Disney animation great. Innovation would
  • By spending less time with Pixar and more with Disney animation, it showed that there were capable leaders at Pixar who could step up and solve problems without John and Ed
  • While he believes that a big organizations there are advantages to consistency, he strongly believes that smaller groups from the larger whole should be allowed to differentiate themselves and operate according to their own rules so long as those rules work
    • This fosters a sense of personal ownership and pride in the company that benefits the larger enterprise
  • They took the idea of research and research trips into Disney animation and now they do it consistently
  • Disney usede the marking lessons from the Princess and the Frog when they released and rebranded the concept for the movie Tangled
  • Easy isn’t the goal, quality is the goal
  • He believes clarity is elusive because he doesn’t believe in simple, prescriptive formulas for success
    • He wanted this book to acknowledge the complexity of that creativity requires
  • Managers of creative companies must never forget to ask themselves: how do we tap the brain power of our people?
  • Notes Day was successful in part because of the idea that fixing things is an ongoing, incremental process
    • Creative people must except that challenge never cease
    • No creative company should ever stop evolving
  • The number one topic to discuss I know today was “how to accomplish a 12,000 person week movie”
  • He believes that what made Notes Day a success was that they made it safer for people to say what they thought
    • Notes Day made it OK to disagree. That’s in the feeling that people had that they were part of the solution
  • What made it work? Three factors:
    1. There was a clear and focused goal
    2. This was an idea champion by those at the highest levels of the company
    3. Notes Day was lead from within
  • Persist.
    • Persist on telling your story
    • Persist on reaching your audience
    • Persist on staying true to your vision.
  • His goal is to continue to show people how Disney and Pixar continue to figure it out
    • The future is not a destination, it is a direction
  • They must not be afraid of constant uncertainty. They must accept it just as they accept the weather
    • Uncertainty and change are life’s constants. And that’s the fun part. Mistakes will always be made and our work is never done
  • Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear
  •  Steve, John, and Ed bonded over their passion for excellence
    • Steve saw that creativity wasn’t linear, that art was not commerce, and that insisting upon applying dollars and cents logic was to risk disrupting the thing that set them apart
  • Shift the emphasis in any meeting away from the source of the idea and onto the idea itself
  • Steve knew how important it was to construct a story that connected with people
    • Steve wanted to make people happy and make the world a better place, and there was a special place in his heart for Pixar because he knew that that’s what they did with their movies
  • Overtime, Steve became more wise, learning how to listen and gaining more empathy
  • For screenings with the board of directors, Steve focused on the problem itself, not the filmmakers, which made his critiques more powerful
    • It is easy to dismiss criticisms being leveled for personal reasons
  • Testing boundaries and crossing the line sometimes is a behavioral trait can be seen as antisocial
    • Or if it happens to change the world, it can earn you the label “visionary
  • Starting points: thoughts for managing a creative culture
    • Giving an idea to a mediocre team vs giving to a great team will produce different results
    • When looking to hire people, give their potential to grow more weight than their current skill level
    • Always try to hire people that are smarter than you
    • You lose if there are people in your organization don’t feel free to share their ideas
      • Your job is to search for reason why people aren’t candid and address them
    • Engaging the collective brainpower of the people you work with is an active ongoing process
      • Sharing problems is an act of inclusion that makes employees feel invested in the larger enterprise
    • Measuring the outcome without evaluating the process is deceiving
    • Often times the cost of preventing errors is far greater than fixing them
    • Do not resist change, just build the capability to recover when they occur
    • It is the managers job to make it safe to take risks
    • Trust doesn’t mean you trust they won’t screw up, it means you trust them even when they do
    • Finding and fixing problems is everybody’s job
    • The process of problem solving often bonds people together
    • Protect the future, not the past
    • Do not accidentally make stability a goal. Balance is more important than stability
    • Measure people by their ability to solve problems, not by the mistakes they make
    • It takes substantial energy to move a group, even when everyone is on board
    • Engaging with exceptionally hard problems forces us to think differently.
    • Imposing limits can encourage a creative response
    • Excellence, quality, and good should be earned words attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves
    • A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody
    • Don’t wait for things to be perfect to share them with others. Show early and show often. It’ll be pretty when you get there, but not on the way
    • Don’t confuse the process with the goal. Improving the process is necessary, but making the product great is the goal
    • Don’t make too many rules. They can simplify life for managers, but be demeaning for the 95% who behave well

Closing thoughts:

Fantastic book. As I’ve mentioned previously, I love when a book I’m reading combines a memoir with core principles or lessons learned. Its a bonus when there are practical applications or exercises as well for the reader to follow in order to apply and improve their own life or business.

This book not only has leadership principles, but it also has great advice for managing a creative company and its culture. Great insights from a guy who was able to bring the idea of Pixar from just a dream to one of the most recognizable animation companies in the world. Eventually, they would merge with Disney and he would successfully apply those principles learned with Pixar and use them to revive the struggling Disney Animation Studios. Such a fantastic story.

Another great caveat of this book is that there’s so much rich backstory to all of the Pixar and Disney movies we all know and love. He gives the inside scoop on how some stories started off drastically different and how they evolved to the final product. Its cool to hear about how there were so many lessons they’ve learned along the way, and its a real treat to connect it with movies we’re all familiar with.

Nutshell: The rise of Pixar, Disney Animation, and the lessons learned on building and creating a creative culture.

Rating: 4.5/5

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4 thoughts on “Book notes: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull”

  1. I am actively reading this book right now, and I love it. Probably because I am a big self development fan, as well as a big Disney fan. Thanks for the insight!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s awesome, I’m glad you like it so far! I love books like these that not only give great insight into how great individuals and organizations accomplish these feats, but also weave them into a narrative that’s interesting to follow.


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