The Creativity of Pixar

Earlier this year, I read the book Creativity Inc, by Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar and it was a fantastic book about how to nurture creativity in organizations. Pixar optimizes collaborative creativity and allows people to bring their whole selves to work and do outstanding creative work. Pixar further amplifies this creativity by mastering technology as well. As another book, Innovators by Walter Issacson mentions, marrying the best in people with the best in computers, is an intersection with a tremendous amount of potential.  Pixar put these together with incredible results. In addition, Pixar knew how to tell a great story first before the technical aspects.

Culture-wise, Pixar as an organization always aims for high quality in everything they do. In order to do this, they put together teams with complementary skill sets and rely on a group, they call the Braintrust.  This small team goes around from project to project to add input and make each movie a little bit better each time.  In spite of striving for excellence, Pixar also embraces failure.  Being ok with failure is necessary because failure is a necessary by-product of doing new things and creating.  So as a manager, it is important to solicit good ideas from your employees, not be so hard on failure, seek out lessons learned, and build great teams that complement each others.

Finally, Ed Catmull shares much of his personal story and career. Some of the reasons he mentions that led him to career success was that he set a big goal for his life that he wanted to achieve.  For him, this was making the first animated movie.  He also sought out jobs and education to build the tools and experience to achieve this big goal.  He kept his eyes and ears open to good opportunities and was a continuous life long learner.  Finally, he had some fantastic mentors and most importantly, sought out work that he enjoyed doing.  He did and continues to do great work, because he loves what he does.

So with that summary, here are 9 lessons to take away from the book:

  1. Set a big, reach goal since having a quest is critical for both individuals and companies
  2. Power of asking good questions– for him it was, how can I create an creative environment like I had in college
  3. Focus on yourself– don’t compare yourself to others and get distracted with what others are doing.  This applies to companies too.
  4. When faced with a challenge, get smarter.  For the government agency, ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency, the predecessor to DARPA), they worked past obstacles by getting smarter.  Ed Catmull relies on this philosophy as well.  Getting smarter can be reading, going back to school, learning from others, and finding training opportunities.
  5. It’s ok to be a beginner.  When you are doing new things, you will initially not be very good at, but over time you will get better.  Ed Catmull describes that they had no idea what they were doing at first at Pixar and this is ok.  Steve Jobs also describes the time after getting fired from Apple as the most creative period in his life because he got to be a beginner again.  Virgin too is named Virgin because Richard Branson and his partners were new to business.
  6. Welcome failure– when you think of riding a bike or learning to walk, you fall many times.  But eventually you will succeed and when that happens, all the work and hardships become worth it 10x over.
  7. Dark and rainy periods are necessary for growth.  If it is sunny everyday and doesn’t rain, things don’t grow and if it is sunny all the time with no night, things dry up.  Storms are a part of life and being able to dance in the rain is a critical skill to have.
  8. Creative people work in the shadow of uncertainty.  Uncertainty is stressful oftentimes, but it is a place where the magic of ideas, invention, creativity, and new things come into being.  Embracing uncertainty creates the future.
  9. Dream.  Imagining the future, dreaming are what kickstart the creative process.  John Lasseter had a dream for Toy Story and this dream was the precursor for making it real.Don’t forget to doze off, daydream, and imagine.

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