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Lessons in Creativity, Candor, and Failure from Pixar’s Founder

21 November 2017

Barbara read Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Edwin Catmull. It turns out that being willing to fail and fail quickly without feeling embarrassment is the one of the best ways to tap into creativity. (Thoughtful candor from team members you trust helps, too.)

Tags: animation, barbara read, brene brown, creativity, thoughtful candor, writing

I read Creativity Inc. because it was on a list of books that Brené Brown said had strongly influenced her. I think it could be helpful to leaders of any size organization, but I especially was impressed by insights I’ve already started applying to my personal creativity goals.

The book is Ed Catmull’s story of Pixar Animation Studios and how a new type of animated movie came into existence. I should confess now that I’ve never been a big fan of animated movies. My grandchildren and daughter have convinced me to try a few, but I’ve only seen Finding Nemo, Frozen, Inside Out, and Finding Dory. However, this book was so well written, I was compelled to keep reading as he described the difficult journey of creating Toy Story when he was the Chief Technology Officer at Pixar.

Catmull felt an unexpected let down after he met his long-held goal of helping create the first feature length animated movie, Toy Story. It had been his dream since his graduate school days when he was working on a PhD in computer science at the University of Utah.

For a while he didn’t know what he was going to strive for next, but then he decided to carefully analyze what it had taken to create a space where something totally new could come into being. He remembered his graduate school classmates, “We had the genius who seemed to do amazing work on his or her own; on the other end, we had the group that excelled precisely because of its multiplicity of views.” And then he had the “aha” that balancing those two extremes was what had worked.

He decided his next goal would be to take action on a fierce desire to manage the work place and the people in it so that this totally creative experience could be repeated.

One of Catmull's main premises is that no great creative work is made by an individual all alone by themselves.  It may start with one person’s idea, but eventually it will need to be workshopped or edited. This made me feel better about my need for a writing group to keep me writing. He has many excellent management tips in the book. I’ll focus on two—dailies and failure.

Dailies are group meetings where everyone in the room critiques the current version of a movie. They have a type of honesty in the meeting that is rare. But Catmul says it is the essential ingredient in making great—not just good—movies. When they get together, they are looking for candor—the word he uses instead of honesty because people find it a little less intimidating. (It’s one of our favorite concepts at Allison Partners, too.)

He said all their movies have started out as ugly movies. His job is to remind people in the meeting to give feedback in a respectful way always being clear that they are critiquing the idea not the person. “They really don’t want to embarrass themselves by showing incomplete work or ill-conceived ideas, and they don’t want to say something dumb in front of the director. The first step is to teach them that everyone at Pixar shows incomplete work, and everyone is free to make suggestions. When they realize this, the embarrassment goes away—and when the embarrassment goes away, people become more creative.”

Another concept that was helpful to me concerned failure. He described how early and often we are shamed about failure and told during our growing up years in school that it should always be avoided. Andrew Stanton, one of the high ups at Pixar, is known “for repeating the phrases ‘fail early and fail fast’ and be wrong as fast as you can.’” His words reminded me that Anne Lamont says that in order to write well you have to be willing to write s!*t@y first drafts.

I experience this kind of safe candor regularly in a writing group I attend every week. We take first drafts or tenth drafts to class to read and everyone’s goal is to make the piece better with written and oral feedback. It took me a couple of years to learn to fail fast with pieces we call “drafty” and not be embarrassed when my piece was not as good yet as I wanted it to be. I’m deciding here and now to let go of any remaining feelings of inadequacy in front of this group, and I’m going to make sure I say even more of what I mean when I give each of them feedback.

Do you have anywhere in your life where you risk telling your ideas as candidly as you know how? The satisfying experience of creativity will occur more often if you do. As a leader, what could you do to make failing fast and thoughtful candor safe?

I’m grateful, Ed Catmull. This Thanksgiving, I’m going to ask the kids which Pixar movie I️ should watch next.


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