Book Review – “Creativity, Inc.” by Ed Catmull

Today I thought write a book review from a book I read a month or so back. Creativity, Inc..
But instead of writing a lengthy response and analysis, I thought I’d put down my favourite quotes from the book and comment in bullet points on these on why I think it’s important.
I always read with a pencil (probably why I don’t like ebooks) and the following is what I’ve highlighted from the book.
“Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right. It is easy to say you want talented people, and you do, but the way those people interact with one another is the real key. Even the smartest people can form an ineffective team if they are mismatched. That means it is better to focus on how a team is performing, not on the talents of individuals within it” (p. 74)
  • Team of Champions vs. Champion Team. There is little point in having a bunch of smart Type A personalities who won’t back down on their ideas. You will get nowhere, and will have nothing to show but conflict.
“When we trust the process – we or perhaps more accurately, when we trust the people who use the process – we are optimistic but also realistic. The trust comes from knowing that we are safe, that our colleagues will not judge us for failures but will encourage us to keep pushing the boundaries. But to me, the key is not to let this trust, our faith, lull us into the abdication of personal responsibility. When that happens, we fall into dull repetition, producing empty versions of what was made before” (p. 81)
Also adding to this theme is something echoed later in the book:
“That kind of openess is only possible in a culture that acknowledges its own blind spots.” It’s only possible when managers understand that others see problems they don’t – and that they also see solutions.” (p. 175)
“What interests me is the number of people who believe that they have the ability to drive the train and who think that this is the power position – that driving the train is the way to shape their companies’ futures. The truth is, it’s not. Driving the train doesn’t set its course. The real job is laying the track.” (p. 140)
  • You want people to feel happy in teams? Give them autonomy. You want to make them perform? Allow them to take (logical) risks, fail, learn, try again.
  • This to be ties into what Peter Diamandis says in his book BOLD about the importance of Skunkworks. People are driven by Intrinsic rewards : Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose. Makes you question your compensation structure right?
“The key is to look at the viewpoints being offered, in any successful feedback group, as additive, not competitive. A competitive approach measures other ideas against your own, turning the discussion into a debate to be won or lost. An additive approach, on the other hand, starts with the understanding that each participant contributes something (even if it’s only an idea that fuels the discussion – and ultimately doesn’t work). The Braintrust is valuable because it broadens your perspective, allowing you to peer – at least briefly – through others’ eyes.” (p.101)
“If we start with the attitude that different viewpoints are additive rather than competitive, we become more effective because our ideas or decisions are honed and tempered by that discourse. In a healthy, creative culture, the people in the trenches feel free to speak up and bring to light differing view that can help give us clarity”  (p.174)
  • Pixar’s Braintrust sounds truly incredible. Getting people to check their egos in at the door clearly leads to better, stronger and more successful ideas.
“If I start on a film and right away know the structure – where it’s going, the plot – I don’t trust it” [Pete Dokter] says. “I feel like the only reason we’re able to find some of these unique ideas, characters, and story twists is through discovery. And by definition, ‘discovery’ means you don’t know the answer when you start.” (p. 109)
  • This pretty much defines teamwork to me. I love the use of “Ugly Baby” in the book to describe that every idea (including the first attempt at Toy Story) is pretty much awful. It’s only when the idea is manifested in a team environment that it becomes beautiful.
  • The bigger lesson I see from this is : Stop trying to make something perfect before showing it to anyone. Make it as good as you can then as soon as you can show it to the team / your peers. Let them poke holes in it. Let them make you consider something you didn’t. “Discovery” is the key to a project’s success – and this is partly you and partly everyone else. My best work has only come after many iterations from honest feedback and input from others.
“The mechanisms that keep us safe from unknown threats have been hardwired into us since before our ancestors were fighting off saber-toothed tigers with sticks. But when it comes to creativity, the unknown is not our enemy. If we make room for it instead of shunning it, the unknown can bring inspiration and originality.” (p. 158)
  • This forms the fundamental basis for Julia Cameron’s fantastic book The Artist’s Way,.which prescribes the solution that people should get up and write three pages of whatever’s on their mind first thing in the morning as a method for clearing the “censor” which inhibits creativity. Seth Godin refers to the same principle as “Lizard Brain”. We naturally only trust proven methods and ideas, often to our own detriment. We block new things out because they scare us.
  • Lesson here is to find a method for unblocking the creativity, and destroying your sensor / lizard brain.
“Measure what you can, evaluate what you measure, and appreciate that you cannot measure the vast majority of what you do. And at least every once in a while, make time to take a step back and think about what you’re doing.” (p.220)
  • “What gets measured gets managed” is a good quote but also limiting. Trying to measure the future is often trying to predict it. There’s too many variables you have no idea about. I measure everything I can but don’t let it inhibit what I’m doing. You’ve got to leave something to chance.
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it” Alan Kay – Apple’s Chief Scientist (via Ed Catmull) 
  • That quote sums up leadership to me.

Mindfulness – a new sleeping pill

A couple of weeks ago I was in a hotel in Melbourne for work. I was busy all day and had a lot of projects and things to do. I like being busy and working on meaningful things, but one night I woke up at 3 am and my mind naturally tried to get to the bottom of every single thing on my mind. This is not unusual to most people I’m sure, and the way I usually counter it is to take Melatonin, which in Australia is a homeopathic supplement (as opposed to what is sold as Melatonin in USA). It’s quite harmless and certainly nowhere near Stilnox in terms of its potency. Unfortunately I didn’t have any and therefore had to deal with my mind fruitlessly trying to solve every issue I had in my mind for almost two hours. My mind raced from one problem to the next, back and forth, causing a level of anxiety that was almost catatonic. Ironically I really didn’t have much that was at all that would warrant the anxiety – no critical issues at all. I tossed and turned, tried to count (that sometimes work) but to no avail. Then the thought occurred, why don’t I meditate? I opened up Sam Harris’s Mindfulness Meditation (the 9 minute version) which is what I start my day as my morning ritual after exercising. I fell right to sleep after doing it.

The thought occurred to me in the morning – what if I had not discovered Mindfulness Meditation? I would have certainly been up all night and functioning poorly the next day (if I don’t sleep properly I don’t work properly). So what are the the benefits to Mindfulness as I see it?

1. Perspective

Mindfulness gives perspective to your thoughts, allowing you to distance yourself from all your thoughts and emotions, and observe them from a distance.

2. Self Governance

Without your thoughts running you, you can run your thoughts. The method prescribed by Mindfulness is to observe the thought you are having before returning to the breath, or raw sensations in the present moment.

3. Enjoying the present

All anxiety and worry does is stress you about the past and the future. Mindfulness allows you to enjoy and appreciate all that is around you now.


Tortured Artist Fallacy

I always had it it my mind that most of the romantics – the writers, artists, musicians, were all probably hopeless alcoholics, being able only to produce one serious piece of work before falling into a drunken stupor and dying prematurely, only to be portrayed by a Johnny Depp type hundreds of years later.

This all changed when i read Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals .

In the book he describes in detail the productivity ritual of people such as Karl Marx, Woody Allen, Agatha Christie, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, and Pablo Picasso.

And once you read it, you can see how they got so much done. Not by being hopelessly romantic. Not by stumbling upon incredible talent as if God just gave them pre-packaged.

It was from routine. Ritual. Deciding a way to get their work done and religiously following it.

There are countless quotes on productivity from the masters in the book – all not just inspiring but demonstrate that it was at the core of what someone who truly is creative does.

This is my issue with the “Tortured Artist”. An artist who is not producing work is by definition not an artist.

We need to realise that most self made people don’t become that way due to some exotic and totally unique talent. It’s the combination of talent and a rigorous productivity schedule.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m dedicating a lot of what I write in this blog about productivity, as I think that although there is a lot of material on it, it definitely warrants further work.