Over the past week I’ve been listening to Creativity, Inc. by Pixar founder and Disney/Pixar President Ed Catmull on my morning walks.
As much as has been written about the company over the past several years, there is something refreshing about getting insights into Pixar’s culture and mindset directly from one of its leaders. Here are three big insights that have caused me to pause and reflect:
1. Candor is king.
Catmull spends a lot of time elaborating on the importance of candor in the daily functioning of Pixar. (Not honesty, as he is quick to point out. Honesty seems to be more of an issue of moral rightness, whereas candor is about courage and conviction.) He writes that everyone in the company is encouraged to speak their mind whenever they see a potential problem cropping up with a project.
“Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the ﬁrst versions really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar ﬁlms are not good at ﬁrst, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’”
2. Everyone feels like an imposter – sometimes.
Catmull candidly admitted that he only recently overcame the sense that he was just “faking it” and would soon be found out. This is a common issue with creative pros, though we tend to believe that it goes away once a measure of success has been achieved. In my experience working with creatives and leaders at the highest levels of the business world, let me assure you that it often does not. The key is to follow your convictions even in the face of the inevitable uncertainty. While the fear of being “found out” never goes away, you learn over time to deal with it through action rather than allowing it to rob you of your engagement.
“I believe the best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know—not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.”
3. The process is the people.
There is often a lot of emphasis in creative organizations on getting the process right, but we fail to realize that the reason processes exist at all is to facilitate the work of people in the organization. You cannot rely on the process unless the people of your organization feel vested in the end product, and will work the process tirelessly to create something excellent. Catmull says that getting the right people into the organization has always trumped ideas and process at Pixar, because with the right people in place everything else will eventually align.
“‘What’s the point of hiring smart people,’ we asked, ‘if you don’t empower them to fix what is broken?'”
Last modified: December 3, 2022
I have the book and on my reading list. I’m currently reading “The First 20 Hours” by Josh Kaufman. I’ve listened to “Creative Confidence” by David and Tom Kelly, I have a reading list that between audible and physical books. I also have the “Bully Pulpit” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Thomas Jefferson” and “American Lion” by John Meecham, and “John Adams” on my reading list. I do have one recommendation. I’m a reader of history and there’s a very good biography on Ida B. Wells entitled: “Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching” by Paula J. Giddings. It’s a fascinating reads and what I always thought about history is that it has some of the best stories.
I loved the book and thought that his importance of candor, while a central theme, will still be missed by some. This is the only way to truly grow as a team and move forward. Many teams become stagnant or dysfunctional because they are not candid with each other.
Agree so much, Jonathan.
A truly great listen! (Gotta love Audible!) As others here have noted, the imposter syndrome is a thing creatives share by nature. I once believed that it would fade with age and experience. Just turned 53 and I find it alive and well! Our only (positive) choice is to be brave in the face of it!
This book was one of the best I have read in a while. I really appreciate the way the author mixed the creative concepts with business strategies and practices. At times it seems like creativity can become disconnected from the financial aspects of a business and subsequently get sidelined to a lesser seat at the table.
The two key concepts that I took away from the book are:
1. You’ll never stumble on the unexpected if you stick only to the familiar. – This is a great reminder to stretch ourselves and our teams to venture into the world of the unknown even when it seems risky and scary.
2. Getting the team right is more important than getting the right idea. – Like Jim Collins so famously put it in Good to Great, getting the right people in the right seats on the bus is paramount to success. Ideas are important, but having the people in place to execute on the ideas is essential.
I have allowed the imposter syndrome to keep me from doing things. I’ve started to change that, and just try to share what I can, how I can.
I agree with your approach, Joshua. As I shared in Die Empty, this used to plague me too. At some point several years ago, a switch flipped and I realized that most people I encountered felt a bit the same way.
I loved this book, it WAS filled with tons of great advice about running a creative business. I also really liked that at PIXAR they send you to the place where the story takes place. The research that happens when you are out of the office and fully submerged into makes your take-away different than just talking to one person at the company. This along with candor are my two implementable tasks! Glad to know you enjoyed it too.
I greatly enjoyed the elaboration in the book on the role of the braintrust. While I’ve seen similar things implemented at other companies, the standards and operating procedures at Pixar are very unique.
The imposter syndrome is so fascinating to me. For the longest time I didn’t know that other creatives felt it too. I heard John Powell (composer – Bourne trilogy and How to Train Your Dragon) talk about it which blew me away because I think the world of his composing chops.
Agreed! It’s always interesting to me how – no matter how successful or talented someone is – there is always a little bit of insecurity lurking just beneath the veneer. There’s probably something productive about that kind of paranoia, though, as it keeps you on your toes and growing.