Thoughts on Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc.

Creativity, Inc. is the much-lauded book by Pixar co-founder and current president Ed Catmull. It’s generally categorized as a business management book, but that’s really underselling it. It is an inspirational read for anyone interested in creativity, humility and progress. There are plenty of thorough reviews on Amazon, so I just want to use this entry to reflect on some thoughts and reactions I personally had while going through it.

ON ED CATMULL

I want to start with Ed Catmull himself. This line from Fast Company’s article pretty much sums up my impression of him:

“Steve Jobs—not a man inclined to hyperbole when asked about the qualities of others—once described Ed Catmull as ‘very wise,’ ‘very self-aware,’ ‘really thoughtful,’ ‘really, really smart,’ and possessing ‘quiet strength,’ all in a single interview. Any reader of Creativity, Inc., Catmull’s new book on the art of running creative companies, will have to agree. Catmull, president of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, has written what just might be the most thoughtful management book ever.” Fast Company

I mean just look at his friendly face! Early in the book, Ed Catmull describes a charming aspect of his youth where he religiously watches Walt Disney present animations on his weekly tv show. Little Ed dreamed of being an animator but More Realistic High School Ed ended up starting his career [very successfully] in computer science. Without me going too deep into it, he eventually basically became part of a select group of computer scientists/researchers inventing new technology under a program established by the Department of Defense.

Clearly extremely intelligent and capable, his path to founding and leading a digital animation studio was neither an accident nor a meticulously charted out plan. That he was able to achieve his dream against the odds is already an incredible story in and of itself. That someone so accomplished in the technical sciences could retain his child-like wonder and love for animation is so inspiring.

However, what really strikes me is how kind and thoughtful he comes across. It’s always bothered me to hear about CEOs, leaders, bosses, etc. that are highly competent in that role, but are lacking in morality and character. Some people even start to think you can’t be kind, humble, and generally a good person and be a great leader/CEO. But it’s just not true. The people I find most incredible are those at the height of their game and still genuinely grounded and empathetic.

I greatly admire and respect Ed Catmull for being all that he is, and remaining all that he was.

 

ON PIXAR, FAILURE AND SUCCESS

You can probably guess that I’m a huge Pixar fan. I’m pretty convinced the Pixar offices are just teeming with my spirit animals. It basically boils down to my love for beautiful, accessible storytelling that changes people’s lives and way of thinking for the better (this deserves its own entry somewhere down the line, so I won’t go into it much more now).

This book is of course awesome as you get insight into the process of Pixar. It is, after all, still a business. What worked, what didn’t. What their culture is and isn’t. How they avoid the pitfalls of many other companies and often go against the grain to uphold their beliefs of doing good work and valuing good people.

It’s also at once humbling and inspirational to read about Pixar’s history and how close it came to failing. Or how John Lasseter was actually fired from Disney for his “crazy” ideas before fortuitously teaming up with Ed Catmull on Pixar. I did previously watch the Pixar documentary so already was familiar with this story, but it was a timely reminder. Even the greatest individuals and companies faced failure, doubt, skepticism, and worse (Disney had a similar near-failure story). But the right mix of talent, vision, and timing will pull through. Sometimes I almost wonder if these challenges and hurdles are a supernatural test, to see “how much do you really want this?”

 

ON STEVE JOBS

This leads to Steve Jobs. I often forget how instrumental he was in the existence of the gift that Pixar is, and this book reminds you of that in a very detailed way (it also shed a lot of light on George Lucas’ role in shaping Pixar, but I was not as moved by that). He really pulled for Pixar even when Pixar appeared to be a money-hemorrhaging impending failure.

But what is really worth reading is the book’s afterword on Steve Jobs. Written after Steve Jobs’ passing, Ed Catmull sheds light on the most commonly perpetuated misconception of Steve Jobs: that the genius was also an insufferable jerk who often degraded those he interacted with. Even though I admired Steve Jobs in a sense and find his quotes inspirational, I admittedly had that impression of him as well.

Ed Catmull provides a different view from his close relationship to Steve Jobs. That, though Steve Jobs was admittedly brash and arrogant and caustic in much of his life, failure (and illness) helped him become more empathetic and considerate as he grew older. That as he realized his life would be cut short, his three wishes/goals were (1) to be able to bring the first iPhone model to the public, (2) ensure Pixar’s sustained existence and (3) to be able to see his then-8th grade son graduate from high school (TEARS). I think about how much we could benefit as a society if we can all just learn this lesson of humility and empathy on our own without time and failure. But it’s admittedly hard to know what you don’t know, to feel what you haven’t had to feel.

 

LASTLY, ON WOODY AND ANDY

There’s a passage in the book where Ed Catmull is talking about the painful process that went into the creation and production of Toy Story 2. Almost in passing, he reminds the reader about one of the key messages of the movie: that Woody, when faced with the choice of either living out a safe life in a collector’s home or be with Andy knowing one day Andy will outgrow him and move on, comes to this realization:

“I can’t stop Andy from growing up, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Basically, that although Woody knew one day Andy would leave him, his love for Andy meant the experience of being together made any risk of pain worth it. To knowingly walk into a risky situation, but realizing it’s that same situation that brings meaning to one’s life. As they say, a ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what a ship is for…

I’ve struggled a lot with what love really means, where to draw that line of “unconditional love” vs. no actually that’s an unhealthy situation. It’s not always clear. In fact, there’s recently been a surge of criticism for Shel Silverstein’s classic book on unconditional love, The Giving Tree. That it suggested an unhealthy level of give-give-give sacrifice by the tree (and all the people the tree symbolized…), and implicitly pardoned the self-centered and destructive behavior of the boy. It’s relative, I suppose.

      

I don’t think this was meant to be a significant moment in the book, but it really moved me. I made this pair of drawings as a direct reaction to it. I had the idea for a while, but it got moved up to the top of the to do list after I heard this passage. A similar theme is shown through the evolution of the boy teaching the puppy how to stay, to years down the line when the dog trying to keep his boy who has now grown up and is heading to college.

Change is unavoidable, and usually good. People will inevitably come and go. Perhaps we must learn how to just love the experience and that person in that moment in time, and embrace the next stage when it arrives.

Still ruminating on this one.

//

Thanks to Ed Catmull for sharing this wonderful read.

– MC

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