Pixar and Creativity

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What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it. This, more than any elaborate party or turreted workstation, is why I love coming to work in the morning. It is what motivates me and gives me a definite sense of mission.
— ― Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

It's fairly cliche to say a book changed your life, especially a book that's ostensibly written as business book, though I think Ed Catmull's book about how they've been so successful at Pixar is much bigger than a business book.

As a storyteller, I'm an admirer of Pixar. Though they've made incredible breakthroughs technologically, Pixar's success if rooted in their ability to tell a great story.

But how do they refine stories? How do they take a nugget or an idea and then ensure it grows into something meaningful and compelling?

The answer is pretty simple: They test the hell out of it. As the quote above says, they acknowledge problems and then solve them. It sounds simple, but my experiences tell me that many organizations actually ignore problems or justify their existence. And that may be fine if you're shooting for mediocrity, but not if you're trying to discover greatness.

But I should caution that if you seek to plot out all your moves before you make them—if you put your faith in slow, deliberative planning in the hopes it will spare you failure down the line—well, you’re deluding yourself. For one thing, it’s easier to plan derivative work—things that copy or repeat something already out there. So if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal.
— ― Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

As a writer, I used to outline like crazy, and then I'd stick to my outline like it was a sacred document handed down by a prophet to ensure a story's greatness. But as I've grown as a creator, I've learned to adopt a process similar to what Pixar does: I start with a plan, but I let the plan morph as I discover it.

In the book, Catmull encourages us to have mental models to help guide us creatively. My mental model is that I imagine I'm an explorer. I prepare for the journey, I leave with what I need, but I know that the road I'm walking is unknown, that I'm stepping on new ground. My course will change from what I plotted because I didn't know exactly what I'd find. That's not only not bad, it's actually what separates the creative process from more linear processes like engineering or manufacturing.

The book is filled with great anecdotes about how many of the Pixar films came to be, and it shed light on their process. All the Pixar 'how's they do it' stories are awesome, but what I'll really remember are three lessons Catmull emphasizes.

First, I will continue to pressure test my stories through the use of Beta readers and by close, cold examination. If you want a great story, you have to push it to be great, not just settle on it.

Second, I want to surround myself with people who help the creative process, not hinder it. Catmull addresses business leaders constantly throughout the book, and I want to work for leaders like Catmull, those who enable and inspire, not inhibit and criticize. 

Third, I learned that failure is not what we think it is. Failure is not some crippling thing, but a natural outcome of the creative process. We fear failure, and we try to avoid it, but by avoiding failure, we miss the possibility of true creation. To use my explorer analogy, if I never cross the river to find out what's on the other side, I'll never find something truly new and undiscovered.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who works in business and anyone who works in creative arts. It will change your perspective and enhance your vision of what's possible.