“Creativity Inc.” Quotes

I recently read “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming The Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way Of True Inspiration” by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace. Below are the quotes I found most interesting. If you like the quotes, buy the book here.

Creativity Inc Cover“The leaders of my department understood that to create a fertile laboratory, they had to assemble different kinds of thinkers and then encourage their autonomy. They had to offer feedback when needed but also had to be willing to stand back and give us room.” (19)

“Always take a chance on (hiring someone) better (than you), even if it seems threatening.” (23)

“For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right.” (37)

“You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.” (51)

“When we disagreed, I would state my case, but since Steve could think much faster than I could, he would often shoot down my arguments. So I’d wait a week, marshal my thoughts, and then come back and explain it again. He might dismiss my points again, but I would keep coming back until one of three things happened: (1) He would say “Oh, okay, I get it” and give me what I needed; (2) I’d see that he was right and stop lobbying; or (3) our debate would be inconclusive, in which case I’d just go ahead and do what I had proposed in the first place. Each outcome was equally likely, but when this third option occurred, Steve never questioned me. For all his insistence, he respected passion. If I believed in something that strongly, he seemed to feel, it couldn’t be all wrong.” (54-55)

“When downsides coexist with upsides, as they often do, people are reluctant to explore what’ bugging them, for fear of being labeled complainers. I also realized that this kind of thing, if left unaddressed, could fester and destroy Pixar.” (63)

“The first principle was “Story Is King,” by which we meant that we would let nothing – not the technology, not the merchandising possibilities – get in the way of our story.” (66)

“The other principle we depended on was “Trust the Process.” We liked this one because it was so reassuring: While there are inevitably difficulties and missteps in any complex creative endeavor, you can trust that “the process” will carry you through.” (66)

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.” (74)

“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.” (74)

“Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.” (74)

“Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas.” (75)

“John coined a new phrase: “Quality is the best business plan.” What he meant was that quality is not a consequence of following some set of behaviors. Rather, it is a prerequisite and a mindset you must have before you decide what you are setting out to do.” (82)

“Early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I make a point of repeating it often, and I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions of our films really are.” (90)

“Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process – reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds it throughline or a hollow character finds its soul.” (90)

“There are two key differences between the Braintrust and any other feedback mechanism. The first is that the Braintrust is made up of people with a deep understanding of storytelling and, usually, people who have been through the process themselves. While the directors welcome critiques from many sources along the way (and in fact, when our films are screened in house, all Pixar employees are asked to send notes), they particularly prize feedback from fellow directors and storytellers.
The second difference is that the Braintrust has no authority. This is crucial: The director does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions given. After a Braintrust meeting, it is up to him or her to figure out how to address the feedback. Braintrust meetings are not top-down, do-this-or-else affairs. By removing from the Braintrust the power to mandate solutions, we affect the dynamics of the group in ways I believe are essential.” (93)

“You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation – you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person.” (94)

“Michael Arndt, who wrote Toy Story 3, says he thinks to make a great film, its makers must pivot, at some point, from creating the story for themselves to creating it for others.” (94)

“For most of us, failure comes with baggage – a lot of baggage – that I believe is traced directly back to our days in school. Form a very early age, the message is drilled into our heads: Failure is bad; failure means you didn’t study or prepare; failure means you slacked off or – worse! – aren’t smart enough to begin with. Thus, failure is something to be ashamed of. This perception lives on long into adulthood, even in people who have learned to parrot the oft repeated arguments about the upside of failure. How many articles have you read on that topic alone? And yet, even as they nod their heads in agreement, many readers of those articles still have the emotional reaction that they had as children. They just can’t help it: That early experience of shame is too deep-seated to erase. All the time in my work, I see people resist and reject failure and try mightily to avoid it, because regardless of what we say, mistakes feel embarrassing. There is a visceral reaction to failure: It hurts.
We need to think about failure differently. I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality). And yet, even as I say that embracing failure is an important part of learning, i also acknowledge that acknowledging this truth is not enough. That’s because failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to screw up our understanding of its worth. To disentangle the good and the bad parts of failure, we have to recognize both the reality of the pain and the benefit of the resulting growth.” (108-109)

“Failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy – trying to avoid failure by outthinking it – dooms you to fail.” (109)

“What I want to do is loosen its grip on us. While we don’t want too many failures, we must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.” (111)

“They saw that each idea led them a bit closer to finding the better option. And that allowed them to come to work each day engaged and excited, even while in the midst of confusion. This is key: When experimentation is seen as necessary and productive, not as a frustrating waste of time, people will enjoy their work – even when it is confounding them.” (113)

“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 full worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal. Moreover, you cannot plan your way out of problems. While planning is very important, and we do a lot of it, there is only so much you can control in a creative environment.” (114)

“When it comes to creative endeavors, the concept of zero failures is worse than useless. It is counterproductive.” (115)

“The goal, then, is to uncouple fear and failure – to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employees’ hearts.” (123)

“When we are new to the position, we imagine what the job is in order to get our arms around it, then we compare ourselves against our made-up model. But the job is never what we think it is. The trick is to forget our models about what we “should” be. A better measure of our success is to look at the people on our team and see how they are working together. Can they rally to solve key problems? If the answer is yes, you are managing well.” (127)

“Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.” (128)

“Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on – but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.” (134)

“When it comes to feeding the Beast, success only creates more pressure to hurry up and succeed again. Which is why at too many companies, the schedule (that is, the need for product) drives the output, not the strength of the ideas at the front end.” (136)

“The key is to view conflict as essential, because that’s how we know the best ideas will be tested and survive. You know, it can’t only be sunlight.” (139)

“I often say that managers of creative enterprises must hold lightly to goals and firmly to intentions. What does that mean? It means that we must be open to having our goals change as we learn new information or are surprised by things we thought we knew but didn’t. As long as our intentions – our values – remain constant, our goals can shift as needed.” (140)

“Negative feedback may be fun, but it is far less brave than endorsing something unproven and providing room for it to grow.” (141)

“It’s folly to think you can avoid change, no matter how much you might want to. But also, to my mind, you shouldn’t want to. There is no growth or success without change.” (146)

“When this happens, it’s usually because I feel like the world is crashing down and all is lost. One trick I’ve learned is to force myself to make a list of what’s actually wrong. Usually, soon into making the list, I find I can group most of the issues into two or three larger all-encompassing problems. So it’s really not all that bad. Having a finite list of problems is much better than having an illogical feeling that everything is wrong.” (151)

“His mission was to drill down to the emotional core of his characters and then build the story around that.” (151)

Pete says, “sometimes in meetings, I sense people seizing up, not wanting to even talk about changes. So I try to trick them. I’ll say, ‘This would be a big change if we were really going to do it, but just as a thought exercise, what if…’ Or, ‘I’m not actually suggesting this, but go with me for a minute…’ If people anticipate the production pressures, they’ll close the door to new ideas – so you have to pretend you’re not actually going to do anything, we’re just talking, just playing around. Then if you hit upon some new idea that clearly works, people are excited about it and are happier to act on the change.” (152)

“When we put setbacks into two buckets – the “business as usual” bucket and the “holy cow” bucket – and use a different mindset for each, we are signing up for trouble. We become so caught up in our big problems that we ignore the little ones, failing to realize that some of our small problems will have long-term consequences – and are, therefore, big problems in the making.” (160)

“If we allow more people to solve problems without permission, and if we tolerate (and don’t vilify) their mistakes, then we enable a much larger set of problems to be addressed.” (164)

“When people in other creative professions merely cut up and reassemble what has come before, it gives the illusion of creativity, but it is craft without art. Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft.” (196)

“There’s something about knowing your subject and your setting inside and out – a confidence – that seeps into every frame of your film.” (198)

“The oversight group had been put in place without anyone asking a fundamental question: How do we enable our people to solve problems? Instead, they asked: How do we prevent our people from screwing up. That approach never encourages a creative response.” (203)

“Once you’ve hit on something that works, don’t expect it to work again, because attendees will know how to manipulate it the second time around.” (218)

“The attempt to avoid failure, in other words, makes failure more likely.” (222)

“Creative people discover and realize their visions over time and through dedicated, protracted struggle. In that way, creativity is more like a marathon than a spring.” (223)

“There is a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking.” (224)

“Brad says, “I tell myself that I have time, even when I don’t. As in, ‘Okay, I’m going to proceed as if I have time – I’m going to sit back and muse rather than looking at the cock – because if I sit back and muse, I’m more likely to solve the problem.’” (226)

“Include people in your problems, not just your solutions.” (228)

“Driving the train doesn’t set its course. The real job is laying the track.” (235)

“We had learned long ago that while everyone appreciates cash bonuses, they value something else almost as much: being looked in the eye by someone they respect and told, “Thank you.” At Pixar… when a movie makes enough money to trigger bonuses, John and I join with the directors and producers and personally distribute checks to every person who worked on the film.” (273)

“When talking about making a movie, easy isn’t the goal. Quality is the goal.” (273)

“Creative people must accept that challenges never cease, failure can’t be avoided, and “vision” is often an illusion. But they must also feel safe – always – to speak their minds.” (277)

“”To Whom it May Inspire,” Austin wrote. “I, like many of you artists out there, constantly shift between two states. The first (and far more preferable of the two) is white-hot, ‘in the zone’ seat-of-the-pants, firing on all cylinders creative mode. This is when you lay your pen down and the ideas pour out like wine from a royal chalice! This happens about 3% of the time. The other 97% of the time I am in the frustrated, struggling, office-cerner-full-of-crumpled-up-paper mode. The important thing is to slog diligently through this quagmire of discouragement and despair. Put on some audio commentary and listen to the stories of professionals who have been making films for decades going through the same slings and arrows of outrageous production problems. In a word: PERSIST. PERSIST on telling your story. PERSIST on reaching your audience. PERSIST on staying true to your vision.”” (294)

“Doing all these things won’t necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier. But ease isn’t the goal; excellence is.” (295)

“It wasn’t that passion trumped logic in Steve’s mind. He was well aware that decisions must never be based on emotions alone. But he also saw that creativity wasn’t linear, that art was not commerce, and that to insist upon applying dollars-and-cents logic was to risk disrupting the thing that set us apart. Steve put a premium on both sides of this equation, logic and emotion, and the way he maintained that balance was key to understanding him.” (301)

“In order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-greatness.” (319)

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