Overcoming Obstacles to True Inspiration: Book Review of Creativity, Inc.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace (Random House, 2014)

Creativity, Inc. profoundly articulates how to lead people who are paid to be creative. Author Ed Catmull is co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios. Catmull was at the University of Utah as the internet came into existence. After receiving his PhD, he led a tech company in New York City before going to work for George Lucas. Later, Catmull was integral to Steve Jobs acquiring Pixar from Lucas. Eventually, he worked alongside Jobs to sell Pixar to Disney. Today, he is President of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.

The message of Creativity, Inc. is simple and it is full of actionable ideas. As part memoir part practical business advice, this book is special. It deploys narrative arc, takes you inside the wonderful world of Pixar and Disney, and is hard to put down. Probably the biggest message in Creativity, Inc. is the need to not just suggest but also facilitate an environment of honesty and candor because “when it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless. … Unhindered communication [is] key, no matter what your position” (chapter one).

Pixar starts with the presumption that their people are talented and want to contribute (see the introduction). They then hone the overall effort via their Braintrust (a group of key players who offer detailed notes), the idea that every work is in progress and needs iterations (with feedback built in early), “Notes Day” (where everyone contributes to a larger, focused discussion about improvement), and other tactics. Pixar’s unwavering commitment to quality is combined with an unwavering commitment to shipping. “Story is king” and “quality is the best business plan” drive their day-to-day operations. But all of this is centered in their “safe” environment, where critique is about the product, not the person.

Employees are also told that error is part of business—and not to be feared but embraced. Catmull remarks: “Rather than trying to prevent all errors, we should assume … that our people’s intentions are good and that they want to solve problems. Give them responsibility, let the mistakes happen, and let people fix them. If there is fear … our job is to find the reason and remedy it. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover” (chapter six).

Perhaps the best part of Creativity, Inc. is the realization that Pixar’s story is every bit as good as Toy Story. It required significant vision—and difficult changes—as they worked out their relationships with each other, their business model, and their stories. It’s as unexpected, surprising, and endearing as Buzz and Woody’s friendship. It gives you hope in the face of great odds. It makes you hold on when you want to give up. Catmull, along with the journalist Amy Wallace, have given us a great gift in this book.

That said, I don’t love everything about Creativity, Inc. There are long segments of straight deductive advice that would have been better illustrated by stories from inside Pixar. Catmull also shares rather openly about the mistakes his colleagues have made, but doesn’t share enough about his own—more vulnerability on his own part would have been appreciated. In addition, for nearly an entire chapter he offers what seems to be religious advice while ignoring several major religious parallels that would have only helped his case had they been acknowledged; this didn’t fit well with the rest of the book and seemed to take away from the book’s power. But these small blunders are like fumbling on the one yard line after a 20 yard run—Catmull’s book is still awesome; he just didn’t take me all the way to the end zone. There is a good editorial lesson for us all here.

But I still love this book. What makes it so wonderful is Catmull’s overarching view on business—it’s all about learning and growth, and you never arrive. “What makes Pixar special,” Catmull says, “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” (introduction).

If you lead creative people, Creativity, Inc. is a must read; if you happen to also love Pixar movies, you won’t be able to stop talking about it. 4 stars.


(I purchased and read this book as part of Logos Bible Software’s “Read for Cash” program. The links in this post are affiliate links, which means if you purchase it via one of these links, I do get a small amount from Amazon, but Random House and/or the authors in no way influenced my review.)

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