I’ve never read a book with so many ideas about, well, having ideas. And yet, I shouldn’t even say that, because this isn’t an idea-generator book with plot prompts and story starters. No, this is something far, far more valuable.
So what is it? Creativity, Inc. is a book about how to build and protect a culture of creativity. A big portion of that is having good ideas in the first place, but the book is more concerned with another issue that creatives face: messing up. Actually, the freedom to mess up and learn from those mistakes, and using those lessons to feed future good ideas.
Plus, Creativity, Inc. contains a lot of great information about seeking out and solving the problems of a working group of artists. To discuss this, author Ed Catmull draws heavily from his years of experience as Pixar’s president. He talks about problems the studio has had in the past, and more importantly, the steps they’ve taken to actively find new problems before they become real issues.
Now since we’re here in the midst of a blog marathon about ideas, I thought I’d take a moment and talk about a section of the book that deals with the origin and care of ideas.
At one point in the book, Catmull relates how he began to wonder where ideas actually come from. Do they exist preformed? Or do people generate them? If ideas come preformed, then it would follow that ideas are more important than people. The opposite thought, that people are more important than ideas, would follow if people are the source of ideas.
Catmull began to ask audiences at speaking events if ideas or people were more important. And what he found was that it was split 50/50, or a situation that statistics experts will tell you means those polled were just guessing. This surprised him. Especially considering what he revealed next.
It turns out that in his experience at Pixar, Catmull had discovered that people create ideas, rather than ideas being discovered by people. People can discover information, but a person must respond to the information for an idea to be born. And therefore, he concluded, people are more valuable than ideas. Catmull sums it up with a statement that he put together while observing the Pixar story teams at work: “Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. But give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better.”
It’s important that Catmull talks about a team working on the idea. Since no creative person exists in a vacuum, we need others to help us refine and hone our ideas, and my time reading Creativity, Inc. has made the importance of creative input clear to me. As part of the book, Catmull gives detailed descriptions of the Pixar Braintrust (one of the ultimate creative teams) and how they’ve built a culture of candid, honest feedback as a means of helping one another succeed at storytelling. That chapter alone is worth the price of admission.
I’d highly recommend the book for anyone who works even somewhat collaboratively as an artist. Or anyone who wants to actively improve their own workflows. You cannot walk away from reading this without having ideas yourself.
Jordan Smith is a storyteller who generally works in the realm of film, though he often branches out into other forms of narrative fiction. He’s always picking stories apart to see what makes them tick. He is the author of Finding the Core of Your Story and the producer/director of the Month of the Novel web series.