Creativity, Inc.

Most of the nonfiction books I read these days fall into two broad categories: books about people I admire and books about the creation of things I admire. Good books about the latter often turn into the former by the end.

The book I just finished, Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, had a head start on both counts. My love of Pixar is not surprising or uncommon. As for Ed Catmull, I’ve been aware of him and his contemporaries for decades (I had an Alvy Ray Smith quote in my .sig for a while in the 90s), but my nerd crush really stepped into high gear when I saw a video of Catmull’s talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2007.

It’s difficult for me to describe my reaction to that talk—and to his new book—without sounding absurdly self-aggrandizing, but I’m going to give it a shot. Saying what other people are thinking is a proven formula for mass-market appeal employed by everyone from talk radio hosts to stand-up comedians. But as someone whose thoughts and interests have always been outside the norm, I’ve rarely heard excerpts from my own inner dialog voiced on a broader stage.

Ed Catmull does that for me. If you’ve listened to my Hypercritical podcast or read the article that inspired it, you will find many familiar topics and themes in Creativity, Inc. Now, believe me, I harbor no illusions about this overlap. I am not the guy who hears Louis C.K. tell a joke and thinks he could be just as funny because he had a similar thought once. But shared values and the fulfillment of common aspirations are at the heart of all hero worship.

Ed Catmull’s dream was to create the first fully computer-animated feature film. As a child, I also dreamed of such a thing; Catmull and the rest of the people at Pixar actually made it happen. Similarly, as an adult, I’ve clung to the notion that critical thinking can be both useful and powerful. Creativity, Inc. explains just how powerful it can be when practiced by a handful of the most brilliant technical and creative people alive today.

Ay, there’s the rub. It’s so easy to hear the vaguest echo of your own thoughts expressed by someone fantastically smart and accomplished and view that as a cosmic endorsement of your approach to life. But that absolutely would not be in keeping with the message of the book—a message Catmull tries again and again to communicate to readers he knows will resist it.

Indeed, Catmull most often uses himself as an example of someone who has failed to see through to the heart of a problem. This is the true strength of the book. Unlike so many other tech-industry memoirs and business books, Creativity, Inc. is not an abstract exploration of a philosophy, nor is it a list of accomplishments interspersed with bold commandments. Instead, it is a deep, thoughtful investigation of a never-ending series of failures—and the reactions to those failures that eventually led to success.

Think of it: the man who invented texture mapping, made computer-animated films possible, and led his studio to release a string of amazing, Oscar-winning examples of the form decides to write a book…and then builds it around an examination of his own mistakes. Ed Catmull may not be your kind of hero, but he sure is mine.