Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Book Notes. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

This book is by Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar, with Amy Wallace, 2014. The book is about the cultivation and management of creativity:
If Pixar is ever successful, will we do something stupid, too? Can paying careful attention to the missteps of others help us be more alert to our own? Or is there something about becoming a leader that makes you blind to the things that threaten the well-being of your enterprise? 
I would devote myself to learning how to build not just a successful company but a sustainable creative culture. As I turned my attention from solving technical problems to engaging with the philosophy of sound management, I was excited once again.
While reading the book, I was impressed by how many questions Ed kept asking. I thought I was asking a lot of questions, but Ed is really really into asking questions and using them to achieve focus.

Here are some parts I highlighted from the book.

From childhood to PhD

Growing up in the 1950s, I had yearned to be a Disney animator but had no idea how to go about it.

In graduate school, I’d quietly set a goal of making the first computer-animated feature film.
Walt Disney was one of my two boyhood idols. The other was Albert Einstein.

Disney’s animators were at the forefront of applied technology; instead of merely using existing methods, they were inventing ones of their own.

Every time some technological breakthrough occurred, Walt Disney incorporated it and then talked about it on his show in a way that highlighted the relationship between technology and art.

That night’s episode was called “Where Do the Stories Come From?” and Disney kicked it off by praising his animators’ knack for turning everyday occurrences into cartoons.
An artist was drawing Donald Duck, giving him a jaunty costume and a bouquet of flowers and a box of candy with which to woo Daisy. Then, as the artist’s pencil moved around the page, Donald came to life, putting up his dukes to square off with the pencil lead, then raising his chin to allow the artist to give him a bow tie.

Whether it’s a T-Rex or a slinky dog or a desk lamp, if viewers sense not just movement but intention--or, put another way, emotion--then the animator has done his or her job.

I remember the optimistic energy--an eagerness to move forward that was enabled and supported by a wealth of emerging technologies. It was boom time in America, with manufacturing and home construction at an all-time high.

The first organ transplants were performed in 1954; the first polio vaccine came a year later; in 1956, the term artificial intelligence entered the lexicon.

Then, when I was twelve, the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite--Sputnik 1--into earth’s orbit.

The United States government’s response to being bested was to create something called ARPA,

Looking back, I still admire that enlightened reaction to a serious threat: We’ll just have to get smarter.
ARPA would have a profound effect on America, leading directly to the computer revolution and the Internet, among countless other innovations.
I was a quiet, focused student in high school. An art teacher once told my parents I would often become so lost in my work that I wouldn’t hear the bell ring at the end of class;
Throughout my life, people have always smiled when I told them I switched from art to physics because it seems, to them, like such an incongruous leap. But my decision to pursue physics, and not art, would lead me, indirectly, to my true calling.
Four years later, in 1969, I graduated from the University of Utah with two degrees, one in physics and the other in the emerging field of computer science.
But soon after I matriculated, also at the U of U, I met a man who would encourage me to change course: one of the pioneers of interactive computer graphics, Ivan Sutherland.
Sutherland and Dave Evans, who was chair of the university’s computer science department, were magnets for bright students with diverse interests, and they led us with a light touch.
The result was a collaborative, supportive community so inspiring that I would later seek to replicate it at Pixar.

One of my classmates, Jim Clark, would go on to found Silicon Graphics and Netscape. Another, John Warnock, would co-found Adobe, known for Photoshop and the PDF file format, among other things. Still another, Alan Kay, would lead on a number of fronts, from object-oriented programming to “windowing” graphical user interfaces.
Not only did I often sleep on the floor of the computer rooms to maximize time on the computer, but so did many of my fellow graduate students.

Making pictures with a computer spoke to both sides of my brain.

In the spring of 1972, I spent ten weeks making my first short animated film—a digitized model of my left hand.

Professor Sutherland used to say that he loved his graduate students at Utah because we didn’t know what was impossible.

My dissertation, “A Subdivision Algorithm for Computer Display of Curved Surfaces,” offered a solution to that problem.

“Texture mapping,” as I called it, was like having stretchable wrapping paper that you could apply to a curved surface so that it fit snugly.

At the U of U, we were inventing a new language. One of us would contribute a verb, another a noun, then a third person would figure out ways to string the elements together to actually say something.
Today, there is a Z-buffer in every game and PC chip manufactured on earth.

After college      

In the next decade, I would learn much about what managers should and shouldn’t do, about vision and delusion, about confidence and arrogance, about what encourages creativity and what snuffs it out.

I’ve made a policy of trying to hire people who are smarter than I am.

Alvy and I decided to do the opposite--to share our work with the outside world.

It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1976, the idea of incorporating high technology into Hollywood filmmaking wasn’t just a low priority; it wasn’t even on the radar. But one man was about to change that, with a movie called Star Wars.

In the intervening years, George has said that he hired me because of my honesty, my “clarity of vision,” and my steadfast belief in what computers could do.

A research lab is not a university, and the structure didn’t scale well. At Lucasfilm, then, I decided to hire managers to run the graphics, video, and audio groups; they would then report to me.

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

To this day, I am thankful that the deal went south. Because it paved the way for Steve Jobs.

Alan [Kay] had been at the U of U with me and at Xerox PARC with Alvy, and he told Steve that he should visit us if he wanted to see the cutting edge in computer graphics.

I remember his assertiveness. There was no small talk. Instead, there were questions. Lots of questions. What do you want? Steve asked. Where are you heading? What are your long-term goals? He used the phrase “insanely great products” to explain what he believed in. Clearly, he was the sort of person who didn’t let presentations happen to him, and it wasn’t long before he was talking about making a deal.

As he spoke, it became clear to us that his goal was not to build an animation studio; his goal was to build the next generation of home computers to compete with Apple. This wasn’t merely a deviation from our vision, it was the total abandonment of it, so we politely declined. We returned to the task of trying to find a buyer.

At one point in this period, I met with Steve and gently asked him how things got resolved when people disagree with him. He seemed unaware that what I was really asking him was how things would get resolved if we worked together and I disagreed with him, for he gave a more general answer. He said, “When I don’t see eye to eye with somebody, I just take the time to explain it better, so they understand the way it should be.”

In the end, Steve paid \$5 million to spin Pixar off of Lucasfilm—and then, after the sale, he agreed to pay another \$5 million to fund the company, with 70 percent of the stock going to Steve and 30 percent to the employees.
His method for taking the measure of a room was saying something definitive and outrageous—“These charts are bullshit!” or “This deal is crap!”—and watching people react. If you were brave enough to come back at him, he often respected it--poking at you, then registering your response, was his way of deducing what you thought and whether you had the guts to champion it.

Every few weeks, I’d head down to Steve’s office in Redwood City to brief him on our progress. I didn’t relish the meetings, to be honest, because they were often frustrating.

At Pixar’s lowest point, as we floundered and failed to make a profit, Steve had sunk \$54 million of his own money into the company—a significant chunk of his net worth, and more money than any venture capital firm would have considered investing, given the sorry state of our balance sheet.
After trying everything we could to sell our Pixar Image Computer, we were finally facing the fact that hardware could not keep us going.

There is nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning.

We began to focus our energies on the creative side. We started making animated commercials for Trident gum and Tropicana orange juice and almost immediately won awards for the creative content while continuing to hone our technical and storytelling skills.

In 1991, we laid off more than a third of our employees.

Three times between 1987 and 1991, a fed-up Steve Jobs tried to sell Pixar. And yet, despite his frustrations, he could never quite bring himself to part with us. When Microsoft offered \$90 million for us, he walked away. Steve wanted \$120 million, and felt their offer was not just insulting but proof that they weren’t worthy of us.
How would we resolve conflicts? And his answer, which I found comically egotistical at the time, was that he simply would continue to explain why he was right until I understood. The irony was that this soon became the technique I used with Steve. 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.
Katzenberg wanted Pixar to make a feature film, and he wanted Disney to own and distribute it.
Steve took the reins, rejecting Jeffrey’s logic that since Disney was investing in Pixar’s first movie, it deserved to own our technology as well. “You’re giving us money to make the film,” Steve said, “not to buy our trade secrets.” What Disney brought to the table was its marketing and distribution muscle; what we brought were our technical innovations, and they were not for sale. Steve made this a deal breaker and stuck to his guns until, ultimately, Jeffrey agreed.

Given the millions of dollars at stake and the realization that we’d never get another chance if we blew it, we had to figure it out fast. Luckily, John already had an idea. Toy Story would be about a group of toys and a boy—Andy—who loves them. The twist was that it would be told from the toys’ point of view.

On November 19, 1993, we went to Disney to unveil the new, edgier Woody in a series of story reels—a mock-up of the film, like a comic book version with temporary voices, music, and drawings of the story. That day will forever be known at Pixar as “Black Friday” because Disney’s completely reasonable reaction was to shut down the production until an acceptable script was written.

With our first feature film suddenly on life support, John quickly summoned Andrew, Pete, and Joe. For the next several months, they spent almost every waking minute together, working to rediscover the heart of the movie, the thing that John had first envisioned: a toy cowboy who wanted to be loved. They also learned an important lesson--to trust their own storytelling instincts.

1991, two of the year’s biggest blockbusters—Beauty and the Beast and Terminator 2—had relied heavily on technology that had been developed at Pixar, and people in Hollywood were starting to pay attention. By 1993, when Jurassic Park was released, computer-generated special effects would no longer be considered some nerdy sideline experiment;

And a few months later, as if on cue, Eisner called, saying that he wanted to renegotiate the deal and keep us as a partner. He accepted Steve’s offer of a 50/50 split. I was amazed; Steve had called this exactly right. His clarity and execution were stunning.
For the first time since our founding, our jobs were safe.

Pixar as a company

The point is, we value self-expression.
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.

In the coming pages, I will discuss many of the steps we follow at Pixar, but the most compelling mechanisms to me are those that deal with uncertainty, instability, lack of candor, and the things we cannot see. I believe the best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know—not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear.
Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.
When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless.

Every person there, no matter their job title, felt free to speak up. This was not only what we wanted, it was a fundamental Pixar belief: Unhindered communication was key, no matter what your position. At our long, skinny table, comfortable in our middle seats, we had utterly failed to recognize that we were behaving contrary to that basic tenet.
I discovered we’d completely missed a serious, ongoing rift between our creative and production departments. In short, production managers told me that working on Toy Story had been a nightmare. They felt disrespected and marginalized—like second-class citizens. And while they were gratified by Toy Story’s success, they were very reluctant to sign on to work on another film at Pixar. I was floored. How had we missed this?
For me, this discovery was bracing. Being on the lookout for problems, I realized, was not the same as seeing problems. This would be the idea—the challenge—around which I would build my new sense of purpose.
Because making a movie involves hundreds of people, a chain of command is essential. But in this case, we had made the mistake of confusing the communication structure with the organizational structure.

Going forward, anyone should be able to talk to anyone else, at any level, at any time, without fear of reprimand. Communication would no longer have to go through hierarchical channels.
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.

The other principle we depended on was “Trust the Process.”
While Woody would choose Andy in the end, he would make that choice with the awareness that doing so guaranteed future sadness.
For the next six months, our employees rarely saw their families. We worked deep into the night, seven days a week. Despite two hit movies, we were conscious of the need to prove ourselves, and everyone gave everything they had. With several months still to go, the staff was exhausted and starting to fray.

I had expected the road to be rough, but I had to admit that we were coming apart. By the time the film was complete, a full third of the staff would have some kind of repetitive stress injury.
Critics raved that Toy Story 2 was one of the only sequels ever to outshine the original.

Though I was immensely proud of what we had accomplished, I vowed that we would never make a film that way again. It was management’s job to take the long view, to intervene and protect our people from their willingness to pursue excellence at all costs. Not to do so would be irresponsible.

Good idea or Good team?                

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.

Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right.
Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.
Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas.
Why are we confused about this? Because too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them.
Find, develop, and support good people, and they in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.
We should trust in people, I told them, not processes. The error we’d made was forgetting that “the process” has no agenda and doesn’t have taste.

Once you’re aware of the suitcase/handle problem, you’ll see it everywhere. People glom onto words and stories that are often just stand-ins for real action and meaning.

Around this time, John coined a new phrase: “Quality is the best business plan.”
That didn’t mean that we wouldn’t make mistakes. Mistakes are part of creativity. But when we did, we would strive to face them without defensiveness and with a willingness to change.


What is the nature of honesty? If everyone agrees about its importance, why do we find it hard to be frank? How do we think about our own failures and fears? Is there a way to make our managers more comfortable with unexpected results—the inevitable surprises that arise, no matter how well you’ve planned? How can we address the imperative many managers feel to overcontrol the process? With what we have learned so far, can we finally get the process right? Where are we still deluded?
Candor is forthrightness or frankness--not so different from honesty, really. And yet, in common usage, the word communicates not just truth--telling but a lack of reserve.

A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Lack of candor, if unchecked, ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments.
The Braintrust, which meets every few months or so to assess each movie we’re making, is our primary delivery system for straight talk.
Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid with one another.
The Braintrust is one of the most important traditions at Pixar.
The passion expressed in a Braintrust meeting was never taken personally because everyone knew it was directed at solving problems.
And largely because of that trust and mutual respect, its problem-solving powers were immense.
Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because 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. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing by saying this. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.” This idea—that all the movies we now think of as brilliant were, at one time, terrible—is a hard concept for many to grasp. But think about how easy it would be for a movie about talking toys to feel derivative, sappy, or overtly merchandise-driven. Think about how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food could be, or how risky it must’ve seemed to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. And this is as it should be. 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 its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul.
(It takes about twelve thousand storyboard drawings to make one 90-minute reel, and because of the iterative nature of the process I’m describing, story teams commonly create ten times that number by the time their work is done.)

People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things—in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing. Where once a movie’s writer/director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees.
You may be thinking, How is the Braintrust different from 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.

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.
By removing from the Braintrust the power to mandate solutions, we affect the dynamics of the group in ways I believe are essential.
While problems in a film are fairly easy to identify, the sources of those problems are often extraordinarily difficult to assess.
The Braintrust’s notes, then, are intended to bring the true causes of problems to the surface—not to demand a specific remedy.
I like to think of the Braintrust as Pixar’s version of peer review, a forum that ensures we raise our game—not by being prescriptive but by offering candor and deep analysis.

The film itself—not the filmmaker—is under the microscope.
The feedback usually begins with John. While everyone has an equal voice in a Braintrust meeting, John sets the tone, calling out the sequences he liked best, identifying some themes and ideas he thinks need to be improved. That’s all it takes to launch the back-and-forth. Everybody jumps in with observations about the film’s strengths and weaknesses.
Andrew felt there was a similarly impactful opportunity here that was being missed--and, thus, was keeping the film from working--and he said so candidly. “Pete, this movie is about the inevitability of change,” he said. “And of growing up.” [Inside Out]

And it was Brad Bird who pointed that out to Andrew in a Braintrust meeting. “You’ve denied your audience the moment they’ve been waiting for,” he said, “the moment where EVE throws away all her programming and goes all out to save WALL-E. Give it to them. The audience wants it.” As soon as Brad said that, it was like: Bing! After the meeting, Andrew went off and wrote an entirely new ending in which EVE saves WALL-E, and at the next screening, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

“Sometimes the Braintrust will know something’s wrong, but they will identify the wrong symptom,” he told me.

Instead of saying, ‘The writing in this scene isn’t good enough,’ you say, ‘Don’t you want people to walk out of the theater and be quoting those lines?’ It’s more of a challenge. ‘Isn’t this what you want? I want that too!’

Fail early, Fail fast

Left to their own devices, most people don’t want to fail. But Andrew Stanton isn’t most people. As I’ve mentioned, he’s known around Pixar for repeating the phrases “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” He thinks of failure like learning to ride a bike; it isn’t conceivable that you would learn to do this without making mistakes—without toppling over a few times. “Get a bike that’s as low to the ground as you can find, put on elbow and knee pads so you’re not afraid of falling, and go,” he says.

In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk.
Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.
I have found that people who pour their energy into thinking about an approach and insisting that it is too early to act are wrong just as often as people who dive in and work quickly.

The overplanners just take longer to be wrong (and, when things inevitably go awry, are more crushed by the feeling that they have failed). There’s a corollary to this, as well: The more time you spend mapping out an approach, the more likely you are to get attached to it. The nonworking idea gets worn into your brain, like a rut in the mud. It can be difficult to get free of it and head in a different direction. Which, more often than not, is exactly what you must do.
To be a truly creative company, you must start things that might fail.

Fear can be created quickly; trust can’t. Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions—and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure. The Braintrust and various groups within Pixar have gone through difficult times together, solved problems together, and that is how they’ve built up trust in each other. Be patient. Be authentic. And be consistent. The trust will come.

Your employees are smart; that’s why you hired them. So treat them that way. They know when you deliver a message that has been heavily massaged. When managers explain what their plan is without giving the reasons for it, people wonder what the “real” agenda is. There may be no hidden agenda, but you’ve succeeded in implying that there is one. Discussing the thought processes behind solutions aims the focus on the solutions, not on second-guessing. When we are honest, people know it.
Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.

Protecting the new, the original

Originality is fragile. And, in its first moments, it’s often far from pretty. This is why I call early mock-ups of our films “ugly babies.” They are not beautiful, miniature versions of the adults they will grow up to be. They are truly ugly: awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete. They need nurturing—in the form of time and patience—in order to grow.

(This reminds me of what I wrote here.)

The Ugly Baby idea is not easy to accept. Having seen and enjoyed Pixar movies, many people assume that they popped into the world already striking, resonant, and meaningful—fully grown, if you will. In fact, getting them to that point involved months, if not years, of work.
When Andrew finished his pitch, those of us in attendance were silent for a moment. Then, John Lasseter spoke for all of us when he said, “You had me at the word fish.”

To view lack of conflict as optimum is like saying a sunny day is optimum. A sunny day is when the sun wins out over the rain. There’s no conflict. You have a clear winner. But if every day is sunny and it doesn’t rain, things don’t grow. And if it’s sunny all the time—if, in fact, we don’t ever even have night—all kinds of things don’t happen and the planet dries up. 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.”
For many years, I was on a committee that read and selected papers to be published at SIGGRAPH, the annual computer graphics conference I mentioned in chapter 2. These papers were supposed to present ideas that advanced the field. The committee was composed of many of the field’s most prominent players, all of whom I knew; it was a group that took the task of selecting papers very seriously. At each of the meetings, I was struck that there seemed to be two kinds of reviewers: some who would look for flaws in the papers, and then pounce to kill them; and others who started from a place of seeking and promoting good ideas. When the “idea protectors” saw flaws, they pointed them out gently, in the spirit of improving the paper—not eviscerating it. Interestingly, the “paper killers” were not aware that they were serving some other agenda (which was often, in my estimation, to show their colleagues how high their standards were). Both groups thought they were protecting the proceedings, but only one group understood that by looking for something new and surprising, they were offering the most valuable kind of protection. Negative feedback may be fun, but it is far less brave than endorsing something unproven and providing room for it to grow.
I suppose I could simply have mandated that our production managers add the cost of adding interns to their budgets. But that would have made this new idea the enemy—something to resent. Instead, I decided to make the interns a corporate expense—they would essentially be available, at no extra cost, to any department who wanted to take them on. The first year, Pixar hired eight interns who were placed in the animation and technical departments. They were so eager and hard-working and they learned so fast that every one of them, by the end, was doing real production work. Seven of them ultimately returned, after graduation, to work for us in a full-time capacity. Every year since then, the program has grown a little more, and every year more managers have found themselves won over by their young charges. It wasn’t just that the interns lightened the workload by taking on projects. Teaching them Pixar’s ways made our people examine how they did things, which led to improvements for all. A few years in, it became clear that we didn’t need to fund interns out of the corporate coffers anymore; as the program proved its worth, people became willing to absorb the costs into their budgets. In other words, the intern program needed protection to establish itself at first, but then grew out of that need. Last year, we had ten thousand applications for a hundred spots.

Whether it’s the kernel of a movie idea or a fledgling internship program, the new needs protection. Business-as-usual does not. Managers do not need to work hard to protect established ideas or ways of doing business. The system is tilted to favor the incumbent. The challenger needs support to find its footing. And protection of the new—of the future, not the past—must be a conscious effort.

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy,” Ego [from Ratatouille] says. “We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”

People want to hang on to things that work--stories that work, methods that work, strategies that work. You figure something out, it works, so you keep doing it—this is what an organization that is committed to learning does. And as we become successful, our approaches are reinforced, and we become even more resistant to change.

Up had to go through these changes--changes that unfolded over not months but years--to find its heart. Which meant that the people working on Up had to be able to roll with that evolution without panicking, shutting down, or growing discouraged. It helped that Pete understood what they were feeling.
“It wasn’t until I finished directing Monsters, Inc. that I realized failure is a healthy part of the process,” he told me. “Throughout the making of that film, I took it personally—I believed my mistakes were personal shortcomings, and if I were only a better director I wouldn’t make them.” To this day, he says, “I tend to flood and freeze up if I’m feeling overwhelmed. 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.”
This could just be my Lutheran, Scandinavian upbringing, but I believe life should not be easy. We’re meant to push ourselves and try new things—which will definitely make us feel uncomfortable.

Status Quo

“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” For many, these are words to live by. Politicians master whatever system it took to get elected, and afterward there is little incentive to change it.

Which brings us to one of my core management beliefs: If you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.

That couldn’t have happened if the producer of the movie--and the company’s leadership in general--hadn’t been open to a new viewpoint that challenged the status quo. That kind of openness is only possible in a culture that acknowledges its own blind spots. It’s only possible when managers understand that others see problems they don’t—and that they also see solutions.
You might say I’m an advocate for humility in leaders. But to be truly humble, those leaders must first understand how many of the factors that shape their lives and businesses are—and will always be—out of sight.

I think we’re out of the woods now, but it took a while. And all because a flawed mental model, constructed in response to a single event, had taken hold. Once a model of how we should work gets in our head, it is difficult to change.

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