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Many of us have asked ourselves many times these questions: Am I creative? Is someone born with creativity or trained to be creative? What foster creativity? How to make myself more creative?

These questions are the reason that triggers me to read this book “Creativity, Inc.” by Ed Catmull, Co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation (book published on Apr 8, 2014 with 684 customer reviews on Amazon). Well, this is not the main reason though. What really triggers me is my love for Pixar’s animated movies. I’m always drawn by an original and emotionally affecting storyline and many of Pixar’s films make me think and amazed by how somebody could be that creative and brilliant. Who could have thought that the emotions inside the human’s mind would be the main characters in the movie? How to visualize them? How do they look like? I’m struck by the detail level of how memories from an abstract subject become a tangible object, depicted as glowing glass globe; and how difference Islands of Personality are formed inside the mind: Family Island, Honesty Island, Friendship Island, and Goofball Island. Who could have thought about the existence of a prestigious university for scaring? What do they teach? How to visualize that world? With that, you could guess that my favourite animated feature movies by Pixar are Inside Out, Up, Ratatouille, and Monsters University.

This post is not a typical book review post, in which reader will evaluate what they like and what they don’t like, what works and what doesn’t work in the book. This is more of a personal experience, focusing on lessons that I’ve drawn from reading the book. There are 6 lessons in total: the first 3 are about creativity, and the last 3 are about leadership. Part 1 would focus on the first 3 lessons that I’ve learned about creativity.

Lesson #1: “Story is King” and “Quality is the best business plan”

The book talks about Pixar’s guiding principle “Story is King”, which at first might seem cliché to you. You find that creative agencies use this phrase a lot when talking to their clients, and when they said so, they will receive a lot of nods as if they are speaking a universal language. However, the point is not just simply parroting the phrase but what you really mean about it. Everyone knows that story is the most important factor, but I think what is more important is how to ensure that. By that comes a second phrase by John Lasseter, Co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and Chief Creative Officer of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation: “Quality is the best business plan”. John is also the director of Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Cars, and Cars 2.

These two mantras are what differentiated Pixar. People at Pixar believed in them and acted accordingly. They will not let anything – technology, production, marketing, and merchandising – to get in the way of the story. They took pride in how their stories make people feel. Many other studios are fine with second-class quality for their sequels, anywhere but not at Pixar. Everything that they made, everything that associated with Pixar name, must be good. This explains for many awards and achievements that Pixar have won over the years for their feature films and short films: 26 Academy Awards, 5 Golden Globes, and 3 Grammys.

Steve Jobs, the larger-than-life man, Co-founder and largest shareholder of Pixar Animation Studios, as well as Co-founder, Chairman and ex-CEO of Apple Inc., has wowed the audience every time he got on stage to introduce a new Apple product. His keynote presentation was watched by more than 20 million people worldwide. Forbes called Steve Jobs still the world’s greatest corporate storyteller. Steve knew very well how to construct a story that connect with people, how to communicate more effectively if he put forward a narrative, partially also from his many interactions with Pixar’s directors and participation in their meetings.

I’ve learned an important lesson. Before talking about anything else, let’s focus on building a storyline. More crucially, the target is to tell an affecting and carefully drafted one. It must make people think, and feel, and therefore, attract to your product or service whatever you are selling, and your personality.

Lesson #2: The power of observation to achieve originality and authenticity

John Lasseter as the Chief Creative Officer at Pixar is a true believer in the power of research trips. He has urged the team to go for research trips before starting any movie. For example, under his advice, the Ratatouille’s team (Director: Brad Bird) went to France to visit Michelin-starred restaurants’ kitchen, dining, interviewing their chefs, and learning the art of making ratatouille. The Up’s team (Director: Pete Docter) went to Venezuela to see the tepuis up close, and spent time to observe ostriches to help them better model Kevin, the giant bird character. The Brave’s team also took an archery class in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Observation makes their films more real, more believing, and more original.

I remembered when I was a high-school student in Vietnam; I wanted to sell something to make a profit. I don’t know what to sell, so I went to the wholesale market in Cho Lon (Chinatown). I spent a few days looking around and around, and in the end; I chose to buy hand-made bags, because of the low cost per unit, quite unique design and material. So just like that, I went on to sell them on a flea market street, with a friend and my sister. After 2 weeks, the stocks were sold out and we made a profit. Had I not gone for that research trip, I wouldn’t have decided what to sell. Nowadays, on and off, I would have a business idea in mind, sometimes it could be to open a café, or franchise from a restaurant who is my hubby’s client, sometimes it could be to open a hostel, sometimes it could be to create a social network for travel blogs. However, none of my idea is executed as they kept tossing around in my head. And in fact, I have never gone for any research trips. When I travel to other countries, it’s mainly for vacation. I have never travelled for a business idea. After this, I would. I need to go around and find the inspiration.

Lesson #3: Creativity is an on-going process

This lesson could help to answer the question that I pose at the start of my post: Is someone born with creativity or trained to be creative? I believe the book gave me the insight: A person who is born with a creative mind will get the idea started, but to keep it going on requires training and a candid feedback mechanism, from your peers, from your partners, from your mentors. The directors at Pixar of course are ones of those most creative people in the world, so they are considered as people who were born with creativity. They had great ideas. But to have an extraordinary movie need much more than that. The directors at Pixar believe in “the power of candid feedback and iterative process – reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its through line and or a hollow character finds its soul.” According to Pete Docter, director of Inside Out and Up, “the process of developing a story is one of discovery”. Over the years, he has built his mental model of directing an animated film to “running through a long tunnel having no idea how long it will last but trusting that he will eventually come out, intact, at the other end”. So creativity is an on-going process. And therefore, everyone could do it. So start with an idea, and fine-tune it along the way.

Part 1 covers 3 lessons that I’ve learned from the book about creativity: “Story is King” and “Quality is the best business plan”, The power of observation to achieve originality and authenticity, and Creativity is an on-going process.

In my next post which is Part 2, I will talk about the 3 lessons that I’ve learned about leadership, which are: “Fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can”, Ideas come from people so invest in the people, and The lesson about Steve Jobs and his role in shaping Pixar’s destiny.

Read Creativity, Inc.: Inside Out Pixar Animation Studios – 6 valuable lessons on creativity and leadership – Part 2 here.

Creativity, Inc. - Book image

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