The beginning of the project

Ed Catmull writes about what he calls “ugly babies.” These are projects that start out really rough and get more refined and polished with time; think of an ugly baby who grows into a charming youth and then graceful adult.

Catmull says most Pixar movies follow this pattern. You wouldn’t want to see the early sketches and stories because they’re so bad. Movies like Finding Nemo and Toy Story 2 emerge out of a lot of work and a ton of iteration–they don’t begin with the same resonance the finished products embody.

This is very important to remember when starting a project. It’s OK if things begin ugly. You have to start somewhere. Great work emerges after additions, modifications, and a lot of collaboration.

Early and fast

Andrew Stanton, director of the Pixar films Finding Nemo and Wall-E, is known for saying “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can” [via Ed Catmull].

They’re different phrases, but the sentiment is the same: If you’re working on a project–especially a creative project–it’s better to make decisive decisions, quickly assess whether you’re right or wrong, and then change direction immediately (if needed).

Failure is a possible outcome whenever you try something, and in most cases it isn’t fatal. What is a serious threat is failing late in the process–at a point where changes cannot be made. That’s when it might not be possible to learn from the failure and apply the newfound insight to the project.

There are times when failure is a great teacher, but that’s only when you follow Stanton’s advice. When you fail or are wrong late and slowly, it’s possible you’re not assessing during the process. And if you’re not assessing, you’re not learning.

I’m always suspicious of times when everything is going smoothly and it seems like I’m making all the right decisions. Usually this signifies that I’m not stretching myself by trying something new.

Failure is almost always inevitable with new stuff; hopefully it’s early and fast.

Creativity, Inc.

Last night I began reading Creativity, Inc: Overcoming Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. It’s written by Ed Catmull, who’s the current president of Walt Disney Studios and Pixar Animation Studios. I’m only a quarter of the way through, but I must say the book is thoroughly enjoyable.

Creativity, Inc. is quotable on almost every page. Here’s an excerpt close to the beginning:

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 marshall all of our energies to solve it.

This is so true; problems always lie just over the horizon, and it’s up to leaders to identify these problems (hopefully before they’re too big) and do everything possible to solve them.

Here’s another gem about making movies:

If we made something that we wanted to see, other would want to see it, too.

I totally equate this to education–specifically lesson planning. If I create a lesson plan that I’d like to learn as a student, then my plans are usually successful. If I put a lesson plan together that I know I wouldn’t enjoy participating in as a student… well, it’s probably not going to turn out very well.

I also like Catmull’s humility, which is evident throughout the book:

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.

That’s powerful. Too often we fool ourselves into thinking we know all we need to know, when the reality is there’s always something new we can learn that will help others or ourselves.

There are so many other excerpts I could include, but I’ll end by saying that I highly encourage you to read this book. Catmull is a great leader, and if nothing else, the success of Pixar and even Disney’s recent endeavors prove it.