"If you think, you stink": From "Toy Story" to "Inside Out," how the creative geniuses at Pixar bring new things into being

A maze, climbing a mountain blindfolded, skiing -- the Pixar team's mental models for their miraculous creations

Published June 21, 2015 3:59PM (EDT)

"Inside Out"      (Disney/Pixar)
"Inside Out" (Disney/Pixar)

Excerpted from "Creativity, Inc."

Many of us have a romantic idea about how creativity happens: A lone visionary conceives of a film or a product in a flash of insight. Then that visionary leads a team of people through hardship to finally deliver on that great promise. The truth is, this isn't my experience at all. I've known many people I consider to be creative geniuses, and not just at Pixar and Disney, yet I can't remember a single one who could articulate exactly what this vision was that they were striving for when they started.

In my experience, creative people discover and realize their visions over time and through dedicated, protracted struggle. In that way, creativity is more like a marathon than a sprint. You have to pace yourself. I'm often asked to predict what the future of computer animation will look like, and I try my best to come up with a thoughtful answer. But the fact is, just as our directors lack a clear picture of what their embryonic movies will grow up to be, I can't envision how our technical future will unfold because it doesn't exist yet. As we forge ahead, while we imagine what might be, we must rely on our guiding principles, our intentions, and our goals- not on being able to see and react to what's coming before it happens. My old friend from the University of Utah, Alan Kay—Apple's chief scientist and the man who introduced me to Steve Jobs—expressed it well when he said, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

This sounds like the kind of slogan you'd see on a bumper sticker, but it contains hidden depths. Invention, after all, is an active process that results from decisions we make; to change the world, we must bring new things into being. But how do we go about creating the unmade future? I believe that all we can do is foster the optimal conditions in which it-- whatever "it" is-- can emerge and flourish. This is where real confidence comes in. Not the confidence that we know exactly what to do at all times but the confidence that, together, we will figure it out.

That uncertainty can make us uncomfortable. We humans like to know where we are headed, but creativity demands that we travel paths that lead to who-knows-where. That requires us to step up to the boundary of what we know and what we don't know. While we all have the potential to be creative, some people hang back, while others forge ahead. What are the tools they use that lead them toward the new? Those with superior talent and the ability to marshal the energies of others have learned from experience that there is a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking.

And that, according to the people who make films at Pixar and Disney Animation, means developing a mental model that sustains you. It might sound silly or woo-woo, this kind of visualization, but I believe it's crucial. Sometimes—especially at the beginning of a daunting project—our mental models are all we've got.

For example, one of our producers, John Walker, stays calm by imagining his very taxing job as holding a giant upside-down pyramid in his palm by its pointy tip. "I'm always looking up, trying to balance it," he says. "Are there too many people on this side or that side? In my job, I do two things, fundamentally: artist management and cost control. Both depend on hundreds of interactions that are happening above me, up in the fat end of the pyramid. And I have to be okay with the fact that I don't understand a freaking thing that's going on half the time—and that that is the magic. The trick, always, is keeping the pyramid in balance."

So far in this section of the book, I've explored some of the mechanisms we use at Pixar to build and protect our creative culture. I've talked about specific techniques and traditions that broaden our viewpoints—from research trips to Pixar University to the Braintrust. I've talked somewhat abstractly about the importance of remaining open, not occasionally but all the time, as a route to self-awareness. Now I want to share some concrete examples of the kinds of mental models I believe are essential to fortify and sustain anyone engaged in the hard work of inventing something new. Let's now examine several of the approaches that my colleagues and I use to keep our doubts at bay as we push toward originality—toward that unmade future.

When Brad Bird was directing The Incredibles, he had a recurring anxiety dream. In this dream, he was driving down a winding and precarious stretch of highway in a rickety old station wagon, with no one else in the car. Apparently, it was up to him to pilot the vehicle. "But I was in the backseat!" he says. "For some reason, I still had a steering wheel, but my visibility was terrible because of where I was sitting. Basically, all I could do is say to myself, 'Don't crash! Don't crash! Don't crash!' " The takeaway, as he puts it: "Sometimes, as a director, you're driving. And other times, you're letting the car drive."

Whenever I hear Brad describe this dream, I'm struck by its familiar themes—blindness, fear of the unknown, helplessness, lack of control. These fears came to him in sleep, but during his waking hours, he sought to master them by rejecting the backseat driver analogy in favor of a different mental model: skiing.

Brad has told me that he thinks of directing the way he thinks about skiing. In either pursuit, he says, if he tightens up or thinks too much, he crashes. There are moments, as a director, where there is so much work to do and so little time to do it that he can't help but feel fear. But he also knows that if he lingers too long in that frightened place, he will freak out. "So I tell myself that I have time, even when I don't. As in, 'Okay, I'm going to proceed as if I have time—I'm going to sit back and muse rather than looking at the clock- because if I sit back and muse, I'm more likely to solve the problem.' "This is where directing is a lot like skiing. "I like to go fast," Brad says, before launching into a story about a trip he took to Vail when, "in the course of a week, I cracked the lens of my goggles four times. Four times I had to go to the ski store and say, 'I need a new piece of plastic,' because I had shattered it crashing into something. And at some point, I realized that I was crashing because I was trying so hard not to crash. So I relaxed and told myself, 'It's going to be scary when I make the turns really fast, but I'm going to push that mountain away and enjoy it.' When I adopted this positive attitude, I stopped crashing. In some ways, it's probably like an Olympic athlete who's spent years training for one moment when they can't make a mistake. If they start thinking too much about that, they'll be unable to do what they know how to do."

Athletes and musicians often refer to being in "the zone"—that mystical place where their inner critic is silenced and they completely inhabit the moment, where the thinking is clear and the motions are precise. Often, mental models help get them there. Just as George Lucas liked to imagine his company as a wagon train headed west—its passengers full of purpose, part of a team, unwavering in their pursuit of their destination—the coping mechanisms used by Pixar and Disney Animation's directors, producers, and writers draw heavily on visualization. By imagining their problems as familiar pictures, they are able to keep their wits about them when the pressures of not knowing shake their confidence.

Byron Howard, one of our directors at Disney, told me that when he was learning to play the guitar, a teacher taught him the phrase, "If you think, you stink." The idea resonated with him—and it informs his work as a director to this day. "The goal is to get so comfortable and relaxed with your instrument, or process, that you can just get Zen with it and let the music flow without thinking," he told me. "I notice the same thing when I storyboard. I do my best work when I'm zipping through the scene, not overthinking, not worrying if every drawing is perfect, but just fl owing with and connecting to the scene- sort of doing it by the seat of my pants."

I'm particularly struck by Byron's focus on speed—on "zipping through" complex problems of logic and storytelling—because it reminds me of what Andrew Stanton says about being a director. I've told you about Andrew's belief that we will all be happier and more productive if we hurry up and fail. For him, moving quickly is a plus because it prevents him from getting stuck worrying about whether his chosen course of action is the wrong one. Instead, he favors being decisive, then forgiving yourself if your initial decision proves misguided. Andrew likens the director's job to that of a ship captain, out in the middle of the ocean, with a crew that's depending on him to make land. The director's job is to say, "Land is that way." Maybe land actually is that way and maybe it isn't, but Andrew says that if you don't have somebody choosing a course—pointing their finger toward that spot there, on the horizon—then the ship goes nowhere. It's not a tragedy if the leader changes her mind later and says, "Okay, it's actually not that way, it's this way. I was wrong." As long as you commit to a destination and drive toward it with all your might, people will accept when you correct course.

"People want decisiveness, but they also want honesty about when you've effed up," as Andrew says. "It's a huge lesson: Include people in your problems, not just your solutions."

This is key to an idea I introduced earlier in the book: The director, or leader, can never lose the confidence of his or her crew. As long as you have been candid and had good reasons for making your (now-flawed-in-retrospect) decisions, your crew will keep rowing. But if you find that the ship is just spinning around—and if you assert that such meaningless activity is, in fact, forward motion—then the crew will balk. They know better than anyone when they are working hard but not going anywhere. People want their leaders to be confident. Andrew doesn't advise being confident merely for confident's sake. He believes that leadership is about making your best guess and hurrying up about it so if it's wrong, there's still time to change course.

There's something else, too. If you're going to undertake a creative project that requires working closely with other people, you must accept that collaboration brings complications. Other people have so much to recommend them: They will help you see outside yourself; they will rally when you are flagging; they will offer ideas that push you to be better. But they will also require constant interaction and communication. Other people are your allies, in other words, but that alliance takes sustained effort to build. And you should be prepared for that, not irritated by it. As Andrew says, continuing his nautical metaphor, "If you're sailing across the ocean and your goal is to avoid weather and waves, then why the hell are you sailing?" he says. "You have to embrace that sailing means that you can't control the elements and that there will be good days and bad days and that, whatever comes, you will deal with it because your goal is to eventually get to the other side. You will not be able to control exactly how you get across. That's the game you've decided to be in. If your goal is to make it easier and simpler, then don't get in the boat."

Andrew's mental model addresses the fear that inevitably comes when your boat is tossed by a storm or stalls for lack of wind. If one looks at creativity as a resource that we continually draw upon to make something from nothing, then our fear stems from the need to make the nonexistent come into being. As we've discussed, people often try to overcome this fear by simply repeating what has worked in the past. That leads nowhere—or, more accurately, it leads in the opposite direction of originality. The trick is to use our skills and knowledge not to duplicate but to invent.

In talking to directors and writers, I'm constantly inspired by the models they keep in their heads— each a unique mechanism they use to keep moving forward, through adversity, in pursuit of their goals. Pete Docter compares directing 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. "There's a really scary point in the middle where it's just dark," he says. "There's no light from where you came in and there's no light at the other end; all you can do is keep going. And then you start to see a little light and then a little more light and then, suddenly, you're out in the bright sun." For Pete, this metaphor is a way of making that moment—the one in which you can't see your own hand in front of your face and you aren't sure you'll ever find your way out—a bit less frightening. Because your rational mind knows that tunnels have two ends, your emotional mind can be kept in check when pitch blackness descends in the confusing middle. Instead of collapsing into a nervous mess, the director who has a clear internal model of what creativity is—and the discomfort it requires—finds it easier to trust that light will shine again. The key is to never stop moving forward.

Rich Moore, who directed Wreck-It Ralph for Disney Animation, envisions a slightly different scenario. He imagines himself in a maze while he's making a movie. Instead of running through willy-nilly, frantically searching for his way out, he places the tips of his fingers along one wall as he moves forward, slowing down here and there to assess and using his sense of touch to help him remember the route he's traveled so far. But he keeps moving so as not to panic. "I loved mazes as a kid," Rich says. "But you have to keep your head to find your way out. When I see a movie go south, I think to myself, 'Well, they went nuts in the maze. They freaked out in there, and it fell apart.' "

Bob Peterson, who has helped solve creative problems on almost every Pixar film, credits Andrew with giving him a model that has been invaluable to his career. On A Bug's Life, Bob says, Andrew compared making a movie to an archeological dig. This adds yet another element to the picture—the idea that as you progress, your project is revealing itself to you. "You're digging away, and you don't know what dinosaur you're digging for," Bob says. "Then, you reveal a little bit of it. And you may be digging in two different places at once and you think what you have is one thing, but as you go farther and farther, blindly digging, it starts revealing itself. Once you start getting a glimpse of it, you know how better to dig."

Bob and Andrew have heard me voice my objection to this particular metaphor many times. As I've said, I believe that when we work on a movie, we are not uncovering an existing thing that had the bad luck to get buried under eons of sediment; we are creating something new. But they argue that the idea the movie is in there somewhere—think of David, trapped in Michelangelo's block of marble—helps them stay on track and not lose hope. So while I started this chapter by insisting that what moviegoers see on the screen does not emerge fully formed from some visionary's brain, I have to allow for this idea: Having faith that the elements of a movie are all there for us to find often sustains us during the search.

If this model resonates with you, just recognize that it has its pitfalls. Even Andrew warns that during your excavation, not every bone you unearth will necessarily belong to the skeleton you are trying to assemble. (There may be the bones of several different dinosaurs—or stories—mixed up in your dig site.) The temptation to use everything you find, even if it doesn't fit, is strong. After all, you probably worked hard to dig each element up. But if you are discerning and rigorous in your analysis of each piece—if you compare it to the bits you've found already to see if it's a match—your movie or project will reveal itself to you. "After a while, it starts to tell me what's there," Andrew says. "That's the place you're looking for: when the movie starts to tell you what it wants to be."

Michael Arndt, who wrote Toy Story 3, and I have had an ongoing dialectic about the way he envisions his job. He compares writing a screenplay to climbing a mountain blindfolded. "The first trick," he likes to say, "is to find the mountain." In other words, you must feel your way, letting the mountain reveal itself to you. And notably, he says, climbing a mountain doesn't necessarily mean ascending.Sometimes you hike up for a while, feeling good, only to be forced back down into a crevasse before clawing your way out again. And there is no way of knowing where the crevasses will be.

I like a lot about this metaphor—except for its implication that the mountain exists. Like Andrew's archeological dig, it suggests that the artist must simply "find" the piece of art, or the idea, that is hidden from sight. It seems to me to contradict one of my central beliefs: that the future is unmade, and we must create it. If writing a screenplay is like climbing a mountain blindfolded, that implies that the goal is to see an existing mountain—while I believe it should be the goal of creative people to build their own mountain from scratch.

But as I've talked to my colleagues who perform a variety of different jobs, I've come to respect that the most important thing about a mental model is that it enables whoever relies on it to get their job—whatever it is—done. The uncreated is a vast, empty space. This emptiness is so scary that most hold on to what they know, making minor adjustments to what they understand, unable to move on to something unknown. To enter that place of fear, and to fill that empty space, we need all the help we can get. Michael is a screenwriter, which means he starts with a blank page. That requires charting the path from nothing to something, and imagining himself as a blindfolded mountain climber serves him, he says, because it girds him for the inevitable ups and downs of his job.

I've now described several models, and the thing I believe they have in common is the search for an unseen destination—for land across the ocean (Andrew), for light at the end of the tunnel (Pete), for a way out of the maze (Rich), for the mountain itself (Michael). This makes sense for creative leaders who must guide so many people through the beats of a story or the production of a film. At the beginning, the director's or writer's destination is unclear, but he or she must forge ahead anyway.

Producers, however, have a different, more logistical job. If directors must summon their creative vision, and writers must impose structure and make a story sing, producers are there to keep things real. Their job is to make sure a project stays on track and on budget, so it makes perfect sense that their mental models differ markedly from those of their colleagues. Remember John Walker's upside-down pyramid? His mental model focuses not on climbing a hill or reaching a destination but on balancing a multitude of competing demands. Other producers have their own ways of imagining their jobs, but to a one, they have this in common: Managing a multiplicity of forces, not to mention hundreds of people with minds of their own, requires balance.

Lindsey Collins, a producer who has worked with Andrew on several films, imagines herself as a chameleon who can change her colors depending on which constituency she's dealing with. The goal is not to be fake or curry favor but to be whatever person is needed in the moment. "In my job, sometimes I'm a leader, sometimes I'm a follower; sometimes I run the room and sometimes I say nothing and let the room run itself," she says. Adapting to your environment, like a lizard that blends into whatever background it finds itself in, is Lindsey's way of managing the competing—and potentially crazy-making—forces she encounters in her job. "I'm a firm believer in the chaotic nature of the creative process needing to be chaotic. If we put too much structure on it, we will kill it. So there's a fine balance between providing some structure and safety— financial and emotional—but also letting it get messy and stay messy for a while. To do that, you need to assess each situation to see what's called for. And then you need to become what's called for."

How does one make such an assessment? Lindsey jokes that she employs "the Columbo effect"—a reference to Peter Falk's iconic TV detective, who appeared to bumble his way through a case, even as he inevitably zeroed in on the culprit. When mediating between two groups who aren't communicating well, for example, Lindsey feigns confusion. "You say, 'You know, maybe it's just me, but I don't understand. I'm sorry I'm slowing you down here with all my silly questions, but could you just explain to me one more time what that means? Just break it down for me like I'm a two-year-old.'"

Good producers—and good managers—don't dictate from on high. They reach out, they listen, they wrangle, coax, and cajole. And their mental models of their jobs reflect that. Katherine Sarafian, another Pixar producer, credits the clinical psychologist Taibi Kahler with giving her a helpful way of visualizing her role. "One of Kahler's big teachings is about meeting people where they are," Katherine says, referring to what Kahler calls the Process Communication Model, which compares being a manager to taking the elevator from floor to floor in a big building. "It makes sense to look at every personality as a condominium," Katherine says. "People live on different floors and enjoy different views." Those on the upper floors may sit out on their balconies; those on the ground floor may lounge on their patios. Regardless, to communicate effectively with them all, you must meet them where they live. "The most talented members of Pixar's workforce—whether they're directors, producers, production staff, artists, whatever—are able to take the elevator to whatever floor and meet each person based on what they need in the moment and how they like to communicate. One person may need to spew and vent for twenty minutes about why something doesn't look right before we can move in and focus on the details. Another person may be all about, 'I can't make these deadlines unless you give me this particular thing that I need.' I always think of my job as moving between floors, up and down, all day long."

When she's not imagining herself in an elevator, Katherine pretends she's a shepherd guiding a flock of sheep. Like Lindsey, she spends some time assessing the situation, figuring out the best way to guide her flock. "I'm going to lose a few sheep over the hill, and I have to go collect them," she says. "I'm going to have to run to the front at times, and I'm going to have to stay back at times. And somewhere in the middle of the flock, there is going to be a bunch of stuff going on that I can't even see. And while I'm looking for the sheep that are lost, something else is going to happen that I'm not aiming my attention at. Also, I'm not entirely sure where we're going. Over the hill? Back to the barn? Eventually, I know we will get there, but it can be very, very slow. You know, a car crosses the road, and the sheep are all in the way. I'm looking at my watch going, 'Oh, my God, sheep, move already!' But the sheep are going to move how they move, and we can try to control them as best we can, but what we really want to do is pay attention to the general direction they're heading and try to steer a little bit."

Notice how each of these models contains so many of the themes we've talked about so far: the need to keep fear in its place, the need for balance, the need to make decisions (but also to admit fallibility), and the need to feel that progress is being made. What's important, I think, as you construct the mental model that works best for you, is to be thoughtful about the problems it is helping you to solve.

I've always been intrigued, for example, by the way that many people use the analogy of a train to describe their companies. Massive and powerful, the train moves inexorably down the track, over mountains and across vast plains, through the densest fog and darkest night. When things go wrong, we talk of getting "derailed" and of experiencing a "train wreck." And I've heard people refer to Pixar's production group as a finely tuned locomotive that they would love the chance to drive. What interests me is the number of people who believe that they have the ability to drive the train and who think that this is the power position—that driving the train is the way to shape their companies' futures. The truth is, it's not. Driving the train doesn't set its course. The real job is laying the track.

Excerpted from the Book, "Creativity, Inc." by Ed Catmull, with Amy Wallace. Copyright © 2014 by Ed Catmull. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.  All rights reserved.


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