Trust the Creative Process

One of my latest favorite tech/product reads, after Zero to One, is Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. These are my notes:

Visual polish frequently doesn’t matter. Get the story right.

My answer to Peter Thiel’s famous interview question, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

I started out as a graphic designer working on brand systems, then became a mobile designer tinkering interfaces on small screens. Now, I’m figuring out why we build what we build as a product designer at Etsy. Over the years, I’ve slowly arrived at the conclusion that design isn’t going to change the world. Stories, on the other hand, will. The why behind what we do lasts.

Being on the lookout for problems was not the same as seeing problems.

Ronald Cohen talked about a similar concept in his book The Second Bounce of the Ball. He argues that in business, most people can see the first bounce of the ball, but very few can predict where the ball is going to hit on the second bounce. Seeing problems requires the same level of intuition, gut and trust. That’s also what distinguishes an excellent manager vs. a good one.

Get the right people. It’s more important than the right idea.

When I was deciding whether to join a small 4-person startup called Grand St. back in 2013, I asked the founders how they had arrived at the idea of a indie hardware marketplace.

They told me that they had always wanted to work together, so one day, they went for it. They started a company, sat down in a room with a white board and jotted down all their interests and curiosities. Many days and debates later, Grand St. emerged out of the board.

I knew I landed a good team when I heard the story, and now 2 years later, we went through an acquisition together, hired new team members, built some cool products at Etsy, and are still having fun.

Team Halloween Costume at Etsy

If you are taking on a complicated creative project you will almost definitely become lost at some point.

It’s even worse when I admit that there’s very little I can do to help myself. When stuck, I often try the following three things:

  1. Step away. We’re wired to make connections of the world around us. Leaving the project in the drawer for a few days, even hours, can give the brain some space to seek out new connections.
  2. Ask for help. That’s why having a good team matters. I once asked the team to write down one thing they think is core to our culture, and one of them wrote something like “It’s nice to have each other to lean on.” My point exactly.
  3. Trust the process. It’s also the second principle at Pixar, right after “Story is king.” I appreciate yet struggle with this one so much, and thus write more on this topic later in my post.

If you are open about problems you will learn from them.

Our team has a long-standing tradition of passing on a weekly fuck-up flag, to honor (and publicly shame) the two team members who fucked up the most during the week prior.

We’ve shared engineering disasters (the engineers have 80% chance of getting the flag), like I forgot to switch the server and the entire website was down for 3 hours. We’ve talked about personal mistakes, like throwing a birthday party for someones wife, but went too hardcore, so their wife was too hungover the day after. The best part of going around the table and sharing our fuck-ups is that we aren’t necessarily looking for suggestions or advice. We simply admit that we did something wrong and there’s room to be better.

This, unsurprisingly, has been one of the most clear signs of someone’s maturity. As the sole designer on the team, I work with 7 engineers, and those who own their mistakes are always the best and easiest to work with.

The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

Anton Ego, the food critic from Ratatouille, delivered that line.

Link to image

How do you encourage innovation in a large company that’s constantly churning to remain agile and keep their competitive advantage? Set aside effort, and dedicate time, resources and mental energy. There’s a reason why Skunk Works and Google X exist, and the effort must be respected from everyone within the company. Think long-term ROI.

Creativity is a marathon. Pace yourself.

I’ve been training for my first marathon for about 2 months now, and every time I bring myself to the park loop on early Sunday mornings, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to start slow. It’s a game of endurance, and I need to persist.

This brings me back to “trust the process.” The second most important principle at Pixar. Certain process is easier to trust than others. Marathon training, for example, doesn’t take a whole lot of convincing. As long as I follow through the program, my body will be fit and able to finish the 26.2-mile run.

But creativity doesn’t have a set training program. How can we trust the process when we are directionless and utterly lost in seeking the solution, especially when we have no idea whether the solution exists after all?

We trust the process because there’s no other way to reach the other end, and giving up isn’t an option. We steer the ship and follow what’s true and important to us, through rain, fog and storms, and pray that something, anything, will be worth the painstaking effort. The truth, as I’ve lately come to realize, is that the effort and the journey itself is worthy, and perhaps that’s enough.

As Catmull puts it, the future is a direction, after all, not a destination.

Lesson #1? Persist.

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