Creativity, Inc. is an interesting book marred by consistently, distractingly bad writing. I read it based on John Siracusa’s review, which doesn’t mention style (and doesn’t quote). But writing about a book without discussing style is like writing about Apple’s laptops without mentioning it.
Many of Catmull’s stories are interesting; for example, he tells one about holding meetings around a long, narrow table that by its physicality tended to exclude people and produce hierarchy, especially since some people would get reserved seats. But he missed the problems at the time: “the seating arrangements and place cards were designed for the convenience of the leaders, including me. Sincerely believing that we were in an inclusive meeting, we saw nothing amiss because we didn’t feel excluded.”
But two of Creativity, Inc.’s main points—about the need to tolerate failure in the right circumstances and the need to foster a creative working environment—are dealt with by much better-written books: Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success and Steven Berlin Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. Not surprisingly they’re both professional writers; either would’ve been a better choice to ghost / “assist” with his book, but they might’ve been a lot more expensive too.
The book should be great; instead, Creativity, Inc. is decent, with redeeming qualities. Had it been a Pixar movie subjected to the process Catmull describes, I think it would’ve been trashed or straightened out before hitting the metaphorical screen. Creativity, Inc. is so painful because it has the potential to be a monument rather than a moment. Its errors are elementary; its insights aren’t. In writing, it appears that Catmull doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. At Pixar he learned to know what he doesn’t know, but in writing he’s not there yet.
There are weird metaphors: “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.” So are they like magnets, which attract metal rapidly, or are they like human riding horses, which is probably where the “light touch” metaphor comes from? The mixing in this sentence is jarring. He has “a ringside seat” to ARPANET. Catmull writes that early film editors at Lucasfilm “couldn’t have been less interested in making changes that would slow them down in the short term.” But that seems unlikely: it’s almost impossible to get to a true zero level of interest. Chances are those editors could have been less interested, perhaps through hostility. In 1983, we learn that “George [Lucas] hadn’t lost an ounce of his ambition,” but how many ounces are there in the average person’s ambition? How many in Lucas’s? Talking about ambition in terms of ounces is common but whatever freshness and vitality the metaphor might have once had is gone. These examples come from the first 37 pages. There are so many other examples of weak writing and clichés that I stopped marking them.
Not every sentence must be brilliant or unexpected—that would be alienating—but some should be.
The best part of Creativity, Inc. is the last pages: “Afterword: The Steve We Knew:”
[Steve Jobs] used to say regularly that as brilliant as Apple products were, eventually they all ended up in landfills. Pixar movies, on the other hand, would live forever. He believed, as I do, that because they dig for deeper truths, our movies will endure, and he found beauty in that idea. John talks about ‘the nobility of entertaining people.’
It has fewer clichés, though I’m not sure why. Nonetheless, I wish the rest of the book had been more like the last ten pages. For the right person in the right industry at the right time, Creativity, Inc. is still worth reading. For the rest of us it’s a lesson in what might have and should have been.