I love the Singular Genius model of creativity. You know, the worldview that believes creativity comes from one-in-a-million individuals like Beethoven, Faulkner, Edison, and Steve Jobs, who remake the world because they think different.
I love the Singular Genius model because it’s fantastically compelling and dramatic.
But the singular-genius model has a problem. Two problems, actually.
Problem #1: it’s inaccurate. None of the singular geniuses truly operated on their own. Beethoven had Haydn and Mozart, Steve Jobs had Wozniak and Gates; Faulkner had Conrad and Hemingway, Edison had Tesla, and so on. Singular geniuses stand tall because they stand on the shoulders of others (who stand on the shoulders of others, and so on).
Problem #2: it’s crippling. Under this model, you are either born a creative genius, or you’re not. Which makes for an entertaining story, but doesn’t do much for the rest of us who are seeking to be more creative in our lives.
Fortunately, there’s a better model, which might be called the Team model of creative genius. In this view, creativity does not reside within singular people, but rather within the social ecosystems that create and refine ideas.
The big insight is this: every creative breakthrough is built of ideas — thousands of ideas, working together in the same way that cells build a organism. Creativity, then, is not about finding one brilliant individual, but rather about creating effective patterns of interaction between a bunch of smart individuals. About arranging the right people in the right way, and letting them get to work with as few barriers and as much focus as possible.
Nobody on the planet does this better than Pixar. The studio reinvented the movie business by switching from the singular genius model to the Team model, in which movies are made by tightly knit groups. As anyone who has seen Pixar movies can attest, it works. It’s not guesswork or good luck; it’s a system.
The good news: Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull has written a wonderful new book called Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Unlike most books written by founders, this isn’t some myth-heavy legacy project — it’s far closer to a blueprint. Catmull takes us inside the Pixar ecosystem and shows how they build and refine excellence, in revelatory detail.
Among the takeaways:
- 1) Embrace the suck stage. All the best creative ideas are ungainly at the start. As Catmull says, every Pixar film, early in its development, has sucked. “That’s a blunt assessment, I know,” he writes, “but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the ﬁrst versions really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar ﬁlms are not good at ﬁrst, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.” Embracing suckiness as part of the process — and not judging outcomes too early — is essential.
- 2) Be quick to fix. Creative people need help, because they inevitably become lost in the process. They fuse emotionally with the project, and that fusion, while necessary, leads to confusion. The cure? Equip them with a braintrust: a cohesive group of colleagues who can identify problems with candor and trust.
- 3) Be crazily persistent. Failure isn’t just an option: it’s the most effective pathway forward. To use those failures well, you have to be more than just mildly persistent. You get a good sense of this from an open letter written by Pixar animator Austin Madison.
“I, like many of you artists out there, constantly shift between two states. The first is white-hot, “in the zone” seat-of-the-pants, firing on all cylinders creative mode. This is when you lay your pen down and the ideas pour out like wine from a royal chalice. This happens about 3% of the time. The other 97% of the time I am in the frustrated, struggling, office-corner-full-of-crumpled-up-paper mode. The important thing is to slog diligently through this quagmire of discouragement and despair…. In a word: PERSIST. PERSIST on telling your story. PERSIST on reaching your audience. PERSIST on staying true to your vision….”
You get the idea. This book is chock-full of advice like that. If you do creative work, you should read it, now. (For a taste, here’s an excerpt.)