Three Creative People I Most Admire
There are many creative geniuses in the world. But rare is a creative team that can channel their collective genius into a lasting legacy. These three men did just that. The three most inspiring creative people to me are the founding members of Pixar: Steve Jobs, John Lasseter, and Ed Catmull. In addition to contributing their great creative skills to the company—Jobs as a businessman and chief investor, Lasseter as a animator and writer, and Catmull as a computation genius—they all worked to create a lasting institution that is the very definition of creativity.
I consider leaving him off my list because of the taboo of proclaiming Jobs as a hero. But I couldn't in good conscience leave him off my list because of the profound effect his life's work has had on my life. Steve died during my time at Apple, and I think because I was working at the company he founded I felt I should seek out more about his life. I read the Walter Issacson biography--and reread it several times--before moving on to Inside Apple and Insanely Simple. I found that I was drawn to the mythos of the man's life and was connected to him through my admiration of his professional life and my fascination with his personal life.
But above all else, I admire Jobs for his ability to demand better work from those he worked with. Most people strive for competence and expect it from those they work with, but I think most people believe in the idea of 'good enough.' Steve Jobs didn't believe in good enough. Jobs expected perfection and demanded it of those he worked with. He would not tolerate those who couldn't give him it. He was vitriolic to those who failed to deliver it. And when something turned out well, he insisted no one focus on the success but rather move onto the next problem.
This kind of success is hard to emulate when it becomes socially inappropriate to express disgust and disappointment at those who are trying hard to do good work. We start to value people's feeling over the value of their work because we empathize with their effort. But it's this very empathy that dilutes our ability to objectively evaluate quality. Steve refused to let people effect his judgement of quality or correctness.
Expecting perfection from everyone you meet is unreasonable, but striving to work or build a team that is committed to rejecting 'good enough' is the biggest lesson I take from Steve Jobs.
Disney Animation was John Lasseter’s dream job. While going to school to learn animation, John worked as a Jungle Tour Guide at Disneyland. John worked a job for the company he loved while preparing to make career in that very company. He choose to do something he thought of as menial for the company he would go on to revolutionize. The point being that although the Jungle Cruise wasn’t John’s focus, it did end up teaching him valuable lessons in story-telling. I would argue it taught him something even more valuable to his success: an understanding of the average Disney consumer.
John failed as a Disney animator, and was fired from the company. This failure never diminished his love for what he though the company ought to stand for, and never diminished his determination to be the animator he had idolized when he fell in love with Disney animation. John’s understood that that Disney’s consumers don’t love animated stories because they were whimsical. He knew Disney consumers craved great narratives. Sure, Pixar’s movies were achievements in technology and beautifully animated. And yes, they had all star voice casts and were family friendly. But the reason we love Pixar movies is because they tell powerful stories about characters we are made to love. They don’t shy away from themes of disappointment, loss, and fear. All of this because John believed that story-telling was more important to an audience than anything else.
Never giving up on the things that you love and believe in, even in the face of defeat and disappointment—is the reason I admire John Lasseter.
While the least visible of the three founders, Ed Catmull is likely my favorite of the triumvirate Pixar brain trust. Ed is Mormon and served a two year LDS mission at 19, just as I did. He went on to invent the computer technology that would revolutionize film-making and power Pixar’s successes. I feel very connected to Ed Catmull, because by all accounts he was the most committed to making Pixar an institution that valued creativity and innovation above all other considerations.
Catmull is the only founder that is ‘Pixar Native’. Lasseter started with Disney and would go back to revitalize Disney animation, and Job’s founded Apple and then returned to save it, and although they would never leave Pixar, Catmull’s focus and legacy has always been with Pixar. In his book, Creativity Inc. Catmull explains how Pixar was set up to encourage and reward innovation thinking. Everything at Pixar, to the way movie ideas are pitched to the location of it’s bathrooms, focuses on fostering collaboration and excellence and on reducing friction and incompetence. Catmull understands that getting great people to do great work is only half the fight. In his book, Creativity Inc. Catmull asserts that "getting the team right is the necessary precursor to get getting the ideas right," and his company is built on that idea.
Catmull built a company with core competencies in computer science, business, and film-making; and yet he created a system where the focus was on none of them. I admire Catmull’s foresight to know that a system that favors creative thought above industry proficiency will succeed, with massive hit after massive hit.