How I ate a salad, met Ed Catmull, and had an epiphany

Today while eating my sweet pork salad at Costa Vida my coworker leaned over and asked me “hey, is that Ed Catmull?”

I looked up, and sure enough, there chilling in the middle of the room was Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation. He was dressed in jeans and a faded Pixar sweatshirt, looking like a totally normal guy. He was watching one of the TVs where Costa Vida shows surfing clips, waiting for his family to get through the line for food. Everyone in the restaurant was unaware that one of the most successful studio presidents in history was just chilling there. Well, everyone except my co-workers and I.

“Are you going to go say hi to him?”

I had never introduced myself to anyone famous while they were just out and about in public. I always felt people deserve their privacy, and I’m normally not one to introduce myself to anyone out of the blue. It’s something that I normally wouldn’t do.

But that morning I had finished listening to Ed Catmull’s and Amy Wallace’s book “Creativity Inc.” It was my third time finishing it, and it was easily my favorite business/leadership book. I thought “what the heck, I don’t know how often he gets recognized, but I’ll likely never have this chance again.” I got up and walked over to him.

I asked if he was Ed Catmull, and he smiled and said yes. I told him how I was a huge fan of his book, I had just finished reading it for a third time that very morning, and that I was trying to implement several of the principles in the book where I work.

I then asked if I could ask him a question about the book, and he smiled and said sure.

Now before I share my question, I wanted to explain why I think Creativity Inc. is a fantastic book. Ed, with his co-author Amy Wallace, use 30+ years of Pixar’s history, from it’s beginning at Lucasfilms in 1979 until Pixar in 2013, to share lessons he learned. Most importantly, the authors share key principlesthat were crucial to Pixar’s success that runs counter-intuitive to conventional wisdom. They discovered these principles by trying many different strategies to the different challenges they faced.

Let me give an example: one of the fundamental principles in the book is the concept of candor (sharing honestly what you really think) and it’s a crucial role in creativity. Ed explains in detail the challenge of storytelling, and specifically how hard it is to get a story right that will have a meaningful, emotional impact on an audience. It requires revision after revision, trial, and error, and can take years. The leaders at Pixar realized the how critical the principle of candor was to identify what is working in a story, and what isn’t. So Pixar deploys dozens of strategies to foster candor: the Braintrust/Story Trust and Notes Day are just two examples given in the book.

The difference and relationship, between challenge, strategy, and principle are important to understanding my epiphany. A principle is a concept or idea that can be applied is a wide variety of situations. A challenge is a problem you face, including the context that problem is in. Finally, a strategy is a way of adapting and applying a principle to a specific challenge.

Now back to my story. I actually had 3 questions prepared in my mind, you know, just in case if I ever met Ed. (I know, I’m weird, but hey, it happened!) But I wanted to be courteous of his time, especially since we were standing in the middle of a quasi-fast-food restaurant and his family was there. So, I just asked my first one:

“Pixar is working on these large projects that can take years to make, but in the news media business, we are producing dozens of articles every day. Do you have any advice on how to maintain quality while releasing constantly, especially every hour of every day?”

He nodded, thought briefly, and mentioned that TV faces similar challenges with more frequent deliveries versus making a movie, and then he mentioned running a magazine is more similar to our challenge. He mentioned he had seen many authors work on the regular daily pieces in a normal fashion, but then occasionally do bigger, punch out pieces where they heavily invest time and energy to make an impact.

“But specifically for a newspaper? Hrm, well, I don’t know.” He finished with an empathetic shrug.

“Well, if we ever figure it out, we’ll let you know,” I replied. “Thank you so much for your time, I’ll let you get back to your family.”

As I walked back, still being a little star struck from meeting someone whose talents I revered, I mulled over the question I had asked him. I felt, just a little bit like I had wasted my once-in-a-lifetime question with a poor one. His answer made total sense: but I already knew about punch-out pieces, we do them at the Deseret News.

In retrospect, it was silly to think he would have a perfectly packaged epiphany to share with me that would change my way of thinking. Don’t get me wrong, he is a brilliant man with years of experience, but he just isn’t intimately familiar with our business. While he can appreciate our challenges, he doesn’t know the context around them, at least beyond a cursory level. He is a smart guy, but insight comes from experience and understanding the relationships of a particular set of principleschallenges, and strategies.

That’s when I realized the problem of my question: I was asking for strategies regarding my own challenges. While the book talks in-depth about many strategies and challenges, all three of my questions were asking for strategies handling challenges Pixar and Disney Animation hadn’t, and really wouldn’t face.

Creativity Inc., in many ways, is a collection of perfectly packaged epiphanies because Ed and Amy distilled 30+ years of experience and knowledge into an extremely well-written book. A book neatly organized using a strong narrative with perfectly picked examples is going to be a thought altering experience.

But to expect that same altering experience after a few seconds of thinking about a question, which deals with challenges he isn’t intimately familiar with, is a little naïve and silly. Unfortunately, I only realized that after I asked my question.

Now, if Ed had spent 30 years in the newspaper business, knew the trends and challenges inside and out, he might have some more specific, concrete strategies to share.

Then it hit me: “that’s not why he and Amy wrote the book. They wrote it to share the principles learned at Pixar and Disney Animation on the experience of fostering a successful creative culture. They shared the challenges, context, and strategies to help readers understand the principles more thoroughly.”

Then the real epiphany came: focus on the principles taught in the book; take those principles, and with your own understanding of your unique challenges, develop your own strategies and try them out. Ed isn’t going to work at the Deseret News, understand it’s challenges, and devise strategies to overcome them. That’s my and my co-workers’ job, which honestly is the fun part about working on hard problems.

In retrospect, it might seem like that thought should have been obvious. But a core principle that Creativity Inc. teaches is that many times what you feel should be obvious isn’t: it’s often hidden from you. Ultimately, I did get my epiphany, just in a very different way than expected.

So that’s my story of how I met Ed Catmull. For like 90 seconds. In an Americanized Mexican restaurant. And had my epiphany. Which was pretty cool. Or at least I think so.

If you haven’t read Creativity Inc., I cannot recommend it highly enough. There are so many great lessons in it, and so much of it rang true. My only hope is maybe in the future, if I ever get a chance to meet Ed again, I’ll ask an insightful question about a principle in the book, instead of just asking for tips on strategies.

Oh, and if by some miracle Ed, you see this simple blog post, sorry if I bothered you during your trip. Hopefully, the food was good and you had a wonderful time with your family.

— Carmony

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