Monthly Archives: March 2019

Creativity, Inc. – Constant change requires continuous improvement

In Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull, the co-founder and until the end of 2018 president of Pixar Animation Studios shares his story and what he learned along the way. It’s a comfortable read and it’s not pedantic.

Despite the fact that I work for a consultancy company and systems integrator and not for an animation studio there are a lot of learnings in the book that feel very relevant. The three most important insights are:

  • Trust your teams
  • Change is constant and necessary
  • You will have blind spots, even if you are actively trying to avoid it

Trust your teams
The first insight is universal and doesn’t depend on the type of work you do. If you are a leader you should trust your teams and your people.

You are in charge. If a significant problem pops up the person who’s responsible, is ultimately you. Perhaps people weren’t comfortable sharing their concerns with you, or perhaps the processes you put in place don’t have the effect that you thought they would have. If a problem occurs, try to find the cause and therefore the first step to avoid similar problems in the future. To be able to think and act like this requires both self-confidence and a lack of ego. I find this idea very inspiring. When looking for improvements, start by trying to be better yourself.

You should of course also work with your teams to support all team members in their growth. People need to feel empowered to take decisions within their area of responsibility and to find solutions to resolve mistakes. Those solutions can include informing you, or asking for your help, but they don’t necessarily do.

Change is constant and necessary
The world is constantly changing. Hanging on to something that works today and not wanting to change it means you will eventually fall behind. You have to make decisions, even if you’re not sure. If it turns out it’s the wrong decision, admit that you were wrong and adjust the course. Finding ways to experiment can allow you to fail quick and cheap, thus saving time and money.

Because the world is constantly changing it’s also important to keep a learner mindset. It’s not just your organization that has to constantly adjust to the changing world around you. You have to adjust personally too, which means that you need to continue to update your knowledge and skills.

You will have blind spots, even if you are actively trying to avoid it
As a leader, you need to actively look for things that don’t work, in your company and in your leadership. Even if you are looking for potential challenges, you might still miss them. It’s almost impossible to look at your own company and leadership objectively.
Finding the issues in your organization is also made more difficult because issues will often be hidden from leaders. People do not talk to their leaders the way they talk to their peers. Even if you think you are very accessible and open, there will always be a barrier, simply because you are a leader. That shouldn’t stop you from trying though. If you are actively looking to find potential issues you will always find more than if you are not looking at all!

Please note
I enjoyed the book. I’m not a huge animation nerd, but the story was interesting and engaging. Some of the tips are quite specific for companies that have creativity at the core of their business, but many of them are applicable to working with people, regardless of the industry.

I should mention though that in the book Ed Catmull paints a very positive picture of John Lasseter. I had not heard about him, but shortly after I finished the book I found out that he has been pushed out of Pixar and Disney after reports of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and groping female employees. As far as I’ve been able to find Catmull has not distanced himself publicly from John Lasseter, which I think is a mistake.

Finding all this after finishing the book has a significant impact on my feelings about the book. I will not read it again.

Good Omens – The end of the world as we know it

Good Omens was written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s smart and funny and unusual. The book had been on my reading wishlist for a while, but I must admit that what got me to pick it up was the trailer of the series that will premiere at the end of May on Amazon Prime. It will come to the BBC 6 months after that.

Good Omens is about the end of the world. There’s a demon who likes to annoy people, but who also has a soft spot for them. And an angel who wants people to be kind, but who also likes to tease them. And who loves books. A lot.
They have both lived on earth since The Beginning and have grown rather fond of it. While their respective bosses are anxiously waiting for Armageddon (or the great war between heaven and hell and good and evil), they would like things to stay as they are. It’s hard to hide things from God and the Devil, which means that both get in trouble for trying to avoid Armageddon.

The book is a great work of fiction and you can read it as just that and enjoy it immensely.
There is another layer in it though, that mocks the concept of witch hunts and that exposes false dichotomies. In Good Omens, heaven and hell do equal amounts of damage by the absolutism of the ideas that they promote. Both are pushing towards the ultimate battle between good and evil, which they know will destroy the world, regardless of who will be victorious.

You might expect that a book based on the premise of the clever plotting of the end of the world would feel dark, but it doesn’t. The story is always light and funny and it keeps moving fairly quickly. The characters feel very real, and everyone is subtly mocked in equal measures.

While the “about the authors” part in most books is informative at best, in this book it’s almost as entertaining as the rest of the book. Reading about the friendship between Terry and Neil is heartwarming. The way in which they both describe the process of how they wrote Good Omens together is a joy. It even makes writing fiction sound more like fun than just like a lot of hard work in solitude. Perhaps writing together will be the key for me to one day write fiction after all.
I will definitely read Good Omens again and I can’t wait for the series to come to the BBC.

Good Omens Series

Milkman – The power of gossip and social pressure

Milkman by Anna Burns is a gloomy story about rumors and gossip and the life and death consequences. The city where the story is set is divided by religion and politics. The city is not named, but the Anna Burns is born in Belfast in Northern Ireland.
The protagonist is “middle sister”. None of the characters are referenced by name. They are referenced based on their relationship with the protagonist, or the most consistent gossip about them in the community.

Men are getting killed because of something they did, something they didn’t do, something they might have done, or simply by mistake. Women are not seen as a thread. When all the “ordinary” women unite though, for instance, to get rid of a curfew, the men in power have no choice but to give in to their demands.
The impact of divide and distrust on everyday life is all-consuming to the protagonist. It feeds her self-doubt to the point where she completely isolates herself and forgets who she is, or at least who she used to be.

While thankfully I have not lived in an environment as described in the book, it’s easy to feel the emotions and the undercurrents described in the book. I guess in a way high school can be seen as a micro-version of such an environment. A place where who you are associated with, what group you belong to, where you live, what rumors are made up and how they take hold or disappear determines how (un)comfortable life is.

On top of that, you are falling in love, discovering your sexuality and getting your heart broken. But also you might break someone else’s heart, either on purpose or by accident.
It’s a place where most men seem less mature than most women, but are at the same time they are more powerful. This leads to violence, misunderstanding and in extreme cases to physical and mental abuse.
It’s a unique book, both in the way issues are addressed and in the style in which it’s written.

The emotions in the story are gripping and dark and the relationships are complex. It’s a very interesting and enjoyable read. If you feel like you can deal with the gloom I would recommend reading Milkman.

On writing – Writing advice from Stephen King

I’m not a Stephen King fan. I saw the film Misery with my classmates when I was a first grader in high school. I tried to hide my fear, but I was so scared I never got close to anything related to Stephen King again after that. Until this book. I figured that a book on writing should be safe enough.

The first 30% of the book is a biography. I don’t know why he decided to structure the book like that, but it works. It provides context for the writing advice and it made me trust him.

When he does talk about writing he explains that he doesn’t believe in plotting a story. This is interesting to me because it’s 100% opposite to the premise of Story Genius by Lisa Cron that I read a few months ago. Stephen’s explanation is that you can’t plot life. Plotting a story is likely to suck the energy out of it. It will become artificial.

The thing I like most about this is that I’m pretty sure I won’t have the patience to plot a story the way Lisa Cron proposes to do it. Stephen King compares a writer discovering a story while writing to an archeologist uncovering a fossil. While it’s still a lot of hard work it sounds like a lot more fun than plotting out every little detail before starting the actual writing.

For King, a story starts with a situation. There is no plot to start with and characters are flat. The characters come to life when the situation starts to develop. While he’s writing and excavating the story from where it’s buried the plot will become visible.

He completes his first draft without sharing any of it with anyone. This helps him to maintain the energy and speed. While writing a first draft, any outside input, whether praise or criticism, could impact the development of the story. Once the first draft is finished a small number of “important readers” get to read it, ask questions about it and give feedback. You should also read your first draft yourself. According to King, this is a very positive thing that you will likely be looking forward to at that point.
I’m not convinced I’d feel that way, but who knows, maybe I would.

I don’t know if I’ll ever write a novel, but if I don’t it won’t have anything to do with On Writing or Stephen King. I’ve gotten to like him through reading this book. I’m not sure if I like him enough to get me over my trauma and try reading one of his other books, but I’m considering it. It won’t be Misery though, that’s for sure!

When asked how do you write

Thinking fast and slow – why it’s good to think about your thinking

Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman provides many interesting insights. It does take some persistence to get through. According to Kindle, it takes the average reader 11 and a half hours. I tried to read it a couple of years ago, but at that point gave up fairly quickly. Now that I finished it I do think it was worth it.

Our brain consists of two mechanisms that in the book are referred to as systems. System 1 is uncontrolled and often biased, but it’s quick and it doesn’t use a lot of energy. System 2 is deliberate, but also slow and lazy. It leaves as much as possible to system 1, which means that a lot of our initial reactions are uncontrolled and biased. The book contains many examples of how this impacts our ideas, decisions, and impressions. Some of it is so fundamental that it should be taught in schools.

An area in which we should be especially suspicious of our intuition and gut feeling is statistics. It has been proven that even statisticians have a terrible intuition when it comes to statistics.

For instance, we forget that in most events, especially when they are extreme, good or bad luck plays an important role.

  • When a golfer plays exceptionally well on the first day of a tournament, we expect that person to also do exceptionally well on the second day. However, the great score on the first day was exceptional, meaning, an exception. Therefore the score of this player is likely to be closer to average on the second day. Meaning there is a significant chance the player will be worse on the second day than on the first. The opposite happens when someone plays unusually bad on the first day.
  • Suppose you have to interview two candidates for an open position. One of them has a lot of experience, the other has little proven experience. If the first job applicant has a mediocre interview and the second one smashes the interview, we are likely to hire the second person. Even though there’s a significant chance that the great interview of the first applicant is a lucky shot. It is likely that the work of the second applicant over time will be better. We should assume that the long term performances of both candidates will be closer to what would be average based on their experience, rather than to how they came across during the interview.

This mechanism can also fool people into thinking that punishing someone for a bad performance makes them do better next time. When in fact the person was always likely to improve compared to the mishap.

Another example of why we can’t do statistics based on intuition is because when events are easy to retrieve from memory, we tend to overexaggerate how often they occur. Something that’s more flashy and dramatic sticks to memory more easily, even if it doesn’t happen a lot. For instance, far more people die in car crashes or through heart failure or cancer, but it’s a lot easier to remember a terrorist attack.

Not related to statistics, but relevant when talking about biases and in the context of how quickly “us progressives” tend to judge more conservative people is that the human mind is unable to reconstruct past states of knowledge. We forget that we didn’t know before what we now know and we are unable to recall what we used to think or believe.

We think that we are rational beings, but we are a lot less rational than we think we are. How a question or a choice is framed determines the answer many of us will give. When we are asked to weigh wins and losses a loss is weighed twice as high as a win, making us behave irrationally when gambling for instance.

If all of these examples are as fascinating to you as they are to me then I recommend reading “Thinking Fast and Slow”. Even if it does take some patience and tenacity.

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is