The importance of forgetting to creativity and innovation

Science fiction author Spider Robinson won the 1983 Hugo Award for Best Short Story with Melancholy Elephants. It’s a prescient take on an essential tension between creativity and commerce. Still worth reading. More worth contemplating.

Robinson explores where the boundaries of creativity might lie and what those boundaries might imply. There are tradeoffs to be made between the needs of artists and the interests of art as a whole. Those tradeoffs have artistic and economic consequences and striking the balance is by no means as self-evident as they might appear. Here’s the nub of his argument in his own words:

“I think it comes down to a kind of innate failure of mathematical intuition, common to most humans.   We tend to confuse any sufficiently high number with infinity.”  

For millions of years we looked at the ocean and said, ‘That is infinite.   It will accept our garbage and waste forever.’   We looked at the sky and said, ‘That is infinite: it will hold an infinite amount of smoke.’   We like the idea of infinity.   A problem with infinity in it is easily solved.   How long can you pollute a planet infinitely large?   Easy: forever.   Stop thinking.  

”Then one day there are so many of us that the planet no longer seems infinitely large.  

The ultimate bottleneck is this: that we have only five senses with which to apprehend art, and that is a finite number.

“Artists have been deluding themselves for centuries with the notion that they create.   In fact they do nothing of the sort.   They discover.   Inherent in the nature of reality are a number of combinations of musical tones that will be perceived as pleasing by a human central nervous system.   For millennia we have been discovering them, implicit in the universe–and telling ourselves that we ‘created’ them.   To create implies infinite possibility, to discover implies finite possibility.   As a species I think we will react poorly to having our noses rubbed in the fact that we are discoverers and not creators.”  

Go read the whole thing. It won’t take you long, But it will leave you thinking.

Book Review – Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration



Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace,
Random House, New York, 2014


This is an excellent case study of creativity and collaboration at scale. Ed Catmull was one of the co-founders of Pixar. With co-author/collaborator Amy Wallace, Catmull reflects on the lessons he and his colleagues have learned over nearly three decades of superior creative work. 

There’s a management summary of key lessons at the end of the book. For example, here’s Catmull on errors: 

Do not fall for the illusion that by preventing errors, you won’t have errors to fix. The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.

Pithy, but you’ll do yourself a disservice if you skip ahead to the conclusion. The value here is in the details and the unfolding stories of challenges met and mistakes made. 

I’ve been a fan of the movies forever and I’ve always been intrigued by the complexity hinted at in the credits. It’s easy to be dazzled by the egos of movie stars and auteur directors. The real work of any movie is hideously complex and interdependent. With the likes of Toy Story or The Incredibles, you must integrate art, science, technology, and business in a dynamic balancing act that spans months and years. This is organizational and management challenge in the extreme. 

Catmull is a computer scientist by training who grew into an executive role in a business that makes money by creating art collaboratively. The lessons here are applicable in any organizational context. They are all the more important because the organizational and economic world is moving along paths that Pixar has already travelled. Catmull’s observations and lessons learned are a report from the future. 

Organizations are backward focused. Accounting systems, standard operating procedures, human resource policies all look backwards. That can be appropriate in a slowly evolving world, but that is not the world we live in. That we live in a time of rapid change may be a cliche, but that does not make it less true. Catmull offers timely advice for this new world:

Whether it’s the kernel of a movie idea or a fledgling internship program, the new needs protection. Business-as-usual does not. Managers do not need to work hard to protect established ideas or ways of doing business. The system is tilted to favor the incumbent. The challenger needs support to find its footing. And protection of the new—of the future, not the past—must be a conscious effort.

Wise advice—hard practice. Do the work—share it.

I discovered this in the usual way—by ignoring the advice and following a trail of breadcrumbs that started on Facebook. I’ve paired this talk by Neil Gaiman with a related one by Ira Glass below. I wanted to have both of them ready to hand when I needed some encouragement and a kick in the ass.

Gaiman’s closing advice: ‘Be wise, because the world needs more wisdom. And if you cannot be wise pretend to be someone who is wise — and then just behave like they would.'”

Neil Gaiman Addresses the University of the Arts Class of 2012 from The University of the Arts (Phl) on Vimeo.


(Via Neil Gaiman Says It Better (Video) | On Being.)

Here is Ira Glass with a similar set of observations and advice:

The War of Art

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Pressfield, Steven


I recently finished Seth Godin‘s excellent new book Linchpin (see Choosing to Draw Your Own Maps for my review). In it, he devotes a central chapter to the notion of resistance and how we get in our own way in the pursuit of our goals. Godin recommended Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art for more insight.

I’m sure the fact that the book has been lurking in my ‘to read’ stack for several years is deeply meaningful.

Godin’s recommendation was enough to push Pressfield’s book to the top of that stack. If you find that you can be your own worst enemy facing creative work, don’t take as long as I did to get to this short but deeply insightful book. Pressfield is the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and, more recently, has been blogging at Steven Pressfield Blog. The War of Art is an extended reflection by Pressfield on the practical challenges of creating.

Pressfield breaks his book into three sections. In the first, he takes a close look at resistance and the myriad ways it works to keep us from trying and carrying on. Ways both obvious and devious. For all the legitimate barriers and delays and excuses, resistance ultimately boils down to self-sabotage; our lizard-brain trying to protect us from fears it cannot understand or articulate.

In the second section, Pressfield offers his answer – turn pro. Show up and do the work. Forget about inspiration. Pressfield has good company here. Here’s a sampling of advice from various creative pros, all with the same fundamental message:

Anyone who waits to be struck with a good idea has a long wait coming. If I have a deadline for a column or a television script, I sit down at the typewriter and damn well decide to have an idea.

Andy Rooney

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas

Linus Pauling

I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at none o’clock sharp.

Somerset Maugham

For all the advertisements and enticements promising instant gratification, we all know that it’s really about doing the work. And this is true whether the work is carpentry or sculpture. Pressfield lays out the following qualities that distinguish a professional from an amateur:

  1. We show up every day
  2. We show up no matter what
  3. We stay on the job all day
  4. We are committed over the long haul
  5. The stakes for us are high and real
  6. We accept remuneration for our labor
  7. We do not overidentify with our jobs
  8. We master the technique of our jobs
  9. We have a sense of humor about our jobs
  10. We receive praise or blame in the real world.

(The War of Art. pp.69-70)

In the final section, Pressfield reveals the payoff of facing resistance with professionalism. He elects to couch it in spiritual terms, but substitute your own terms if that troubles you. Here’s the payoff to professionalism:

Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.

This is the secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. we have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. ideas comes. Insights accrete.

(The War of Art. p. 108)

We can’t  control how the world will react to what we create. All we can control is whether we show up to do the work and whether we have mastered the tools of our craft. Pressfield’s promise is that if we do our part, the Universe will notice and may help.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love offers a similar perspective in a talk she gave at TED last year:


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Work and creativity – Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity at TED conference

Eat, Pray, Love is not the sort of book that I’m likely to pick up despite its tremendous success. Nevertheless, this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, its author, is an excellent rumination and reflection on choosing the most effective emotional relationship between creativity and work. In a nutshell, the Greeks had it right in their notion of the Muses.

Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity | Video on

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