Building the Next Pixar

Evie Nagy of Fast Company interviewed a bunch of Pixar alums about working for one of the best animation studios in the world, and how those experiences translated into their own ventures.

Articles like this make it difficult to pick out the best quotes because they're all so good, but I particularly enjoyed this one by Suzanne Slatcher (who helped create Finding Nemo's Sydney Opera House, the car-like rock formations in Cars, and the iconic house in Up):

“A computer will make something perfectly square, perfectly spherical, and that’s just ugly and boring. All of your time is spent kind of messing it up, which is the opposite of most people’s jobs…the real world is a big old mess and most people’s time is spent tidying it up.”

Here's another good'un for anyone who thinks they always need the newest, shiniest thing to do good work (emphasis mine):

“John Lasseter understood that this was a new medium, but the fundamental medium was storytelling, not technology. The technology helped, but it was just a better pencil—it was marrying the artists and storytellers with the technology in a way that they both really understood and appreciated. That was the key to Pixar's creative success, and it still is.”

There's plenty more where that came from, so go read the whole article.

Resistance

Seinfeld's not the only one who thinks writers should stop making excuses. Steven Pressfield's book, The War of Art, is a master class in combating "Resistance" — his term for the cumulative forces (both internal and external) that aim to prevent us from doing our work.

Here's what he has to say on the matter (emphasis mine):

“Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is protean. It will assume any form, if that’s what it takes to deceive you. It will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man. Resistance has no conscience. It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned. If you take Resistance at its word, you deserve everything you get. Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.

Another good quote:

“There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.”

This sort of thing is a common theme I see from creative people who are at the top of their respective fields. Yes, there are days when it's more difficult than usual to produce something great, but none of that takes precedence over sitting down and doing the work.

My advice is to listen to these guys. They certainly didn't get to where they are in life by being lazy.

Jerry Seinfeld on Writer's Block

Seinfeld did a Reddit AMA ("Ask Me Anything") and told a bunch of great stories about the making of Seinfeld and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (which is one of the best things on the internet right now). All the answers are worth reading through, but the best of the bunch was this one:

Q: “How do you deal with writers block?”

A: “Writer's block is a phony, made up, BS excuse for not doing your work.”

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling

There are a couple of animation studios that I consider to be the best in their field. One is Studio Ghibli, and the other is Pixar. So when Pixar's (former) Story Artist lays down some rules for great storytelling, people should pay attention.

Although I enjoyed the entire list, two rules in particular struck me as useful for any sort of creative work:

11. “Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.”

-and-

17. “No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.”

'How Designers Destroyed the World'

Mike Monteiro of Mule Design gave an impassioned (and profanity-laden) talk at Webstock 2013, in which he discusses the importance of speaking up when a project is about to head downhill. I think it's a must-watch for anyone in the design world, and probably people outside of it too.

If you like Mike's talk, be sure to also check out his book.

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Mediocrity

It's a pattern as old as civilization: an amateur, unsure of themselves, will obsess over what their heroes might think or say or do in a given situation, rather than simply hunkering down and doing the work for themselves. It's a perfectly human behavior, and something I've certainly been guilty of in the past.

Some even take it a step further, attempting to re-create whatever it was that made their heroes successful.

“I did what most writers do at their beginnings: emulated my elders, imitated my peers, thus turning away from any possibility of discovering truths beneath my skin and behind my eyes.”
Ray Bradbury

Over the years though, I've reached the same conclusion that so many others surely have throughout history: there is no shortcut, no secret sauce, no magic bullet, that will make your work great. Emulating your heroes can undoubtedly be a useful learning method in the short term, but in the long term it's no more effective than being that kid in middle school who cheats on tests and never learns anything.

Eventually, you must find your own voice. Nobody's going to do it for you, especially not your idols. I guarantee you they had to go through the same process themselves when they first started pursuing their passions, and they'd tell you the same exact thing I am now.

Here are a few tenets I encourage you to keep in mind:

  1. If you do great work, it will speak for itself.
  2. If you are passionate about what you do, then you are sure to do great work.
  3. Don't be too concerned with your skill level in the beginning. You might not be very good at first (and truthfully, almost nobody is), but with time your skills will grow. Just put something, anything out into the world, and the rest will come.
  4. Don't be desperate for attention. Aspire to reach a level where your heroes will want to work with you as peers, not just notice you from afar.
  5. Lastly, don't fawn over your heroes. I'm 100% serious because I know how easy it is to fall into this trap. You'll either creep them out or they'll ignore you the same way they ignore all the other gushers out there. It's okay to point out something awesome they've done, but keep it professional.

I'll leave you with a quote by Josh Long that gets right to the heart of what I'm talking about:

“The people that we look up to are no different than we are. They still wake every morning with their own routine and their own ambitions for the day. They have the same fears, challenges, set backs, and epiphanies.

The difference is that they ship.”

The Great Discontent Interviews Frank Chimero

Frank Chimero is a designer and the author of The Shape of Design, an excellent book I talked about on Tools & Toys recently.

Frank always has fantastic things to say about design and freelancing:

“It’s more important to do good and interesting things than it is to make money. If you do good and interesting things, then you have to trust that the money will follow.”

He also delved a little into the age-old "fake it until you make it" method:

“I learned to make websites because I agreed to do something that I didn’t know how to do and then I had to figure out how to do it. That seems to be a pattern that comes up all over the place because nobody knows how to do what was invented last week. You have to say you know how, then figure it out under the gun.”

and

“As soon as you start writing like you know what you’re talking about, then you have to back it up. But, I’ve always been very clear that I am making it up as I go along. I’m learning on the job.”

There are a hundred other things I'd love to quote, but instead I'll just tell you to go read the whole thing. Great interview.

'The Time You Have (In Jellybeans)'

A video by Ze Frank, using jelly beans to depict how little time we truly have in life for our creative pursuits. Neat concept, although I disagree with the way he divides the 'Work' and 'Creative' portions up from one another.

For creative people at least, I think the goal is to have those two aspects of life coalesce into something harmonious, not treat them as separate, untouching buckets of time.

Scott Belsky on Taking Action

Scott Belsky, Adobe’s Vice President of Products/Community and Head of Behance, was interviewed by The Great Discontent. He spoke a lot about creativity and doing great work.

There are two particular quotes that stood out to me. Here's the first:

“One piece of advice is that the opportunity cost of waiting to do what you want to do just goes up. The excuses you tell yourself to wait to try what you have in your mind are wrong. In truth, you will have more responsibility tomorrow than you have today — it’s a fact. You can always find a reason why you should wait, and some are very valid, like having to pay back student loans, but recognize the fact that the opportunity cost goes up, not down. Whenever people talk to me about their ideas, I get frustrated because I want them to do something about it. Take action on things that are in your mind’s eye.

And later on:

“There are probably more half-written novels in the world than completed ones. The solutions to all of our gravest problems in society are in the minds of creative people out there: the creative chemist who works in a lab somewhere but can’t stay organized, or doesn’t have the impetus to act, may have the cure for cancer. Obviously, all of the greatest artists who we know are the ones who have produced stuff, but that doesn’t mean they’re the ones with the greatest insights.

The biggest takeaway I got from this interview is the sheer importance of getting started with something. You might be holding onto the greatest idea ever, but it's worthless to the world if you don't do anything with it.

One Thing Well

There are a lot of apps in the world that are renowned for doing "one thing well." They're often seen as the best in their respective fields, because the developer focused on a single problem and simply nailed the hell out of it.

Why not apply the same principle to ourselves as artists?

After all, there are a ton of potential roadblocks when it comes to doing creative work, many of them psychological. Maybe you're trying to juggle too many projects at once. Maybe you've got so many ideas that you can't even take the first step with any of them because you're overthinking everything. At some point, you've probably allowed yourself to become distracted from your work, even despite your best efforts.

We've all been guilty of these things and more. I think it helps to focus on a single issue and really tackle that one thing until you're at the point where the only thing left to do is slightly tweak here and there. Pick a single project and aim for perfection in that one thing before even thinking about moving onto something else.

Perfection may not be achievable – or else nobody would need to be creative anymore – but your work will be better for trying. This is what all efficient craftspeople originally set out to do: eagerly master that one skill, honing it day-by-day until it becomes second nature.

Don't allow your work to become diluted by indecision and inaction. Forget distractions. Focus on the task at hand and block out the rest.

Do one thing well.

Finding Your Own Meaning

Ever feel like your life has little to no meaning? That your existence is very likely non-essential, and the world probably wouldn't be much different if you weren't around?

Well, you're probably right!

Each and every one of us, even our celebrities and world leaders, are infinitesimal motes of life living on a speck of dust (relatively speaking) in a galaxy that itself is merely one of about 176 billion. Our ~100-year lifespans are practically nothing compared to the universe. Makes you feel pretty insignificant, doesn't it?

Rick Rubin on Creativity

I was just reading through the Daily Beast's recent interview with music producer Rick Rubin, enjoying the article but not really learning anything I hadn't already known about the guy.

Then I reached the penultimate paragraph, where they asked him the secret to having a good ear for music. This is what he came back with, and it really struck me:

“I never decide if an idea is good or bad until I try it. So much of what gets in the way of things being good is thinking that we know. And the more that we can remove any baggage we’re carrying with us, and just be in the moment, use our ears, and pay attention to what’s happening, and just listen to the inner voice that directs us, the better. But it’s not the voice in your head. It’s a different voice. It’s not intellect. It’s not a brain function. It’s a body function, like running from a tiger.”

It's a shame this is where the interview ended, because it was just getting good in my opinion.

I think what Rick is saying applies to more than just producing music, it's about all creativity. As creative people, how often do we avoid making great stuff because we try too hard to intellectualize everything or worry about all the ways something might succeed or fail, all before we've even started?

Maybe it doesn't apply to you, but I know I'm certainly guilty of falling into this trap now and then. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that despite any failures, it's more important to go with our gut instincts and actually do the work instead of getting in the way of ourselves before we've managed to take the first step.

Just some food for thought.

The Coolest Experience I Had as an Apple Store Employee

It was a particularly busy day, which is a bit of an understatement. I don't quite remember which product had just released that morning, but it was the kind of thing that had attracted a long line of campers outside the entrance the night before. The store was so packed it felt like working inside of a sardine can all day.

Somewhere in the middle of this hectic rush, a group of about 15 high school kids came through the door, accompanied by their teacher. It seemed like an odd day to take a field trip to the Apple Store, I thought. My curiosity was piqued though, and since I happened to be free at that moment, I went over to talk to them.

The kids basically ignored me, but the teacher was happy to speak for the group. She said that their school—which sounded to me like a small, upper-class, private institution—was providing one MacBook for each of the students. No Pro models or anything, just the low-end plastic ones. They'd all been given an Apple Store gift card to purchase with, so they would all be rung up individually.

Each student was given the choice of a black or a white 160GB MacBook. I supposed they had all been brought to the Apple Store to check each one out at the last minute and see what they liked best, but it didn't take long for the students to form a line next to the teacher with their minds already made up. And then the teacher walked off to handle a student who was being particularly rowdy.

And then it dawned on me that all of these students were all speaking to one another in sign language.

They were from a school for the deaf.

While the teacher was tied up with the troublemaker, the first student in line began signing something to me. Now, I had taken a 6-week sign language course in high school, but that was years ago and I couldn't remember how to sign much more than "thank you" and the "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" song (it was our final project, don't ask me why). I had no idea what this kid was saying.

I put my hands up and started doing that thing where I'm mouthing words and kind of adding an airy whisper, you know, the way you might do with someone on the other side of a car door window. I've never really understood why people make that noise, when we know the other person can't hear it.

Anyway, the point is, I was trying my best to communicate to him that I don't speak sign. Once we finally established that, a light bulb went off in my head and I walked him over to the nearest iMac so we could open TextEdit and simply type back and forth. What else was I going to do? It was insanely busy and there was still a line waiting outside the door.

Our text conversation was pretty curt:

-how are you doing?

good

-cool. so you're wanting a macbook?

yeah i like the white one

-ok

and so it went until he had paid for his MacBook and the next student stepped up. I had a version of this text conversation with every single one of these kids. I suppose I could have been more efficient by getting all their MacBooks at once, but instead I ended up walking back and forth between the sales floor and the stock room to grab each one individually.

It wouldn't occur to me until later that the teacher could have jumped in as translator at any point after I had rung up the first kid, but she chose to let me communicate with the students via text messages on a screen instead. I remember thinking that we could have saved a lot of time and effort, but I wasn't too perturbed by it or anything.

I mean, the kids were mostly friendly, and it was an overall enjoyable experience. Kinda fun, actually. It was certainly a nice distraction from the other craziness going on that day. Eventually, all the students had their MacBooks and were saying their "thank yous" in sign as they left.

This is the point where the story should have ended, in my mind. But fast-forward a few hours, when the craziness in the store had died down a little and we were finally being allowed to start staggering our lunch breaks. When my break time rolled around, I headed to the food court upstairs (did I mention my Apple Store was in a mall?) to grab some grub.

You know who was sitting at a big table together up there? You guessed it, the group of students and their teacher. But...imagine my surprise when they were all talking to each other out loud, no more sign language involved.

I must've stood there dumbfounded for several seconds before one of the students pointed me out. The teacher turned around, laughed at the look on my face, and got up to come talk to me about what I was seeing. She explained that none of the kids were actually deaf, although the part about their school getting them MacBooks was true.

Apparently, the teacher had decided to turn this outing into a strange assignment/experiment. The idea was for the group of kids to spend the entire day at the mall, going store-to-store and behaving as if they were deaf to see how employees treated them. After explaining all of this, the teacher told me that almost every single store they'd visited had treated them a bit terribly. As if they were annoyed that they had to deal with all these "deaf" kids and preferred to be finished with them as soon as possible.

The next part of her story made me feel awesome inside: She said that I was the only person they worked with all day that had treated them like real people, and actually tried to be as helpful as the situation allowed. They had all been impressed with my idea of using TextEdit to communicate, because nobody else in the mall had even bothered to grab a pen and some paper.

The students got to learn a real lesson about how the world treats those who are a little different, and I got a bunch of hugs and handshakes in return, along with a few tears shed all around. They even bought my lunch! We sat around and chatted for a while before I had to go back to work, and we exchanged a few more hugs before I left. I haven't seen any of those kids since but they all seemed like a good bunch so I'm sure they're all doing well somewhere.

It was one of the most feel-good, warm and fuzzy experiences I've ever had, and I will remember it forever.


Update: Wow, I really didn't expect this story to blow up the way it has. I've never had anything voted up on Hacker News before, much less gain the top spot. I'm still not convinced it hasn't all been a fever-dream.

The generally positive response I've been getting from readers all evening has been incredible. I've received tons of emails/tweets/ADN posts from people who have been kind enough to share their similar stories with me. Many of them are far more touching than what I published here today and deserve all this attention more than I do.

Tonight has been a strange, wonderful, exciting, nerve-wracking experience. I'm not sure I can ever express my gratitude for all the support I've received. Thank you, everyone.

Now, here is a picture of my son looking super smug for your enjoyment:

ridin_dirty.jpg

Viticci: 1 -- Cancer: 0

Earlier this week, Federico Viticci announced via Twitter that his PET cancer scan came back negative, meaning that for now he has a clean bill of health. He's been posting updates about his treatments for a while now, and I've been rooting for him from the sidelines because I think he's a great guy and I enjoy his work over at MacStories.

This morning, he published a piece on his personal blog, expanding on that tweet. My favorite bit:

"To the oncologist who told me I couldn’t survive: fuck you."

Well said!

In response to Federico's blog post, Greg Pierce, the developer of one of my favorite apps, wrote about his own experiences with cancer 22 years ago:

"I learned a lot about unconditional love from the incredible support I got from family and friends. I learned even more about courage from the other patients at N.I.H. – most of whom faced much more questionable outcomes than I."

I had no idea Greg had gone through such a thing until today, but I'm just as glad he made it through as I am for Federico.

Nate Boateng also provided some thoughts of his own about how Federico's journey, and that of another close friend, have inspired him:

"You can't get time back, so make it count. This week was a true demonstration in how wonderful, joyous, and horribly unfair life is sometimes. Don't waste it."

Reading all of these guys' posts has really inspired me this morning. I encourage you to go read them as well.

Dan's Coffee Run

One more post for this evening and then I'm off to bed.

I came across this video recently, and found it hugely inspiring. Every Thursday, Dan goes on a Starbucks coffee run for the various patients visiting the Michigan Cancer Center for chemotherapy treatments. He pays for every drink with his own money, and we're talking about one or two dozen drinks sometimes.

Although I'm not a huge fan of Starbucks (even as an ex-employee of the company myself), I think that what Dan is doing is so incredibly cool. I love how selfless this guy is:

"People without hope, come in here for hope. I'll do it with my last breath and my last dollar."

If you want to help him out, you can make a donation.

"Hanging Literally by a Thread"

At the end of an interesting piece about meeting his doppelganger, Eric Puchner sits on his daughter's bed to tell her a bedtime story and finds himself contemplating the ephemerality of life:

"If someone told me I was going to die tomorrow, I thought, I would still want to be sitting right here. Because it was going to happen someday—very soon, in fact, in cosmological time—and it mattered immensely where I was. There was no time not to waste."

Words to remember.

Tips to Overcome Writer's Block

Writer's block is something we all face at some time or another. That frustrating feeling of having this desperate urge to write, but being unable to get the words out. Sometimes it's so bad we can't even think of a topic to write about! After banging our heads against the wall for a while and getting nowhere, we throw in the towel.

(Inevitably, we'll wake up in the middle of the night, suddenly struck by an idea that we must get out of our head immediately or else risk losing it. The human mind sometimes works in mysterious and beautiful ways.)

I've said this before, but I feel that I face this block more often than other writers. That may or may not be true, but try telling me that when I'm in the middle of an agonizing session of futility. I'll probably look at you like you're crazy.

Those magical moments when the words seem to flow effortlessly? They're rare. You can't just sit down with your writing tool of choice—whether that's a typewriter, a laptop, an iPad, or even just pen and paper—and expect the magic to happen. It's not realistic.

Sooner or later you're going to hit that wall, just like everyone else does.

So, how can we overcome this wall? After some trial and error, I've found some ideas that have worked for me, and I thought I'd share them with you guys. I don't claim to be an expert, but maybe this stuff will help you too. That's the goal, anyway.

Tip #1: Exercise

You might ask yourself, "What the heck is this guy on? Exercise? I'm trying to get some writing done, not break a sweat." But I'm completely serious here.

One reason I end up having writer's block sometimes is that my head is too full of information I've absorbed throughout the day. After skimming hundreds (if not thousands) of RSS posts and tweets, not to mention all the fantastic stuff people have been linking to, I find it difficult to focus on my own task at hand.

Our brains aren't really built to process such a river of information every day, and yet I and many others keep doing it. It's an information addiction I'm working to rid myself of.

When I need to clear my head of all that cruft, I simply step away from my laptop and go for a light jog around the neighborhood. Give it a try, it may work wonders for you. Preferably sans-iPhone, so that you're not tempted to put on music or a podcast or whatever. That would defeat the purpose of what we're trying to accomplish here.

During the jog, try not to think about all the stuff you need to get done, or the deadlines you're facing, or the work you failed to finish previously. None of that matters right now. Instead, focus on your breathing. Enjoy your surroundings. Wave at the neighbors. Smile.

By the time you're done, you might just feel more relaxed and have a clearer mind. And if you do, I bet that the words which seemed so far out of reach earlier will come to you more freely.

If exercise really isn't your thing, give meditation a try. You don't even have to leave the house or office. Shut off all distractions, find a comfortable place to sit up straight, close your eyes, breathe slowly and deeply, and try to empty your thoughts of all worries.

Even if it doesn't solve the writer's block, you'll feel tons better.

Tip #2: Photography

Writers are creative thinkers. Whether we know it or not, this tends to translate to having a natural eye for photography. Maybe not true in all cases, but in my experience, some of the best writers I know can produce some incredible photos. These skills seem intertwined as far as I can tell.

So, when the part of your mind that controls word production gets a little worn out, try getting out a camera and taking some photos for a while. Find something you've seen a million times and find a new way to capture it, perhaps using a different perspective.

Engaging a different portion of your artistic side this way can be the spark that ignites your creativity.

It doesn't have to be a DSLR or anything. If you've got a smartphone, chances are you've got something decent to work with. Or maybe you've got an old disposable camera laying around somewhere. As the saying goes, the best camera is the one that's with you.

Tip #3: Writing Assignments

Rather than doing all the work of coming up with a topic to write about, allow someone else to take care of that part for you. Writing assignments are wonderful exercises that can help jump-start your brain and get the creative juices flowing. They can also be done as a warm-up before you get started on your own topic.

A good resource I've found for writing assignments has been over at First Today, Then Tomorrow. There, playwright and author Randy Murray puts up a new practice writing assignment once a week, and they've never failed to get me thinking. Great stuff.

Tip #4: Look to Other Writers for Inspiration

Most of us have writers that we look up to and respect. Chances are, they've written about something that has interested you, or else you probably wouldn't have become a fan in the first place.

If you're struggling to find a topic, get out a book or browse through some of your favorite blogs until you see something you can add some insight to. There's nothing wrong with expanding on an idea you didn't originally come up with. Writers borrow from one another all the time. It's a natural part of what we do and I daresay that the world would be a dreary place without the sharing and building upon of such ideas.

Tip #5: Write Something. Anything.

Yes, you read that right. Another way to overcome writer's block is...write something. Anything at all. You can write about the coffee you had this morning. You can make up a backstory about that cat you see wandering around the neighborhood every day. Write a letter to your kid that they'll read when they're older. Write about the delicious meal you just had.

Seriously, just write something. It doesn't matter what. There's no need to share it with anyone else, so don't worry too much about content or style.

Sometimes the most difficult thing about writing is simply getting started. We could make every excuse in the book before we've even begun. Don't defeat yourself that way. Once you've started, you've already started winning the battle. You may even notice your hands struggling to keep up with all the words trying to escape your head. It feels completely manic, but in a good way.

Every person, whether they know it or not, is living a life worth writing about. They just have to find those stories, however small, and connect the dots until a story emerges. It's kinda like weaving a tapesty but WAY simpler. Anyone can do it.

* * *

There you have it. Those are the techniques I've used to help me overcome my writer's block. I really do hope you'll find some use for these tips, or be inspired to put together a list of your own.

If you have a great technique not mentioned here, let me know! It's nice to get a peek into the minds of other people struggling with the same things I am.

Raise Up, Rather Than Bring Down

Even as a natural pessimist, one behavior I don't understand in people is this desire to see others brought down. Or, to be the ones bringing the other party down themselves.

What is it in our nature that drives us to such bitterness? Why must we scrabble and clamber over one another in reach of something we'll never grasp?

Today I witnessed a fine example of this. A coworker has decided that another of our colleagues is not living up to his standards, so he has decided to track every little failure she makes, gathering data into a chart that contrasts her perceived failures with his successes. Once he has enough data to work with he will show it to the next person higher up on our sad little totem pole. And for what? Some brief moment of pale superiority?

This sort of thing saddens me more than anything else. I would advocate for a method of encouragement and community rather than plotting someone else's downfall. Which leads me to ask...

...What are you doing in your everyday life that improves the lives of others around you?

...Are you always aware of the kind of effect your attitude has on those people?

...When was the last time you gave someone a compliment out of the blue?

...Wouldn't you rather totally make someone's day instead of being the one who utterly ruins it?

Just something to consider over the weekend. If you've got a story of a thing you did recently that made someone's day a little brighter, or helped them achieve any level of success, I'd love to hear it.