Michael Jordan's high school coach told him that there is "no I in team," to which the budding superstar replied, "Yes, but there is in win."
These two contradictory approaches to creative success are on display in two new books -- Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace, and Creativity: The Perfect Crime by Philippe Petit.
Ed Catmull is the president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, and his fascinating book is part memoir, part business guide, seeking to explain how Pixar developed a culture of creativity that allows for outstanding work to take place even in the absence of the founding members of the team. Pixar is responsible for Toy Story, Up, Brave, and other animated films beloved by children, movie theatre owners, and toy companies.
By contrast, Philippe Petit has little regard for teams. His book reveals his own personal creative process which allowed him to dream up and then survive tightrope walks on a bridge in Sydney, Australia, the top of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and most famously, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City four decades ago.
The one thing both books indicate is that important, lasting creative projects have long gestation periods. Pixar films can take four years or more from the time they're first proposed until they time they are in your local Cineplex. Philippe Petit needed six and a half years to plan his World Trade Center adventure. Similarities end there, and quite abruptly.
Pixar emphasizes the team effort, having developed a "creative culture" -- a term Catmull uses repeatedly -- culminating in high-level all hands meetings at which movies or their constituent parts are torn apart, but in a respectful manner, and then rebuilt on a higher level.
Petit would have no use for such meetings. His method of creativity is a solitary one, in which he goes through notebooks and files of articles, photos, and whatnot he has collected over the years, and from that begins to envision and develop a project. Petit actually needs a team in order to break into the public places where he does his art. But he records enormous disdain for the team members he selects, accusing them of frequently failing to show up, or showing up drunk, or committing some other act of sabotage against his brilliance.
The other main difference between what happens at Pixar and what Petit does is that Pixar is a public company, bound by law, and Petit, a rebel who hated school and all other forms of authority, constantly breaks the law. There may not have been a specific statute forbidding people to secretly fire a wire from one tower to the other of the World Trade Center and then cross it without a net. But Petit certainly broke every law in the book on his way to international fame.
At one point, Petit needed to measure the height of a loading dock at the World Trade Center site. But as he was approaching it -- illegally, of course -- a policeman suddenly hove into view, appearing from a substation Petit never knew existed. Unable to whip out his measuring tape and get the dimensions of the loading dock, Petit brilliantly threw himself against the base of the dock, the dust from which imprinted on his shirt, allowing him to get the precise data he needed.
Catmull, unlike Petit, actually enjoyed school. His dream was to become an animator for Disney, but he recognized early on that he lacked the artistic talent to do so. Instead he went into the then-nascent field of computer animation, back in the early 1970s, essentially creating the field of computer-assisted cartoons single-handedly. Actually, he had a partner, John Lasseter, a Disney-level artist with whom he founded Pixar and with whom he works to this day.
Petit had accomplices but not partners. It took a crew, however lackadaisical in their boss's opinion, to lay the framework for the various high-wire crossings in public spaces. By contrast, Catmull and Lasseter did, and you probably know his name. Steve Jobs. Early on, when Pixar was burning cash, it needed a savior, and it found one in the form of Jobs, who had just been booted out of Apple and who ended up investing more than $50 million of his own money in Pixar. Of course, the investment paid off handsomely for all involved, and ultimately won Jobs a seat on the Disney board.
Catmull takes pains to point out that the hard-driving, cruel boss, as Jobs is frequently described was only one facet of his character. He found Jobs a demanding but extremely humane investor and business partner, and he constantly marvels in the book at Jobs's negotiating prowess and ability to see business deals the way few others could. His appreciation of Jobs at the end of the book by itself is worth the price of admission.
So are some of Catmull's aphorisms, like this: "Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft." He adds, "My goal has never been to tell people how Pixar and Disney figured it all out, but rather to show how we continue to figure it out, every hour of every day. How we persist. The future is not a destination -- it is a direction... Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear. Doing all these things won't necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier. But ease isn't the goal; excellence is."
Philippe Petit probably wouldn't have lasted very long at Pixar.
So who's right? The iconoclastic Petit, whose recipes for creativity may be impossible for anyone else to follow but who gave the world the never to be forgotten amazement following his Trade Center walk? Or Catmull, whose guide to corporate creativity may in fact be just as hard to follow?
The question is, of course, impossible to answer. The beautiful thing about our world is that there is room for iconoclasts and culture builders. Those interested in enhancing their own creative abilities would be well advised to read both books.
You can find both books by following the links below:
Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace
Creativity: The Perfect Crime by Phillippe Petit