It’s built into the fundamental premise of Breakthrough Marketing Secrets. We improve ourselves at least 1% each week. Knowing that that improvement adds up then compounds through time, to extraordinary heights.
I’m almost done with the audio book version of a book written by someone else, in a totally different field, who lives by the same credo.
The book is Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull, one of the co-founders of Pixar.
He doesn’t quite express it in the book. But it’s a core part of everything he’s done personally. And the values that he’s instilled at Pixar.
It comes through in every story. It’s clear in every lesson. Pixar, and Ed as one of its leaders, is ALWAYS improving. Every step of the way.
And, because the company is so focused around the creative process — in their case, fictional, computer-animated movies, there are a ton of breakthroughs in the book.
In fact, I think it’s incredibly relevant for any so-called “creative” to read, including copywriters, designers, and other marketing creatives. As well as anyone who leads or manages creatives — such as marketing management, and owners/founders of companies that work with copywriters.
So, before I dive into a few ideas from the book, let me state this clearly and in very direct terms: if you’re a reader of my essays, you should buy and read (or listen to) this book.
I’ve admittedly found a few lessons in here that shine a spotlight on some of my weaknesses…
Listen, I love to talk about my successes. But I also have failures. Sometimes things get a bit rocky. That’s life.
The question isn’t if you can avoid it — it’s in how you deal with it.
While I’m sure they have their especially hard times, too — that are probably glossed over somewhat even in a book that seeks to shine light on them — I admire Ed’s culture at Pixar as one of dealing with failure as a learning and growth opportunity.
Going through this book has been far more of a self-reflective journey than I expected.
I can see areas where my problems have probably come from my own suckiness. I have seen lots of opportunities to do better, to improve myself.
But then again, I’ve also seen a lot of spots where I’m probably on the right track, and found ways even there to improve what I do.
It’s definitely helping me hit my 1% weekly quota — not just in being better at work, but in being a better human being.
That said, I want to share 3 big lessons from the book that I think are especially relevant.
Fail fast, and in the open, because it’s an opportunity to improve.
Ed spent the first act of his life wanting to make a computer animated feature film.
He may have been the first person to even envision this as a possibility. Because when he wanted to make a computer-animated film, there was nothing in computer graphics that would come anywhere close to what you and I would think of as film-quality.
Then, in 1995, Pixar released Toy Story. It was a monumental event in animated film history — the world’s first computer animated film.
It was also a monumental event in Ed’s life, as he’d accomplished his one driving life goal.
It created a crisis of purpose in Ed’s life. While he could just go on making more computer animated films, he wanted a new big goal — even though it took him a few years to clarify that was what he really wanted.
Then, it hit him. He wanted to figure out why some companies could grow and change and adapt and succeed while maintaining a great culture, while others were colossal flash-in-the-pan phenomenons that were great for their 15 minutes of fame, and a shell of their former self soon after.
And so he sought to understand what these great companies did that the quick-to-fail companies didn’t.
One of the biggest? Embracing change, and experimentation — and with it, the failure that is necessary for those to work.
Progress in science is one failed experiment after another, until you reach success and achieve your biggest goal.
Why then, Ed wondered, is progress in business expected to be one success after another, with any failure to meet an objective seen as a fundamental flaw with the business, the plan, or the person behind it?
Pixar takes a different approach — especially important because every film is both a new creation, and a new business venture, of sorts.
They embrace failure. Not because they want to fail. But because it means they are at the edge of creativity and innovation that they need to remain at in order to continue their success.
You have to be willing to fail. And further, you have to have a culture that embraces failure as a critical byproduct of moving forward and seeking out your next success.
The key? Use it as a learning opportunity. You’ve learned what doesn’t work. And you can course-correct.
Further, by accepting failure as something that’s good and even encouraged, you have a culture and an organization that can spot and address problems as they first emerge. The alternative is an organization where problems lie dormant under the surface for months or years, stifled but still boiling, until they blow things up far worse than they would have if addressed early.
Of course, testing is a central tenet of direct marketing. And being willing to fail is a critical part of testing. But it’s very easy to not want failure to happen on your watch, and to avoid it rather than embracing it.
You can’t judge your ideas from inside your mind.
As creatives, we are often quite bipolar about our work.
Some ideas we love unconditionally. We’re convinced they’re 24-karat gold, and no amount of refining could make them any better than they are already.
Other ideas, we hate. They’re trash. Junk. Should probably be burned, lest anyone ever see them.
The reality is that every idea is somewhere in the middle. Even our worst “junk” probably has many merits. And our best work is usually full of opportunities to make it even better.
Because Pixar’s goal is to make the best films possible, they can’t let one writer’s idea of the work’s original merits color the final product.
Instead, they rely on constant iteration, constant feedback.
They are very careful about this feedback though.
They realize that if feedback is given top-down, that’s just another way for one person’s limited ideas and vision to define the final product.
But they also realize that the creator of the work is usually far more intimate with its many layers than the team as a whole.
So they run a very interesting type of peer review.
First off, the writer or director is 100% in charge of their final product. However, they want to give their creative mastermind as many opportunities to see it and provide feedback as possible.
So from very early in the creative process, even when the ideas are mere sketches, they are constantly presenting the story or film to peers in the company.
The peers review it, looking for ways to make it stronger. They identify weak points, or areas where something is missing.
They’re never allowed to say, “this is junk,” with a broad-brush criticism that offers no specific advice for improvement.
And nobody on the team — even the founders and executives — are allowed to come down from on high and demand a specific change, in a specific way.
They’ve developed a culture where they go through every line, every frame of the film, over and over again, and look for opportunities to make it better.
And by creating an constructively-critical audience out of some of the best storytellers and animated filmmakers in the world, they ensure the main creative mind behind each film has ample perspectives on their work, that they can use to see it fresh and identify their best ways to improve.
One of the best copywriters I know, who has personally been responsible for hundreds of millions of sales in the last few years, built an entire process to foster this. Rather than working alone, he works in teams of 3 writers. The primary writer does the bulk of the work. But they’re constantly running it by the other members of the team, for feedback and improvement.
Great creative works start as really bad creative works.
Most great storytellers don’t do it by improv. Pixar takes 3 or more years to get a movie out, beginning-to-end. And all throughout the process, the story is being tweaked and improved.
Sometimes, the stories take very wrong turns, down very bad paths.
While they’re often started with an inspired idea, the first drafts are lifeless, bland, and look nothing like the final amazing stories that have come to represent the Pixar brand.
And that’s okay.
Genius isn’t necessarily in being able to come up with a great idea off the top of your head. It’s signified by the work and effort of turning a mediocre or half-decent idea over and over and over again, making it into a genius final product.
Very big difference.
If you expect yourself to constantly come up with brilliant big ideas, you’ll more likely than not be disappointed with yourself. Or if you know you have a good idea coming but it’s frustratingly not coming together, this can be the extra juice you need to bring it together.
Does this mean grit alone will turn a bad idea into a great one? No.
Polishing a rough diamond will eventually give you an incredibly brilliant result.
Polishing a turd will just get you covered in it.
Pixar has abandoned movies that aren’t working. They have failed to the point of deciding it was better to abandon it, rather than force something to work that wasn’t.
However, once they reach a point with a story that they know it has potential, they trust the team and the process of iteration and failure and learning and adapting and more iteration…
Until they’ve turned that rough diamond of an idea into a glittering gemstone fit to show off to the world.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here…
Again, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you, as an incredible look into what it takes to run a profitable creative enterprise.
If you’re a creative, it will shine new light on how you can be a better contributor in your role. If you manage creatives, it will help you understand how to foster an environment in which all their creative talents can be at their very best.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,