Vital Reads

There's a book I bring up all the time in talking to people about innovation, creativity, and spaces. It's Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn. I have probably mentioned in it 10 episodes of The New Disruptors because it's so relevant to people getting themselves off the ground, often using odd or temporary spaces.

While Brand looks across a whole swath of issues relating to architecture and the changes that occur to buildings over time (even ones that are claimed to be historically fixed, and are not), the part I like to point to is the importance of space that nobody cares about.

That is, space in which you can experiment, drill holes in the floor, knock out walls, install plumbing, paint walls and repaint them, build and restructure offices. This is usually in old buildings or facilities that people have decided not to update — or are even destined for demolition.

The more you have to care about the space you're in and the less flexible it is, the more it constrains what you do and how you collaborate. (This applies to content-management systems or CMSes, about which I've talked quite a bit, too.)

I have to add to this book one I've just read by Ed Catmull, one of the heads of Pixar, and its driving force from the beginning. He, Steve Jobs, and John Lasseter developed it into the powerhouse combination of research lab and movie studio that has churned out a series of successes. Catmull and Lasseter took what they learned to Disney's animation arm after Pixar was acquired by Disney and turned it around as well.

Creativity, Inc., isn't about success. It's about failure and managing failure. Catmull unsparingly describes the many hundreds of times he and his colleagues made errors in judgment often based on continuing something that had proven successful, even when they thought they were already taking into account the bias of success. It's revealing from a man running a company that, to outward appearances, has done nearly everything right.

It's a good read about the history of computer animation and the studio, but it's packed with lessons that are applicable to an army of one (like yours truly) or a large corporation.

We had a very nice, long conversation on The Incomparable podcast as a book-club episode about what this book has to teach.