I just finished reading Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, Co-founder of Pixar. Knowing Pixar, I shouldn’t have been surprised by how poignant this book was. Ed Catmull puts forth his own unique brand, which unites apparent opposites: Science & art and practicality & idealism.

Ed began his career with a Ph.D. in computer science in hopes of creating the first computer-animated movie. This goal took him on a winding, and often very difficult road until he joined Pixar and realized his dream, years later with the production of Toy Story. Ed’s creative and scientific perspective resonated with me.

In my early days of graduate school, I would run around telling other budding researchers that they needed to read classic fiction like War & Peace because it would inform their research with insight into human behavior and provide a host of testable predictions. (I’m such a Hermione Granger, I know, and if you don’t get my endless Harry Potter references, just read the books or at least Wikipedia the major plot points). Fiction, I believed was a gold mine for research (and now, as a sometimes creative writer – this thought process goes the opposite way).

Because that idea has stuck with me Ed’s perspective immediately grabbed me, and made me want to yell, “me too, Ed! I believe that too!” Unfortunately, however, dead trees can’t hear very well so I don’t think he got the message.

The book is, in many ways a long anecdote, which the scientist in me tells me to be wary of. Anecdotes, I tell my students, are not science for a number of reasons. For one, the information does not come from a random sample, and as a result cannot be applied to other situations. So, what works at Pixar, and later at Disney, might not work elsewhere, and in companies in which creative output is not the ultimate goal.

But, I have a hunch that I cannot test scientifically about why Catmull’s approach has been so effective...

Self-determination theory (SDT) (2) stems from the humanistic tradition in psychology, which views people as basically good and well-functioning members of society when their basic psychological needs are met. It is only when these needs go unmet that people become the kinds of discontented youths that spray paint phallic symbols on trash bins or light firecrackers in abandoned parking lots.

SDT suggests that people’s motivation exists along a continuum. At the low autonomy end, people act because they feel that they have to (e.g. “I cleaned out the haberdashery because my parents told me to.” Sidebar: I don’t know anyone with a haberdashery, I just wanted to use the word haberdashery in a sentence and now I’ve used it thrice). As people become more autonomous, a greater sense of connection with goals emerges, and people act because it feels personally important to do so. Eventually goals can even become part of people’s identities.

Autonomy can be supported at the group level (2), and without knowing about this theory it seemed to be Catmull’s aim to do just that. An autonomy-supportive workplace allows people to fulfill their basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness.

Autonomy – is a sense of freedom and choice. Catmull set this up by trusting his employees to generate and run with their ideas, while also being supportive.

Competence – is a sense that one can enact some control over one’s circumstances. By viewing potential problems as something that everyone could fix, Catmull recognized that effective problem-solving enhanced feelings of competence.

Relatedness – finally, Catmull created an environment in which people felt that they could talk to anyone and in which they felt supported and connected with the people they worked with.

Ensuring that these needs are met supports workers as people and creates an environment in which people feel motivated toward work, they experience better mental health outcomes, (3) and are at a lower risk for experiencing burnout (4). For continued success to occur, however, people must be open to constant reevaluation and change.

One of the benefits enjoyed by more autonomous individuals is something called nondefensiveness (5,6). Nondefensiveness allows people to react to threats in a way that supports future learning instead of with a need to protect the self. Catmull recognized that helping people deal with constructive criticism is essential, and also that creativity – the day-to-day work of making something from nothing, without knowing whether it will work – is scary.

With frequent reminders about how criticism was aimed at making a great film, a shared goal that everyone held, Catmull helped create this nondefensive attitude. In addition, failure was viewed as a learning experience about what didn’t work. When things did not go well, and when they did, he reacted and prompted everyone else to react, with inquisitiveness and a desire to understand why.

So without actually researching Pixar’s culture I’m making assumptions about one retrospective account of how things worked. How unscientific of me… It’s relatively easy to maintain tight control over situations in a research laboratory, but when it comes to applying research in the real world, a combination of science and art is required, as is a willingness to cut through the apparent polarity of ideas and to always remain open to new information. Catmull provides a great model for this, while also just seeming like a great dude.



(1) Catmull. E., & Wallace, A. (2014). Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration. New York: Random House.

(2) Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behaviour. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.

(3) Deci, E. L., Ryan, R. M., Gagné, M., Leone, D. R., Usunov, J., & Kornazheva, B. P. (2001). Need satisfaction, motivation, and well-being in the work organizations of a former Eastern Bloc country. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 930-942.

(4) Van Den Broeck, A., Vansteenkiste, M., De Witte H., & Lens, W. (2008). Explaining the relationships between job characteristics, burnout and engagement: The role of basic psychological need satisfaction. Work & Stress, 22, 277-294.

(5) Hodgins, H. S., & Knee, C. R. (2002). The integrating self and conscious experience. In E. L. Deci & R. M. Ryan (Eds.), The handbook of self-determination research (pp. 87–100). Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

(6) Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1995). Human autonomy: The basis for true self-esteem. In M. H. Kernis (Ed.), Efficacy, agency, and self-esteem (pp. 31-49). New York: Plenum.