See What Sticks: How Good Notes Take You to Infinity and Beyond


note taking, pixar, creativity inc, amma marfo, student affairs, feedback Hi everyone, Amma Marfo here. Two quick things about me that you’ll need to know before we begin:

(1) I am a reader. I am a library-loving, constant tome-carrying, unapologetic bibliophile. (2) If there’s anyone you will meet who can connect what she’s reading to the world around her, it’s me.


As such, I want to dedicate my time in this space to sharing with you what I’m reading, and how it could inform a budding professional’s daily life. 

I am a sucker for a good read on creativity. These are the books that energize me in my day-to-day work, the ones that help me look at daily problems from a new perspective, the ideas that reassure me that my quirky take on my life aren't as isolating as they might seem. And in that reading, there are a few companies that are constantly referenced as being "the gold standard" for creatives. You've heard of these places- Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Disney/Pixar. So when people started recommending Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull (president of Pixar Animation), I knew I had to add it to my reading list. And sure enough, it was a wonderful read that provided me with many tips and tricks that I'm eager to employ in my own life. But the one I want to share here today, is the seventh tenet of their 7 Core principles: Give good notes.

Feedback is a funny thing. When you're new to a work environment, it is simultaneously necessary and absolutely terrifying because so much of our self-worth and vision of success is tied up in our being great. However, when you're more established and in greater need of it, it's harder to get because people "below" you in the organization may fear giving it. This pair of factors, combined with people who are largely non-confrontational by nature, and we're left with either empty and nonspecific platitudes, or emotionally-charged criticism that may overstep the boundaries of work. Pixar has worked for years to create a feedback system devoid of those two scourges of honest feedback, through what they call their "Braintrust," or a group of directors and advisors that watch rough cuts of films as they come together and provide the feedback needed to transform these sketches into the blockbusters we know and love like Toy Story or Finding Nemo.

Catmull eloquently addresses the fear of failure that comes with sharing a new idea in Creativity, Inc.:

From a very early age, the message is drilled into our heads: Failure is bad; failure means you didn't study or prepare; failure means you slacked off or- worse!- aren't smart enough to begin with. Thus, failure is something to be ashamed of. This perception lives on long into adulthood, even in people who have learned to parrot the oft-repeated ideas about the upside of failure [...] And yet, even as they nod their heads in agreement, many readers [...] still have the emotional reaction that they had as children. They just can't help it. That early experience of shame is too deep-seated to erase. (emphasis added)

I believe that Catmull used the word shame in the final sentence intentionally, and for an interesting reason. Helping scholar Brené Brown makes a clear distinction between guilt (a bad feeling that results from a bad action) and shame (a bad feeling that results from being a bad person). Too often, mistakes or missteps are framed to make us feel shame, when we should really feel guilt. Guilt, in most cases, comes from a temporary state, where shame is designed to come from a more permanent one. But our ideas aren't us, and the failure of an idea shouldn't be equated to us being failures. Pixar's "brain trust" was designed to divorce the two and truly concentrate on developing ideas without shaming the idea's developers. They do this by embracing candor, believing in iteration, and leaving freedom of solution. If you inject these tenets into your feedback-giving process, you're more likely to create space for development without creating offense or judgment.

Embracing Candor: Catmull is quick to point out that most ideas suck at the beginning. More to the point, he says most Pixar movies suck when the first ideas are shared. The sooner this is embraced, the better. Few ideas are perfect on the first pass; even if they appear to be, as they develop problems will start to surface. Being able to speak up to refine the ideas, without criticizing the person or people presenting them, is a gift to anyone invested in making the idea work. And when we smooth over flaws with "Great work!" or "It's...good!" we rob people of the ability to make their ideas the best they could be. Anyone invested in creating a good product (as the thousands of people who work at Pixar undoubtedly are) needs candor, or their work will go toward a less than stellar idea. Nobody wants that.

Believe in Iteration: I have written previously about how general praise, devoid of customization or specificity, isn't particularly helpful and at its worst can be patronizing. A necessary element of this is being able to give actionable criticism. Telling somebody what they've done wrong isn't particularly helpful if there's no way for them to improve upon it. I tell the students I work with often, "I can't do anything about 'this sucks.'" But if I know more about the experience they're struggling with, what the problem is, and what they'd prefer to see, I can work with something of a road map in front of me, as opposed to the veritable game of Marco Polo that the phrase "this sucks" is providing. When you give feedback, give it in such a way that the person receiving this information can realistically go back and try again with some idea of what needs to be fixed. 

Allow for Freedom of Solution: With that said, your feedback doesn't always have to provide the solution within it; in fact, Pixar believes that the power of the Braintrust's feedback is that they don't prescribe a solution for the problems they identify. In fact, the director and his staff don't even have to address the notes that are given in these meetings. I believe that this is the strongest element of the Braintrust. The key part of the concept is that second word: trust. When we bring people on to a team, we have to trust that they know what they're doing and that they arrived in their positions for a reason. So if problems present themselves, we have to trust that they have the expertise and judgment to attack these issues and come to a feasible solution. There have been times that this strategy has failed at Pixar, and they do have mechanisms to address that. But for the most part, the people who come in with ideas are equipped to solve their own problems, if given the space and faith to do so. Think similarly of the people you work with.

Most of our ideas will not garner the audience that those of Ed Catmull and his team do. But they are just as deserving of a respectful and constructive process by which to develop them. Anyone interested in a feedback process that is (literally) award-winning should check out Creativity, Inc for some of the best reading on creativity, and how to productively harness it, I've done this year.