And Then You Have No Taste

There’s a presentation a while back by Randy Nelson, Dean of Pixar University, where he says that Pixar is all about, “How can I plus this?” He goes on at great length to say that if you’re collaborating on something with someone else you can’t say that what they made isn’t very good, but instead you have to say how can you “plus it” and make it better (which is basically a passive aggressive way to say it sucks).

This all comes from the Improv Comedy crowd where you are trained to go with whatever your improv partners come up with and try to roll with it. It’s a seductive idea that you can work with people who will never tell you, “That’s fucking stupid.” Even if you are being a total idiot, nobody will ever say it, and so, you can safely throw out ideas and everyone will be happy and the world will improve because everything is just oh so positive and awesome and pretty soon we’re all riding around in flying cars like we were promised! It was negativity that killed flying cars! NEG A TIVIT EE!!

No, sorry people. Negativity and criticism are an important part of creating anything of quality. You have to be critical of what you make or else you end up making total crap and never improve. That’s just the way it is, but it’s curious to wonder what kind of an arrogant asshole thinks that nobody should criticize their work? Who are these people who want to make things and never have it criticized? I mean, my output gets ridiculed all the time, with rampant numbers of totally brutal commenters tossing around their opinions to the point of slander. I actually mine it for potential fixes to what I’m making. It’s difficult, but it’s possible for me to wade through the vitriol and either find something that needs fixing, or find a catch phrase to use as a defense against the critics.

Taking criticism in stride is just part of quality, and trying to eliminate any criticism of your ideas is a sign of both immaturity and abuse of power. If nobody can criticize what you make then you are elevated to the realm of kings and despots. Fuck, even the Pope is down with criticism now. Are you more important than the damn Pope? Nope. So get off your damn Throne of Impeachable Perfection and learn to recognize when your work sucks. If you do this often enough you’ll be able to fix it yourself before anyone else can see it. You’ll…GASP…learn.

I think the real problem is that a person who gets all butt sore from being told their output is crap is someone who isn’t being honest with the real quality of their work and isn’t working on it personally before presenting it to their peers as legitimately developed. When I post my paintings I give an honest assessment of them. The vast majority of them suck, and will continue to suck because I’m still learning, and I’ll be learning for the rest of my life. The word we use for an artist who believes everything they make is fantastic is “delusional”. You want to see what “and then” does to art? Go to Craigslist arts and crafts and set the price to >$500. Watch all the people who believe the art they purchased or made is fantastic.

I see this all the time with code as well. Programmers are notorious for building crystal palaces crafted of finely tuned deeply complex structures that follow all the rules, binding together every meta-pattern possible, following all the best TDD, pair programmed perfectly, and they end up with a total shit show of a project. They never think to ask, “Does this really improve my project?” Others keep piling code on top of code on top of code endlessly never realizing that they need to look at what they’ve written and ask, “Alright, what do I have to trim down? What should I remove? Rewrite? What’s crap?”

It gets even worse when you criticize personal projects. The worst habit of all people who make stuff is to use the personal as a defense against criticism. Artists do it by claiming their art is about some personal tragedy protecting them from criticism of their work. Programmers do it by claiming their project is a labor of love and open source, protecting them from anger about bugs they’ve made that ruin people’s day or life. It’s almost as if they work on something, “and then” it into existence with no critical eye, and when challenged on the quality, invent insult to avoid having to admit what they made sucked and needs to improve.

However, the very main reason that “and then” culture is wrong is it’s nothing more than a passive aggressive power play. Did you know that Pixar STARTED the wage theft scandal that robbed illustrators, programmers, janitors, marketing specialists, writers, and every Pixar employee of potentially hundreds of millions in wages? Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, is even entirely unapologetic about doing this. How much you want to bet when someone questioned Ed on the legality of this brilliant idea Ed fired them for not being a team player who plussed his ideas? Someone probably brought up the morality of this question to Ed and he simply went, “Well I don’t know Frank, looks like you aren’t real Pixar material. At Pixar we PLUS ideas, not shoot them down or criticize them. Maybe you should go work at Dreamworks with the other assholes?”

Of course, you’ll say, “But Pixar produces hits doing this!” First off, they follow a formula laid out by Save The Cat, which doesn’t take much creativity to produce a hit. Save the cat produces their hits. Second, I’m betting cash money that their claims of plussing all day long are bullshit. I’m willing to put down $1000 right now that they have a hidden back catalog of total shit ideas for movies that never went anywhere and weren’t ever produced, which means they definitely don’t plus everything and are definitely using criticism. The above video is nothing more than the lies companies tell prospective employees to recruit them, not any real depiction of how they work.

The truth of every company that claims they have this super collaborative never critical creative type utopia is this utopia ends up breeding guys like Ed Catmull who take advantage of all the doe eyed Andtheners. It’s a culture that is right up there with meritocracies in their ability to turn a potentially good idea into a way to simply abuse people for not fitting in.

Another Way

The straw man reply to this will obviously be:

“Oh! So you think everyone should run around setting people on fire with insane vitriol based on every flaw in their ideas? You want to make a hostile work environment! You hate delicate little creative souls who work all day to pour their hearts into what they make and just want to shit on their precious little lives! Fuck you!”

Really? What happened to “and then…”? Hmm? If you think working in an environment where everything you do is applauded like you’re in kindergarten then think again. The truth is, if you actually give a shit about being good at something then you’ll know that people are blowing smoke up your ass and find it incredibly annoying. Not to mention the fact that these supposed creative utopias are never anything like they seem. Given all of these supposed utopias are powered by people I guarantee you find back stabbing, back room dealing, social manipulation, favoritism and power plays just like you do with meritocracies. Any time you see unrealistic claims of utopia you can just bet its hiding something sinister, and Pixar’s wage theft scandal is proof positive I’m right. Their work environment is not better than an honest collaborative work environment. It’s nothing more than a way to convince employees to go with any idea handed them while management avoids any accountability.

No, I do not think the inverse of ruthless constant abusive criticism for some kind of weird darwinian environment works either. Nobody against “and then” is for abuse. This claim that all criticism is abuse is just another straw man tactic to avoid dealing with honest criticism, but also calling criticism “abuse” is the belief of a child. Adults understand the difference between “I don’t think this will work” and “I think you’re a fucking piece of shit.” Nobody has the right to insult you, but you also don’t have the right to shut down their thoughts on your ideas with claims of abuse. More importantly, an actual functioning criticism proposes alternatives, which is something that’s an entire other blog post about the failure of critical theory in engineering.

In fact, I advocate a mixture of both modes of thinking to produce honestly good ideas and to kill off seriously bad ones early. Here’s how I work on all of the many, many, many creative projects I do and succeed at:

  1. Start with your idea on your own and look to improve it and mold it without a critical eye. Criticism will kill the beginning of a thought or idea, so just get it down and express it.
  2. After you’ve gone through a creative phase and you’re feeling good, it’s time to get real. Be realistic and objective about the idea. If it helps, come up with a rubric of things to look for. I do this with painting, code, and writing. I have a list of things I go through and check for that I try to avoid, but I don’t apply this rubric until I’ve got the idea out and can step back. Sometimes days later.
  3. Repeat this cycle in a kind of random walk of creating and criticizing until you’ve refined the idea. The key is to throw shit out. Not every damn idea out of your head is good. You have to kill things off and toss them out to make room for other good ideas. If you’re keeping a good log of what you’ve done you can always add it back in or turn your castoffs into other ideas. But refining means refining.

Notice in step #1 I said “on your own”? I believe the flaw of teams is that they try to come up with ideas as a team. What I believe works better is if individuals come up with ideas and create in the beginning, and then teams produce the good ideas. If you think of writing that’s how it works. I write a first draft, creating the idea and getting it about 60-80% of the way there. Then a team works on the draft to take it through a production process that makes it high quality and professional. How to do this in a team environment is the subject of an entire industry of books, so I won’t go into it in a stupid blog post, but the gist of it is that without a team to produce ideas it’s too hard to make a final professional product in many of today’s disciplines.

In the end a policy of banning criticism will only lead to everyone “plussing” every stupid ass idea, no matter how vile it is. Despite what Pixar claims, I’m damn sure they don’t operate in this utopia of perfect plussing everything that’s around. I know there’s brutal criticism from the people in charge, and the fact that Ed Catmull screwed all of his employees for years is the proof you need. However, if you’re thinking of instituting an “and then” policy then keep this last fact in mind:

Nobody buying your shit is an Andthener. Maybe in Silicon Valley you’re surrounded by a bunch of Andtheners, but the rest of the world can look at stuff and decide it fucking sucks.