In any creative endeavor, whether art, science, or technology, you can’t expect a masterpiece out of the gates. Allowing your work to evolve is a critical part of the process.
But far too often, we fixate on optimizing the first idea we come across. We become emotionally attached to a single design, storyline, or hypothesis. The end result is a slow crawl towards incremental improvement. Our work becomes a shell of how good it could be if it were allowed to evolve.
Before we can create something that resonates with others, it must first resonate with us. This comes from providing ourselves space to explore new angles and identify the guiding principle at the core of what we’re trying to build or learn. The creative process is one of accelerated evolution.
Few places know this better than Pixar Animation Studios. At Pixar, with rare exception, a film’s original treatment bears only a loose resemblance to the final product. Pete Docter directed two of the best examples, Monsters, Inc. (2001) and Up (2009). Each evolved significantly from its original concept.
Before Monsters, Inc. became a funny, heartwarming film about two monsters and their unlikely friendship with a little girl, Boo, who it’s their job to scare, it was a different story altogether.
Originally, Docter envisioned it as a film about a thirty-year-old accountant who was unhappy in his job and started seeing monsters who were only visible to him. The monsters followed him throughout the day and turned out to be fears he never dealt with as a child. As he overcame these fears and befriended each monster, they began to fade away.
The plot and characters changed dozens of times between when Docter started working on the concept in 1996 and it was released in 2001. Sulley’s sidekick, Mike Wazowski, wasn’t added to the story until a year after the first treatment. And the first human protagonist was a six-year-old girl named Mary who changed ages, names, and genders until they landed on a toddler named Boo in the final version that we know today.
From the outside, it might look like a stream of seemingly unrelated ideas. And in some ways, it is–an indicator of creative, empowered teams who aren’t afraid to explore new concepts. But the search for a story is also the search for a single guiding principle.
Docter explains, “In Monsters, Inc., all of our very different plots shared a common feeling–the bittersweet goodbye you feel once a problem has been solved. You suffer through it as you struggle to solve it, but by the end you’ve developed a sort of fondness for it, and you miss it when it is gone.” This is the guiding principle at the heart of Monsters, Inc.
A similar evolution held true eight years later with Docter’s second film at Pixar, Up. The first version featured a floating city on an alien planet where a king and his two sons lived. The princes were opposites, each fighting to inherit the kingdom. One day, they tumbled off the edge of the city, down to the planet, where they were forced to fend for themselves. During the struggle, they met a tall bird who helped them understand each other, overcome their differences, and find their way back home.
The next version shifted away from the alien planet and introduced the elderly protagonist, Carl Fredrickson, the young Eagle Scout, Russell, and the idea of a helium-balloon floating house. The tragic storyline with Carl losing his wife, Ellie, also came into focus. But in this version, after Carl escaped the city, his house landed on an abandoned Soviet zeppelin disguised as a cloud.
Later versions colored in the story with the famous explorer, Charles Muntz, who Carl looked up to as a child, and the final setting of Paradise Falls. The only thing that would make the final cut from the original treatment was the tall bird named Kevin.
While each version, much like Monsters, Inc., seems strikingly different at first glance, there is a guiding principle disguised underneath. Up’s evolving storylines all touch on the visceral feeling of wanting to run away from it all after you’ve had a tough stretch. Over the course of this journey to escape, opposite characters discovered common ground and helped each other grow.
Docter didn’t set out with a concrete picture of what the guiding principles behind each film were. He had a general idea, but he had to feel it out and discover it for himself. And once he found it, he was able to adjust the story, characters, and setting to better communicate this. It’s not that his early instincts were wrong, they just weren’t yet refined into their best versions.
Creativity is about discovering meaning as you go. It means allowing yourself to explore and peel back what you’re trying to learn or convey. When you’re onto something, you’ll find fragments of a guiding principle that resonates with you. The goal is to capture and piece together that feeling.
The perfect plot, characters, or guiding principle won’t occur in a single flash of brilliance, as you might like to imagine. Each comes through experimentation, testing new ideas, and allowing those ideas to evolve over the course of weeks, months, and years.
You won’t find breakthroughs by obsessing over and optimizing version one.
If the team at Pixar grew emotionally attached to the original treatment for each film, they wouldn’t be where they are today. Instead of sticking with the thirty-year-old accountant in Monsters, Inc. or the floating city in Up, they allowed these ideas to evolve and uncovered the guiding principles behind each story.
This mindset allowed the team to refine the storylines, throw away characters, create new ones, and test out elements that better fit the guiding principle of each film. This set the tone for two imaginative, original films that touched the hearts of millions. Docter and the team at Pixar maximized the impact of each story by giving their initial ideas room to develop–not boxing themselves in and allowing their egos to take hold.
Pixar is synonymous with masterful storytellers for this reason. They understand guiding principles in a deep way. But they also embrace the months of ambiguity and evolution required for a story to grow into its own. Each Pixar film takes years of ideation, development, and fine-tuning before reaching the final product.
The same goes any other creative endeavor. It often takes years of experimentation–testing new ideas and allowing them to evolve–before you get it right.
In science and technology, you don’t always have the luxury of a definitive endpoint that filmmakers are afforded. This makes the guiding principle even more important. You need a true north at the core of what you’re doing. Otherwise, you run the risk of becoming too attached to a single idea and burning out along the way.
Google has teams that remain dedicated to the innovation of its search engine–something you might think is finalized since its launch over twenty years ago. The guiding principle that keeps the team moving forward is organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible. This mindset allows them to continue exploring new ideas that align with their guiding principle.
Charles Darwin didn’t publish his theory of evolution until twenty-four years after his visit to the Galapagos Islands. In that time he speculated on diversity in the natural world through experimentation and careful observation–breeding pigeons, studying barnacles, and soaking seeds in salt water to see how long they survived. His guiding principle behind each experiment was working to understand the nature of life.
What isn’t immediately evident is all the failed features and products Google’s tested. The same goes for all of Darwin’s hypotheses that didn’t check out. But thanks to experimentation and a strong guiding principle, we now have the theory of evolution. Darwin’s work continues to have a monumental impact on nearly every field of science and the way we understand life.
Pixar, Google, and Darwin have each made profound contributions to art, technology, and science because their best ideas won out. If they failed to persevere and got stuck on the first version of their films, products, and theories, they would have been rendered irrelevant.
While you can’t escape certain deadlines, you can be patient with yourself and your craft. Start by determining what you can sustain indefinitely and bring a fresh perspective to each day. Above all, avoid the temptation to become emotionally invested in your first idea. Otherwise, you’ll cloud your judgment and rationality, making it impossible to test a new approach.
Your first bet is almost always going to be wrong. The good news is that most decisions are reversible. You’re not obligated to continue carrying forward an average idea. Instead, dig for your guiding principle, emotionally invest in that, and allow your work to evolve from there.