How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery

The history of creation, invention, and discovery can be summed up succinctly: it involves a ton of hard work. For every great development, for every paradigm shift, for every innovation, and for every breakthrough, there were countless hours of effort. Hypotheses were tested and invalidated, prototypes created and destroyed. As much as we are enamored by so-called “strokes of genius,” the reality is much more mundane: creation takes ordinary effort and persistence. Ashton traces the developments of several historically significant innovations and shows that while we may perceive them as overnight successes, all of the people involved spent years on the problem before arriving at a remarkable result. This is a liberating reminder that you don’t need a special talent to make an impact, just perseverance.

Overall, the style of the book reminds me of Malcom Gladwell’s famous books: a series of anecdotes strung together to form a compelling narrative. That said, Ashton’s citations are numerous and thorough. The book is easy to read and quick to finish. Recommend.


Creativity Inc.

There is so much great stuff in this book that it’s been surprisingly difficult to concisely summarize. I keep putting off writing my little mini review because I keep trying to distill the book down into some key points, but I think I’m finally accepting that can’t be done. So instead of trying to attempt that, I’m just going to say that with this book Ed Catmull puts into words many ideas that feel intuitively correct, but, at least for me, lacked formal definition or demonstrated success. It’s great and you should read it.

That said, if I pull out one big picture idea, it’s that there’s no such thing as a recipe for success. At Pixar, Catmull and the entire Pixar crew built a successful business because they approached every situation without preconceived notions of how to be successful. It’s an incredibly refreshing take and stands in stark contrast to the litany of business reading that basically comes down to, “Do what I did, and you too will have success.” As the world evolves at an ever quickening pace, it’s pretty clear that a winning formula is not a formula at all, but rather success comes from creating an environment where all the conditions for success are present and finding a few ways to tilt luck in your favor. That’s what the book is about: creating the conditions for success.

It’s been about 6 months since I read the book. I think I just need to go read it again.

One last thought: the section of the book about balance has really stuck with me. Catmull observes that our mental model for balance often implies calm, serene and static situations, but that’s not how we should think about balance at all. It’s much more dynamic, more like a multi-directional tug of war. And when you think about “balanced” situations in that way, it becomes clear that choosing a direction or making a decision isn’t ever final and that you must be careful that the “winning” direction doesn’t pull everyone else down.

Just go read it.