As I’ve mentioned before, I’m passionate about creating things that are beautiful and useful. Things people love. In my time creating, one of the catalysts of creativity that I’ve seen over and over is the act of enjoying someone else’s creations. Artists look at lots of art. Musicians listen to a lot of music. Writers read a lot.
But why? It’s not just that everything is a remix (although that’s true). It’s that when a creator catches a glimpse of beauty, despair, passion, joy, it makes the labor of their next creation a little easier for them. We learn how to create by taking in the creations of others. We learn how to shape an experience for someone else by having experiences of our own. So, you want to know how to make someone weep for joy? Have someone make you weep for joy. Even if you can’t quite grasp the whole picture having wept for joy just once, you’re a little closer to understanding how it might work than you were before it became a personal experience.
To that end, I take in a lot of created things, and it’s my goal to try to be an appreciator. And not just an appreciator of created things, but also of the people who created them. When I think about my heroes, they’re all people who create things. Jim Henson, Steve Jobs, Jason Fried. These guys are some of my heroes. And they all know how to deeply study and appreciate the things they see. Things regular people routinely look past.
Take Jim, for instance. He once wrote this:
“I find that it’s very important for me to stop every now and then and get recharged and reinspired. The beauty of nature has been one of the great inspirations in my life. Growing up as an artist, I’ve always been in awe of the incredible beauty of every last bit of design in nature. The wonderful color schemes of nature, which always work harmoniously, are particularly dazzling to me… Working as I do with the movement of puppet creatures, I’m always struck by the feebleness of our efforts to achieve naturalistic movement. Just looking at the incredible movement of a lizard or bird, or even the smallest insect, can be a very humbling experience.”
There are several categories of things that often inspire me, and several companies that regularly create things I deeply appreciate. I’m lucky enough to have worked for Apple on the Mac OS X team for about six years, and Apple is easily at the top of my list. But in addition to Apple, I’m constantly inspired by the guys at Penny Arcade, by Valve Software, by Nintendo, and as cliché as it sounds, by Pixar.
This weekend, I was really struck by the ending of Portal 2 (a game made by the aforementioned Valve Software). It’s an amazing game, but something surprised me about the end because it contained an echo of all the other companies in my list. It was a hint, if you will, about one of the ingredients in a masterful creation.
In a nutshell, it’s this: love your creation.
I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but the ending of Portal 2 brings shocking clarity to Valve’s passion for the universe and characters they’ve created. Put another way, if the folks at Valve weren’t deeply in love with (dare we say obsessed with?) these characters, the bittersweet elements of the ending they created would never have occurred to them. Because something lesser would’ve been acceptable. Still, through the final sequences in the game, I could see the expression on their faces as they looked into mine: “We are so proud of this. We hope you love this deeply, because we love it so, so much that we can hardly bear to say goodbye to it.”
It was like watching a father walk his daughter down the aisle.
To say it was emotionally resonant would be an understatement. And that’s what we’re after, isn’t it? Portal 2 was a fantastic puzzle game, sure, but it was more than that. The thing you remember when you walk away is how it felt to be in that universe, to meet those characters and interact with them, and get to know them and love them within their reality. And that’s the thing that will make you come back next time, not the enticement of more surfaces onto which you can place portals. (Though that’s certainly attractive.)
Then I thought of Pixar. Toy Story 3. Could it have been any clearer how much Pixar loves Woody and Buzz than what we saw at the end of Toy Story 3? It’s not possible to take your characters any more seriously than that. To respect them any more deeply. They went out with unprecedented sweetness, and it was sad and perfectly beautiful.
Apple? Wow. They’re obsessed in a way the rest of their industry can barely tolerate, let alone understand. Exhibit A, the phrase “There’s not a straight piece of glass on this building.” They take what they do seriously and they love it deeply, down to a level of detail others can’t even fathom. In some ways, it almost works against them. People think of buying an Apple device like it’s tantamount to joining a cult. Why? Because the use of something Apple has made contains the emotion of those who made it, and you feel that when you use it. That is, unless you realize you’d prefer to resist it.
But back to creation.
Something interesting happens when you really love the thing you’re creating. When you love it deeply enough, it teaches you how to improve it and make it better. More useful, more beautiful, more resonant. And when you learn those lessons and apply them, you love the creation even more, which then leads you to even more lessons. It’s a spiral that continues upward, and I have no idea where it stops.
So let’s find out. Love your creation.