Book Summary

Little bets By PETER SIMS

Peter Sims has studied dozens of people and organizations who developed great products in environments of great uncertainty. Two subjects detailed in his book little bets are Chris Rock and Pixar studios.

Chris Rock is one of the best comedians of our time and Pixar is a California-based animation studio which has created 17 consecutive blockbuster films. Both Chris Rock and Pixar expect their products to be perfect but their approach to work is anything but perfect. Both have an experimental approach to developing their ideas. It’s an approach that Peter Sims calls little bets. By making little bets, they are able to identify unexpected possibilities and build up to a great end product.

Author Peter Sims defines little bets as concrete actions taken to discover, test and develop ideas through the acceptance of affordable failure. When Chris Rock sets out to develop a new HBO comedy special, he goes to his local comedy club in New Brunswick, New Jersey unannounced and performs in front of 50 or fewer people while carrying a yellow legal notepad of jokes that he scribbled down throughout the day. His jokes are undeveloped and most of them that fall flat on their face.

For 45 minutes he’ll ramble on, lose his train of thought and consistently refer back to his notes. His performances are painful to watch. His audience often folds their arms and looks noticeably unimpressed. Peter says that Chris rock tries hundreds if not thousands of preliminary ideas, out of which only a handful will make the final cut.

Chris knows that even after a decade of producing hit stand-up comedy shows, he can’t predict which jokes will be a hit and which ones won’t. However, Chris deeply understands that ingenious ideas almost never spring into people’s minds fully formed. They emerge through a rigorous experimental discovery process.

He builds his way up to an HBO comedy special by determining what he can afford to lose along the way. Those losses are contributing to the larger payoff of a highly successful show that will be seen by millions.

When Pixar starts developing a new film, they spend a few years producing a huge number of storyboards, most of which are thrown out. Storyboards are hand-drawn comic-book versions of a potential film scene. As Pixar has increased their success, they’ve also increased the number of bad storyboards they produce.

A bug’s life had approximately 27,000, Finding Nemo had 43,000, ratatouille had 69,000 and Wall-e had almost 100,000 storyboards. During the initial stages of film development, storyboards are presented to a creative director with the best-case-scenario being a clear direction to pursue the scene again.

Edwin Catmull, Pixar’s president, says that this is how Pixar’s films go from suck to non-suck. They develop thousands of rough storyboards and work through thousands of bad ideas to get a film that doesn’t suck. Pitching storyboards is Pixar’s Way of making little bets. The rejection of each storyboard with in Pixar is an affordable loss that the Pixar team members are willing to take in order to discover a scene that works and a movie that doesn’t suck.

Pixar reduces the risks of presenting bad ideas by adding to and modifying almost all ideas that come their way. They are careful to remove the link between a stupid idea and a feeling of being stupid. By finding some small thing, they like about an idea and then adding to it. For example, “I like the way you drew Woody’s eyes there. What if we made them a little wider?”

Both Pixar and Chris are perfectionist that are doing creative work but they don’t let their perfectionism paralyze their progress. They routinely think in terms of ‘little bets’ by embracing the following mindsets.

Number one: the initial work will suck and that’s okay. Pixar says that when they show films, they always expect them to suck at first. Even after a lifetime of comedy, Chris Rock still expects almost all of his initial jokes to fop.

You could try approaching your work like novelist Anne Lamott. She says, “the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really crappy first drafts.” She says all good writers write them. This is how they end up with a good second draft and terrific third drafts. Embrace the fact that your initial work is going to suck but then embrace the following mindset too.

Number two: failure is okay because failure can be designed to be small and affordable. Pixar uses hand-drawn comic sketches that are easier to throw out. Chris Rock ensures his initial performances are made in front of small audiences of 50 or fewer people. He’s willing to look foolish in front of a small audience in order to one day look great in front of a larger audience.

You’ll be more willing to fail in order to learn something if you make the worst-case failure something you can live with. If you have a big decision, make a series of smaller decisions with limited downside to test assumptions and uncertainties. If you have a big presentation or a wedding speech coming up, go to a local Toastmasters group and test out your presentation in front of a supportive crowd to gain feedback to develop.

Great work emits a great deal of uncertainty. You need to be willing to make ‘little bets’. You have to be okay looking bad in some small way and embrace imperfection if you want to end up with a perfect product. So make ‘little bets’ to reveal the path to a perfect solution.

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