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Innovation and Why Your Baby is Ugly

I was born in that strange era where doctors believed that women didn’t know how to properly give birth. Even though they had been doing it just fine for thousands of years, there was this short period of a couple of decades, where medicine’s conventional wisdom was that women were, apparently, doing it all wrong.

When I was born, my mom was knocked out cold with anesthesia. My dad sat in a waiting room with a handful of cigars to pass out once the birthing procedures were all over. There was no shared experience in the miracle of birth between mother, father, and child. There were no controlled breathing exercises. No tears of pain turned to tears of joy when the baby was laid in its mother’s arms.

Instead, there was a nurse who came out to the waiting room. “Mr. Barbera, you have a son.”

My dad went to the window, expecting to see this beautiful thing that he and his beloved bride had wanted for so long.

Instead, he saw newborn me.

As he is fond of telling me, I was not pretty. My face was contorted and wrinkly. My head was bald. My skin was a blotchy mix of red and blueish white. “You looked like you had been beaten with barbed wire,” he tells me on any occasion that seems appropriate – like my birthday, or when I bring a girlfriend over to meet the folks.

And that is what newborn innovations are like.

Innovation, like comedy, is not pretty.[1]

That may sound funny, but it is important to understand. We must recognize that newborn innovations are unfinished lumps of clay, not finished works of art.

Why is that so important to emphasize? Two reasons. First, by the time we see new innovations reach the marketplace, what we see are the finished, polished, buffed-with-a-fine-chamois versions. The versions that have been designed, tested, refined, retested, and re-refined.

We rarely see or even hear rumors about the number of trees sacrificed to wadded-up pieces of graph paper covered with ugly pencil sketches. No one speaks of the arguments, frustrations, fears, and stupidities experienced by the creators in the process of creating. We don’t hear about the disdainful mockery thrown at prototypes when they are first offered to test users for feedback.

I will never forget the words of feedback I read when a customer evaluated a packaging change that I helped to execute: “What kitchen-ignorant idiot of an engineer thought that this was a good idea?!?”

And that’s just for changing the lid on a mayonnaise jar. Imagine if it was something really important.

It’s not just kitchen-ignorant idiot engineers who go through the ugly process of innovation. It’s everyone. Even the most consistently successful geniuses in their business go through it.

Take Pixar, for example. They have never failed to produce a hit when they’ve released a feature film. Yet Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, says that “early on, all of our movies suck. That's a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are. I'm not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’”[2]

This is a natural part of the creative process. As I first wrote this book, I thought I was typing out some good stuff. Then I went through the review and editing process. I can’t count the number of times I stopped and said “that sucks.” My baby was ugly. Even after rewriting, and re-editing, I found errors, typos, poorly stated ideas, and even outright blunders. I could relate to the feeling expressed by James Michener: “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.”[3] At least to the first half of it.

When you try to innovate, your innovation baby is going to go through a beaten-with-barbed–wire stage, too. Don’t take it personally; it’s just part of the process. You need to be aware that all innovation babies are ugly, because when that baby is yours, there is a good chance that you won’t be able to see that it is ugly.

All parents think that their baby’s face belongs in a Gerber ad. Part of our mental wiring is devoted to blinding us to seeing anything but the most precious, adorable, lovable thing that ever existed. Had evolution not built that in, sleep deprivation alone would lead parents to throw their babies in a box stamped “Return: Defective.” That would not be good for the survival of our species.

Your innovations can become your babies. If you take the slightest pride in your work, the littlest bit of ownership in what you produce, you will become attached to your creation. You will see all the potential good that it will bring to the world, and imagine the future accolades it will receive.

It will be hard to hear the actual feedback that you will inevitably get.

Be ready for it.

Don’t let that worry you too much, though. Eventually, even I stopped looking like I had received the barbed wire beat down, and became your typical baby cute enough not to be placed in a box. My parents no longer had to tie a pork chop around my neck to get the dog to play with me. Your innovation eventually won’t need the pork chop, either.


[1] An important lesson from Steve Martin, the original wild and crazy guy.

[2] Ed Catmull, (2014) Creativity, Inc., as quoted in Fast Company, April 2014.

[3] Two things: that’s an internet quote that I could not verify, so take that for what it’s worth. Second, if you are thinking to yourself “Brad, you aren’t even a good rewriter,” well, I’ll take that under advisement, then do my Stuart Smalley affirmations to recover. Maybe this isn’t the best writing, but that’s…okay.

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