What I learned about creative legacy from watching Ratatouille


When you are engaged in a creative pursuit (and I’d argue that most of us are), you don’t necessarily think much about how you will respond to success. Most of us prepare ourselves only for failure, and therefore may be unprepared when we achieve some measure of success.

Nevertheless, as your body of work increases over time, you will eventually be confronted with an important crossroads. And the best way I’ve ever seen this tension described was, of all places, in a Pixar movie.

Pixar University

Ratatouille is, like most movies from Pixar, amazing. Not only is the story brilliant, but also the character development and plot. It contains that creative spark mostly elusive in film.

(By the way, there are no spoilers below, so you can keep reading, even if you haven’t seen the movie yet.)

But the scene that I’ve always focused on is not actually a primary plot point. It is during the development of the relationship between Linguini, the awkward kid who has just gotten the big break to work in Chef Gusteau’s restaurant, and Collette, the young-but-hardened chef who is showing Linguini the ropes in the kitchen.

Colette is describing Chef Gusteau’s cooking style:

  • Colette: I know the Gusteau style cold. In every dish, Chef Gusteau always has something unexpected. I will show you. I memorize all his recipes.
  • Linguini: [writing this down, and saying slowly] Always…do…something…unexpected.
  • Colette: No! Follow the recipe.
  • Linguini: But you just said that…
  • Colette: No-no-no-no-no-no. It was his job to be unexpected. It is our job to…
  • Colette+Linguini: [together, as Linguini rewrites the advice] …follow…the…recipe.

(Watch the scene. Also, if you fast forward to 0:56 below, you can watch it here as well. I can’t seem to start the video at that point from here.)

This short exchange sums up, entirely, the tension of having a creative legacy: whether to follow the recipe, or always do something unexpected.

Two legacies

I see two primary responses to creative success, and the way that you respond will determine almost everything about your creative legacy. In general, an artist is one of the following:

  • Consistent Refiner
  • Relentless Innovator

When you are starting out with your creative work, it can range all over the place, from wildly experimental (think of the noise experiments of early Pink Floyd or Grateful Dead) to extremely traditional (Van Gogh, who was such a poseur). Or anywhere in between. After all, you’re still finding your footing. When you’re just starting out, you can afford to be dangerous, because there is little at stake.

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But what happens when you find success? Something changes: now you have something at stake. You now have a tether to your past work, which means that what you do now will be compared to what came before.

It is here that one truly sees what kind of creative legacy you will build.

Follow the recipe

When some find success, they wish to repeat what brought them to find that success.

This is what causes an artist’s first success to become an inflection point in their career. Their initial work can be all over the place, but once the success happens, the future work tends to center mainly on that same type of success. I call these artists Consistent Refiners.

This response can reflect how important success is to the artist (in whatever manifestation). Not that there’s anything wrong with chasing success; I want all artists to become successful, in whatever metric they use to define it.

But it does seem like the initial success is often the moment when the artist stops innovating and starts refining. And while refining is also an important part of the craft, sometimes it seems like a cop-out.

Some artists have enough sense of their craft that the success is incidental or peripheral. The artist has no reason to change for anyone. A (perhaps inadequate) example of this is AC/DC. (For example, can you tell what era an AC/DC song is from? I can’t.)

For those about Refine, we saulte you. Photo courtesy of Craig ONeal
For those about Refine, we salute you. Photo courtesy of Craig ONeal

But if you don’t have that sense of creative consistency, success may cause you to cease your development. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be successful, but it means that you will be remembered for your single type of success. When you’re a Consistent Refiner, you will likely be remembered for what you did, rather than who you are.

Always do something unexpected

Others continue on their own path, perhaps risking continued success in the pursuit of their art. I call these people Relentless Innovators.

Reinvention is difficult and dangerous. Once you have found a creative success, the safe response is to stick with it, especially when financial success is at hand. Otherwise, you may never find any kind of further success.

But what made your creative success so successful? Did it stem from the specifics of your project, or from something within you? Do you really know?

It takes a strong core of confidence to move beyond critical/financial success and continue to pursue your art. You either need to be driven beyond your rational means (which seems to be the case for many) or strong enough to not rest on your creative laurels. If you’re a Relentless Innovator, you will likely be remembered for who you are, rather than what you do.

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If nothing else, it seems to me like there are much fewer Relentless Innovators than Consistent Refiners.

A third way?

Artists can also perhaps switch from one to the other as fortunes change. An artist can start out as a Consistent Refiner, and then find success to not be replicable, leading them to eventually feel free enough to become an innovator again.

Robert Plant is a good example of this, having ridden the legacy of Led Zeppelin for decades before finally achieving a very unexpected success with by teaming up with Alison Kraus, a bluegrass-country singer. I certainly never expected that.

You decide

What’s interesting about these possibilities is that you can’t truly know how you will respond until after you’ve experienced creative success.

But even if you don’t know how you will respond, it’s never too early to ask yourself what your goals are. What will your creative legacy be? Will you follow the recipe, or always do something unexpected?

But enough about me. What do you think about your creative legacy?

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