5 Things I Learned from Pixar’s Dr. Catmull

I had the amazing opportunity to go to a lecture where Dr. Ed Catmull, the President of Disney-Pixar Animation Studios, was the guest speaker. Going into the lecture, I was expecting him to talk about inspiring artists and developing innovative technology. What he ended up talking about was more organizational behavior. I guess that makes sense since he is the president of a large organization. And in order to inspire the artists and develop the innovative technology he has to make sure everyone is interacting in positive ways within his company.

In many ways I felt like this approach to creativity was more relatable. So many of us work in a company or organization. We interact with people all the time. We all want to be successful. So these were the 5 important take-aways I wanted to share from the lecture about how to do that.

1. A vital part of creativity is trust

He started out his lecture talking about the need for honest feedback during the creative process, but eventually he got to the subject of trust. These two topics are inseparable to me because there is no way you can be completely honest with a person unless you trust them. Unless you do not believe you will have negative repercussions for your total honesty.

Something Dr. Catmull said was that real trust comes from failing together and surviving the failure. I think that is because you allow someone to see you at your very lowest point, and for whatever reason they stick with you. After that, you trust them to stick with you through the smaller mistakes too, and so you’re less afraid to make mistakes.

2. If you want to succeed you can’t be afraid to fail

Speaking of failure, according to Dr. Catmull, it’s essential to creativity. The only situation where you will never fail, is one where you never try something new. Therefore, lack of failure is the antithesis of creativity. He said, “Creativity is messy.” I love that! It takes away the pressure of perfection and allows you to experiment.

In connection with this, he mentioned that you have to protect new ideas, even if they aren’t very good. That often ideas aren’t very good at the beginning. I believe the word he used was “they suck.” But if you’re willing to fail and then adapt your project, it can turn into something really great.

3. Just because you say something, doesn’t make it a reality

Dr. Catmull talked about how when we can name a problem we buy into the illusion that we actually understand it. But that in reality, naming a problem does not change behavior. He gave the example of holding meetings within his company explaining how he wanted the company culture to be, but that a year later he had an experience that showed him that his training meetings had failed to actually change the company culture. The only real solution I saw from his comments was repetition. Seeing where people aren’t getting the vision, and then showing them how they aren’t getting it.

4. A personnel change will often not fix the problem; instead, transform the culture

It’s not a secret that Disney was struggling in the 2000s. But something Dr. Catmull said that I thought was very interesting was that the team that created Frozen, one of the biggest Disney hits to date, was mostly the same group of people who were working together when Disney was not successful. It wasn’t a personnel change that was necessary in this case. The problem wasn’t that there was a lack of talent or passion. Instead there needed to be a transformation of how they worked together. It needs to be safe for everyone to talk to everyone and share their ideas regardless of rank.

5. Don’t try to fit into a box of preconceived ideas 

Dr. Catmull talked about how he was repeatedly told that being the president of a company wasn’t what he thought it was. But still, after he became the president of Disney-Pixar he was blindsided by how different it was from his preconceived ideas. In that situation, he said, you have two choices. You can deal with what’s in front of you and fix the problems as they come. Or you can think, because I don’t fit into the preconceived ideas, I am a failure.

Obviously, he chose the first. But I think it’s interesting that we can construct failure for ourselves. If we hold ourselves to unrealistic standards, then we are bound to fail. This lesson applies to every facet of life. Throw your ideas of how life is supposed to be out the window as much as possible, and just take life one day at a time. It’s never going to fit into your box of expectations, so stop worrying about it.


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