Life Lessons from Pixar’s President, Ed Catmull 

My path to reading Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. was through reading other books that quoted and referenced him, a process which I’ve come to love. This was how I read Joseph Campbell too as I’ve written in a post earlier. My fascination began with Steve Jobs, the late visionary leader of Apple; I read his biography last year by Brent Schlender’s Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart to a Visionary Leader.

At a pivotal point in Steve’s career after being forced out of the board of Apple, he started working with Pixar Animation and met Ed Catmull and John Lasseter. It was at Pixar where he was first humanized, and it was because of Ed’s style of leadership.

“I liked him from the moment I met him,” Steve told me (Schlender) once about Ed. He found him an intellectual match. “Ed is a quiet guy, and you could mistake that quietness for weakness — but it’s not, it’s strength. Ed’s really thoughtful, and really, really smart. He’s used to hanging around really smart people, and when you’re around really smart people you tend to listen to them.

Steve listened to Catmull. Though he could often come across as a know-it-all, Steve was constantly trying to learn. Trim and professional, Ed was ten years older than Steve, making him as much of a mentor as a colleague.

Theirs was a quiet, sincere friendship, enabled in great part by Catmull’s maturity.

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Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs and John Lasseter

It was at this point that I wanted to know more about the President of Pixar. At the first turn of the page you can already sense Ed’s humanism: the dedication on the third page simply writes “For Steve.”

In some ways, both he and Ed started early knowing what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives. For Ed, it was computer animation. I admit I know nothing about this field, but it is always such a joy to read about how people know what they want to do for the rest of their lives at an early age.

One can see in Ed the discipline, perseverance and passion it takes to be successful and yet in spite of his accomplishments, he never settled. He never stopped questioning why and how things around him are happening, even if Pixar’s feature films have been big successes.

He was always on the lookout for hidden problems, dynamics within his team and the culture he’s created in hopes of improving the process and giving the people he worked with a chance to become their better selves even more.

While the book is about leadership and the art of managing, I think that everything that Ed writes is applicable on how we all live our lives. He talks about failure, trusting the process, caring deeply about the work that you do, and the power of one’s passion to fuel your life’s work.

On the importance of people over ideas

More than money and profit, Ed stresses what he believes is what managers should really invest on: its people. As an outsider, his examples of what Pixar has done to deal with major setbacks throughout film production shed a light on the complexity of the company’s work, and how they were able to rise from the challenges.

Ed also stressed the importance of how people ultimately trump ideas. That in order for an idea to actually materialize, the right group of people needs to be together. The beauty of what he emphasizes is essentially, the power of a collective.

A good team is made up of a people who complement each other. There is an important principle here that may seem obvious, yet — in my experience — is not obvious at all. Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.

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On trusting the process

I watched Finding Nemo, Up and Monsters, Inc. while I was reading this book and had a new-found appreciation for all the work that went into it. Suddenly I was taking note of all the subtle details and the story arc and the way things moved in the films that I couldn’t help but feel that at some point, I wish I was a part of the process.

In Up, there was a scene with Ellie sitting on a swing after the couple found out that they couldn’t have babies. Her back was turned to the house where Carl was watching her from the window. Her hair was down and there was a soft breeze ruffling the ends of her hair, with a few strands swaying in the wind. I felt her pain instantly.

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Ellie, from the movie Up

How many iterations did that scene have to go through? What genius thought of the scene? Was it in the original story board, or was it something that came out of the Braintrust (a process wherein directors, producers and other creatives bring “reels” of the unfinished film for constructive criticism)? Because Ed lifted the curtains and explained how things worked at Pixar, I realized that one of their mantras “Trust the process” could not have been truer:

When we trust the process, they [producers, directors] argue, we can relax, let go, take a flyer on something radical. We can accept that any given idea may not work and yet minimize our fear of failure because we believe we will get there in the end.

When we trust our process, we remember that we are resilient, that we’ve experienced discouragement before, only to come out of the other side.

When we trust the process — or perhaps more accurately, when we trust the people who use the process — we are optimistic but also realistic.

The trust comes from knowing that we are safe, that our colleagues will not judge us for failures but will encourage us to keep pushing the boundaries.

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On failure

Just like other thinkers and philosophers I’ve read, what is clear in Creativity, Inc. is how the response to failure is more important that failure itself. Ed contextualizes the modern way of how we’ve evolved to think about failing, citing that we can trace it back to our days in school.

It is true that a failing grade brings about shame, embarrassment and the impeding terror of our parents’ reactions. The bar for me was set extremely high when I was still going to school in the Philippines. My parents expected me to be at the top of my batch (of about 250+ students). That did not materialize, although I kept my grades at a level that would not cause them to panic.

Now as an adult, the concept of success and failure have been defined specially in immigrant families like mine. This is where Ed’s concept on failure become even more relevant, as he weaves in examples of how Pixar has dealt with them and what kind of lens we should adapt in its face.

Failure is is often coupled by fear, and it is only with trust that it can be conquered.

The antidote to fear is trust, and we all have a desire to find something to trust in an uncertain world. Fear and trust are powerful forces, while they are not opposites, exactly, trust is the best tool for driving out fear. There will always be plenty to be afraid of, especially when you are doing something new.

Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it. Fear can be created quickly; trust can’t. Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions — and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure.

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On dealing with change

If there’s any industry that deals with constant change, it’s technology. In addition to an expanding company and the pressure to deliver high-quality films, Ed was able to steer Pixar on the right direction with openness and the insight needed. There were hurdles, yes. Also unforeseen forces. And lots and lots of conflict. In spite of all of these, the team held on to their intentions and characteristically, to each other.

The attitude needed to deal with change was not only exhibit by Ed but also embraced by many of Pixar’s creative team.

“You need storms. It’s like an ecology. To view lack of conflict as optimum is like saying a sunny day is optimum. A sunny day is when the sun wins out over the rain. There’s no conflict. You have a clear winner. But if every day is sunny and it doesn’t rain, things don’t grow. And if it’s sunny all the time — if, in fact, we don’t ever even have night — all kinds of things don’t happen and the planet dries up. The key is to view conflict as essential, because that’s how we know the best ideas will be tested and survive. You know, it can’t only be sunlight.” -Brad Bird (animator, director and producer at Pixar)

I think this applies to everything in life, and is almost a precursor to a way of living that is open, flexible and adaptable to change. Most of us value safety and stability, not understanding that we become complacent and (too) comfortable that we end up being stagnant.

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On mindfulness

As I get older, mindfulness becomes more and more of an integral aspect of my life. I wrote about Buddhism on my last post, referencing a book I read recently written by the revered monk Thich Nhat Hanh. So as I read this portion I saw the connections more intimately of what Ed is always trying to do:

Paying attention to the present moment without letting your thoughts and ideas about the past and the future get in the way is essential. Why? Because it makes room for the views of others.

It allows us to begin to trust them — and, more important, to hear them. It makes us willing to experiment, and it makes it safe to try something that may fail. It encourages us to work on our awareness, trying to set up our feedback loop in which paying attention improves our ability to pay attention.

It requires us to understand that to advance creatively, we must let go of something.

Throughout the book, it’s evident that Ed leads and manages with mindfulness. The wisdom he imparts almost always carries a spiritual element, and it came with no surprise that he attends a silent retreat every year in Colorado at the Shambhala Mountain Center.

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Individuality is the name of the game in the Western world (well, also capitalism), but it is with clarity that I am able to distinguish the influences of the East on the culture within Pixar.

If you are mindful, you are able to focus on the problem at hand without getting caught up in plans or processes. Mindfulness helps us accept the fleeting and subjective nature of our thoughts, to make peace with what we cannot control. Most important, it allows us to remain open to new ideas and to deal with our problems squarely.

As we try live out our lives more open, more creative and more honest, I think these lessons from Ed can only add depth and richness. He’s done it once, for Steve. He keeps doing it for wonderful people at Pixar. And even from a distance, he’s doing it for me — enabling me to think about the way I live, and the way I relate and work and connect with people.

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Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them and pay attention to anything that creates fear.

Doing all these things won’t necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier. But ease isn’t the goal; excellence is.

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