Pixar Cofounder Ed Catmull on Failure and Why Fostering a Fearless Culture Is the Key to Groundbreaking Creative Work
By Maria Popova
“Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before,” Neil Gaiman urged in his commencement-address-turned-manifesto-for-the-creative life. “The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself,” philosopher Daniel Dennett asserted in his magnificent meditation on the dignity and art-science of making mistakes. And yet most of us, being human and thus fallible yet proud, go to excruciating lengths to avoid making mistakes, then once we inevitably do, we take great pains to hide them from ourselves and the world. But this, argues Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull with the help of journalist Amy Wallace in an especially enthralling chapter of the altogether excellent Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (public library), is a grave mistake itself — not only from an abstract moral standpoint, but also as a practical strategy for cultivating a strong creative culture in a company and an entrepreneurial spirit within ourselves as individuals.
What makes Catmull, who created Pixar along with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter and is now president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, particularly compelling is his yin-yang balance of seeming opposites — he is incredibly intelligent in a rationally-driven way yet sensitive to the poetic, introspective yet articulate, has a Ph.D. in computer science but is also the recipient of five Academy Awards for his animation work. This crusade to uncouple fear and failure is thus delivered not with the detached and vacant preachiness of self-help books and lifestyle manuals but with the sensitive sagacity of someone who has been, and continues to be, on the front lines of truly pioneering creative work.
Catmull begins by pointing out that failure, for most of us, is loaded with heavy baggage — a stigma that failure is bad and a sign of weakness, engrained in us early and hard. For all of our aphorisms about the upside of failure and even our most elegant contemplations of failure’s gift, we still carry deep-seated fear and paralyzing aversion to it, to our own detriment. We are so terrified to be wrong and so uncomfortable with the unknown that we often opt for safety and security over breaking new ground. Catmull writes:
We need to think about failure differently. I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality). And yet, even as I say that embracing failure is an important part of learning, I also acknowledge that acknowledging this truth is not enough. That’s because failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to screw up our understanding of its worth. To disentangle the good and the bad parts of failure, we have to recognize both the reality of the pain and the benefit of the resulting growth.
Most people, Catmull argues, would go to any length to avoid failure — but not Pixar’s Andrew Stanton, known around the studio for his frequent counsel to “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” Catmull quotes Stanton, who sees failure the way one ought to see learning to ride a bike — an endeavor practically impossible to master without falling and stumbling first:
“Get a bike that’s as low to the ground as you can find, put on elbow and knee pads so you’re not afraid of falling, and go,” he says. If you apply this mindset to everything new you attempt, you can begin to subvert the negative connotation associated with making mistakes. Says Andrew: “You wouldn’t say to somebody who is first learning to play the guitar, ‘You better think really hard about where you put your fingers on the guitar neck before you strum, because you only get to strum once, and that’s it. And if you get that wrong, we’re going to move on.’ That’s no way to learn, is it?”
And yet many people, including within Pixar, often misinterpret the point. Echoing Debbie Millman’s assertion that “if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t taking enough risks,” Catmull writes:
[Many people] think it means accept failure with dignity and move on. The better, more subtle interpretation is that failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy — trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it — dooms you to fail.
While fortifying against failure and avoiding mistakes may seem like admirable goals, Catmull argues that they are ultimately misguided. He cites the example of the Golden Fleece Awards, which in 1975 began spotlighting government-funded projects that were epic wastes of money. While such scrutiny might have its place and no doubt comes from a place of seeking betterment, Catmull argues that “failure was being used as a weapon, rather than as an agent of learning” — the awards had a chilling effect, rendering researchers and government agencies so terrified of being “awarded” that they began taking fewer risks and innovating less. (If you’ve read Stuart Firestein’s excellent book Ignorance: How It Drives Science, you’d nod wistfully upon recognizing that this flawed ethos is the fundamental premise of science funding today, where researchers are routinely being discouraged from pursuing “curiosity-driven” experimentation and are being awarded grants for safe, “hypothesis-driven” research.)
Catmull elegantly distills the result:
In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.
For people and companies seeking to do original, innovative work, this is clearly a losing proposition. Catmull offers an antidote:
If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others. You don’t run from it or pretend it doesn’t exist. That is why I make a point of being open about our meltdowns inside Pixar, because I believe they teach us something important: Being open about problems is the first step toward learning from them… We must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.
Creating a fearless culture enables people to explore new areas and pursue ideas with much less hesitation and trepidation, “identifying uncharted pathways and then charging down them.” It also fosters a greater appreciation of decisiveness, liberating us from the constant preemptive questioning of whether the path we’re about to head down is the right one. That way, Catmull argues with an inadvertent wink to Steve Jobs’s famous assertion that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” also allows people to see what they couldn’t possibly see when starting out. Catmull captures the creativity-stifling effect of overplanning:
If you seek to plot out all your moves before you make them — if you put your faith in slow, deliberative planning in the hopes it will spare you failure down the line — well, you’re deluding yourself. For one thing, it’s easier to plan derivative work — things that copy or repeat something already out there. So if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal. Moreover, you cannot plan your way out of problems. While planning is very important, and we do a lot of it, there is only so much you can control in a creative environment. In general, I have found that people who pour their energy into thinking about an approach and insisting that it is too early to act are wrong just as often as people who dive in and work quickly. The overplanners just take longer to be wrong (and, when things inevitably go awry, are more crushed by the feeling that they have failed). There’s a corollary to this, as well: The more time you spend mapping out an approach, the more likely you are to get attached to it. The nonworking idea gets worn into your brain, like a rut in the mud. It can be difficult to get free of it and head in a different direction. Which, more often than not, is exactly what you must do.
With a sentiment that calls to mind David Foster Wallace’s exquisite definition of leadership, Catmull concludes:
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, and 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.
Rather than trying to prevent all errors, we should assume, as is almost always the case, that our people’s intentions are good and that they want to solve problems. Give them responsibility, let the mistakes happen, and let people fix them. If there is fear, there is a reason — our job is to find the reason and to remedy it. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.
In the remainder of Creativity, Inc., Catmull goes on to explore the art of grappling with change and randomness, the role of honesty in innovation, and more, using Pixar’s own becoming as a springboard for broader insights on the nature and secrets of creative success. Pair it with Sarah Lewis’s indispensable exploration of creativity and the gift of failure.
Published May 2, 2014