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Domopalooza 2017: Attitude can Turn Failure into Success, Says Pixar Chief

Salt Lake City—There are two kinds of failure, said Pixar president Ed Catmull: one that sets a person back, and one that helps them grow. The trouble is that it’s hard to tell the difference between the two of them—and the mindset a person has undergoing them is vital.

“There’s a palpable aura of real danger in failure. This meaning is deeply engrained in us and we often mix the two together. It’s often difficult for most people to separate these meanings from each other, and we must be conscious of the impact of the second meaning on ourselves and others,” he said.

Catmull, speaking at Domopalooza 2017 Thursday, said even at Pixar, one of the most successful movie-making entities in history, every film save one has been such a failure in its beginning stages that it has had to be restarted two or three times. Up, for example, had three failed iterations before the creative team came up with the version that hit theaters and has become a beloved story for many. To a certain degree, that kind of initial failure is to be expected as a part of the creative process to make a well-crafted finished product, though it can be tricky to keep the ideas that work safe from being cut with the ones that don’t.

“We made what was a fantastic movie, but there was nothing about this path that was predictable. New ideas are fragile and they have to be protected, and they can often go off track. So we had to protect them even as we were going through this process, even though we weren’t sure they would work,” said Catmull, a University of Utah graduate. “You have to be very careful about how you protect and the consequences of what you do and what your decisions are. We have to understand the emotions and psychology of what people do.”

When Disney bought Pixar in 2006, the latter was a shot in the arm for the former’s animation studio, which had been suffering through a lengthy slide. Catmull said one of Pixar’s jobs was to help spread their successful culture to the Disney departments. Workers and leaders of both halves quickly agreed on what needed to be changed and what everyone needed to work together to do, he said, but the actual adoption thereof took much longer.

“There were a couple of observations to make here: one of them was that we outlined our principles, and we could outline our principles in four hours and everybody nodded their heads in agreement. Didn’t matter. It took four years for that mindset to become engrained in them,” he said. “It is always easy to state your values and agree on them; the hard part is living them.”

It can be hard living with failure, too, Catmull said. Directors who made a movie that flopped would often want to quit, he said, and many did. But those who stayed and learned from the failure, he said, became much better at what they did than those who left.

“For the directors who fail and stay, it is embarrassing. It’s very public. But they are completely held in because they’re a part of the culture, and if they can understand that, they come back stronger,” he said.

That applies to other jobs and fields, too, he said. One high-profile example is Steve Jobs, who bought Pixar from Lucasfilm in 1986 and with whom Catmull worked closely until the purchase by Disney. Jobs had left Apple to start a new company, NeXT, but the new venture was floundering, and so was Pixar. But Jobs, Catmull said, was able to see not only that what he was doing wasn’t working, but why it wasn’t working. He began listening to others better, practicing more empathy, and becoming more aware of what was going on in both the company and with the people who worked in it.

“Steve realized a lot of what he was doing did not work. A lot of these things to hit a home run were resulting in an out. Steve was deeply smart and he saw there was no upside in being wrong, and as soon as he realized he was wrong, he would change what he was doing. I’ve never seen anyone change what he was doing as fast as Steve did,” Catmull said. “Quite a few people associate [Jobs’] outrageous early behavior with the success of the new Apple that changed the world. But that Steve did not make that Apple. It was the changed Steve that made that Apple. That’s the real message. It was the empathy and listening and knowing the impact along with the insight that [made it a success].”

Catmull likening Jobs’ change to a “hero’s journey,” in which a badly behaved prince is kicked out of the castle, goes on a journey and comes back a changed man, that allowed him to return to Apple and guide it into making life-changing innovations. The lack of attention on that change, and why it ultimately made him successful, has given a skewed view of history that simplifies detrimentally what it took for Jobs to accomplish what he did, Catmull said.

“The mythology didn’t capture the truth, and the messy truth is never going to be obvious to reporters or other people on the outside,” he said. “But it’s the reality, and if one doesn’t understand that reality, you can have a misconception of what it takes to go through the really messy process.”