Pixar’s Founder on Failure and Risk

By Scott Kirsner |  January 1, 2018

Pixar founder Ed Catmull can lay claim to a lot of successes, from the first computer-animated feature film (“Toy Story”) to the studio’s latest hit, “Coco.” In between there was a $7.4 billion acquisition of the pioneering Emeryville, Calif. animation company by Disney.

Pixar Founder Ed Catmull

But Catmull says that in pursuing success in business and life, “zero dumb ideas is not the right goal,” and that supportive work environments only arise when people see that it’s acceptable to experiment — and occasionally, fail.

Catmull serves as President of both Pixar and Walt Disney Feature Animation Studios, the filmmaking group that traces its roots to the silent film era. Featured below are are excerpts from his keynote talk at the Inbound conference in 2017, much of which was based on his book “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.”

Some of what made you what you are are the failures you experienced.

There are two meanings to the word failure. One is the professional one. The second meaning is the one we learned in school. If you failed, it meant you screwed up, you didn’t work hard, or you’re not smart.

But in business and in politics, there is a palpable danger around failure…

Failure is a necessary consequence of doing something new — not a necessary evil.

The failures that made us stronger happened in the past. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, and it might be very bad. We don’t have the luxury of calling something a failure until after it happens.

Zero errors and zero mistakes is an easy concept to understand in some professions. In the airline industry, zero errors is an important goal for the aircraft manufacturers and the airline company — and it’s important to you.

In medicine, the body is very complex. It’s important there are no procedural errors. That’s why they ask your birth date, and why they mark the leg they are supposed to operate on.

But most of life isn’t like that. You’re in a meeting, and you start by saying, ‘What we’re going to talk about is so important to the company, I don’t want anyone to say anything dumb.’

Zero dumb ideas is not the right goal. …It is easier to correct errors than to try to prevent them all.

Our job is not to prevent mistakes and errors. It is to respond when things go wrong — because they always do — and it is in this response where creativity arises in all of our jobs.