Friday, May 2

Creativity, Inc: Ed Catmull On Success, Candor And Fear Of Failure

I'm reading Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull.[1] For me, the most interesting parts are where Catmull talks about failure and how to handle failure. 

Failure is an intrinsic part of a creative person's life, whether they are a singer, a songwriter, whether they play an instrument or write stories. We've all experienced failure of some sort and if there is one thing I believe with all my heart it is that how we handle failure goes a long way to determining whether we will succeed.

In Creativity, Inc. Catmull writes:

"Left to their own devices, most people don’t want to fail. But Andrew Stanton isn’t most people. As I’ve mentioned, he’s known around Pixar for repeating the phrases “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” He thinks of failure like learning to ride a bike; it isn’t conceivable that you would learn to do this without making mistakes—without toppling over a few times. “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?”


The idea here isn't that one should try to fail--I can picture someone sitting in a bar nursing their third scotch and soda saying, "I'm on my third divorce, whoohoo!"--but that our goal shouldn't be to avoid failure since that path leads to mediocrity. Instead, we should strive to achieve success. 

Fear of failure leads to taking fewer risks and innovating less. Instead, we want our curiosity to drive experimentation. The alternative is to play it safe so we won't fail, but if we look at things that way, if we take "don't fail" as our goal, we'll never do anything brilliant. 

And, yes, maybe we will never do anything stunningly brilliant, but it's a lot more fun to be creative and fail occasionally than to play it safe, never fail, and hate what we do. 

Pixar's Rough Drafts Suck

This line suprised me: "early on, all of our movies suck." That got my attention! Here's the entire quotation:

"[C]andor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I make a point of repeating it often, and I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions of our films really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing by saying this. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.” This idea—that all the movies we now think of as brilliant were, at one time, terrible—is a hard concept for many to grasp. But think about how easy it would be for a movie about talking toys to feel derivative, sappy, or overtly merchandise-driven. Think about how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food could be, or how risky it must’ve seemed to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. And this is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process—reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul."

That's courageous! And they've gotten terrific results. (By the way, Maria Popova over at has written a wonderful article about Catmull's book.)

Having planted my feet firmly on the "failure is an agent of learning" bandwagon, I'd like to offer a couple of notes of warning.

1. Pick the right people.

Catmull writes:

"Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others. Show early and show often. It’ll be pretty when we get there, but it won’t be pretty along the way. And that’s as it should be."

I agree! In principle. 

Yes, in the best groups that's true. But I've learnt from experience that humans have good reasons to fear speaking up in groups, to fear sharing the product of their creativity with others. Unfortunately some--whether through ignorance or malice--find glee in ripping the creative efforts of others to painful, bloody, shreds. Don't give them the chance.

Yes, share your creative work with others, but test them first. Don't wear your heart on your sleeve the first time. Get to know your collaborators and make sure they're the right fit for you. A team that is simpatico (and here I'm thinking of writer, beta readers, editor, etc.) is a beautiful thing. One that isn't grinds everyone down. Picking the right people to rely on is key. (IMHO)

2. Don't try to fail.

I know I've said this before, but it's an important point. 

Catmull is saying that you shouldn't aim to avoid failure--you shouldn't have that as your goal--because that's focusing on the wrong thing. Rather, aim for the stars and embrace failure when it happens. 

Of course, if you're aiming high, if you're trying to do things no one else has, you're going to fail. A lot. But Catmull says that's okay. You're learning. Adapting. Evolving. A culture--whether corporate or otherwise--that doesn't foster people who are willing to take risks will never achieve anything truly great. Anything truly different. Why? Because they will be too fearful to strike out where no one has gone before (yes, I'm hearing the Star Trek theme in my head!)

I think Ed Catmull's book, Creativity, Inc. is a must for any creative professional to read, especially the chapters on candor (Chapter 5) and fear of failure (Chapter 6). 


1. Ed Catmull is a computer scientist and president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios.

Photo credit: "spring in the park" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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