President and founder of Pixar Animation Ed Catmull has written an inspirational business book like no other. Read the book’s introduction for a flavour of what you can expect…
Every morning, as I walk into Pixar Animation Studios—past the twenty-foot-high sculpture of Luxo Jr., our friendly desk lamp mascot, through the double doors and into a spectacular glass-ceilinged atrium where a man-sized Buzz Lightyear and Woody, made entirely of Lego bricks, stand at attention, up the stairs past sketches and paintings of the characters that have populated our fourteen films—I am struck by the unique culture that defines this place. Although I’ve made this walk thousands of times, it never gets old.
Built on the site of a former cannery, Pixar’s fifteen-acre campus, just over the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, was designed, inside and out, by Steve Jobs. (Its name, in fact, is The Steve Jobs Building.) It has well-thought-out patterns of entry and egress that encourage people to mingle, meet, and communicate. Outside, there is a soccer field, a volleyball court, a swimming pool, and a six-hundred-seat amphitheater. Sometimes visitors misunderstand the place, thinking it’s fancy for fancy’s sake. What they miss is that the unifying idea for this building isn’t luxury but community. Steve wanted the building to support our work by enhancing our ability to collaborate.
The animators who work here are free to—no, encouraged to—decorate their work spaces in whatever style they wish. They spend their days inside pink dollhouses whose ceilings are hung with miniature chandeliers, tiki huts made of real bamboo, and castles whose meticulously painted, fifteen-foot-high styrofoam turrets appear to be carved from stone. Annual company traditions include “Pixarpalooza,” where our in-house rock bands battle for dominance, shredding their hearts out on stages we erect on our front lawn.
The point is, we value self-expression here. This tends to make a big impression on visitors, who often tell me that the experience of walking into Pixar leaves them feeling a little wistful, like something is missing in their work lives—a palpable energy, a feeling of collaboration and unfettered creativity, a sense, not to be corny, of possibility. I respond by telling them that the feeling they are picking up on—call it exuberance or irreverence, even whimsy—is integral to our success.
But it’s not what makes Pixar special.
What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it. This, more than any elaborate party or turreted workstation, is why I love coming to work in the morning. It is what motivates me and gives me a definite sense of mission.
There was a time, however, when my purpose here felt a lot less clear to me. And it might surprise you when I tell you when.
On November 22, 1995, Toy Story debuted in America’s theaters and became the largest Thanksgiving opening in history. Critics heralded it as “inventive” (Time), “brilliant” and “exultantly witty” (The New York Times), and “visionary” (Chicago Sun-Times). To find a movie worthy of comparison, wrote The Washington Post, one had to go back to 1939, to The Wizard of Oz.
The making of Toy Story—the first feature film to be animated entirely on a computer—had required every ounce of our tenacity, artistry, technical wizardry, and endurance. The hundred or so men and women who produced it had weathered countless ups and downs as well as the ever-present, hair-raising knowledge that our survival depended on this 80-minute experiment. For five straight years, we’d fought to do Toy Story our way. We’d resisted the advice of Disney executives who believed that since they’d had such success with musicals, we too should fill our movie with songs. We’d rebooted the story completely, more than once, to make sure it rang true. We’d worked nights, weekends, and holidays—mostly without complaint. Despite being novice filmmakers at a fledgling studio in dire financial straits, we had put our faith in a simple idea: If we made something that we wanted to see, others would want to see it, too. For so long, it felt like we had been pushing that rock up the hill, trying to do the impossible. There were plenty of moments when the future of Pixar was in doubt. Now, we were suddenly being held up as an example of what could happen when artists trusted their guts.
Toy Story went on to become the top-grossing film of the year and would earn $358 million worldwide. But it wasn’t just the numbers that made us proud; money, after all, is just one measure of a thriving company and usually not the most meaningful one. No, what I found gratifying was what we’d created. Review after review focused on the film’s moving plotline and its rich, three-dimensional characters—only briefly mentioning, almost as an aside, that it had been made on a computer. While there was much innovation that enabled our work, we had not let the technology overwhelm our real purpose: making a great film.
I’d spent two decades building a train and laying its track. Now, the thought of merely driving it struck me as a far less interesting task.
On a personal level, Toy Story represented the fulfillment of a goal I had pursued for more than two decades and had dreamed about since I was a boy. Growing up in the 1950s, I had yearned to be a Disney animator but had no idea how to go about it. Instinctively, I realize now, I embraced computer graphics—then a new field—as a means of pursuing that dream. If I couldn’t animate by hand, there had to be another way. In graduate school, I’d quietly set a goal of making the first computer-animated feature film, and I’d worked tirelessly for twenty years to accomplish it.
Now, the goal that had been a driving force in my life had been reached, and there was an enormous sense of relief and exhilaration—at least at first. In the wake of Toy Story’s release, we took the company public, raising the kind of money that would ensure our future as an independent production house, and began work on two new feature-length projects, A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2. Everything was going our way, and yet I felt adrift. In fulfilling a goal, I had lost some essential framework. Is this really what I want to do? I began asking myself. The doubts surprised and confused me, and I kept them to myself. I had served as Pixar’s president for most of the company’s existence. I loved the place and everything that it stood for. Still, I couldn’t deny that achieving the goal that had defined my professional life had left me without one. Is this all there is? I wondered. Is it time for a new challenge?
It wasn’t that I thought Pixar had “arrived” or that my work was done. I knew there were major obstacles in front of us. The company was growing quickly, with lots of shareholders to please, and we were racing to put two new films into production. There was, in short, plenty to occupy my working hours. But my internal sense of purpose—the thing that had led me to sleep on the floor of the computer lab in graduate school just to get more hours on the mainframe, that kept me awake at night, as a kid, solving puzzles in my head, that fueled my every workday—had gone missing. I’d spent two decades building a train and laying its track. Now, the thought of merely driving it struck me as a far less interesting task. Was making one film after another enough to engage me? I wondered. What would be my organizing principle now?
It would take a full year for the answer to emerge.
From the start, my professional life seemed destined to have one foot in Silicon Valley and the other in Hollywood. I first got into the film business in 1979 when, flush from the success of Star Wars, George Lucas hired me to help him bring high technology into the film industry. But he wasn’t based in Los Angeles. Instead, he’d founded his company, Lucasfilm, at the north end of the San Francisco Bay. Our offices were located in San Rafael, about an hour’s drive from Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley—a moniker that was just gaining traction then, as the semiconductor and computer industries took off. That proximity gave me a front-row seat from which to observe the many emerging hardware and software companies—not to mention the growing venture capital industry—that, in the course of a few years, would come to dominate Silicon Valley from its perch on Sand Hill Road.
I couldn’t have arrived at a more dynamic and volatile time. I watched as many startups burned bright with success—and then flamed out. My mandate at Lucasfilm—to merge moviemaking with technology—meant that I rubbed shoulders with the leaders of places like Sun Microsystems and Silicon Graphics and Cray Computer, several of whom I came to know well. I was first and foremost a scientist then, not a manager, so I watched these guys closely, hoping to learn from the trajectories their companies followed. Gradually, a pattern began to emerge: Someone had a creative idea, obtained funding, brought on a lot of smart people, and developed and sold a product that got a boatload of attention. That initial success begat more success, luring the best engineers and attracting customers who had interesting and high-profile problems to solve. As these companies grew, much was written about their paradigm-shifting approaches, and when their CEOs inevitably landed on the cover of Fortune magazine, they were heralded as “Titans of the New.” I especially remember the confidence. The leaders of these companies radiated supreme confidence. Surely, they could only have reached this apex by being very, very good.
But then those companies did something stupid—not just stupid-in-retrospect, but obvious-at-the-time stupid. I wanted to understand why. What was causing smart people to make decisions that sent their companies off the rails? I didn’t doubt that they believed they were doing the right thing, but something was blinding them—and keeping them from seeing the problems that threatened to upend them. As a result, their companies expanded like bubbles, then burst. What interested me was not that companies rose and fell or that the landscape continually shifted as technology changed but that the leaders of these companies seemed so focused on the competition that they never developed any deep introspection about other destructive forces that were at work.
It has always been my goal to create a culture at Pixar that will outlast its founding leaders—Steve, John Lasseter, and me
Over the years, as Pixar struggled to find its way—first selling hardware, then software, then making animated short films and advertisements—I asked myself: If Pixar is ever successful, will we do something stupid, too? Can paying careful attention to the missteps of others help us be more alert to our own? Or is there something about becoming a leader that makes you blind to the things that threaten the well-being of your enterprise? Clearly, something was causing a dangerous disconnect at many smart, creative companies. What, exactly, was a mystery—and one I was determined to figure out.
In the difficult year after Toy Story’s debut, I came to realize that trying to solve this mystery would be my next challenge. My desire to protect Pixar from the forces that ruin so many businesses gave me renewed focus. I began to see my role as a leader more clearly. I would devote myself to learning how to build not just a successful company but a sustainable creative culture. As I turned my attention from solving technical problems to engaging with the philosophy of sound management, I was excited once again—and sure that our second act could be as exhilarating as our first.
It has always been my goal to create a culture at Pixar that will outlast its founding leaders—Steve, John Lasseter, and me. But it is also my goal to share our underlying philosophies with other leaders and, frankly, with anyone who wrestles with the competing— but necessarily complementary—forces of art and commerce. What you’re holding in your hands, then, is an attempt to put down on paper my best ideas about how we built the culture that is the bed-rock of this place.
This book isn’t just for Pixar people, entertainment executives, or animators. It is for anyone who wants to work in an environment that fosters creativity and problem solving. My belief is that good leadership can help creative people stay on the path to excellence no matter what business they’re in. My aim at Pixar—and at Disney Animation, which my longtime partner John Lasseter and I have also led since the Walt Disney Company acquired Pixar in 2006—has been to enable our people to do their best work. We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them.
I’ve spent nearly forty years thinking about how to help smart, ambitious people work effectively with one another. The way I see it, my job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it. I believe, to my core, that everybody has the potential to be creative—whatever form that creativity takes—and that to encourage such development is a noble thing. More interesting to me, though, are the blocks that get in the way, often without us noticing, and hinder the creativity that resides within any thriving company.
The thesis of this book is that there are many blocks to creativity, but there are active steps we can take to protect the creative process. In the coming pages, I will discuss many of the steps we follow at Pixar, but the most compelling mechanisms to me are those that deal with uncertainty, instability, lack of candor, and the things we cannot see. I believe the best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know—not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.
This book is organized into four sections—Getting Started, Protecting the New, Building and Sustaining, and Testing What We Know. It is no memoir, but in order to understand the mistakes we made, the lessons we learned, and the ways we learned from them, it necessarily delves at times into my own history and that of Pixar. I have much to say about enabling groups to create something meaningful together and then protecting them from the destructive forces that loom even in the strongest companies. My hope is that by relating my search for the sources of confusion and delusion within Pixar and Disney Animation, I can help others avoid the pitfalls that impede and sometimes ruin businesses of all kinds. The key for me—what has kept me motivated in the nineteen years since Toy Story debuted—has been the realization that identifying these destructive forces isn’t merely a philosophical exercise. It is a crucial, central mission. In the wake of our earliest success, Pixar needed its leaders to sit up and pay attention. And that need for vigilance never goes away. This book, then, is about the ongoing work of paying attention—of leading by being self-aware, as managers and as companies. It is an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.
Taken from Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull