Ed Catmull and How to Save Yourself from Your Own Success

Ed Catmull and How to Save Yourself from Your Own Success

“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.”

– Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation

Few names are as synonymous with success as Ed Catmull.

The president and creative force behind both Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, Ed’s twenty-year run has amassed some pretty staggering wins: fourteen number one box office hits, $7 billion in worldwide ticket sales, and thirty Academy Awards.

Since the release of 2014’s Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, he’s established himself as one the world’s top innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders.

Of course, you already know all that.

What you probably don’t know … is that Ed Catmull is also a human.

Sound like a strange thing to say?

It’s not.

You see, something profoundly strange happens when a person reaches the level of other-worldly success Ed experienced. And, success is actually the problem.

Whether your business just made the leap to enterprise status, experienced its first massive flash sale, crushed it will a new product line, or even received a major round of funding (Shark Tank or otherwise), that win flooding your brain with endorphins might just be the biggest obstacle to winning again.

Writing about his arrival to Silicon Valley in 1979, Ed himself puts it like this:

I couldn't have arrived at a more dynamic and volatile time. I watched as many startups burned with success -- and then flamed out.

“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 … I especially remember the confidence. The leaders of these companies radiated supreme confidence.”

Image via Amazon.com

It’s a classic tale: founder meets idea, idea finds funding, and founder rules the world.

Only, that’s not quite the end of the story, because Ed noticed a funny thing …

“Dun, dun … dun!”

Then those companies did something stupid -- not just stupid-in-retrospect, but obvious-at-the-time stupid.

The rest of Creativity Inc. is devoted to answering the fundamental question: “Why? Why would these brilliant, creative, cover-of-Fortune-magazine-gracing Titans sign their own professional death warrants?”

At the risk of spoiling it for you, the answer is actually pretty simple: those leaders stopped being human. They bought into the hype, accolades, and expectations their own success created. And the results were disastrous.

In other words, present success is often our greatest hindrance to future success.

That is one of the deepest ironies of life, both professionally and personally. And the only way to combat it is to learn how to save yourself from your own success.

1. Give Yourself the Permission to Suck

As off-putting as it might sound, human beings have a tendency to suck.

Maybe that’s too harsh.

At the very least, we create sucky things. In fact, the more creative, driven, and productive we are, the more sucky stuff we bring to life.

This principle is so widely embraced in the early stages of business development, that the startup community has even enshrined it into a motto: “Fail early. Fail fast. Fail often.”

We’ll talk more about failure itself in the next point, for now, what’s vital to grab ahold of is that sucking isn’t just crucial at the start of a venture; it’s even more crucial after we’ve “arrived.”

In the wake of Toy Story’s massive success, Ed describes the necessity of sucking perfectly:

Early on, all of our movies suck.

“That's a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are. I'm not trying to be modest or self-effacing.”

“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.’”

Coming off of your own mega success, this insight is especially important.

The expectation of living up to past performances isn’t just daunting. It can be crushing. Perfectionism starts to creep in. Our egos take over. We start to believe our own press. And suddenly, everything we do -- from start to finish -- gets burdened with the demand to be right.

Moreover, perfectionism causes us to think in black and white. If we aren’t achieving what we expect of ourselves, we begin to feel worthless.

You’ve heard the old adage: “Anything worth doing, do well.”

Nonsense. The real refrain of people who save themselves from their success is: “Anything worth doing, is worth doing poorly.”


Because only when we give ourselves the permission to suck -- to do things poorly -- are we enabled to overcome perfectionism.

At later stages of ideation, perfectionism can be an asset. But when it comes to jumping into what’s next, it kills.

2. Anticipate and Allow Failure

Naturally, this second lesson flows directly out of the first lesson.

However, while we may allow ourselves to suck at the start of a follow-up project, outright failure is another beast entirely. As Ed explains:

“One of the biggest barriers is fear, and while failure comes with the territory, fear shouldn’t have to.”
The goal, then, is to uncouple fear and failure -- to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employees’ hearts.

How can paralyzing fear be turned into a constructive learning experience?  It begins with you -- the leader:

“If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others … Being open about problems is the first step toward learning from them. My goal is not to drive fear out completely, because fear is inevitable … what I want to do is loosen its grip on us.”

Embracing failure is essential because when we’re afraid of failure, we avoid risk. We take the safe and well-worn path, the one we “know” that will produce positive results. And if we do this as leaders, our organizations follow suit.

In opposition, Ed provides what he calls a “better, more subtle interpretation”:

“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 … dooms you to fail.”

All that looks great on the surface. But it takes courage to put this kind of ethos into action.

One of Ed’s most visceral illustrations of just how far he was willing to take his embrace of failure occurred when not one but two of Pixar’s data systems failed and -- due to the human error of a single employee -- 90 percent of Toy Story 2 was literally erased. While the film was eventually restored due to an employee’s personal backup at home, the “real lesson” -- as Ed calls it -- was this:

We didn’t waste time playing the blame game.

Shockingly, the one thing Ed and Pixar’s team didn’t do was try to “find the person responsible.”

Twyla Tharp, the famed modern dance choreographer, captured the dangers of avoiding failure beautifully, “If you only do what you know and do it very, very well, the chances are that you won’t fail. You’ll just stagnate, and your work will get less and less interesting, and that’s failure by erosion.”

3. Admit You Might Be Wrong

Humility is a rare quality, particularly among the uber successful.

And yet, humility -- as Entrepreneur recently highlighted -- is a distinct “competitive advantage”:

“According to a study from the University of Washington Foster School of Business, humble people tend to make the most effective leaders (that’s right, the most) and are more likely to be high performers in both individual and team settings.”

What’s more, Jim Collins himself said, “The X-factor of great leadership is not personality, it is humility.”

This means something profound. The most difficult part of overcoming our own success comes down to one word: pride. Pride is the first of the seven deadly sins for a reason. Pride poisons our relationships. It makes us arrogant, patronizing, and above all blind to our shortcomings and thinking errors.

Ed hammers this home:

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.

However, pride and power manifest themselves is surprisingly subtle ways.

For instance, Catmull uses the illustration of Pixar’s original meeting format and how they created an unintentional hierarchy:

“Those sitting in the middle of the rectangular table (name cards included) were the ‘important’ ones; the other participants were left feeling on the outside. That discouraged them from speaking up and joining the conversations, contradicting Pixar’s belief of ‘unhindered communication.’”

By chance, they discovered that sitting around a square table allowed more “free-flow and interplay.” All team members felt safe and included.

After this experience, Ed realized that something as simple as changing the layout of the room and then by later removing the name cards (and the symbolic hierarchy that went along with them), completely changed the dynamics of the meetings themselves.

Owning up to your limitations also applies to the hiring process:

“I’ve made a policy of trying to hire people who are smarter than I am.” “The obvious payoffs of exceptional people are that they innovate, excel, and generally make your company -- and, by extension, you -- look good.” “I had taken a risk, and that risk yielded the highest reward -- a brilliant, committed teammate.”

Image via Wired.com

Surrounding himself with the Pixar Braintrust is one of the lasting legacies Ed’s leadership has produced. And yet, that kind of deep commitment is built on the underlying principle that -- in the face of his staggering success -- he still might be wrong.

Success Is the Problem

As counterintuitive as it may sound, past success is one the great challenges to future to success.

This is because our past successes ...

  1. create expectations that rob us of the permission to suck, 
  2. heighten our fear of failure moving forward, and 
  3. poison us with pride making it nearly impossible to admit we might be wrong.

Success -- especially massive success -- makes us inhuman.

So yes, Ed Catmull is an innovator, entrepreneur, and leader. But, Ed Catmull is also a human.

And you should be too.

About The Author

Aaron Orendorff is a contributor to the Shopify Plus blog as well as other sites like The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, Fast Company and more. You can grab Aaron’s Content Creation Checklist at iconiContent or connect with him on Twitter.