More Wisdom From Ed Catmull

Another great video of Ed Catmull speaking at the 2012 General Commencement of the University of Utah:

http://webapps5.utah.edu/digvid/?id=2012-05-04~88

Jump to 98:25 for the commencement address. What follows are my notes as I watch the video myself.

I love the importance he ascribes to creativity, even in industries that are not typically considered creative. He also had a good warning about the risk of creative people becoming un-creative: he warns that unseen corporate forces can be at work to send a successful company off the rails that management cannot even detect. He talks about finding the systemic and cultural forces that block creativity and how to eliminate them.

At 110:00 he speaks of the need for change and the fear of change, and provides great insight into one of the greatest risks to companies is a tendency to latch onto the familiar because of a fear of failure. He then relates a story that really struck me about the movie Bolt; how the hamster character was so complicated the movie could not be completed in the 8 months remaining. When asked about retooling the character, the management team was told it would take 6 months to retool the character, something that obviously would not work given the fixed deadline. Instead, a pair of animators managed to retool the character in four days, deciding it was better to seek forgiveness than permission. How did they manage to do in four days what others said would take six months? It turned out there was so much fear of error and fear of failure in the animation department that the whole creative process was wrapped in excess process and procedures to try and prevent errors.

One of the best insights that Ed Catmull brings in this speech is what I’d describe as being aware of your blind spots: he emphasizes the importance of being aware of what he cannot see, either because he cannot see it coming or because his position means that others act differently around him. It’s clear that Dr. Catmull focuses as much or even more on unseen threats as he does on those facing him directly.

“We should plan for the unseen, not try to prevent it.”

“We face the problems, we face the hard questions. The answers are the mere byproducts of addressing interesting questions. The questions are the doorway into the unknown.”

At 131:30 Ed gives a unique insight into Steve Jobs, and how he learned from failure and improved and grew as an individual. He also gives a new perspective on the concept of Job’s Reality Distortion Field:

“If you believe, as I do, that your actions make a difference, then this means that you do modify your reality, you do change the future.”

The more I learn of how Dr. Catmull built and leads Pixar, the more I want to find effective ways to emulate him.

Author: Mike Hillyer

Based in Calgary, Canada, I've managed the Enterprise Sales Engineering team at Message Systems since 2006, helping senders such as Facebook, Salesforce and Match.com get the message out to their customers. Previously I was a Technical Writer, Trainer and Speaker for MySQL AB, the makers of the world's most popular Open Source RDBMS.