Ed Catmull, President of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, is a computer scientist and helped pioneer the creation of the first computer animated film, Toy Story.
A veteran in his business, he has contributed to significant developments in the computer graphics world and authored a book about creativity in the business world called Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.
He spoke to the Girls Who Code students at Disney and gave insights on his knowledge of the industry and talked about general life experiences.
As a Disney Professional Intern who covered some Girls Who Code events, I was fortunate enough to be invited to hear him speak. Below are a couple lessons and insights that I took from his conversation with us.
1) An undefined path may lead to great things.
Growing up a fan of Disney films, Ed Catmull always knew that his passion lay in creating animated films. However, after graduating high school, he couldn’t conceive going from where he was to where he wanted to go because of the limited opportunities available at that time and therefore took a chance and picked a different path.
Ed then pursued an undergraduate degree in Physics from the University of Utah and after some experience in the professional field, he went back to school to get a Ph.D. in Computer Science. Being in graduate school and learning computer graphics, he knew that it was the place where he could combine the arts with the technical side.
From working in different companies in the technical field to getting hired at Lucasfilm, then getting brought onto the team at Pixar — 20 years later, Toy Story was finally born.
Okay, it obviously wasn’t that simple and I’ll get into that later, but the point is from high school to his graduate career he couldn’t see a clear path as to how he was going to get to his dream of creating computer animated films. He focused on the end goal with hopes that the path he took would lead him there.
2) It takes a team.
Ed was in the business of creating something that has never been done before — creating the first computer animated film. Of course, he wasn’t the only person with that dream. When you’re in an industry of creating new technology that will make a significant impact on the industry, some would want to keep secret the technological innovations and solutions they made so they’ll accomplish that goal before their competitor, naturally.
It made sense to Ed but it wasn’t the view he took. He recognized that the computer animation field had a long way to go and any idea they accomplished at that time would be irrelevant to where they were trying to get and knew that getting smart people to work together was far more important.
He made the decision to publish his team’s work and knew that it would gain more wins than losses. He explained for example that when doctoral candidates attend research conferences they’re more likely to be interested in teams that they know are making significant strides in their industries and in turn would want to work for them.
“When we get that smart person we win, that’s the big win. It’s having the right people working together. So that’s why I publish, it’s the team and how they work together that counts.”
3) Patience is key when it comes to accomplishing your goals.
Going back to number one, one of the biggest things I’ve learned from Ed’s talk was that patience pays off.
When he graduated from grad school he envisioned that it would take ten years from where he was to make the first animated film feature but it actually took 20 years to get there. Through it all, Ed didn’t waver from his goal and had patience even though the path wasn’t clear and he didn’t know how long it was going to take.
He reiterates that people often work on something for a long period of time that no one’s aware of and when the work is suddenly visible, people look at it as an overnight success, which isn’t true.
“That’s one of the lessons of really, the patience of what it takes to pursue the path you’re on.”
4) Failure has to do with your attitude.
We often see failure as a bad thing said Ed and generally, the word comes with negative connotations. For example, when you fail in class people will think that you didn’t apply yourself or you didn’t work hard enough, etc. But there’s another side to failure that we should adopt—the positive meaning of failure.
When you fail and begin to understand that some things don’t work, though you failed, you learned something from it. That’s the positive meaning of failure, explained Ed. Failures he said makes you smarter and stronger and since you survived, you learn from it.
He explained that everything he failed at he wouldn’t change because the problems he had along the way he had to go through, which he took as deep learning experiences. There would be plenty of things he wouldn’t understand now unless he went through it and it’s the experiences of it is what counts and what matters.
“One of the inoculations is just to recognize that that’s going to happen [failure] and you have to put yourself in a place to take risks, to try something new, and then you start to think that way for the rest of your life.”
5) Do things that will change your perspective about the world.
A recommendation Ed gave to the Girls Who Code students were to learn skills that will help broaden themselves and make themselves stronger not only professionally, but also as an individual.
Ed explained that he loves taking the art classes offered at Pixar such as drawing, sculpting, ironworks, etc. because it’s also about getting out of your comfort zone and trying something that is different and unusual and not letting preconceptions of learning that particular skill get in the way.
“Drawing itself is a learnable skill that everyone can learn, learning the skill doesn’t turn you into a world-class artist, but you can learn the skill of drawing and actually I recommend doing it because it trains your ability to see, that is it’s great value. I felt that’s what I got coming out — I began to look at the world a different way.
6) Be confident in your creativity.
Most people aren’t confident in the potential of their creativity and often hesitate to admit they’re a creative person. Ed explained it’s because ‘Creativity’ is typically narrowly defined either in the arts like drawing or painting or for instance in science and engineering, people view the product developed as the creative act. However, it’s actually broader than that.
Ed stated that we should also view problem-solving as a form of creativity, whether it’s in the arts or your relationship with others. For example, when there is a conflict between you and another person but you’re able to think it through and do something to resolve it, solving that problem is actually a creative act. Whether it’s trying to figure out something in the sciences, self- expression, whatever your field maybe, you are trying to find a new and innovative way to solve it and you’re in an unpredictable path in figuring out something no one has, which makes it a creative act.
“You learn how to respond with the problems of the world, when you get the internal strength and the confidence and you do respond, that becomes a creative act and that’s what I urge you to do.”
7) Recognize the power of interconnectedness.
One of the most important lessons and insights I learned from Ed was appreciating and recognizing the power of interconnectedness.
Every year, Ed asks himself a question that he dwells on the whole year. This past year after Pixar won an Oscar for Inside Out he thought to himself, ‘How much of this was me? Was I one percent or ten percent, how much of this film was me?’
He wrestled with this question for some time and along the way, he realized that it was a bad question. He came to the conclusion that the interconnectedness brought by the people that created this film together and made it an Oscar- winning work was critical. He explained that to think himself separate from that was the wrong place to go. Questions like that he said is how bad work is produced– when individuals go off on their own to prove themselves and answer that question.
Instead of asking that question, people need to appreciate and recognize that it’s about the experience of bringing a work like that to life through working together that made it what it is. And that instead of going off alone, you should want to mimic an experience like that and strive to be in the same type of environment again.