Why Nurturing a Fearless Culture Is the Key to Groundbreaking Creative Work

Lessons on failure from Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull

Failure, what’s scarier than that? Perhaps a public one?

Ed Catcall, Pixar Co-founder and President of Pixar Animation exposes an incredibly inspiring point of view in his book Creativity inc, a must read for anyone that wants to know how Pixar fosters incredible creativity in their company culture.  (And who doesn’t wish to know that?!…)

Here are some key points from the chapter that talks about failure – my favorite chapter in the entire book. This topic is very close to my heart since I’ve had my fair share of screwing things up in both life and work!

Catmull begins by pointing out how the topic of failure is loaded with heavy baggage filled up early in life when, most of us, were somehow taught how failure is bad, is a sign of weakness, it hurts and therefore must be avoided.

Even though most of us rationally understand the upside of failure and the benefits of it, we still carry a deep-seeded fear of it. We are terrified to be wrong and uncomfortable with the unknown, so much so that we often become paralyzed and choose safety over breaking new ground.  Catcall says:

We need to think about failure differently. I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality. And yet, even as I say that embracing failure is an important part of learning, I also acknowledge that acknowledging this truth is not enough. That’s because failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to screw up our understanding of its worth. To disentangle the good and the bad parts of failure, we have to recognize both the reality of the pain and the benefit of the resulting growth.

Though mistakes are the baseline of learning and growing Edmund does not advocate to always royally screw things up of course – that does not create much growth.

Mistakes cost money and stress, so his advice is to try to avoid the very costly ones by following the philosophy of Pixar director Andrew Stanton, known around the studio for his quote “fail early and fail fast” or “be wrong as fast as you can.”. Andrew offers his point of view on failure with a bicycle analogy:

“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.”

Edmund continues the chapter by stating that creatives need to be able to turn pain into progress because progress is one of the greatest motivators.

To reduce the pain of failure we need to sign up for aggressive and rapid learning.

To reduce the fear of failure you need to nurture a deep sense of trust in your company.

The antidote to fear is trust, and we all have a desire to find something to trust in an uncertain world. Fear and trust are powerful forces, and while they are not opposites, exactly, trust is the best tool for driving out fear. There will always be plenty to be afraid of, especially when you are doing something new. Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it. Fear can be created quickly; trust can’t. Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions — and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure.

Some people say that geniuses learn from other people’s mistakes, so you don’t necessarily have to fail to learn. And while I consciously understand this truth I do also deeply believe that failure is really inevitable in the creative process. Even with great knowledge and acute observation you can sort of predict the outcome of things but for disruptive work you need tons of experimentation which mean lots of mistakes.

So let’s not be unoriginal and learn from failure!

Whats the biggest screw up you’ve made and how did you learn from it?





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