How Pixar’s Ed Catmull and Pete Docter make magic on and off screen (Transcript)

ReThinking with Adam Grant
How Pixar’s Ed Catmull and Pete Docter make magic on and off screen
July 25, 2023

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.

My guests today are two of the brains behind some of my favorite films. Ed Catmull is a computer animation pioneer. He co-founded Pixar and served as the longtime president there as well as at Disney Animation. Ed is the author of Creativity, Inc, which in my opinion is the best book ever written about building teams that build great ideas and cultures that enrich them. An expanded edition of Creativity, Inc just came out, and it's filled with new stories and insights.

Pete Docter is the Chief Creative Officer at Pixar, and an accomplished director, producer, screenwriter, animator, and voice actor. The first film he both wrote and directed was Monsters, Inc. And he went on to become the first person ever to win three Oscars for Best Animated Feature—for Up, Inside Out, and Soul.

I've learned a lot from Pixar over the years, and Ed and Pete worked together for decades, so I couldn't wait to talk with them about making creative magic in teams where people have strong opinions. And of course, about working with Steve Jobs.

[00:01:21] Pete Docter:
Adam, have you and Ed met before?

[00:01:23] Adam Grant:
We have. We’ve met several times.

[00:01:25] Pete Docter:

[00:01:23] Adam Grant:
And Ed lived to tell the tale.

[00:01:29] Ed Catmull:
Yes. I'm still around.

[00:01:31] Pete Docter:
And he's willing to talk to you again, which I take as a good, good sign.

[00:01:35] Adam Grant:
I mean, we'll see. We'll see what happens today.

[00:01:36] Pete Docter:
Okay. I’ve had a few conversations before, so I'll do my best.

[00:01:42] Adam Grant:
I feel like we need to set the scene a little bit. Um, Ed, you co-founded Pixar. You ran it for many years. How, how did this come to be?

[00:01:49] Ed Catmull:
For me, it's a, a, a journey that took more than 50 years, and it started with something which was, I'd say very lucky in that my first teacher of computer science was Alan Kay, who later received the, the Turing Award. But he's the one that gave this, the principle, which, which I did get, which was that things are going to change more dramatic than you think. If you've got a vision in your head, you still need to take a step by step process of getting there.

So when I went to the next place, I had these theories. Half my theories were right. And half were complete crock. And when I went to Lucasfilm, I realized that, “Oh, I'd keep the stuff that worked. I was gonna try some new theories, but I'll bet that my ratio of wrong to right was probably gonna stay the same for the rest of my life.” Which is true. And I don't know what the actual number is. But I do think it was important to believe and understand that I was wrong more than I thought I was.

[00:02:52] Pete Docter:
We didn’t even know we needed that when we started.

[00:02:56] Ed Catmull:
I know. That’s the whole point of like you don't know and then you find and say, “Oh, this is gold.”

[00:03:01] Pete Docter:
Yeah. Yeah. Well, I like you were talking from a scientific standpoint, the idea of solving problems one step at a time. It’s exactly the same in the creative end of things. I think people generally have this idea that, you know, there's a genius like Walt Disney and he is just lying in bed, Dumbo! And he has the whole thing in his head and really it's one step at a time. I have an idea about a Dumbo who maybe could fly with big ears. Well, where would he live? Well, maybe let's try the circus. And having met the guy who came up with that story, it's the same thing they did then as we're doing now. It’s uh, it’s problem-solving, one step at a time.

[00:03:36] Adam Grant:
Pete, you've said that directing, and I think this might be true of creativity more generally, is like going into a long dark tunnel.

[00:03:42] Pete Docter:
Oh yeah. I fall for this every single time. There's this delusion that this time I'm gonna solve it right off the bat. This time the vision is clear. So at the very beginning, you're like, “Okay, this is gonna be great.” And you get in just enough into the tunnel that the light starts to disappear from where you came, and then it's just all dark, and that stays the case for a long, long portion of the journey.

[00:04:06] Ed Catmull:
The thing is that colleagues around it understand that. You’ve got the thing in your head, and once you get lost, who helps you get unlost?

[00:04:15] Pete Docter:
Because so many times, and this is something we talk a lot about too, is like given that you could change anything at any time, which you can, what are you gonna hold onto? Because if you don't hold onto anything, it's just a…. I don't know what. Slippery fish, you know, whatever analogy you want to come up with, it's not good. You have to hold onto something. And yet, there are times, inevitably, that I think you have to let go, even briefly, of the things that got you into it, the things that seemed like that North Star that you were holding onto, if only to prove that yes, indeed, that is the North Star.

[00:04:49] Ed Catmull:
What does it mean to hold onto something tight and also be willing to let it go? Like, these are contradictory statements.

[00:04:54] Pete Docter:

[00:04:55] Ed Catmull:
That’s why it's hard and, and Pete can do that. It’s, like, okay, they're both true.

[00:04:59] Pete Docter:
Well, that was something that Steve Jobs modeled time and again, and you probably saw more than I have. He would, what would be call it? The strongly held beliefs held loosely. Right?

[00:05:08] Ed Catmull:
Although I don't remember him saying that.

[00:05:09] Pete Docter:

[00:05:10] Ed Catmull:
I, I do know—

[00:05:10] Pete Docter:
That's just my interpretation because he would, like, go at it. Right? If he believed something, he would pitch it with a hundred percent. And then, if he decided that was wrong, throw it out.

[00:05:21] Ed Catmull:
He said at one point that if he dies and comes back, he'd like to come back as a Pixar director.

[00:05:28] Pete Docter:

[00:05:29] Ed Catmull:
And he really bonded with the directors because he understood the concept that you commit to something. You really commit and when it doesn't work, you, you let it go.

[00:05:39] Pete Docter:

[00:05:40] Ed Catmull:
With Steve's force of personality, they think when he is committing, it's like he's really like—

[00:05:46] Pete Docter:
It is an overwhelming, “It's the law now.” Yeah. We better nail that to the door of the church. You know?

[00:05:51] Adam Grant:
This is what’s always bothered me about the idea of having strong opinions weakly held is when you express an opinion strongly, people don't know that you're holding it weakly. They think it's a deep conviction. They think it's a gospel.

[00:06:03] Pete Docter:
Yeah. Well, and you're right Adam. Unless somebody lays down the ground rules, how are you supposed to know? What if I argue with the boss, and he thinks I'm cutting at the knees, and I get fired? I mean, that could happen too. Right?

[00:06:14] Adam Grant:
I, I think that what you're describing is, is something I've come to call a challenge network as opposed to a support network. The, the group of people that you would say are core to your brain trust, who hold up a mirror and help you see your blind spots more clearly, who bring you the critical feedback you did not want to hear, but you desperately needed to hear. And I think this is so central to the creative culture that you built at Pixar. How did the two of you shape that? Um, how do you set those ground rules so that people are not afraid to disagree?

[00:06:43] Ed Catmull:
As the brain trust was being developed and, and originally it was five people or maybe six, I think, the very first time. But then it evolved because the thing that it was built for was as the feedback mechanism for the director, and it didn't quite do that because they were also lost in the vision of the director, so they weren't objective about it. But we found that it was an incredibly valuable feedback tool, so it evolved into a way of running certain meetings. Not all meetings, just these meetings to help solve problems.

[00:07:20] Pete Docter:
I know on Up when I was working on that, it, it, it was a particular tone and reality that we were setting in the film. With a old man who flies his house. So what we did instead was to go back and say, “Well, let's have Carl as a balloon salesman. His cart starts to float up into the air.” If you remember, that's very subtle in this montage at the beginning, but what that did, little things like that, I think we had one or two more that just set up, “Okay, these are the sort of rules we're playing with in this world.” So instead of being quite as literal as Brad was talking about, we were able to take the spirit of what he's going after and solve it in our own way.

[00:07:56] Adam Grant:
Part of what's interesting about that example is I think oftentimes when, when people bring in dissenting voices or they invite a challenge, they think then that if they don't listen to the feedback, they're being defensive.

And what I always wanna remind people of is, listen, the reason it's helpful to have that kind of sounding board is they have psychological distance. They can see problems that you can't. But because of that distance, they often don't know what the right solutions are to those problems. And so, the brain trust is often more helpful at diagnosing a problem than at fixing it.

[00:08:27] Pete Docter:
That was certainly true of Disney early on. We always felt like we have the benefit of making a movie with Disney. So we'd fly down, we'd get great notes, and often they would offer up suggestions, and we'd be like, “Oh boy, that stinks.” You know? But we would fly back and we could be like, “All right, how do we want to solve this?”

And I think that's what they wanted anyway. They're just trying to help by offering up some solutions, and that's certainly what we're trying to replicate here. I'll usually, even if I'm directing, I'll offer up, “Here’s what I would do. That's just my dumb idea.” The spirit of it is “I'm trying to get to this.” You know? The more you are, you can articulate the underlying emotional reason for something, I think the more helpful those things are if people understand that.

[00:09:07] Adam Grant:
This goes to one of your most counterintuitive philosophies, which is, Ed, you like, or at least you tolerate complaining.

[00:09:15] Ed Catmull:
There are always people complaining whether you like it or not, like it or not. And first, there's a recognition that they do see things that I don't see. Alright? I just don't know everything, and I can't know everything. And they have a view of things that I don't have. Now I also can see things they don't see because I'm dealing with a different group of people. So what it means is they might be right. I might be right, or there's some, a combination, or you have to make a choice because you can't have it every which way.

But the, the critical thing is if somebody pokes their head in the door, and they've got something that is wrong, I do need to listen, and I need to hear them out. So while I will learn things, and sometimes it does change what I see, I, I actually think one of the most important things is it is just accepting that they're seeing things, and they need to be heard. And basically at every level, it's like people are participating. I mean, we're doing this together. And if people see things different ways, what you want is to know that the other person values what you've got, even if we can't do it that way.

[00:10:27] Pete Docter:

[00:10:28] Ed Catmull:
And likewise with the films, what makes the outside force valuable like we had at Disney, was that we knew they wanted us to succeed. So as long as we know they want us to succeed and that's their motive, not something else, but that's their motive, then that gives their observations a great deal of power for us.

[00:10:51] Adam Grant:
Sometimes I think that it's still hard for people to bring complaints to the table. You created what I think is a really clever solution to this problem called “Pure Pirates”, which is a great label, by the way.

[00:11:03] Ed Catmull:
The interesting thing about this particular thing is that we took the suggestion as they gave it, and so somebody was picked from every department. And they made their issues for their department known. And when we did that, we then said, to the peer from each department, “Okay. You pick somebody in your department to represent your whole department to, like, five or six people, small groups.” Then they would come in, and then they would focus on the needs for their department and go through all their issues.

We got a view that we didn't get before, and that's what we were looking for. What are people seeing and believing that we're not seeing? Because if we walk in the room, it changes that dy-dynamics. We, we don't wanna change the dynamics. We want to hear it, but how do we make it safe for them to do it?

[00:11:53] Pete Docter:
Well, something I've always been curious about you, Ed, is how, like most people, at least I'll speak for myself, when people load on you and tell you what's going wrong, you, you take it very personally. And so you don't really want that. And yet somehow you are able to live with this idea of complaining and, uh, dissension as somehow a positive thing. Is there some psychological trick you play on yourself, or is that just the way you're wired? That, that that's,

[00:12:21] Ed Catmull:
I know if somebody pokes my head in my room to tell me a complaint.

[00:12:25] Pete Docter:

[00:12:26] Ed Catmull:
Then my feeling is—I, I, I have two feelings. One is, “Uh oh, this is probably. Here we are—”

[00:12:33] Pete Docter:
Here we go.

[00:12:34] Ed Catmull:
But it's true, right?

[00:12:35] Pete Docter:

[00:12:35] Ed Catmull:
It’s a real feeling.

[00:12:35] Pete Docter:

[00:12:36] Ed Catmull:
But the other one was I feel actually happy that they're willing to come and talk to me. And I remember one time, three people came, called me or came into my office and said that I made a mistake. I screwed it. And my feeling at the time was that, that I was so happy and lucky that they're willing to tell me.

[00:12:59] Pete Docter:

[00:12:59] Ed Catmull:
That I said something which wasn't helpful and it got me to rethink also the thing I, I had thought.

[00:13:06] Pete Docter:
There was another time—that I think this may have been Cars 2 which came out, didn't do so well. At any rate, whether it was that or something, all of us felt like we have a major problem, and for a lot of us, it was very dark, gloomy, like a sense of oppression.

And for Ed, he was almost buoyant like, “Oh boy, a problem to solve.” And I always thought, okay, it must be that, that you sort of lead with a sense of curiosity for those kind of things. You've had a career as a creative scientist observing and affecting this whole experimental project, but looking at it very analytically, getting in and stepping back and going, “How do we affect change in this?”

[00:13:46] Ed Catmull:
The outside world likes the simplified story. The reality is, as you know very well, it's really like this mesh of people in this network that solve these problems, and it's hard to convey to that outside world the depth of appreciation or the contribution of all the friends around.

[00:14:05] Pete Docter:

[00:14:05] Ed Catmull:
Who are all aligned in trying to solve a difficult problem.

[00:14:10] Adam Grant:
Well, you know, it's, it's interesting to me, Pete, that you frame this as a question about a psychological trick. Because first of all, as a psychologist, I'm not a fan of tricks in any way, shape, or form. I just can't get on board with that.

[00:14:22] Pete Docter:
Call it a skill.

[00:14:23] Adam Grant:
Yeah, it's a skill. Thank you. But I think the skill stems from character. And Ed, if I can embarrass you for a second, a number of people who have worked with you closely and know you very well have said, “Listen, the reason this is easier for Ed than the rest of us is because, Adam, Ed exemplifies everything you've spent your career studying.”

He is a giver, not a taker. He's always trying to figure out: how can I make other people better? Um, he is a humble, curious thinker who doesn't worry about being wrong but wants to get it right. Um, he's an original. He has no attachment whatsoever to the status quo and is basically highly motivated to find a better way whenever there is one.

Yeah, you are all those things, Ed Catmull. And that makes it really easy. It doesn't require a trick because the skill is built into your values in some ways.

[00:15:11] Pete Docter:
I guess I would say it's a trick because I do feel like all of us operate from a sense of fear and insecurity at some level. Or maybe I'm just exposing my own inner demons here, but I think everybody, even people who are appear suited for confidence sometimes are doing that to compensate for deep insecurity, and I'm always curious like, where is that on Ed? As a storyteller, you're always trying to find, like, the vulnerability and the character. 'cause that's what makes them relatable, and so I'm always curious about that.

[00:15:39] Adam Grant:
I wanted to zoom in on the response you gave on that note, which is you feel the threat or the ego blow. Uh, you're human, but you also are grateful that they told you. It seems like that is where the skill comes in, to say, “There are dueling emotions there. I want to focus more on the gratitude than on the threat.”

[00:15:57] Ed Catmull:
I’ve never kept it secret, but most people aren't aware of, even here at Pixar, but I was president of Pixar three times, which meant that I was unmade the president of Pixar twice.

[00:16:10] Adam Grant:
Was that Steve Jobs both times?

[00:16:13] Ed Catmull:

[00:16:13] Adam Grant:
Yeah. Predictable.

[00:16:14] Ed Catmull:
We start and I'm the president of the company, and the truth was nobody knew what they were doing. From marketing to sales to manufacturing.

[00:16:22] Pete Docter:
Is that making the image Computers?

[00:16:23 Ed Catmull:
Yeah, we're making the image computer and, and Steve had never had experience with a high-end product before, so he said, “You don't really know enough to be the president. So I need you to have to take a different role like this CTO, and I wanna bring in somebody else's president.”

So he brought in this, he's a very nice guy. And we got along very well. But it was actually a painful thing to go through because I knew he was right and because he was right, say, “Okay, I can live with that. I wanna let go of the, of the long-term vision.” And then we weren't really making it in the hardware business, so we went back to me being the president and then we started to make the commercials and the software. And then got into the contract to make the film for Disney with in 1991 for Toy Story.

And then as we got near the end of it, Steve wanted to take us public and he said, “Well, as we go public, you don't really have the experience to be the CEO of a, of the president of a public company.” So, uh, again, that was not fun.

[00:17:27] Pete Docter:
Oh yeah. You weren’t… By that time you were like, “All right, well, we'll see how long this lasts.”

[00:17:30] Ed Catmull:
Maybe a year and a half or something like that. Steve came to me and says, “Okay, now you're ready to be president again.” So then I was a president. Only this time when he announced it to the company, they all kind of scratched their heads and said, “I thought he already was a president.”

[00:17:46] Adam Grant:
Yeah, exactly.

[00:17:48] Pete Docter:
I remember that.

[00:17:49] Adam Grant:
No. Ed. Did that make you feel like an imposter?

[00:17:51] Ed Catmull:
It wasn't that I ever felt like an imposter, but I did have a recognition that I wasn't like the people who were the presidents of other companies, where I knew the people pretty well, and I wasn't anything like them. So I knew that I didn't have the skillset or the public persona that they did, and I wasn't likely to get it.

But having gone through that, I could then recognize that one of the things that happens to a lot of people when you actually get the role, that the actual job you have isn't what you thought it was. And, and Pete went through this too. It’s like—

[00:18:27] Adam Grant:
You're imposing imposter syndrome on Pete. Just Pete, I feel like we should get your consent for that.

[00:18:32] Pete Docter:
No need for imposition. I wear it every day.

[00:18:34] Ed Catmull:
When you have the job, then there's one or two things you've got. One is to feel like, “Oh, I failed because I'm not doing what I thought it should be.” Or the other recognition is to say, “Oh, it isn't what I thought it was. What do I need to do?” And frankly, not every director actually was able to do that, or every leader was able to do it. But for a lot of 'em, it's like, “I'm gonna do what's needed to get the job done. I don't need to be like somebody else.”

[00:19:05] Pete Docter:
There's the story cliche, which is, “Be yourself. Just be true, authentic to who you are.” It's actually, it's not quite that simple. For me as a director on Monsters, the first thing I did, I was taken outta my comfort zone every day. I was not used to addressing people and saying, “All right, here's what we're gonna do,” you know? But that's the sort of clarity that is required to the job. So, you have to step out from where you were, but then do it in some way that's authentic to you. I remember people trying to be helpful saying, “You know, in these situations…” And what I would hear from them is, “You are a failure.”

You know? So I think what you have to in the long run figure out like, okay, again, what's the spirit of the note? What are they trying to get to? And, and how can I do that in a way that feels comfortable and authentic to who, who I am?

[00:19:51] Adam Grant:
I want to come back to Steve Jobs. Uh, because I think Ed, you worked for him longer than anyone else that I can count.

[00:19:58] Ed Catmull:

[00:19:59] Adam Grant:
Pete, you had a chance to work with him from the very early days, for better or worse. I've heard a lot of stories about how he evolved into… I don't want to say kinder, maybe less.

[00:20:11] Ed Catmull:
I would say that.

[00:20:12] Adam Grant:
Less, a less cruel version of himself. Is that less charitable?

[00:20:15] Ed Catmull:
No, no. I think the stronger story is, is that Steve, whom we knew at the beginning, we saw the behavior that, that resulted in being booted out of Apple in a very public and humiliating way for him, but he still had that behavior. The first version of Pixar, we failed as a hardware company. And then, and next failed as a company. Now, in both cases, he had something of great value that is, there was this team that had been built at Pixar.

That's when Pete came in and Andrew came in, and there was a bonding that took place and, and Steve recognized that was of great importance and next, they had this operating system. We called, you know, Next Step. It's based upon Berkeley Unix, and that was a great value when it resulted into the return to Apple.

So around the early nineties when we were working on Toy Story then, and he also got married to a wonderful woman and you know, had kids. He went through a fairly dramatic change, and he became kinder and more empathetic. Now, he was always passionate. And always had that persona. That didn't change, but he did have the empathy and kindness.

And I didn't even see it before. I didn't know you could change that way, but he did. But once he did that in the early nineties, the people who saw that stayed with him for the rest of his life. So the public story about him, the stuff that's written didn't even have access to that story because nobody was talking about it.

So the story gets skewed. And the reason I think it's an important story is that it's more like the classic hero's journey. And the person who came back to Apple to, to turn it around was not that thing that’s known publicly. It was that changed person. And the important thing to realize it was the changed person who had those abilities to make this amazing impact in the world. So that's what we were seeing.

[00:22:24] Adam Grant:
It's interesting to hear you narrate the temporal arc because I've heard that even though, you know, the, the, it was a more generous, more caring Steve Jobs that came back to Apple, Pixar got a better version of him than Apple did at the same point in time, that late nineties Steve was more likable and more helpful at Pixar than he was at Apple. So, I wanna know what the secret sauce is. How did you guys bring out the best in him?

[00:22:48] Pete Docter:
Yeah. I thought we got a better Steve Jobs even earlier than that in the nineties. Is that true or not?

[00:22:54] Ed Catmull:
Part of this phenomenon was that Steve actually recognized that, that the directors on a film were doing the kind of thing which he got and he liked. He loved it when people really committed to something, and then when it didn't work, they changed what they were doing. And that we'd set up a system to get the feedback. He loved that. The only time Steve would see the meetings—because Steve never came to a brain trust meeting—because he knew we had a delicate kind of, of dynamic in the meeting, and he recognized in himself that it wasn't possible for him to be in that room without screwing up the dynamics in the room. So that was a self-awareness.

So when did he see the films to give his feedback? It was at the board meetings. So, the night before a board meeting, Steve would call me up and he would say, “How's it going?”

[00:23:54] Pete Docter:
Leading question.

[00:23:55] Ed Catmull:
A leading question. But I would only say one of two things. I would say, “It’s actually going well,” and he'd say, “Oh, great.” End of conversation. Or I would say, “We have a problem.” End of conversation. I never, ever did I tell Steve how to think. It was part of our relationship. I could be very stubborn, but I never argued with him. So, if we disagreed, then that disagreement may last over weeks, but it was never resolved by arguing.

But I never believed that if somebody has a powerful personality or has a lot of power, that that makes them right. But the weird thing I saw, because I was in every one of these meetings is there was nothing that Steve ever said that had not been said by the other directors or people in the brain trust, but they also learned how to ignore each other.

It's one of the phenomenons in a group. Like you get to know each other really well, and you also know, like, what they're gonna say. So you sort of write it off and then you don't hear it. You couldn't ignore Steve though, so…

[00:25:06] Pete Docter:
No, no yeah, he was super articulate and clear and strong in the way he would state things. I remember once seeing him in a bathroom somewhere and talking about some completely small topic, and he said, “Well, there are three things involved here.” It was as though he had rehearsed it or thought about it. He just always had just a, a real gift with expressing himself in a very clear way. Unlike I'm doing right now.

He would say, “I'm not a filmmaker.” Which I've seen so many people in positions of power, they think it's their job to have the final say, and so to actually have that position and pass it on to other people, I think was super empowering for us. It made us more receptive to his notes and it also gave us a little bit more pressure because we realized, “Oh, there's nobody I can point to. You know, this is on me.”

[00:25:58] Adam Grant:
My colleague Brad Owens has, from his research, labeled Steve Jobs in those kinds of moments as a humble narcissist. It’s such a paradox, and I don't love the use of the term narcissism here, but what's intriguing about it is that I don't think, from my outside perspective, Steve Jobs became any less grandiose in his vision or his estimation of his capabilities, but he did add in a sprinkle of humility.

He knew what he didn't know in ways that were clearly not present earlier in his career. I, I think it's really interesting to recognize that even somebody with an abundance of confidence, uh, can develop the self-awareness to, to say, “You know what? I’m in one of my areas of ignorance right now, and I should probably acknowledge that so that the room doesn't put too much stock in what I say.”

[00:26:46] Ed Catmull:
Yeah. And, and I think one of the things people miss even about him at Apple was that he wanted people who disagreed with him. Because as you all know, when you know, you know the history there is that he originally thought they should do the iPad first, followed by the iPhone, and, but it was his people that convinced him he was wrong, and he went with them and said the iPhone comes first.

But he was adamant that he wanted to have that Apple provide the apps for it. His own people didn't agree, and he overrode them, but within a few months of the phone coming out, he recognized that they were right and he changed his mind. Now, the point of all this was he had people around who didn't agree with him.

He wasn't getting rid of people just 'cause they disagreed. He disagreed with them, or he thought they were wrong. He actually wanted them. And that, that's the thing I think that people were missing about how this dynamic works is you really want the value of the people. Even if you think they're wrong, you want them there to be pushing, because we're doing this as a group. We all have this ownership in whatever these solutions and these problems are.

[00:27:55] Pete Docter:
Often I'll be kind of fuzzy on whether I believe something until someone pushes me on it, and sometimes it's as valuable to have somebody that I disagree with because it'll bring out of me like, “No, that's wrong. I know exactly that is the wrong decision, but I wasn't really aware of that until you have that sort of confrontation.”

[00:28:15] Adam Grant:
So I think he understood that the ultimate purpose of dissent and debate is not to produce consensus, it's to promote critical thinking. And sometimes, that critical thinking crystallizes your own ideas.

[00:28:26] Ed Catmull:
Yes. And we've gotten in the chats, “Well, this person is the complete package.” Only realize, no, they're not. Actually, they're brilliant at some things, like two or three things. But because they're brilliant at those two or three things, that’s getting in their way of actually solving their real problems.

Sometimes people come up with these really amazing pearls, but a movie is not a string of pearls, right? So you can admire every one of these amazing pieces, but that's not the same thing as holding together and how it works.


[00:29:10] Adam Grant:
Lightning rounds. Tell me something you've both rethought about creative culture.

[00:29:16] Ed Catmull:
Inside Pixar, even though we don't shy away from the term, if something goes wrong, people don't use the terminology of failure. They refer to it as “This doesn't work. What do we do to fix it?” And it's one thing I just was, was like, “I didn't actually get it right the first time.” Instead of saying, “It needs to be safe to fail,” it's like, no. We have to think about it as, “What did we do that didn't work, and what do we do next?”

[00:29:40] Adam Grant:
I kind of love that you failed in your analysis of failure. You might have failed.

[00:29:44] Ed Catmull:
It's the truth.

[00:29:46] Pete Docter:
Mine's a super psychological one. People say, “Oh, I, my, I had an idea. My idea is this, and now I kind of feel like none of these I can take any credit for. It's not like I can work harder and have better ideas.” Like the, I guess the Greeks, I've read, had an idea that they wouldn't say, “You're a genius.” They'd say, “You have a genius.” And so the more you can kind of like open your head to the ideas coming through you, seem more accurate to me than earning it or doing it yourself.

[00:30:14] Adam Grant:
Excellent. Uh, worst career advice you've both gotten?

[00:30:17] Pete Docter:
Oh, wow.

[00:30:20] Ed Catmull:
Oh, I, I received a lot.

[00:30:21] Pete Docter:
Oh yeah?

[00:30:21] Ed Catmull:
This is when we started Pixar. Really, it’s like, “Focus, focus, focus.” What the hell does that mean?

[00:30:31] Pete Docter:

[00:30:31] Ed Catmull:
It’s not even the problem. What, I can focus. What am I supposed to focus on?

[00:30:39] Pete Docter:
And that's just one that pops to my head. I remembered in high school writing class, my teacher literally wrote across the top of the paper, “You seem to think you can get away with bad writing because you like to draw cartoons.” It wasn't even “You're good at drawing cartoons.” It was, “You like to”. I was close to, when I first got nominated for an Oscar for writing to say something for her, but I, I, I didn’t.

[00:31:01] Adam Grant:

[00:31:02] Pete Docter:

[00:31:03] Adam Grant:
What do you think is the most underrated Pixar movie?

[00:31:05] Ed Catmull:
I think that, uh, A Bug’s Life was underrated. That's, that seems to be the consensus. Yeah.

[00:31:07] Pete Docter:
Yeah. We still have Bug’s Life Appreciation Day here at Pixar, 'cause nobody talks about it, but the animators have a big shindig that day. The day it came out. Do you know that? It still goes on.

[00:31:21] Ed Catmull:
No, I did not know that.

[00:31:22] Pete Docter:

[00:31:22] Ed Catmull:
I did not know that.

[00:31:23] Pete Docter:

[00:31:24] Ed Catmull:
I’m glad. It’s appreciated here.

[00:31:25] Pete Docter:

[00:31:26] Adam Grant:
Amazing. Okay, and then a question you have for me as an organizational psychologist about the future of Pixar.

[00:31:35] Pete Docter:
Oh, if so, at the beginning of, like, Toy Story, we had all these people who provided different points of view, didn't try to be what the other person was doing, and yet somehow came together in a way that supported and lifted everything. If you don't have that organically, how do you get it?

[00:31:50] Adam Grant:
Well, I think most people try to solve that problem through team composition, right? The thought is, “All right, we're gonna go out and find the perfect talent and we're gonna build a dream team.” We need the Avengers, or we need the Justice League. My read of the evidence is this is actually not a selection problem. It's a culture problem.

Empirically, who you have in the team is less important than how the team is run. This has been shown in field studies and experiments. Google also found it when studying their high-performing teams against the rest. The lesson, fundamentally, is you need to create a dynamic whereby a group becomes more than the sum of its parts. You all know this. You've lived it, and that means you have to understand what each part is able to contribute, that elevates the group. Um, and I don't think we spend enough time on that. I think we get a group of people together. We assign them to roles, and we assume that the role that they got was the one that was going to leverage their creative talent. And very often it's not.

Um, so I wanna do a much deeper dive into what does this person bring to the table? How do we create an environment where we can see the skills they have that aren't in their job description?

[00:32:55] Pete Docter:
Good answer.

[00:32:56] Ed Catmull:
The difficulty is I've tried to explain certain things to people, and I've basically felt like a lot of things I was not able to get the, the message through and/or they won't understand what I said. And I don't know.

Pixar is a, an accessible story to talk about some principles, but then they actually, they're thinking of it's, it's more about “Oh, we’re making films.” Not understanding that it's, it's how one thinks about a culture. I've often felt like it doesn't, I wasn't able to actually make the connection, and it's just been difficult to even think how to do that.

[00:33:37] Adam Grant:
I have a thought on that, which is I think the most underrated skill in culture building and shaping is storytelling. Which happens to be a skill that you excel at much more than I do, but I, I don't think we spend enough time telling our culture stories. I know, Ed, you were involved in a project not too long ago where you collected some of the stories of the archetypal moments that have shaped Pixar culture.

And my question is, what are you doing with those stories? Because we know that values are communicated through the stories people tell. They're also created through the stories people tell. And I wonder how much of Pixar's storytelling muscle has been applied to the internal work of, you know, sustaining and strengthening a culture?

[00:34:15] Ed Catmull:
Well, it's tricky because a lot of the stories here, it's like personal information.

[00:34:22] Pete Docter:

[00:34:22] Ed Catmull:
I think it's true with, with a lot of companies, even though they're successful and people talk about it and, but they tend to be more about what they did that were right and stay away from those sort of painful things. It's partly because they don't wanna embarrass people or because it's like using them as fodder to tell stories. And then that would actually not be good either.

[00:34:45] Adam Grant:
I think it's interesting that stories so often are focused on successes and not failures. That's a problem, obviously, but also I want stories to focus on principles, right? Here's a story when somebody upheld a value; here's a story when somebody violated a value. Um, without naming names, but this is what that looks like. And I think this is timely because I don't need to tell you, you’ve seen the headlines that people are claiming that Pixar has lost its creative mojo, and it's really easy to get defensive and, and blame the decline of theaters, the competition and animation, the ruthless critics, the lack of audience appreciation for originality. Nobody makes all their shots. If you were to put all that aside, um, how do you think about internally changing that dynamic and rejuvenating the creativity that's made Pixar great?

[00:35:29] Pete Docter:
When people talk about what's it like at Pixar or whatever, I say, “Well, which Pixar?” There's been at least five that I've been a part of and we're going through a radical change here right now. We're seeing a lot of new voices, which is great. It's also means that finding the new working method of how everyone interfaces and connects with each other is going through changes as well. It's very tricky and it's a moving target, you know? It's not like you can do this once and be done. It changes.

And I think that's the other thing just about human nature is that we're constantly outwitting each other. Once we think we have understood each other. there’s another whole level. You know, another basement below the basement. So you're constantly learning and discovering more about how people work and how to work better with people.

[00:36:18] Ed Catmull:
I mean, there really hasn't been a time when we've had various problems. Some are more internal, and some are are external, and then you come together and say, “Okay, we have to fix this problem.” That's what we do. That's never changed. It was one of the things I was just trying to say in the book is like, this never goes away. You don't actually reach the stable point because there is no stable point. A successful group is fundamentally unstable. If you recognize the instability, that means, okay, we are continually adapting and changing, and when something doesn't go the way you thought it was gonna go, okay. What do we do? But that's what we apply to life, to everything we're doing. Then let's take on the next problem because they're coming. What do we do when they come?

[00:37:06] Adam Grant:
Beautifully put. It reminds me of the metaphor of truing a bicycle wheel where you spin it and you find the spoke that sticks out and then you move it into alignment and then you spin it again and there's another spoke sticking out and the process is never done.

[00:37:22] Pete Docter:
Very true.

[00:37:23] Adam Grant:
Well, thank you both. This has been a joy. I've learned a lot. Appreciate you taking the time.

[00:37:27] Pete Docter:
Cool. Thank you. That was fun. Thanks, Ed.

[00:37:29] Ed Catmull:
All right. Thank you, Adam. Appreciate it.

[00:37:34] Adam Grant:
Such a rich conversation. So many takeaways. One thing that strikes me right off the bat is this idea that successful groups are unstable. So many people have an image of a great team as always in harmony, and that's just not realistic. The idea that instability can lead to flexibility, adaptation, creativity, and learning, I think makes it a lot easier to accept the fact that we may have some tension, we may have some conflict.

Instability can be threatening. We don't have to make the threat go away. We just have to overshadow it with gratitude. There's so many reasons to be grateful when someone points out a problem. It means they trust you. They trust you to care, they trust you to be capable of solving the problem, and they want your help. And that's a huge compliment. We should not forget that.

For more on Pixar culture, check out our WorkLife episode, Creative Power of Misfits.

ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers.

This episode was produced in mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact checker today was Kate Williams. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.

Your flip book got us through COVID.

[00:39:08] Pete Docter:
Ah. Cool. Yes. Flipbooks. I love flip books. It's the same thing we do only it's like 15 cents worth of paper instead of millions of dollars worth of computer equipment. But it's the same idea, right?