Pixar – A Philosophy of Learning

Altan Ramadan Toffa Leave a Comment

Pixar’s phenomenal success owes a lot to it’s philosophy to failure and learning

Everyone knows Pixar.

Creators of classic movies franchises Toy Story, Cars and hits Ratatouille and Inside Out amongst others, Pixar has come a long way since Steve Jobs invested US$10 million to own the business in 1996.  In 2006 the company was sold to the Walt Disney Company for US$7.4 billion.

Crucial to success is how Pixar has been able to continually stimulate creativity during a transformation of digital technology.

The story of digital movie making and how it encourages experimentation and risk taking is something football can learn from.  While Pixar and Top Flight Football Academy operate in completely different spheres (and have somewhat different scale!), the philosophy of learning from failure to generate a world-class outcome is the same.

Ed Catmull
Ed Catmull is the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios.  He has seen it all in his career, right from the days of being a computer science student in the mid-60’s.

The approach he takes to making great movies is iterative.  The design process starts with a general view of what a good movie will be but it changes as progress is made.  The first attempt is not the winning attempt – the movie is improved, especially as the creators learn things they did not know at the start of the process.

It is not a cheap exercise, but built into the budget is an implicit understanding that for the movie to be great, risks have to be taken.

Particularly for new movies, there is massive commercial risk.  Frozen 2 might seem like a no-brainer give the success of Frozen.  Not such an easy choice to make when deciding to make a movie about a rat that wants to be a chef.

So how does Pixar/Disney work out what future movies could be successes?

Catmull believes experiments are the answer.

“My own belief is that you should be running experiments, many of which will not lead anywhere.  If we knew how this was going to end up, we’d just go ahead and do it.  This is the tricky issue – people don’t want to fail.”

But experimenting through short movies and the integration of new technologies allows the studio to assess what could be the next blockbuster hit.  These experiments are conducted without the expectation of public release – there is no burden of expectation.

It is no different to football.  Attempting a pass, playing out of position or in a new formation are all opportunities to learn.   Players need to be given the confidence to try something.  Once they have that confidence they become better at taking risks at the right time to win a match.

For players to perform like this we need to reduce the burden of recrimination if things go wrong.  This is sometimes not easy to implement – players and fans want to win, supporters want to win and don’t like seeing mistakes.  But, for a Top Flight footballer to develop it is vital we create this supportive environment.

Fear of Failure
Catmull recognises that failure scares people – at the very top level of a range of professions.

“When you look back and see failure, you say “it made me what I am!”  But looking forward, you think, “I don’t know what is going to happen and I don’t want to fail.”

[In] the real world – in business, in politics – failure is used as a bludgeon to attack opponents.  So there is a palpable aura of danger around failure.  It’s not made up; it’s real.”

A learning event doesn’t become educational until after it has happened.  While most people can look back when something goes wrong and recognise that it was a useful experience, this perspective is only provided by hindsight.  At the time when a mistake is made learning can be an uncomfortable experience to say the least.

What We Can Do
Fear of failure is reduced by a supportive culture.  People, regardless of age, won’t take risks if they are being punished for them.

Being aware of the long term outcome – developing top footballers – recognising the values of support and creativity are fundamental to creating this culture.

Players, parents, supporters and coaches all have a role to play in making sure this culture is created at Top Flight Football Academy if we want the best for our young athletes.


McKinsey Quarterly, March 2016

“Staying one step ahead at Pixar: An interview with Ed Catmull”


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