Q&A with Ed Catmull
Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, sat down with us before speaking at YC’s weekly dinner.
What do you believe that few people agree with you on?
I would say that people agree with me on most things but that doesn’t mean they do them. For instance, most people would agree that you need to create environments where it’s safe for people to say what they think. But a lot of managers don’t realize that they’re not actually making safe environments. In other words, it’s an agreement in idea but not in practice. There’s a perception that they’re doing it when they’re not.
Another one is that most people would agree that we need to think deeply about why we do what we do. But then they create mission statements, which are the endpoint of a discussion, rather than a beginning. Anything that stops people from thinking is not good. It is better to have a mission statement that is ambiguous so that every time you return to it you have to question yourself and ask “what does it even mean?”
We don’t have a mission statement at Pixar. If you were to ask a variety of people what the mission statement is there would be general agreement around making movies that affect people around the world. That said, we would all say it in a slightly different way. When we ask ourselves “what are our values?”, we want hard discussions. Values are easy to state but hard to live.
What might the world look like in ten years?
There are two big issues for me. We’re moving to a point where the general public recognizes that global warming is a serious threat. My hope is that the seriousness of this inspires a great number of people and businesses to rise to the challenge. The stakes in this threat are unlike the challenges of other technological transformations, which are typically thought of as opportunities for many, or as threats by others. In this case the problem is existential, but unlike nuclear weapons, the threat is more abstract. This one doesn’t have the sudden death element but the effects are likely calamitous. The question becomes can we halt or reverse it, or adapt. It sounds odd to say this, but we have no choice but to treat it as an opportunity, since it is coming.
The second issue regards the implications of AI. It is difficult to conceive of the impact, as contrasted to innovations in medicine, for instance. For example, what does it mean to alter gene sequences? You can conceptually see it, both good and bad. But with AI, we just don’t know. The potential ramifications can change so much about our lives; we could have consequences we can’t conceive of now. On the other hand, part of the excitement is that life itself already inherently has an existential threat. So, how do we operate within that and use the excitement? Life has to change, life is change. We can’t hide in a hole. We have to say, “Alright, let’s go after it much as we can.” It pisses me off that I’m not younger because a lot of this stuff is really exciting.
What book has influenced you most?
Hard to say. I go through phases. I’ve certainly had a science fiction phase. There was a history phase. Still love history. A lot of what I consume now is audio – audiobooks and podcasts – because I can listen in the car and when I’m exercising. That’s my time to do it. Here are a couple podcasts I like.
Hardcore History by Dan Carlin
The first series I heard was Wrath of the Khans, which I really enjoyed. And then the World War I series [Blueprint for Armageddon] was also amazing. My only complaint is that he doesn’t produce his podcasts fast enough. I thought that taking time for quality was just Pixar’s problem.
Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell
I just started this one but I’m really enjoying it so far.
Is there any lesson you’ve had to learn multiple times?
Whatever we’re working on is fundamentally a human endeavour. We might like to think of things in terms of products or jobs but at every level we’re dealing with people and their emotions and lives––and we frequently don’t know the details. We make assumptions but we don’t check. So, the thing that is hard to do, that I try to do, is to come back and think that everyone is trying to do the right thing, which I believe is the right place to start. If someone’s doing something that doesn’t make sense, there’s a reason for it and we need to understand their reasons. We make our best progress when our efforts are to be empathetic and understanding of what’s going on in other’s lives.
If you weren’t working on Pixar what would you be working on?
There are five or six things that I find fundamentally interesting. One is physics. I started my career there and there’s still something that draws me to wanting to understand the principles that underlie physical reality. I think economics is also really interesting––understanding the economic forces that affect the world. From a technical point of view I find the micro world really fascinating. I would like to be involved in that. Then human behaviour as a study is fascinating. There is a great deal to be done with that. The notion that a significant number of people in this country are drawn to a sociopath is fascinating. How do people get there when other people look and say, “Oh, clearly that’s a sociopath.” There are sociopaths in the world but they don’t usually end up getting this far. Yet there are a large number of people that are utterly missing the clues. How does that happen? So, if you were to actually get inside their heads, what does it mean? What are the fears inside of them that get us to this place?