The Quarterly: It sounds as though you think a lot about fear and how to counteract its corrosive effects.
Ed Catmull: Fear is built into our nature; we want to succeed and we respond physiologically to threats—both to real threats and to imagined threats. If people come into an organization like ours and they’re welcomed in, what’s the threat? Well, from their point of view, they’re thinking, “this is a high-functioning environment. Am I going to fit in? Am I going to look bad? Will I screw up?” It’s natural to think this way, but it makes people cautious.
When you go to work for a company, they tell you something about the values of the company and how open they are. But it’s just words. You take your actual cues from what you see. That’s just the way we’re wired. Most people don’t talk explicitly about it, because they don’t want to appear obtuse or out of place. So they’ll sometimes misinterpret what they see. For example, when we were building Pixar, the people at the time played a lot of practical jokes on each other, and they loved that. They think it’s awesome when there are practical jokes and people do things that are wild and crazy.
Now, it’s 20 years later. They’ve got kids; they go home after work. But they still love the practical jokes. When new people come in, they may hear stories about the old days, but they don’t see as much clowning around. So if they were to do it, they might feel out of line. Without anyone saying anything, just based on what they see, they would be less likely to do those things.
Meanwhile, the older people are saying, “what’s wrong with these new people? They’re not like we were. They’re not doing any of this fun stuff.” Without intending to, the culture slowly shifts. How do you keep the shift from happening? I can’t go out and say, “OK, we’re going to organize some wild and crazy activities.” Top-down organizing of spontaneous activities isn’t a good idea. Don’t get me wrong—we still have a lot of pretty crazy things going on, but we are trying to be aware of the unspoken fears that make people overly cautious. If you’re just measuring yourself by your outward success, then you’re missing a huge part of what drives people.