How to Be Successful When Success Is the Problem

How to Be Successful When Success Is the Problem

It’s a problem few people know … a crushing, suffocating blow — flooded in irony. And yet, it’s one that Ed Catmull, not to mention an entrepreneur like you, feels the weight of day in and day out.

As the president and creative force behind both Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, Ed’s twenty-year run has amassed eight Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature Film and $11.7 billion in worldwide ticket sales.

Since the release of 2014’s Creativity, Inc., he’s established himself as one the world’s top innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders.

Of course, you already know that.

What you might not know is that Ed Catmull is also a human.

Sound like a strange thing to say? It’s not. You see, something odd happens when a person discovers how to be successful. And, success is actually the problem.

Writing about his arrival to Silicon Valley in 1979, Ed put it like this:

“Gradually a pattern began to emerge: Someone had a creative idea, obtained funding, brought on a lot of smart people, and developed and sold a product that got a boatload of attention.

“That initial success begat more success … I especially remember the confidence. The leaders of these companies radiated supreme confidence.”

It’s a classic tale: founder meets idea, idea finds funding, and founder rules the world. Except that Ed noticed a twist …

Then those companies did something stupid — not just stupid-in-retrospect, but obvious-at-the-time stupid.

The rest of Creativity Inc. is devoted to answering the question:

After unearthing the secrets of how to be successful, why would these brilliant Titans sign their own professional death warrants?

At the risk of spoiling it, the answer is simple: those leaders stopped being human. They bought into the hype, accolades, and expectations their own success created. The results were disastrous.

In other words, present success is often our greatest hindrance to future success.

That is one of the deepest ironies of life. And the only way to combat it is to learn how to save yourself from your own success by following five principles:

1. Answer the Question, “Now What?”

How to Be Successful Step 1 — Answer the Question, Now What?

Whether your business just made the leap to enterprise status, crushed it with a new product line, or received a major round of funding, that win flooding your brain with endorphins might just be the biggest obstacle to winning again.

Success is intoxicating. And rightly so. To pursue a worthy goal and reach it — whether personally or professionally — is the stuff of life.

In the wake of Pixar’s first massive success, that’s exactly the position in which Ed found himself:

“I wish I could bottle how it felt to come into work during those first heady days after Toy Story came out. People seemed to walk a little taller, they were so proud of what we’d done. We’d been the first to make a movie with computers, and—even better—audiences were touched, and touched deeply, by the story we told.

“We had succeeded by holding true to our ideals; nothing could be better than that.”

But, of course, behind success, lurks a downside:

“For twenty years, my life had been defined by the goal of making the first computer graphics movie. Now that that goal had been reached, I had what I can only describe as a hollow, lost feeling.

“I felt a troubling lack of purpose. Now what?”

It’s a haunting question. One that demands an answer — not only for determining how to be successful for yourself moving forward but also for your entire organization.

Discovering what’s next may mean looking into the future of ecommerce. It may mean unearthing insight and imagination from the forefront of your industry. It may mean taking a step back from the rush of business to relax and unwind.

Or, like Ed, it may even mean something altogether counterintuitive …

“Pixar was now public and successful, yet there was something unsatisfying about the prospect of merely keeping it running. It took a serious and unexpected problem to give me a new sense of mission.”

2. Give Yourself the Permission to Suck

How to Be Successful Step 2 — Give Yourself the Permission to Suck

As off-putting as it might be, human beings have a tendency to suck.

Maybe that’s too harsh. At the very least, we create sucky things. In fact, the more creative, driven, and productive we are, the more sucky stuff we bring to life.

This principle is so widely embraced in the early stages of business development, that the startup community has enshrined it: “Fail early. Fail fast. Fail often.”

However, sucking isn’t just crucial at the start of a venture; it’s even more crucial after we’ve “arrived.”

In what is perhaps the most famous line from Creativity, Inc., Ed describes the necessity of sucking perfectly:

Early on, all of our movies suck.

“That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing.

“Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so — to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’”

Coming off of your own mega-success, this insight is especially important.

The expectation of living up to past performances isn’t just daunting. It can be crushing. Perfectionism creeps in. Our egos take over. We start to believe our own press. And suddenly, everything we do gets burdened with the demand to be right.

You’ve heard the old adage: “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”

Nonsense. The real refrain of people who save themselves from their success is: “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.”

Why? Because only when we give ourselves the permission to suck — to do things poorly — are we enabled to overcome perfectionism.

At later stages of ideation, perfectionism can be an asset. But when it comes to jumping into what’s next, it kills.

3. Anticipate and Allow Failure

How to Be Successful Step 3 — Anticipate and Allow Failure

While we may allow ourselves to suck at the start of a follow-up project, outright failure is another beast entirely. As Ed explains:

“One of the biggest barriers is fear, and while failure comes with the territory, fear shouldn’t have to. The goal, then, is to uncouple fear and failure — to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employees’ hearts.”

How can paralyzing fear be turned into a constructive learning experience? It begins with you, the leader:

“If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others … Being open about problems is the first step toward learning from them. My goal is not to drive fear out completely because fear is inevitable … what I want to do is loosen its grip on us.”

Embracing failure is essential because when we’re afraid of failure, we avoid risk. We take the safe and well-worn path, the one we “know” will produce positive results. And if we do this as leaders, our organizations follow suit.

In opposition, Ed provides what he calls a “better, more subtle interpretation”:

“Failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy … dooms you to fail.”

All that looks great on the surface. But it takes courage to put this kind of ethos into action.

One of Ed’s most visceral illustrations occurred when not one but two of Pixar’s data systems failed. Due to the human error of a single employee, 90% of Toy Story 2 was erased. While the film was eventually restored thanks to an employee’s personal backup at home, the “real lesson” — as Ed calls it — was this:

We didn’t waste time playing the blame game.

Shockingly, the one thing Ed and Pixar’s team didn’t do was try to “find the person responsible.”

Twyla Tharp, the famed modern dance choreographer, captured the dangers of avoiding failure beautifully, “If you only do what you know and do it very, very well, the chances are that you won’t fail. You’ll just stagnate, and your work will get less and less interesting, and that’s failure by erosion.”

4. Admit You Might Be Wrong

How to Be Successful Step 4 — Admit You Might Be Wrong

Humility is a rare quality, particularly among the uber successful. Yet, humility is a distinct “competitive advantage”:

“According to a study from the University of Washington Foster School of Business, humble people tend to make the most effective leaders (that’s right, the most) and are more likely to be high performers in both individual and team settings.”

Jim Collins himself said, “The X-factor of great leadership is not personality, it is humility.”

This means something profound. The most difficult part of overcoming our own success comes down to one word: pride.

Pride is the first of the seven deadly sins for a reason. Pride poisons our relationships. It makes us arrogant, patronizing, and above all blind to our shortcomings and thinking errors.

Ed hammers this home:

“Successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn.”

Such is the bedrock not only of being successful but of testing, iterating, growth hacking, and learning. “The only thing I know,” Socrates famously remarked, “is that I know nothing.”

Or — if you prefer your aphorisms with a bit more soul — consider the words of Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” And that leads to the very last principle …

5. Surround Yourself with People More Successful

How to Be Successful Step 5 — Surround Yourself with People More Successful Than You

Unfortunately, pride and power manifest themselves is surprisingly subtle ways.

For instance, Ed uses the illustration of Pixar’s original meeting format and how they created an unintentional hierarchy:

“Those sitting in the middle of the rectangular table (name cards included) were the ‘important’ ones; the other participants were left feeling on the outside.

“That discouraged them from speaking up and joining the conversations, contradicting Pixar’s belief of ‘unhindered communication.’”

By chance, they discovered that sitting around a square table allowed more “free-flow and interplay.” All team members felt safe and included.

After this experience, Ed realized that something as simple as changing the layout of the room completely changed the dynamics of the meetings.

Owning up to your limitations also applies to the hiring process:

“I’ve made a policy of trying to hire people who are smarter than I am.

“The obvious payoffs of exceptional people are that they innovate, excel, and generally make your company — and, by extension, you — look good. I had taken a risk, and that risk yielded the highest reward — a brilliant, committed teammate.”

How To Be Successful When Success Is The Problem

The Pixar Brain Trust. Image via Wired

Surrounding himself with the Pixar Braintrust is one of the lasting legacies Ed’s leadership has produced. That kind of deep commitment was built on the underlying principle that — in the face of his own staggering success — Ed still needed people smarter, wiser, and more successful than himself.

Success Is the Problem

Past success is one of the greatest challenges to future success. The antidote is to reorient ourselves to the question:

How to be successful? Five principles point a way forward …

  1. Answer the Question, “Now What?”
  2. Give Yourself the Permission to Suck
  3. Anticipate and Allow Failure
  4. Admit You Might Be Wrong
  5. Surround Yourself with People More Successful

Success makes us inhuman. In Ed’s words:

How To Be Successful When Success Is The Problem

“What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.”

So yes, Ed Catmull is an innovator, entrepreneur, and leader. But, Ed Catmull is also a human.

And you should be too.

About the author

Aaron Orendorff

Previously the Editor in Chief of Shopify Plus, Aaron Orendorff is the VP of Marketing at Common Thread Collective. Named by Forbes as one of the top 10 B2B content marketers, his work has appeared on Mashable, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, Fast Company, Inc., Success Magazine, The Next Web, Content Marketing Institute, and more.

Check out Aaron Orendorff’s work