10 min

Some Days will Suck & Free to Fail with Michael Jordan, Ted Williams, & Ed Catmull of Pixar The Age of Ideas: Unlock Your Creative Potential

    • Society & Culture

Ted Williams was an exceptional baseball player. During his nine- teen years playing for the Boston Red Sox, he made seventeen trips to the All-Star Game, was twice named the American League MVP, was the batting champion six times, and won the Triple Crown twice. At the end of his career, he had a .344 batting average, with 521 home runs. Most legendarily of all, in 1941, Williams ended his season with a .406 average, making him the last player ever to hit over .400 for a season. Ted Williams is without a doubt “the greatest hitter who ever lived.” 
Now let’s take a look at Williams’s statistics from a different perspective. Although he was baseball’s all-time greatest hitter, he was only successful at getting a hit 34.5 percent of the time. That means the best-ever batter failed more than 65 percent of the time throughout his career. For every attempt he made, two out of three times, he failed. 
But maybe that’s just baseball. Let’s check the application of this theory in another sport. The greatest basketball player of all time is Michael Jordan. MJ had a career field-goal percentage of 49.7 percent. This means that half of the time, when the greatest player and most prolific scorer in basketball history took a shot, he missed. One out of every two attempts, he failed. 
Okay, but what about the world beyond sports? 
Michael Jackson recorded and released approximately 225 songs. Jackson is recognized as one of the most prolific hit-makers in pop-music history, yet of his 200-plus recorded songs, only two out of every ten cracked the top 40 (with thirteen going to number one). 
Now, let’s look at these statistics in a different context: your work. If you told your boss or coworkers you were going to fail 50 percent of the time like Michael Jordan, 65 percent of the time like Ted Williams, or 80 percent of the time like Michael Jackson, do you think you would be looked upon favorably? The answer is without a doubt no. We’re taught to believe that mistakes are bad, and that when you fail, you’re considered a failure. This simply isn’t true. Without failure and mistakes, it’s impossible to become great and achieve something different, special, or innovative. It’s like cooking; the first time you make something, you might fail—it might not come together—but with experimentation and practice, it often becomes great. I’m not advocating that you bet your future or your organization’s future on moonshot ideas. What I am expressing is the belief that we must encourage, not punish, experimentation, exploration, and learning through experience. 

Pixar is the closest thing in modern business to Ted Williams, Michael Jordan, or Michael Jackson. At the time I am writing this they’ve released twenty movies since their inception, and every single one of them has been a commercial and critical success. Surprisingly, underlying their nearly perfect record is the fervent belief that it must be safe to make mistakes or fail. Pixar’s founder Ed Catmull said, “Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact it’s not evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.” He continued by saying, “Similarly, it is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.” 

In other words, to achieve unbelievable success, we must create an environment where experimentation and the occasional failure are permitted and encouraged. Failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain confuse our understanding of its worth. We must learn to separate the good and the bad feelings related to failure and accept it as a critical component on our journey to greatness. Embrace uncertainty; dance with your fear. Because you will fail—but it is only failure if you fail to learn from each attempt. 

Ted Williams was an exceptional baseball player. During his nine- teen years playing for the Boston Red Sox, he made seventeen trips to the All-Star Game, was twice named the American League MVP, was the batting champion six times, and won the Triple Crown twice. At the end of his career, he had a .344 batting average, with 521 home runs. Most legendarily of all, in 1941, Williams ended his season with a .406 average, making him the last player ever to hit over .400 for a season. Ted Williams is without a doubt “the greatest hitter who ever lived.” 
Now let’s take a look at Williams’s statistics from a different perspective. Although he was baseball’s all-time greatest hitter, he was only successful at getting a hit 34.5 percent of the time. That means the best-ever batter failed more than 65 percent of the time throughout his career. For every attempt he made, two out of three times, he failed. 
But maybe that’s just baseball. Let’s check the application of this theory in another sport. The greatest basketball player of all time is Michael Jordan. MJ had a career field-goal percentage of 49.7 percent. This means that half of the time, when the greatest player and most prolific scorer in basketball history took a shot, he missed. One out of every two attempts, he failed. 
Okay, but what about the world beyond sports? 
Michael Jackson recorded and released approximately 225 songs. Jackson is recognized as one of the most prolific hit-makers in pop-music history, yet of his 200-plus recorded songs, only two out of every ten cracked the top 40 (with thirteen going to number one). 
Now, let’s look at these statistics in a different context: your work. If you told your boss or coworkers you were going to fail 50 percent of the time like Michael Jordan, 65 percent of the time like Ted Williams, or 80 percent of the time like Michael Jackson, do you think you would be looked upon favorably? The answer is without a doubt no. We’re taught to believe that mistakes are bad, and that when you fail, you’re considered a failure. This simply isn’t true. Without failure and mistakes, it’s impossible to become great and achieve something different, special, or innovative. It’s like cooking; the first time you make something, you might fail—it might not come together—but with experimentation and practice, it often becomes great. I’m not advocating that you bet your future or your organization’s future on moonshot ideas. What I am expressing is the belief that we must encourage, not punish, experimentation, exploration, and learning through experience. 

Pixar is the closest thing in modern business to Ted Williams, Michael Jordan, or Michael Jackson. At the time I am writing this they’ve released twenty movies since their inception, and every single one of them has been a commercial and critical success. Surprisingly, underlying their nearly perfect record is the fervent belief that it must be safe to make mistakes or fail. Pixar’s founder Ed Catmull said, “Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact it’s not evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.” He continued by saying, “Similarly, it is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.” 

In other words, to achieve unbelievable success, we must create an environment where experimentation and the occasional failure are permitted and encouraged. Failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain confuse our understanding of its worth. We must learn to separate the good and the bad feelings related to failure and accept it as a critical component on our journey to greatness. Embrace uncertainty; dance with your fear. Because you will fail—but it is only failure if you fail to learn from each attempt. 

10 min

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