Feet of Clay

Our heroes are often fallible. How, then, should we react when—not if—they falter?

I admire Ed Catmull. Yes, present tense, even after learning of his role in the anti-poaching, wage-fixing arrangements of several Silicon Valley and SF Bay Area technology and technology-related companies. I admire Ed Catmull for his contributions to computer graphics as both technology and artistic tool. I admire Ed Catmull for his thoughts on process and failure and communication and organizations.

I admire Ed Catmull, and I am disappointed by Ed Catmull.

Just a few months ago I was thinking to myself that the lead inventor of the Catmull-Rom spline could qualify as a career role model for me in many ways. Not anymore. Now he is a cautionary tale, but in my disappointment I must take caution not to discard everything I learned from him. Creativity, Inc. is still a great book, and I will finish reading it and look to apply lessons from it to my work. The journey of Pixar is still impressive and inspiring to me, and I will allow elements from it to influence how I approach some day (soon) building my own company.


In reading the details about the wage-fixing scandal, I noticed something emerge that I had previously noticed when the same scandal broke about tech firms including Apple under Steve Jobs (famously Pixar's CEO and majority shareholder until its sale to Disney): a sense of entitlement, that the talented engineers and artists who created the products that brought incredible wealth to these admittedly visionary leaders "should feel grateful" for the opportunity to do so. I noticed hubris, married to a corporate delusion that dehumanizes workers, consindering them fungible "assets" or "resources" and creates the environment for this sort of abuse.

There's a rant on limiting the power and influence of corporations somewhere near here, but now is not the time for it. Now is the time to learn from my hero's mistakes. There is a tendency in today's manufactured outrage and reactionary-statement-driven social networking media madness to treat every error as equally—and absolutely—egregious. Ed Catmull did a very, very bad thing, but he's also done many very, very good things over a career that has spanned nearly 40 years. Should I discard all of the good because of the bad?

Maybe I can't put him on a pedestal anymore. Maybe I never should have in the first place. In the book of Daniel the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar has a dream in which he sees a magnificent statue with a head of pure gold, chest and arms of silver, and belly and thighs of bronze. But the feet were made partly of iron and partly of clay. A small rock shatters the feet, and the entire statue collapses, breaking into pieces.

This is what we do to people: we build them up, and then when the stone comes and causes them to fall, we overreact with such indignation. They're only human.