Addressing a soggy crowd of graduating Johns Hopkins University students this morning, Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull emphasized the necessity of failure as part of a creative life.
He urged graduates to think of failure not as a "necessary evil," but as a "necessary consequence of doing something new—and you should always do something new."
Catmull, a five-time Academy Award winner and president of both Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Studios, delivered his commencement address against a backdrop of umbrellas and clear plastic ponchos at a chilly Homewood Field. The computer scientist spoke of his experiences in Silicon Valley, the lessons he learned while building Pixar and later merging with Disney, and his memories of working with Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Throughout, he focused on the value of trying and failing.
Catmull spoke after remarks from Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels and Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, who both brought Hopkins' setting in the city of Baltimore to the forefront.
Daniels characterized the graduating Class of 2015 by the "seismic shifts" they'd been through at Hopkins—arriving during Hurricane Irene, then experiencing an earthquake, and now graduating amidst a "critical juncture" for Baltimore as it heals from recent uprisings that made national news.
Daniels called upon graduates who remain in Baltimore to bring "better health, better education, and more jobs to our most challenged neighborhoods—that would truly be a national news story."
Rep. Cummings, a Baltimore native now in his 10th term representing Maryland, spoke of a young man in the city who told him, "Congressman, I've always felt like I'm in my casket, clawing my way out." He urged the Hopkins graduates to become "agents of change."
"Keep in mind that right now at Hopkins Hospital, a child is being born to save somebody, and you were born to save somebody," Cummings added. "Take that and understand that that is your mission."
Before Catmull spoke, Destiny Bailey, president of the Class of 2015, described her fellow undergrads as "90s babies" who grew up on Pixar.
Catmull said he often hears the question, "How do you become creative?" when the better line of questioning would identify the obstacles to creativity.
He said it's essential to respect "the fragility of new ideas," admitting candidly of Pixar: "In truth, all of our movies suck at first" before going through a process of trial and error. The 2009 movie Up, he said, started with a completely different premise of a "castle floating in the sky." He said the final product "bore no resemblance to the original idea."
Catmull returned to the theme of necessary failures when discussing his longtime relationship with Jobs. The Jobs that achieved prolific success with Apple, Catmull said, was a man fundamentally "changed" by past failures—with his trademark brashness and intensity softened. He was "empathetic, kinder, wiser," with the ability to listen, Catmull said.
Degrees were conferred on more than 7,000 students from all of Johns Hopkins divisions and campuses at the universitywide ceremony.