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Frustrated at work? That might lead to your next breakthrough

At Pixar, disgruntled misfits ended up producing incredible films.

Frustrated at work? That might lead to your next breakthrough

(Photo: The Incredibles)

In 2000, Pixar was at the top of its game.

Toy Story was released five years earlier, and it was the first computer-animated blockbuster on the silver screen. Three years later Pixar debuted A Bug’s Life to critical acclaim, and 1999’s Toy Story 2 was the biggest animated hit of the year.

Concerned about resting on their laurels, the studio’s founders, Steve Jobs and Ed Catmull, hired the company’s first outside director, Brad Bird, to shake things up. Mr Bird’s most recent film, Iron Giant, had flopped financially, and when he pitched his idea for a new movie to Pixar, he was told it would never work: It would take 10 years and cost US$500 million (S$677 million) to animate.

But Mr Bird persisted. He recruited a band of disgruntled people inside Pixar – misfits whose ideas had been ignored – to work with him. The resulting movie, The Incredibles, won two Oscars and grossed US$631 million worldwide, outdoing all of Pixar’s previous successes. (And, for the record, it ended up costing less than US$100 million to make.)

Actor Samuel L Jackson posing for photographs with characters from the film as he arrived at the UK premiere of Incredibles 2 in London, Britain July 8, 2018. (Photo: Reuters/Simon Dawson) Actor Samuel L Jackson poses for photographs with characters from the flm as he arrives at the UK premiere of Incredibles 2 in London, Britain July 8, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

We normally avoid frustrated people – we don’t want to get dragged down into a cesspool of complaints and cynicism. We see dissatisfied people as curmudgeons who halt progress, or, worse yet, Dementors who suck the joy out of the room. And we have good reason to feel that way: A natural response to frustration is the fight-or-flight response. Disgruntled people often go into “Office Space” mode, choosing to fight by sabotaging the workplace, or flight by doing the bare minimum not to get fired.

But there’s a third reaction to frustration that we’ve overlooked: When we’re dissatisfied, instead of fight or flight, sometimes we invent.

Frustration is the feeling of being blocked from a goal. Although it sounds like a destructive emotion, it can actually be a source of creative fuel. When we’re frustrated, we reject the status quo, question the way things have always been done and search for new and improved methods. But there’s evidence that dissatisfaction only promotes creativity when people feel committed to their team and have the support they need to pursue their ideas.

When Mr Bird recruited disgruntled people at Pixar, he wasn’t just looking for angry animators.

(Photo: Cars)

“I want people who are disgruntled because they have a better way of doing things and they are having trouble finding an avenue,” Mr Bird told me. “Racing cars that are just spinning their wheels in a garage instead of racing.” He found people who were frustrated because they cared, and he started listening to them. Then he had a choice to make: Should he set an easy goal or a difficult one?

In a classic study, people played a game of shuffleboard, and got to decide how far away to shoot from. Very few people chose an easy distance, where they’d make more than half their shots. The vast majority preferred more difficult distances, where their odds were less than one-in-three. You’d expect this kind of self-challenge from overachievers, but even the less motivated people chose to stand farther away.


People tend to be surprisingly drawn to difficult goals. Decades of research show that extremely difficult, specific goals motivate us to work harder and smarter – again, as long as we’re committed and supported. Most of us prefer a task with a 50-50 shot of success over an easier one.

Mr Bird prefers even lower odds. He told his newfound flock of black sheep that everyone thought the task was impossible. They rose to the challenge, testing ideas that had never been considered by the mainstream technicians and animators. Realising that it would be too expensive and complicated to simulate water on a computer, they used a film of an actual swimming pool. Rather than design a flying saucer, they substituted a much simpler object — a pie plate. To animate the interlocking muscles of an entire family of superheroes, they used simple shapes like ovals sliding against one another.

So don’t discount the misfits on your team. Find out why they’re frustrated and invite them to solve the problems they see. The results can be… Incredible.

By Adam Grant © 2018 The New York Times