Career Lessons from John Lasseter, Disney Pixar Pioneer and Cars 2 Director

With the release of Cars 2, we decided to take a look at the man behind the wheel of one of the biggest franchises in Disney history. Animator-writer-producer-director John Lasseter, the movie’s director and chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, is well-known as a pioneer in developing the art and science of computer-generated animation. If you’re seeking career inspiration, look no further than the incredible life (yes, he was also the executive producer of The Incredibles) of John Lasseter. Start with his on-screen advice below, and read on for other career lessons we’ve adapted based on his story:

Career Lesson #1: Create your own opportunities.
When Lasseter discovered that there are people who actually get paid to make cartoons, he didn’t leave his animation aspirations stuck in the pages of his personal journal, or even in those “What do you want to be when you grow up?” essays you have to write for school. In high school, Lasseter actually wrote to Disney Studios, saying he wanted to be an animator. And Disney wrote back! They encouraged him to get a great art education, learning the basics of figure drawing, design, and color.

Career Lesson #2: Don’t be afraid to explore new educational avenues.
It gets better. In his senior year of high school, Lasseter got another letter from Disney, this time saying they were starting a character animation program at California Institute of the Arts. It was a new, untested program – going to his mom’s alma mater, Pepperdine University, would have been a safer bet – but Lasseter took a chance, got himself a scholarship, and enrolled in the inaugural year of the program. He learned from the Disney greats and earned his B.F.A. in film in 1979.

Career Lesson #3: Forge your own path.
When Lasseter graduated and got a job with Disney, he discovered a sad truth – at that time, the animation studio was not being run by great artists and visionaries like the ones who taught the Cal Arts program, but by lesser artists and businesspeople. He could have just kept his head down and maintained the status quo – how many of us do that? – but instead, he became increasingly enamored with the possibilities of using computer graphics in animation. Unfortunately, Lasseter’s enthusiasm for this fairly new technology earned him a reputation as something of a loose cannon at Disney, and he got fired.

Career Lesson #4: Keep your dream alive.
Getting fired might sound like a death sentence, but we all know that wasn’t the end of the story for John Lasseter. His next gig – at Lucasfilm, which later became Pixar, which was later bought by Disney – wasn’t far behind. After he got fired, Lasseter went to a computer graphics conference, met up with some contacts he had made at Lucasfilm, and got himself a job that same day. Notice that he didn’t sit around waiting for an offer to come to him – he went out and made it happen! He believed in the possibilities of a new technology and found some other people who believed in it, too.

Career Lesson #5: Be true to yourself.
At 54 years old, Lasseter claims he is still a little boy, and making animated movies is a great way to let that little boy out. Obviously, this is a job where thinking like a grown-up is not always the best thing. But even if you don’t have aspirations in the cartoon world, your childhood interests can still serve as inspiration for your present-day career. Just look at how Lasseter, the son of a manager at a Chevrolet dealership, used his lifelong love of cars!

When John Lasseter gave a commencement address at Pepperdine University in 2009, he encouraged the graduating class never to let anyone kill their dreams. Coming from the man behind the Disney/Pixar magic, that’s good advice.

-Robyn Tellefsen