Cartoons in Church, John Lasseter and Focusing on a Dream


To have no knowledge of a Pixar movies is truly an achievement in this day and age. Try to imagine not knowing Lightning McQueen, or Mike and Sully. Dory and Nemo wouldn’t be stuck in your head every so often. Woody and Buzz would be lifeless. While not everyone has seen every pixar movie, but it’s extremely rare to find someone who has seen none of them. If you spent that much time and effort avoiding watching any Pixar movie for any length of time you would have a slight taste of the kind of focus that one of the creators of that brand employed to get where he is today. 

LasseterLoRez <– John Lasseter has an incredible story of focus through all his experiences.

Chris Mattis, a business leadership consultant and popular blogger thinks highly enough of this concept that the headline on his website is this:

You never get what you want out of life, you only get what you focus on!!!

Growing up with a mother who was an art teacher, John Lasseter began drawing and focusing on what he loved very early on. In a speech to a graduating class at Pepperdine University, he mentioned that he was at church three times every week and as a young child he spent every service drawing cartoons.

As a freshman in high school, he read the book The Art of Animation by Bob Thomas and immediately recognized that he had found what he wanted to do with his life. He told his mother that he wanted to work with Disney studios when he grew up.

Skipping out a chance to play water polo at Pepperdine, John chose to draw and write a series of letters to Disney studios explaining that he was interested in working with them. Finally, he got a letter back that alerted him of a new program  at the California Institute of the Arts in animation. He transferred out of Pepperdine and began studying in the same class and rubbing shoulders with men like Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland, Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands) and John Musker (Aladdin, Little Mermaid, Hercules). John matured and grew tremendously at school to say the least.

Getting hired on at Disney after graduating was a dream come true for John. He had the chance to be mentored by some of the original animators who worked directly with Walt Disney back in the early years.

Yet working at Disney in those days, the patterns were set and things were done the same because they had been done that way for long before. After a few years, John was working on a film and he kept asking his superior questions because he thought things could be done better. That man said two sentences that killed the dream in John’s heart for working at Disney in that capacity,

“Just do as you’re told. if you don’t want to do it, there are a line of people out the door who would be glad to take your place.”

This crushed John’s dream and he stopped caring about the studio. He vowed to himself that someday when he ran his own studio he would never give that impression to a young person.

John didn’t give up on animation though. He began work in computer generated animation and eventually came to the position that he was able to present a story, a sample and a plan for computer generated animation to his executives in the company. They responded with the mindset of tradition, “Computer animation is only good to us if it makes something we have quicker or cheaper.”

Within the day, John was fired from Disney. 

However, John still had the dream of animation. Despite being fired from Disney, he kept his focus on what he loved and was not distracted by where he was at. He started working with a crack team of researchers including Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith at LucasFilm (Founded by George Lucas of Star Wars) on the same type of animation. His division was later bought by Steve Jobs. These men rebranded themselves as Pixar and proceeded to take over the animation world of filming.

And so a dynasty was born. Toy Story, with its multi-national as well as intergenerational appeal, became the world’s first fully computer-generated feature film. Winning critical as well as financial acclaim at all levels. The train rolled on from there and now there isn’t a toy aisle in any store in America that doesn’t have at least one item inspired by a Pixar film.

But the story doesn’t end there. It could, but when Pixar was merged with Disney, there was a need for a man to head up the creative aspect of the studio. John Lasseter was asked to take the place of running the studio that Walt Disney began so many years ago. John, as Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, now has the opportunity to help those in his company dream a little bigger, like he himself would have loved to do years before.

All this makes for a great story, but what can we learn from John Lasseter?

Here are just a few quick points:

  1. He didn’t pay attention in church. This would be one spot where focusing on your dream job Would not be the best idea.
  2. He was reading about what he was interested in and found a lifelong passion because of a book!
  3. He committed to his mother and became somewhat accountable to follow through on what he told himself he would do.
  4. He knew what his priorities were, rather than playing a sport that wouldn’t further his dream or stay at a school that couldn’t help him pursue his career he made the tough decision to switch.
  5. He chose who he associated with, men like Tim Burton and his mentors at Disney helped him refine his own skills.
  6. Even when he lost his dream job, he never gave up.

What are you focusing on? If you take the time to do the things that John Lasseter did, where could you be in 10-20 years?

If you take the time to Read books in that subject, to Commit and Follow Through on goals in that area, to have Priorities in making directional decisions, to Associate with those that are on the same path, and Never give up the dream. What could you do. What WILL you do?

These points can apply in any area, take some time to think about what you’d like to focus on in different areas of your life. And always remember Matthew 6:33 (ESV)

But seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his Righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.


Much of this article was drawn from a speech by John Lasseter to the 2009 graduating class of Pepperdine University. You can check out that speech on Youtube.

Chris Mattis Leadership Blog

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