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Pixar, U2, and the Horrific Feeling of Losing All of Your Work

Pixar, U2, and the Horrific Feeling of Losing All of Your Work
Published September 17, 2014 by David Burkus
It will happen to you eventually. Your computer will crash. We trust these machines to handle so much of our cognitive load – projects, ideas, workflows. We know we should back it up regularly, but in the real world…we rarely do it as often as we should…if at all.

If your computer crashes and you’ve lost everything…you’re not alone. Creatives renown and unknown have all been there and all of us have found a way to move on.

In December of 1999, U2 frontman Bono lost a laptop containing the lyrics to all of the songs that would become All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Bono told the press, “Everything I've written since August was on this and I hadn't backed up any of it - so I would really have been a goner. This is like my portable brain.” Fortunately, that story has a happy ending. Bono’s laptop was eventually returned by a fan, but many of us can connect with the despair of losing our portable brain.

In some cases, a backup isn’t possible. One quirky note from the career of John Steinbeck, Steinbeck’s dog actually mauled an early draft of his manuscript for Of Mice and Men, forcing Steinbeck to re-write the novel again from scratch. Steinbeck appears to have taken it pretty well. In a letter to his editor he wrote, 

“Two months work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically. I didn’t want to ruin a good dog for a [manuscript]. I’m not sure it is good at all.”
Steinbeck’s dog actually mauled an early draft of his manuscript for Of Mice and Men.

During the making of Toy Story 2, the folks at animation powerhouse Pixar held their collective breathe as they nearly lost it all. As Ed Catmull explains in his book, Creativity, Inc., one animator accidentally entered a command that signaled their computer system to dump all their files as quickly as possible. Animators through the building watched as elements of their work began disappearing, characters, landscapes, whole scenes just disappearing like a scene from Back to the Future. Catmull explains,

“Oren Jacobs, one of the lead technical directors on the movie, remembers watching this occur in real time. At first, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Then, he was frantically dialing the phone to reach systems. ‘Pull the plug on the Toy Story 2 master machine!’ he screamed. When the guy on the other end asked, sensibly, why, Oren screamed louder: “Please, God, just pull it out as fast as you can!”

Despite the best efforts of both, in a matter of seconds 90 percent of the film had vanished. Had it not been for a technical director working from home off of a copy of the master system, who knows what Toy Story 2 would have looked like?

Had it not been for a technical director working from home off of a copy of the master system, who knows what Toy Story 2  would have looked like?

On a personal note, I connected with Bono’s and Steinbeck’s emotions more recently. Instead of a missing laptop, the culprit this time was a slip of the wrist and a full 12 ounce can of soda poured all over my MacBook Air. After staring at the infamous question mark folder icon, and working on my wife’s computer to research my options, I took to the internet to research stories of losing, or nearly losing, it all. These are the stories I used to talk myself off the figurative cliff. 

Even the most professional among us have, at one time or another, felt the sting of a work in progress crashing before their eyes. If you haven’t lost it all yet, give it time. Then, regardless of the weight of your loss, get going on a backup plan. We can’t all rely on adoring fans and workaholic teammates to save us from the inevitable crash.

How about you?

Have you ever lost all of your work thanks to technology?

More about David Burkus

David Burkus is assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on creativity, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior. He is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.

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