Up is considered one of Pixar’s most emotionally rich films. Yet the final version is quite different than the first. It’s the result of Pixar’s culture that recognizes a weakness in human nature.
One of the better books on the market today is Creativity Inc. by Pixar CEO Ed Catmull. Humble and honest, he does not traffic in simplistic phrases like “Focus, Focus, Focus!” Catmull instead describes how Pixar sought to create a sustainable creative culture. It’s a process that he says requires “an uncommon commitment to self-assessment.”
Pixar believes leaders of most companies are not attuned to the fact that there are problems they cannot see. And because they aren’t aware of these blind spots, they assume that the problems don’t exist. Catmull cautions, “If you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill-prepared to lead. We all know people we would describe as not being self-aware.”
Indeed. Pixar assumes that people who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things. In order to create, Catmull writes, “you must internalize and almost become the project, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence.” But it is also confusing. Findings from neuroscience provide clarity.
Only about 40 percent of what we think we “see” comes in through our eyes. “The rest is made up from memory or patterns that we recognize from past experience,” one neuroscientist told Catmull. Most of what we claim to see is formed by how it fits memories or patterns formed by past experiences. These past experiences cause people to imagine – rightly or wrongly – how a story is going to turn out. That’s problematic.
If we lock in too quickly to how we imagine a story turning out, we resist disruption. Consider Up. The original version featured a king and his two sparring sons living in a castle floating in sky. The sons fell to earth. Trying to get back to the castle, they met a tall bird that helped them understand each other. When Pixar’s Braintrust reviewed the first version, they disliked most of it. Only two things survived, the tall bird and the title.
The Braintrust is Pixar’s roundtable. It allows those inside a project to see the story through outsiders’ eyes. It helps Pixar prize failure. In the next pass, Up featured Carl Frederickson and Russell floating up to an abandoned Soviet-era dirigible camouflaged to look like a cloud. The Braintrust discarded the dirigible and cloud for a flat-topped mountain. The story kept improving, due largely to a culture that assumes we cannot at first fully imagine how stories are going to turn out. Failure is part of the process.
Catmull writes that what makes Pixar special “is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.” Pixar assumes people initially see only the 40 percent. Seeing the rest requires disruption… and failure.
This is how the church ought to operate. A few weeks back, the Lenten lectionary readings reminded us that we cannot fully imagine how things are going to turn out. The Jews pretty much assumed they could. It’s a weakness in human nature. We are all prone to being confident we see more that we actually do. The result is evident in the Jews’ resisting the prophetic voice and rejecting Jesus. Another lectionary reading was Colossians 3, where Paul reminds believers that eternity is going to turn out somewhat differently than they imagine. Matthew’s gospel reminds listeners that the first Easter turned out differently than the disciples imagined.
Like Pixar, the church is called to a complicated creative project – the renewal of all things. She too can become lost at some point in the process. If a local church doesn’t heed the prophetic voice, it can assume it fully imagines how its projects are going to turn out – and resist those who challenge what feel like sacred truths.
Dr. Jean-Christophe Agnew is one of those who challenge some of our sacred truths. The Yale cultural historian teaches a popular course titled, “From Theology to Therapy,” a study of late 19th century transitions in the church. Transitions included the sermon replacing the sacraments as the centerpiece of the service, congregants becoming consumerist, therapy replaced theology. These are largely the result of a “two-chapter” gospel that’s narrowly focused and tends to dismiss those who try to widen the lens. These churches rarely discover the 60 percent they’re missing. Or they disregard it.
The solution is establishing a culture similar to Pixar’s – a roundtable. This corrects “confirmation bias,” our tendency to give lesser weight to data that contradicts what we presume to be true. At Pixar, after each film is released, everyone involved in the process is required to make two lists: the top five things that went well and the top five things that stunk.
Catch that last word? Stunk. Not, Here’s where we could improve. That’s too soft, as it implies we’re getting most of the story right. We only need a teeny bit of improvement. Pixar assumes it initially gets most of the story wrong. It needs a lot of improvement. That’s why the final version of Up is such a dramatic improvement. It’s how a local church could dramatically improve as well.
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