The 40 Percent

Michael Metzger

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. This insider/outsider ambidextrous infrastructure 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 out5sider who naturally bias the left hemisphere of their brain.

The Church and her ministries ought to operate in this ambidextrous manner. Like Pixar, the Church called to a complicated creative project – the renewal of all things. She too can become lost at some point in the process. If her ministries don’t heed the outsider voice, she can assume she fully imagines how her 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 gospel that’s narrowly focused and tends to dismiss those who try to widen the lens.

The solution is establishing a culture similar to Pixar’s – an ambidextrous 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. Yes, stunk. This approach assumes a story, or a presentation or a homily, initially needs a lot of improvement.

It’s what made the final version of Up such a dramatic improvement over the first cut.


The Morning Mike Check

Don't miss out on the latest podcast episode! Be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast platform to stay up to date on the latest from Clapham Institute.


  1. Thanks for the reminder. The gospel says that in this life, we will only ever see partially, which should keep us both open to and desiring the input of others into our spiritual journey, knowing that our self-assessment will often be very suspect.

  2. Maybe it’s just me, but I think I was often too afraid of hearing anything other than, “good sermon” or “that really ministered to me.” If I had been courageous enough to regularly ask for authentic responses to the questions “What worked and what didn’t” who knows, our church might still be open. Many people interpret honest feedback as criticism, and so many of us find criticism difficult to process.

  3. Hey Mike,

    I have read this single article a dozen times since the posting. I believe there is something here for me relative to what we are trying to do through Pillar and our emphasis on formation for the sake of others.

    Each reading helps me ‘see’ that our sight can be shaped by habits and disciplines that form memory patterns – create a memory bank – that shape our desires. I am not sure, but that is where I am heading. Again, thanks!

  4. Alan’s comment makes me wonder how a church could implement some kind of 360-degree feedback mechanism (pastor, elders, deacons, congregation, etc). We congregants often discuss the pastor’s sermons among ourselves, but I have never encountered a pastor who sought direct, thoughtful feedback.

  5. Re pastors not asking for feedback, I was once designed a survey for the congregants to complete after the sermon, and we collected them over a period of time. They served two functions: one was to provide honest feedback to the pastor on what people were taking away from the sermon. The other was to get a rough measure of sermon “satisfaction.” Generally, a pastor hears only from the complainers, and the survey data allowed him to say something like, I’m sorry you don’t like the sermon(s), but 80% of your fellow parishioners do!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *