I’m a fairly avid Netflix user. Several years in China without access to the voluminous amount of television programming available in the US, coupled with an ever-growing backlog of films I have yet to see (although RottenTomatoes is helping in that area as I refuse to watch anything that scored less than 70%), has put me well behind the television viewer power curve. So I gave up and stopped watching it altogether and stuck with my Netflix DVD queue. Cable man, get behind me.
Enter technical innovation in the form of Netflix’s Instant Watch feature and viewing on demand has truly set me free. I now have commercial-free access to a large library of television and film on my terms at my times. Sure, it’s not a complete library, but I don’t have enough time for that to matter.
I generally spend about an hour a day watching some great late 2000’s television (Arrested Development, Better Off Ted, Lie to Me, etc. and remember, I’m three years behind the television temporal continuum). That’s just enough to satisfy my desire to veg on the couch but not enough to make me feel like I’ve deprived myself of the experiences life holds just beyond the front door’s threshold. On the weekends, however, I try to shorten that backlog of film, I am an avid film fan, and allow for a couple of hours to watch a movie. There is a long list in my queue.
Occasionally I scan the new arrivals to see if there’s something that has arrived which would trump the top-most item in the list, another benefit of the on-demand video. I can delay my choice to the last moment to maximize the value of my time. So satisfying.
Last night just such an optimization occurred. I discovered that a title called The Pixar Story was now available. It was rated four stars (actually 4.2 for me personally, according to the Netflix algorithm, and I won’t watch less than four) and, owing to my present circumstances (I recently took a job with a company who now occupies Pixar’s original Point Richmond facilities), I felt one of those curious Paulo Coehlo moments; the universe seemed to be conspiring on my behalf. So I let her take me where she willed and fired up The Pixar Story.
I’m glad I did. Here are some observations:
It’s interesting to see how close to failing Pixar came in their first ten years of existence and what a tremendous success they are, against all the odds. Their story is fascinating. I love do or die moments in the trenches with great teams working on difficult (and hence interesting) problems. An organization needs hills to conquer and Pixar took on a mountain. Steve Jobs points out just how much investment of time, energy, and money went into the company (at a loss) before they finally were rewarded. Not an overnight success and underscores the need for conviction and commitment to achieve your dreams.
You see the offices in which I presently work repeatedly from minutes 38 through 60. There’s a kind of bonhomie, and a bit of reverence, I feel just treading in the footsteps of those guys so it’s pretty cool to see them filled with such creativity, joy, and industry. I am beginning to understand where our management (who used to work with Pixar) are coming from. I am definitely on-board with the kind of unbridled productivity, and commitment that it requires, that Pixar clearly has as a culture. They mention in the film how they see their work environment as an expression unto itself and you’ll be happy to know that the current residents feel the same way.
The main players at Pixar are embodiments of the sorts of things I value, wide-eyed kids having fun making things. I spent the first thirteen years of my life in Tampa, Florida. We frequently went to Disney World, I was at the opening of EPCOT, and I am so thankful for those memories because they instilled in me an unending fascination with and curiosity concerning creating environments with such depth of texture, completeness, and seeming veracity that they take on a whole unto themselves. You are part of a story that propels you away from the mundane and into a state of joy.
Disney’s Imagineers immediately come to mind (although they are not mentioned in the film), tasked with the mission of creating artful experiences by using technical innovation. I think this is why I got into software development. Creative opportunity without limit and there are always interesting technical challenges out there waiting to be solved with innovation. That’s a huge part of Pixar’s success.
Repeatedly throughout the story references are made to the employees at Pixar and how their success hinged on the talents and collaboration of people. Smart people, effective collaboration, and a willingness to dream and innovate. That’s powerful. My best friends are all people I have spent many hours with in high-pressure situations delivering quality solutions to problems. I love people who can work together to deliver products. And you can see that love in the people at Pixar.
Another theme of the film: it’s the story that matters. I have marveled at how consistently Pixar has delivered films that are critically and popularly successful and they nail the reason why. It’s their commitment to telling great stories and a willingness to risk everything to make certain that they tell the best stories they can. If you didn’t cry in the fifteenth minute of Pixar’s Up, you’re lying. That kind of ability to influence the emotions and intellect of others, that’s pure, story-telling prowess. It’s vulnerable and genuine and it expands people. This may sound silly, but I think the ability to relate stories to others, to formulate meaningful experiences and share them with others, is the single greatest skill a person can possess.
Finally, the movie relates something many pundits out there like Seth Godin have been saying of late, the best businesses and most effective people are undeterred by the prospect of failure. Even when Pixar had an easy out at the top of their game with Disney, all their chips just sitting on the table waiting to be cashed out, they pursued their path for their own reasons. And it can easily be argued that the company, and movie-goers, are better for it today. Faith in the face of fear. A willingness to accept the prospect of failure and to press forward. Sure, maybe they also saw more money in going their own way but when you see the movie, you’ll know, these guys believe.
At one point Pixar’s Brad Bird, when talking to his team on The Incredibles production, exclaims to the team, “Film is forever. Pain is temporary.”
How I hope I can spend the rest of my life living into the meaning of that statement. What you make, what you leave behind is what’s important. Life is scary, sometimes it hurts, and, yes, sometimes you even fail to achieve your hopes and dreams. But failure passes and the pain fades with time. And as long as you have time, you have a chance to make something lasting, something genuine, something that inspires people to want to do the same. Go get wide-eyed and make something good happen.