Lessons from Pixar Studios: Staying Animated in Leadership


By Miriam Heller Stern, PhD.

Leaving a meeting wondering what was accomplished. Staring at the screen trying to decide where to begin. Ticking the easy items off the “to do” list because the big picture feels overwhelming to tackle. Pushing through a predictable routine of meetings and putting out fires. Educational leadership can easily get consumed by tasks that make us feel stuck.

How do we get unstuck?

Take a field trip. Applying the Talmudic adage, Meshaneh makom meshaneh mazal, Going to a new place may change your fortune, taking a field trip can lead us to see our world differently. My inspiration for this essay draws from my recent tour of Pixar Studios, where I learned how some of the leading animators, writers and executives in the film industry hone their creativity. In addition to finding the real Dory in her Emeryville, California, fish tank, I also found perspective on a question that animates me: How can creative practices enhance the work of educators and learners? I discovered ways that an institutional culture can promote creativity and dodge the bullets that kill inspiration. Stepping outside of my own institutional culture enabled me to pivot from tweaking “what is” to imagining “what might be.”

Establish a brain trust for feedback. At Pixar, the Braintrust is the meeting of the minds where a draft of a film is screened, problems are identified, and numerous solutions are brainstormed. The Braintrust is no ordinary meeting of colleagues. It is a mechanism for taking an idea, a plan, a work in progress and making it better. Instead of scrutinizing the creator, candid comments are directed at the project under review. Conversation is governed by an operating assumption that the smart people in the room have a shared investment in enhancing the quality of the project. No directives are given; the ideas on the table are meant to stimulate the thinking of the director so that she can steer forward.

If I am the director of a movie, or a teacher who has created a new curriculum, or a teacher leader who has introduced a new program into my school, it is likely that I am deeply invested in my project. My professional identity is wrapped up in the work. Often, we dwell so far inside our own projects that we cannot see what needs to change. To find the inspiration and direction to pivot, we need our brain trust to participate with candor and in good faith. We need to be able to trust that they are smart and that they know what it feels like to be in the hot seat. Feedback must spring from empathy in order to be constructive; otherwise it just deconstructs and leaves us right back where we started: stuck. A good brain trust will produce alternative ideas that inspire action rather than paralyze progress. If the feedback can stimulate new thinking and advance my project, I can flourish.

Educational leaders are often expected to produce solutions quickly, as if they could be pulled from an instruction manual. But the challenges they face are similar to the directors’ need to rework a flawed plotline or character. They need a space to iterate with trusted colleagues and consider multiple solutions. The achievement of solving the puzzle, and seeing success in the form of students and their families flourishing, is similar to the accomplishment of dreaming up the right end to the story that will satisfy the audience.

Learn a new creative skill. Pixar Studios has a wing of its campus called “Pixar University,” where every employee can take classes in drawing, storytelling, creative writing, sculpting, painting, belly dancing, and more. This in-house “university” is guided by a belief that if you want to get better at what you do, you must take time out to learn something completely different. As Pixar President Ed Catmull describes the approach in Creativity, Inc., the way to enhance creativity is “keeping our brains nimble by pushing ourselves to try things we haven’t tried before.”

Many of us have hobbies that we pursue alone to help us relax, get centered and find inspiration. However, at Pixar University the communal setting for learning builds camaraderie around experimentation and self-expression. Classes bring together professionals from different departments and levels of company hierarchy to try their hand at a skill in which they may all be novices. In a corporation where everyone is expected to produce at a high level and often under intense pressure, in these classes, everyone has permission to be a learner, to play, to fumble and to try again. The computer programmer, the office assistant, the CEO, the marketing director, may all have the opportunity to take risks and learn together.

In schools, we prioritize professional development for skills that are explicitly related to the educational leadership portfolio: board development, assessment, curriculum design. But learning to draw might inspire me to map out a program visually. A creative writing class might help a team develop their professional voice together. Mindfulness might lead us to listen more attentively. Whatever the discipline, the possibility of individual and collective inspiration is valuable in and of itself, and for the possibility for stimulating new ways of thinking and doing in the workplace.

Adopta beginner’s mind.” There is no doubt that highly talented experts are essential for Pixar’s success. Yet there is concern that if they settle too comfortably into their expertise, they settle into routine decision making and their ability to discover new creative solutions wanes. The brain trust and creative classes are strategies intended to open employees’ minds and keep them in learning mode; an open mind is essential for these strategies to produce creative results.

Unfortunately, our brains are wired to do the opposite. Psychologists have demonstrated that our brains are inclined to exercise “cognitive control” or “fast thinking” when we encounter something new, layering our previous experience and knowledge over a new experience. As a survival skill, this tendency in the human brain is useful when it comes to recognizing people, sensing danger or understanding quickly. There is a downside to this phenomenon though, as theater professors Saxton and Miller argue in their research on drama as an educational tool: “To survive is a given, but to have our brain frame what we see in the same way each time diminishes our ability to move beyond the predictable.” We often rob ourselves of our own inspiration, because our brain wants to recognize what we see and hear as being just the same as what we already know. Drama, parable, metaphor and changing position are all tools to encourage the brain to see things anew.

Somewhere between the routine and the rigor of a school day, “fast thinking” becomes the norm, and the possibility of stepping back and imagining a new approach gets lost. Surviving becomes the measure of success instead of thriving. If “expertise” can be defined not just by what we already know, but by our ability to constantly learn and puzzle-solve, leading as an expert can be inspiring work!

Vanquish the culture of fear. Encouraging new thinking, giving feedback guided by candor and trust, leveling hierarchy and practicing new creative skills are all intended to lower the barriers of fear that inhibit creative work. The inner voice whispering “What if I fail?” and “What if I am not perfect?” needs to be silenced. Fear may motivate, but it does not inspire. Pixar’s methods for overcoming the obstacles to inspiration mirror recent research by affective neuroscientists, who posit, “We feel, therefore we learn.” Immordino-Yang and Damasio suggest that emotion is the scaffold for our cognition; our physical responses to situations, stirred by our emotions, can stimulate or inhibit learning. Our brains engage in “emotional thought” in order to make the risky, creative decisions necessary to survive. In fact, Immordino-Yang and Damasio define creativity as “a means to survive and flourish in a cultural context” and learning to respond to situations “in increasingly flexible, sophisticated and creative ways” is perhaps “the chief purpose of education.” Our brains respond to our cultural context; as leaders, we need to build cultures that cultivate creative thought and productivity rather than undermine it.

Many of us rely on personal practices and hobbies for inspiration, such as prayer, hiking, yoga, painting, travel or reading. The problem is, these practices are an escape from our work instead of guideposts for our work. What I have described here are ingredients for an institutional culture that insists upon breathing inspiration into the very fiber of the place. Animation is quite literally the job of the folks at Pixar; but staying personally animated in a competitive, high-pressure environment ruled by deadlines and high stakes requires intentional encouragement. Creativity is obviously an essential practice at a successful movie studio. Creativity is also an essential practice for thriving at Jewish day school – and nearly everywhere else.

Recommended Reading
Ed Catmull. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.
Juliana Saxton and Carole Miller, “Drama, Creating and Imagining: Rendering the World Newly Strange,” in How Drama Activates Learning, eds. Michael Anderson and Julie Dunn.
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang. Emotions, Learning and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience.

Dr. Miriam Heller Stern is national director of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Reprinted with permission from the spring issue of HaYidion, Prizmah’s journal.