Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Storytelling Inc.

When I read Ed’s story, I felt inspired – then envious. My mother had many friends, she was the head of an internationally acknowledged institute, and she didn’t consider herself successful. I’m not even the head of anything big and important. I wish I had more talent or persistence, I wish I had been dealt better cards by fate. How is Ed different from the rest of us?

Walt Disney wore ties and a suit and he shared one of his many secrets every Saturday on the TV. Ed was his avid follower, he sat in front of the TV every Saturday waiting for his weekly fix of magic. He drew hundreds of pictures, he asked his parents to buy the best book to teach him how to draw. He wanted to become a part of the magic world he witnessed every Saturday, he wanted to become an animator at the Walt Disney Studio.

He was born to a hard-working, hard-studying family, he knew how to pursue an academic career and become a scientist. But the world of animation was an uncharted territory yet, nobody knew how to become an animator at the Studio, there were no clear rules. Walt Disney didn’t stop, he kept innovating, he applied the technological advances of his time, becoming an animator was a moving target. Young Ed made a decision and went to the University to study physics and another emerging field, computer science. It looks like a diversion from his original plan, but it turned out to be the way that helped him find his true calling. This was the era when computer graphics was born, he and his classmates were the ones who made the groundwork for it. Computer graphics was the field that combined science and art, it spoke to both sides of his brain. You may not know his name, but you’ve probably heard of his company. A decade later Ed Catmull became more than an animator, he founded Pixar, the first studio to create computer animated movies.

Ed Catmull had a dream when he was a child, a dream so unlikely to come true that many found it impossible. But he followed his inner guidance or followed a thread invisible to others and it lead him through all those meanderings to an exceptional accomplishment. Steve Jobs, another founder of Pixar had a similar career, he seemed to have followed an inner voice too. A voice that whispered him where to turn left and where to turn right until he finally implemented one of the wildest visions of the twentieth century. But many of us had such wild dreams when we were kids, some wanted to be the first human to step on Mars, some wanted to find the cure for cancer. And we, the rest, the legion of pipedreamers ended up in a 9 to 5 job where the only reminder of our childhood dream is a poster of Mars on the wall of the office cubicle.

We want to learn what those semi-gods of our modern era do. We read books about their seven habits, ten commandments, and twenty-two magic incantations. Our tribal, cargo-cult thinking says if we follow their footsteps and imitate their behavior, then we’ll become semi-gods like them. Ed Catmull gets up at 6:30; Steve Jobs got up at 6:00? You’ll find a best-seller how the early bird gets the worm and more. (Don’t follow this valuable advice, I just made it up.) There is even a special caste of semi-gods, those management and self-help gurus who became successful by writing books and giving seminars on how others became successful.

One book says focus is the key, the other emphasizes persistence. Many books talk about the power of setting goals and keeping to them no matter what. When these accomplished people share their secret, they tell similar stories. We, the legion of eager learners, read them and nod in agreement. Yes, we’ll need to focus. Yes, we’ll set a goal and stick to it. But staying focused and being goal-oriented are not so rare, many of us have these traits. We still don’t have much more to show than that poster of the Mars.

It doesn’t matter how many times we watched The Matrix, we still assume the world works by the same principles as a lawn mower or a mechanical watch. If we take apart a complicated device, and assemble the exact replica of its parts, we expect it to work just like the original one. It’s been a great model to improve lawn mowers and mechanical watches. But individuals, organizations, and societies seem to work in a different way. We can decompose Steve Jobs’ life and find some surprising elements. At the beginning he was not interested in computers, he just wanted some quick money to follow his real interest. The skill the Steve Jobs’s and Ed Catmulls share is something else. The skill they had from their childhood is to tell the story of their unlikely vision. To tell a fantastic story others want to live by and live in.

These visionary people worked a lot, no question about it. But it’s not enough. The power of Superman, the stamina of Sisyphos, the sharp focus of a manually polished Zeiss magnifying glass concentrated in a single person is not enough. Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull and the others were absolutely aware of this. They tell their stories to ignite your soul. They tell their stories to triage their people: if they can see the spark in your eyes, you will find yourself among the chosen ones. They tell their stories to share a vision, so the chosen few in the boat will row in the same direction. This small group of people will make the vision come true.

Painting an appealing future where you don’t have to sweat, you just push a bright silver button, and a gadget will bake bread, clean the house, water the lawn – this is the kind of story that traveling salesmen tell you. It works for those who are ready to believe. But to fulfill a vision, you need people with strong analytical and critical skills who will question the hell out of your firmest axiom. You have to tell them what has already come true of the dream. Storytelling has the power of shaping the future, and it has an even more amazing attribute. It can change the past. Time-machine is not invented yet, we don’t even know if it’s possible, but we know from movies how it would work: go back in time, make a minor change, and it will have a huge effect on the future. Storytelling is more powerful than that. It handles the past, the present, and the future as a single entity, and changes them together. Ed Catmull told his story that connects his childhood dream of animating films to his PhD in computer science at the University of Utah to his founding Pixar. It’s a stunning story. But what if take our time machine and make a minor change in his past? What if his family hadn’t had the money for University, what if he had been influenced by an uncle to study entomology? I’m sure we could read his amazing book, the Cricket Inc., where he recounts how his childhood dream of classifying insects came to fruition.

Does Ed Catmull lie? Does he forge his memories? Does he repaint his past to please the audience? Not at all. He’s just a master of playing his cards. A child’s brain has a built-in idea generator, it produces wild ideas all day: be one of the first settlers on Mars; find out how crickets can cure cancer; animate films at Disney. Ed sifts through his deck of thousands of his childhood memories and aspirations. He scans his deck of the thousands of options future holds for us. Then he picks a few cards from each deck, they form a straight flush. That is his inspiring personal story. It doesn’t matter for him if he’s dealt good cards or bad ones, he can pick the ones that form the best storyline. This is the skill we want to learn from Ed Catmull and Steve Jobs. To tell the story of your life that makes others inspired or envious.

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