Words For My Father

Three stories I shared about my dad during his memorial service on October 11, 2014.

This weekend I spoke at my father’s memorial.

He passed away three days before turning 73, after a seven year war with cancer where he won three separate battles. Below is the text I wrote for his memorial. A recording of the service won’t match this verbatim, as I followed the outline and spoke freely except when things would get tough. I did my best to keep it light and fun, only turning serious and mournful at the end.


Good morning.

Many here watched me grow up, but for those of you who didn’t, my name is Patrick. But to dad I was more often Paddy. Or son. Or honey. Or sweetie. Or once or twice I was even Chester, which was the dog’s name. He had many names for each of his kids, but all of them conveyed one important thing: love.

My dad loved his family. He loved us more than anything else in the world. He loved us so much that much of my childhood is filled with memories of him bragging on me and my siblings to friends, customers, and strangers in the line at the grocery store. Anyone who would listen was subjected to these stories.

This habit of his was only slightly mortifying to a gawky teenage boy. And so, with that in mind, I stand up here to accomplish two things:

1) exact just a little bit of revenge on my father by sharing stories of his life, and

2) make us all smile and laugh a little as I share.

Dad would have loved to be here to see all his friends and family gathered together. It seems like that is said for every memorial but I know it’s the most true it ever has been here today. He would have loved to catch up and hear about what everyone was up to, and of course brag on each of his kids and grandkids.

Dad loved being involved in anything his kids did. For me that ranged from church choir to scouting to watching me play football. Dad felt football was a great teacher of resilience, teaching me to get back up after life knocks me down.

I was a sophomore at Edgewater and practicing with the JV squad after school when the coach came around asking if anyone “knows who that guy is in the bleachers?” We all turn around to look and there’s my dad. He had finished up work early and was just enjoying the Florida sun, the Orlando Sentinel (something he read cover to cover each day), and most of all his son’s football practice.

Coach Campana was quite upset by this spy in the stands. He clearly thought a competing school was doing some scouting. You have to understand doing that was tantamount to a declaration of war. So, he was visibly upset trying to figure out if we were under siege.

And so, slightly embarrassed to have stirred up this ruckus, I had to raise my hand and say, “That’s my dad sir.” I don’t know what I expected, I think I expected it to be something that would lead to me running laps or something. I’m not sure why. But the truth is that once the mystery was solved it wasn’t a thing at all.

So after practice, I told dad about what his appearance stirred up, and he just laughed and laughed. He loved that story. And as I think back I honestly can’t think of another parent who came and watched the team practice, just dad.

As I said at the beginning, dad never left anyone in doubt of where they stood. His kids and grandkids all got asked an important question, to which there was only one correct answer.

He loved to ask “Who loves you?” To which the correct answer was only “You do!”

But kids being kids, most of us discovered another game we could play, sometimes to exasperating levels for dad I’m sure. He’d ask us “Who loves you?” And we’d name anyone, everyone, and everything except him.

Mommy does.

Sister does.

God does.

The president does.

The dog does.

On and on we’d go. But he was persistent. You weren’t free to go until you said the all important, “You do.”

This was just one of the ways he made sure you could never doubt… never question… his love for you. For us. For me.

Another feature of dad was his keen engineering mind. He was always curious how things worked. He loved marvels of engineering and space, both were endlessly fascinating to him. He loved to explain how things worked, he loved to teach. I’ll tell you a story of one of his more unusual venues for a lesson I learned.

In 1988, when I was five, the family took a trip to Colorado for skiing. Being five years old I was old enough to believe I could do anything grown-ups could. Including ski.

Now, dad made sure both Charlotte and I took ski lessons and and then once we had mastered not falling down on the bunny slope through careful use of the all important snow plow, dad took me up on a green slope and after successfully making it down, I was handed between family members to keep me out of trouble. Dad… mom… my brothers.

My brothers, not to be dissuaded by being saddled with their five year old brother, decided that I was a good enough skier to join them on a slope more difficult than the beginner level “Green Circle.”

Now, for those of you who don’t go skiing, given the fact we’re here in Florida I am guessing there might be a few of you. Ski slope difficulties go bunny slope, Green Circle, Blue Square… Black Diamond.

Now, my brothers meant well, and knowing me I probably begged them to take me on a big boy slope. So when I tell you they took me up the mountain to a black diamond, don’t judge them too harshly.

I mean, I’m here today, I made it down in one piece. I knew enough to fall down quite frequently as a way to manage my speed. Get up, ski down, fall over, stop. And so on. And so we reached the bottom of the slope and I had survived.

Later, when my father learned that my excursion with my brothers had included this… experience. I think the only fitting word is that he was apoplectic.

As any good father would be.

BUT… and here’s the thing that is just so dad. Rather than let that experience just be what it was and admonish me to never do it again…

He took me AND Charlotte up to the slope again, and made us ski it again. So that he could show us how to do it properly.

Dad believed strongly in making sure his kids were prepared. Always prepared for what might come. And he wanted to make sure I knew how to handle a black diamond slope in case I should ever find myself at the top of a ski slope again whether by my, or my brothers doing.

I could go on and on with stories like this.

My dad’s legacy is in this family. He poured his soul into the family. He wasn’t perfect. But with those imperfections he loved us all and wanted nothing more than for us to love him and to love one another.

I visited with him just a few weeks before he passed and at the time he knew what none of the rest of us knew – he was dying. I wasn’t ready to accept it and I tried to convince him otherwise, but we ended up having the talk that only really happens in the movies. We talked as if it was our last conversation. Quietly, lovingly, holding hands. We got to have a closure he didn’t get when his father passed away.

He told me he was proud of me. He told me he was so excited for the family I’d eventually raise because he knew I’d be a good father and sad because he wouldn’t be around to see it. And of course he told me he loved me.

That conversation will stay with me for my entire life.

I don’t believe what he told me was unique, but that I think I was simply the recipient of the message from him. A message which is meant for the whole family.

He was proud of each of us. He was excited to see what the family would become, whether children of our own or just how it would grow. And he loved each and every one of us.

As if there was any doubt.

The Evil F-Word: Fine

Businesses have discovered that the less we move, the more they can market to us. Whether on our couch, on our phone, or in a theater, so long as we’re listening or watching their content then our wallets are open. Like slot machines, they have to keep pulling our levers and waiting to hit jackpot. Give them enough spins and they will hit. For this reason it is in their best interest to make sure we move as little as possible. If it means we all weight four hundred pounds and are more akin to sumo wrestlers—so be it.

In fact, I feel like as we are enveloped in a modern world which does everything to help us down the path to the dystopian Pixar-envisioned future in Wall-E. A future which seems all too scary to envision for the ease with which it could transpire. We’re already a Dr. Oz special away from drinking a slurry mixture for three meals-a-day.

Time for lunch, in a cup!

The truth is that it is very hard for marketers and businesses to make us truly happy. And they’ve discovered that it is much easier for them to manufacture happiness for us. The up beat music at the end of movies to convince you that you enjoyed what you just watched. The advertising campaign around convincing you that you find happiness in the bottom of a fry holder. The manufactured joy that comes with a shopping bag. It’s easier to convince us that what we’re feeling is happiness, simply because we can’t tell the difference. If I’m not in active pain, then I must be happy, right? I must be fine, right?

This future won’t arrive as part of a conscious decision to accept it. It isn’t a future being created by some super villain who is hatching a plot to ruin humanity through heart disease. No, it will arrive as we continue to take small steps towards comfort, accepting the comfort improvements as they come. Tiny offerings which drive our life to be unthinkingly “fine.”

Syndrome from Pixar's The Incredibles

In case you couldn’t tell, I have a serious problem with fine.

If you think of a scale of -10 to 10, -10 being “very bad” and 10 being “very good” then, to me, fine should occupy the space from 0.1 to 2. But life usually forces us to have it be -2 to 2. We’re fine when we’re acceptably bad. We’re fine when we aren’t happy, but aren’t bad enough to take action against whatever is making us that way. Markets go further and they mask what we might feel, or convince us that -2 is actually 0, or even 2. They convince us that where we are is good, and it’s easier to just believe them.

Happiness is, as my friend Joe put it recently, a choice. And the truth is that enduring happiness is more than that, it’s work. Either you work to accept the reality you’re given so that you can be happy, or you work to change your situation so that you are actively keeping yourself in your, yes I’ll say it, happy place.

This is my call to action for you all: Strive for a life that isn’t fine. Either be good or bad. Recognize where you are and if when asked how you are, your inclination is to answer with the F-word, then look around and figure out what you need to do to get to “good” even if that means going outside your comfort zone.

Society wants you to think you’re happy, but they want to do that by spoon feeding you endless amounts of fine and telling you it’s good. Smack society’s hand away and grab your knife and fork and cut off a slab of the steak that is true happiness. Continually work to get out of your comfort zone and never look back.

Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone

Why I Love the Un-American Football

I started this blog post literally months ago. And I’ve tried to write a similar post for the past two years only to abandon each of them. This one is the closest I’ve come to success, and I’ve soldiered on revising and editing and fact checking. With the World Cup happening, I believe now is the time for me to publish it.

It was at Georgia Tech in 2002 that I met David. We weren’t good friends, or even close friends really, but we did hang out from time to time and during those times I discovered David was ‘weird.’ Now, being ‘weird’ at Georgia Tech is saying something. It was (and most likely still is) largely a geek college with a heavily skewed male to female ratio. I mean, to be fair, I was weird at Georgia Tech too. But David was ‘weird’ because he was, well, he was a die hard soccer fan. Die hard despite lacking access to downloaded recordings of games or infinite satellite channels for European broadcasts. He had just grown to love the sport with what he had been able to catch and follow online over a decade ago. He was always checking ESPN’s soccer coverage website. Like I said, he was ‘weird.’

Of the things I regret in college, I regret not spending more time with David and not getting to know soccer through his eyes. He was an American kid who had fallen in love with a sport which was firmly entrenched as the least popular professional sport in America. Rather than learning to love the game through David, I took another path.

My education in soccer first started as a kid when I played on a YMCA team. I wasn’t good. My earliest experience was in an in-door soccer league in Kansas City. I have no real memories of it but I have heard a story which involves the mob of kids on the field chasing the ball and I eventually collapse on the ball and curl up over it, determined to defend the ball in the only way I know how. When viewed as an action by a four or five year old child, it’s adorable. So focus on that angle.

Soccer required an athleticism that I lacked such that I was often put on defense where the coach’s instruction was “stay near the corner of the box and keep the ball away from the goal.” Not a rousing coaching strategy but then it was YMCA. Combine my less-than-stellar soccer skills with television actively pushing me towards other sports which I could actually watch: (American) football, basketball, and baseball. Soccer was left in the dust. I grew up seeing it as a sport that kids played and adults elsewhere (not America) played and thus not something I should worry about. I mean, I wasn’t seeing a soccer player peddling a sugary drink.

Grant Hill and Sprite

And so it was all the way through college, despite a friend named David, until I returned to Orlando in 2005. During that time I reconnected with some childhood friends from church, a pair of Brazilian brothers named David and Daniel. They were members of my childhood church. David was two years my senior, and Daniel was four years my junior. I was in middle school for one year with David, and I can remember him playing soccer for my middle school’s soccer team. I don’t know I ever watched a game, but I remember him in the uniform and the team photo. I knew both of them much more from church youth group and choir.

It was with these brothers that I watched the 2006 World Cup in Germany. I contend that there is no greater event than gathering with a Brazilian family to watch World Cup soccer. It was a feast of food for every game and they were infinitely patient as they explained the rules of the game which I didn’t understand. I will always be thankful for that first spark that relit my love of soccer.

As a brief aside: I think I returned the favor. My contribution was to take them to Sci-Fi City in Orlando where they bought their first RPG dice sets, before we went on to play many wonderful games of D&D with them and some other friends. The older of the two brothers, David, passed away a few years ago and while the group continued to play D&D without him it wasn’t the same.

After the 2006 World Cup passed, my interest in soccer waned once again as the world around me turned away from soccer and back to those other popular American sports.

In 2009, tied to the fateful events which turned me down my current career path, I joined CoolStuffInc.com where my two bosses were both big soccer fans. When the 2010 World Cup rolled around we took our laptops down to the game store before it opened and watched the games on the television while we worked. And it was there my love of soccer was truly reignited. Again, I was swept up in the World Cup, and again I was educated by those who knew far more about the sport.

Again though, the World Cup left us, but this time the interest in the sport was buoyed. I began seeking it out by following some oversea teams. Though I was only casually interested, this time the barrier to entry was lower.

Television was changing. America was changing. The Internet was changing. And I had two new allies: one of my bosses and my fiancee. Katie, as it turns out, was a soccer fan as well so she was all too eager to share this love with me. As I grew to know more about soccer, as I began to find teams I liked, and as the world around me made soccer more accessible here in the states I began to find more and more to love for it.

Perhaps the most critical event of this timeline was just before Katie and I left Orlando. It was then that Orlando launched their NASL team (and now soon to be an MLS team featuring a famous player named Kaka) the Orlando City Soccer Club. Our first experience with them was at a friendly against Newcastle United. Katie and I were able to enjoy the excitement together and we were planning to buy season tickets for the next season were it not for the fateful opportunity that brought us to Seattle.

For those of you who don’t know, Seattle is home to the Seattle Sounders, an MLS club since 2010 (NASL team since 1974). And we are the only city in America to consistently draw European-level crowds for their soccer matches (2013 averaged 44,000 fans per home game.) Katie and I, as I said, had discovered the joy of watching and attending a soccer match while in Orlando and so we knew we had to check out the Sounders. We attended, I believe, two or maybe three games and watched others on television before we decided to order season tickets for the 2013-2014 season.

Sounders stadium

As much as the Sounders matches with Katie deserve credit for feeding the flame, the Internet and the changing landscape of American television deserve a great deal of credit too. The Internet has become an American soccer fan’s lifeline providing clips and full replays of games from leagues around the world, available with just a few clicks of a mouse. Watching them stream live or as recorded matches ripped from broadcasts. It is a common practice for me to acquire a match or two before a trip so I can watch them during a flight, I’ve found I prefer those matches to any other in-flight entertainment.

Additionally, the landscape of American television proper is changing. It is my belief that soccer in America was actively stymied by the proliferation of television and the rise of commercials. Soccer is not an easy sport to profit off of as a broadcast network. Where football, basketball, baseball, NASCAR, and any other sport has countless natural breaks where commercials can be run – soccer does not. And so for that reason networks, in search of profits during some previous decade, shunned soccer. Maybe this is unfair, or perhaps there is more at work than I am aware, but the logic makes perfect sense so I choose to believe it.

Now though, the world has changed. America is going through a soccer renaissance as MLS is on a growth spurt, and American networks are competing to broadcast more and more soccer. Those, combined with online access to games, and infinite clips on YouTube, makes soccer a very accessible sport for those getting into it.

So then why? Up to now I’ve walked you through my personal journey of how I fell in love with soccer, but I haven’t done anything to capture the why. Before I do so, let me first step into a discussion about what I think a few of the reasons are for why soccer has struggled in the United States.

I think part of the reason that soccer struggles is because our modern media machine has not been built to allow soccer to succeed. Television broadcasting relies on advertising deals for commercials and product ads, where NFL, NBA, MLB and other televised sports have many opportunities for commercial breaks (some initiated specifically for that purpose rather than used opportunistically)—soccer doesn’t allow for that. The game is two forty-five minute halves without stops. No chance for commercials, and thus not exactly the poster boy for profitability.

There is one thing which could force the broadcasters to eat this: public demand. And what brings public demand? National team success or the rise of a popular league. Neither of which has truly happened yet.

These issues are a chicken and an egg problem in today’s world. It is imperative for any professional sport that it not only get exposure but also the revenue from the coverage. With that coverage comes not only revenue but also the growth of a culture around the sport: kids watching and loving the sport’s stars. Lastly, this coverage is critical for also the reason of comparison against other sports. As a kid, why should I care about a sport I can’t watch on TV when instead I can follow Jordan and the Bulls, or Deion Sanders and the Falcons or Cowboys, or… someone relevant from baseball (Greg Maddux) or hockey (Wayne Gretzky.)

So, aside from the popularity, with the rise of attention that Americans give it around every World Cup there is still a problem of “stickiness.” It doesn’t grab Americans who aren’t indoctrinated in it. I contend one of the major reasons is the need for people to learn the sport beyond the base rules. Many people think soccer is slow, boring, or hard to follow.

The advantage other sports have that is that they are more “busy” than soccer. American Football is a multi-hour broadcast for less than an hour of active game play. Basketball’s last two minutes of action can take twenty-plus minutes. Baseball is a series of pitches which result sometimes in bursts of action. These sports are short easily processed chunks which create punctuations of action that make us believe that, on the whole, they are faster and more action packed than soccer. The difference is that there are nice and easy digestible bites of these sports. Whether the plays of football, or the shot-clock limited fast-paced action of basketball, these are benefits of short attention span because it lets you know for sure when a play or series of actions is complete.

Soccer is more like a marathon. The clock starts and runs without stop for forty-five minutes. You can’t stop and go to the bathroom without risking missing action unless a player is injured. And during this time, there’s no promise of a score, much to many American fans’ frustration. Games end 0-0 or maybe 1-0! Where’s the blow out? Where’s the double digit win?

Soccer’s continuously long period of motion creates a barrier to entry.

Next comes the lack of clear direction of attention. I sort of spoke to this above, but the trap of soccer is that following the ball is only part of what you should be watching. Soccer’s real beauty lies in the whole picture and not just what happens immediately around the ball. I’ll use the Seattle Sounders’ as an example, right now the Sounders have Nigerian Obafemi Martins and American Clint Dempsey as their star scorers with Clint leading the way. However to give either of them sole credit for their success thus far this season is a discredit to the other, and in fact the team as a whole.

Here’s a goal from the Sounders 2013 season, it’s Obafemi Martins who scores, but watch the passing that leads up to the goal:

So in that play you see a pass from Brad Evans (I can’t see clearly, but I think that’s who it is) to Obafemi, who immediately dishes it out to Andy Rose who is streaking up the side. It’s actually this run which is so crucial, without the run the three defenders around Obafemi would be focused solely on him, and thanks to the run they aren’t, which allows Obafemi to make the turn and get into position for Andy’s return pass before the score.

Now here’s another clip for you to watch:

What you see is Obafemi Martins streaking down the right side of the pitch, and doing so draws the Chivas defenders attention (as it should) we then see a pass to Mauro Rosales (now playing for Chivas funnily enough) who slips as he passes it on to Lamar Neagle who is left wide open because the defense has closed in on Obafemi and Mauro. Again, while the goal is exciting, it’s the movement leading up to the goal which is important.

Now for something a bit different, a defensive play that shows you the beauty of defense. A lightning quick foot move to stop an attack and then a tenacious defense.

Another shot from the World Cup which shows an amazing pass. It’s unlikely Guti, the player who makes the backwards pass, actually knew for sure a team mate was there but it shows the amazing team work where he felt confident a team mate would be in the area.

These aren’t plays which will convert non-soccer fans, but they are examples of the need to be watching more than just the ball.

So, now that I’ve just shown you the importance of not watching the ball – I’m not going to lie. Goals are amazing exclamation points, better than touchdowns, home runs, or three point shots. I mean sure, some are better than goals, but the best goals will defeat the best touchdowns in my opinion.

Alright, let me show you some amazing goals:

I could keep going. The fact that I can make those above embeds with only a few minutes of work is exactly what is going right for soccer now. Technology is opening up the world of soccer in new and Internet-friendly ways. The World Cup aside, it’s an exciting period.

MLS is growing quickly, they’ve announced their next four expansion teams in the next three years: Orlando (as mentioned above), NYC FC (a partnership between Manchester City and the New York Yankees), Miami (courtesy of David Beckham and LeBron James), and Atlanta (with the likes of Arthur Blank of the Atlanta Falcons). No other sports league in America is expanding like the MLS is right now.

In addition to these new teams, they announced a new landmark television deal with ESPN and FOX. This deal is exciting because the amount of money they’re talking about is actually more than NBC is paying for the English Premier League.

That’s exciting because it means that MLS is really starting to be taken serious by US broadcasters, and it also means that EPL is being broadcast in the US, and there is even more exciting news in that there is a deal for FOX to carry Bundesliga starting in 2015. My soccer excitement isn’t only because of the World Cup (though that is obviously part of it) but also because the years ahead are very exciting for fans of the sport.

Some may think I’ve strayed away from why and back to how, and that is understandable, except I haven’t. I’m still on why. I’m in love with the sport now because I have readily available access to it. Something which when I was in college wasn’t true.

There is another major factor which I shouldn’t overlook, though it is far from a conclusive one. Having a hometown team to cheer for is fantastic. Seattle’s love for the Sounders certainly plays part in why I love soccer. I love going to the matches and experiencing the atmosphere of it all. More so than going to a live basketball, baseball or football game, the soccer match experience is fantastic in Seattle.

As I write this latest revision to the blog post the United States Men’s team are on the verge of proceeding to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. The only time we have proceeded further was in 1930, when we placed third out of the eight teams that participated in the first ever World Cup. Interestingly, the first match we played during that tournament was a 3-0 win over Belgium.

Will we be able to overcome one of our most ancient of professional soccer foes? I suppose I’ll find out tomorrow. But regardless of how it ends up, I know I’m going to love to continue to watch the rest of the tournament (though I’ll love it more if I’m rooting for the good ole’ red, white, and blue.)

#IBELIEVEWEWILLWIN

Excerpts from “Creativity, Inc.” by Ed Catmull

Note: Book links in this post are affiliate links, but I was not provided a copy of this book in any way. I picked it up on my own accord and then I couldn’t put it down.

I am very tempted to launch this post as titled “Trick’s Notes” but I have a feeling that could come back and bite me in the ass later on. Instead I will simply offer these up as a rather long collection of quotes and excerpts from Ed Catmull’s excellent book “Creativity, Inc.” which discusses his time founding Pixar alongside Steve Jobs and John Lasseter, as well as the acquisition and process of taking over Disney’s animation studios. Overall I found it a very enjoyable read and learned a great deal from it, below are the excerpts I highlighted in my E-reader as a possible useful reference for others.

While the book is told using Pixar and its movies as its topics, the book is truly a book about management and being a manager. Ed Catmull did not set out to be a manager, he wanted to make the world’s first computer animated movie and along the way found himself at the head of one of the world’s most creative businesses and needing to understand how to keep that company successful as it expanded and learned some hard lessons along the way.

Most of what I’ve highlighted is to that topic, but some aren’t. Some are just phrases I liked, or interesting ideas. And towards the end it is a point or two about Steve Jobs which were interesting.

Enjoy!

When faced with a challenge, get smarter.

Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.

Clearly, it wasn’t enough for managers to have good ideas—they had to be able to engender support for those ideas among the people who’d be charged with employing them

For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right.

I realized that this was something I needed to look out for: When downsides coexist with upsides, as they often do, people are reluctant to explore what’s bugging them, for fear of being labeled complainers. I also realized that this kind of thing, if left unaddressed, could fester and destroy Pixar.

If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.

Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas.

It is the responsibility of good leaders to make sure that words remain attached to the meanings and ideals they represent.

Ask anyone, “Should people be honest?” and of course their answer will be yes. It has to be! Saying no is to endorse dishonesty, which is like coming out against literacy or childhood nutrition—it sounds like a moral transgression. But the fact is, there are often good reasons not to be honest. When it comes to interacting with other people in a work environment, there are times when we choose not to say what we really think.

One way to do that is to replace the word honesty with another word that has a similar meaning but fewer moral connotations: candor.

We believe that ideas—and thus, films—only become great when they are challenged and tested

You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged

Michael Arndt, who wrote Toy Story 3, says he thinks to make a great film, its makers must pivot, at some point, from creating the story for themselves to creating it for others.

“A lot of us in this room have not grown up—and I mean that in the best way,” he said. “The conundrum is how to become mature, how to take on responsibility and become reliable while at the same time preserving your childlike wonder. People have come up to me many times, as I’m sure has happened to many people in this room, and said, ‘Gee, I wish I could be creative like you. That would be something, to be able to draw.’ But I believe that everyone begins with the ability to draw. Kids are instinctively there. But a lot of them unlearn it. Or people tell them they can’t or it’s impractical. So yes, kids have to grow up, but maybe there’s a way to suggest that they could be better off if they held onto some of their childish ideas.

Frank talk, spirited debate, laughter, and love.

In my experience, people usually don’t intend to be evasive, and a gentle nudge is all it takes to put them back on the right path.

Candor isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves

Believe me, you don’t want to be at a company where there is more candor in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or matters of policy are being hashed out. The best inoculation against this fate? Seek out people who are willing to level with you, and when you find them, hold them close

We need to think about failure differently. I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).

The fact that failing could earn you a very public flogging distorted the way researchers chose projects. The politics of failure, then, impeded our progress.

When experimentation is seen as necessary and productive, not as a frustrating waste of time, people will enjoy their work—even when it is confounding them.

But any failure at a creative company is a failure of many, not one

As managers, we all start off with a certain amount of trepidation. When we are new to the position, we imagine what the job is in order to get our arms around it, then we compare ourselves against our made-up model. But the job is never what we think it is. The trick is to forget our models about what we “should” be. A better measure of our success is to look at the people on our team and see how they are working together. Can they rally to solve key problems? If the answer is yes, you are managing well.

Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on—but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.
I see this over and over again in other companies: A subversion takes place in which streamlining the process or increasing production supplants the ultimate goal, with each person or group thinking they’re doing the right thing—when, in fact, they have strayed off course.

While the idea of balance always sounds good, it doesn’t capture the dynamic nature of what it means to actually achieve balance. Our mental image of balance is somewhat distorted because we tend to equate it with stillness—the calm repose of a yogi balancing on one leg, a state without apparent motion. To my mind, the more accurate examples of balance come from sports, such as when a basketball player spins around a defender, a running back bursts through the line of scrimmage, or a surfer catches a wave. All of these are extremely dynamic responses to rapidly changing environments

The key is to view conflict as essential, because that’s how we know the best ideas will be tested and survive.

I was struck that there seemed to be two kinds of reviewers: some who would look for flaws in the papers, and then pounce to kill them; and others who started from a place of seeking and promoting good ideas. When the “idea protectors” saw flaws, they pointed them out gently, in the spirit of improving the paper—not eviscerating it. Interestingly, the “paper killers” were not aware that they were serving some other agenda (which was often, in my estimation, to show their colleagues how high their standards were). Both groups thought they were protecting the proceedings, but only one group understood that by looking for something new and surprising, they were offering the most valuable kind of protection.

“I tend to flood and freeze up if I’m feeling overwhelmed. When this happens, it’s usually because I feel like the world is crashing down and all is lost. One trick I’ve learned is to force myself to make a list of what’s actually wrong. Usually, soon into making the list, I find I can group most of the issues into two or three larger all-encompassing problems. So it’s really not all that bad. Having a finite list of problems is much better than having an illogical feeling that everything is wrong.”

Unlike some theoretical ideas, Occam’s Razor accords easily with human nature. In general, we seek what we think are simple explanations for events in our lives because we believe the simpler something is, the more fundamental—the more true—it is. But when it comes to randomness, our desire for simplicity can mislead us. Not everything is simple, and to try to force it to be is to misrepresent reality.

If all our careful planning cannot prevent problems, then our best method of response is to enable employees at every level to own the problems and have the confidence to fix them.

When Walt Disney was alive, he was such a singular talent that it was difficult for anyone to conceive of what the company would be like without him. And sure enough, after his death, there wasn’t anybody who came close to filling his shoes. For years, Disney employees attempted to keep his spirit alive by constantly asking themselves, “What would Walt do?” Perhaps they thought that if they asked that question they would come up with something original, that they would remain true to Walt’s pioneering spirit. In fact, this kind of thinking only accomplished the opposite. Because it looked backward, not forward, it tethered the place to the status quo. A pervasive fear of change took root. Steve Jobs was quite aware of this story and used to repeat it to people at Apple, adding that he never wanted people to ask, “What would Steve do?” No one—not Walt, not Steve, not the people of Pixar—ever achieved creative success by simply clinging to what used to work.

it behooves us to ask ourselves constantly: How much are we able to see? And how much is obscured from view? Is there a Cassandra out there we are failing to listen to?

Here’s what turns a successful hierarchy into one that impedes progress: when too many people begin, subconsciously, to equate their own value and that of others with where they fall in the pecking order.

The problem is, the phrase is dead wrong. Hindsight is not 20-20. Not even close. Our view of the past, in fact, is hardly clearer than our view of the future

The past should be our teacher, not our master.

We’ve all experienced times when other people see the same event we see but remember it differently. (Typically, we think our view is the correct one.) The differences arise because of the ways our separate mental models shape what we see. I’ll say it again: Our mental models aren’t reality. They are tools, like the models weather forecasters use to predict the weather. But, as we know all too well, sometimes the forecast says rain and, boom, the sun comes out. The tool is not reality.

In business, where dozens if not hundreds of people may work in close proximity, that effect multiplies quickly, and before you know it, these competing and often at-odds models lead to a kind of inertia that makes it difficult to change or respond well to challenges. The intertwining of many views is an unavoidable part of any culture, and unless you are careful, the conflicts that arise can keep groups of people locked into their restrictive viewpoints even if, as is often the case, each member of the group is ordinarily open to better ideas.

Even though copying what’s come before is a guaranteed path to mediocrity, it appears to be a safe choice, and the desire to be safe—to succeed with minimal risk—can infect not just individuals but also entire companies.

During the making of The Incredibles, he became distracted by what he calls “mirages”—scenes or ideas he fell in love with but that, ultimately, didn’t serve the film. As an example, for a long time he was obsessed with a vision of some fish in an aquarium that would appear in the background of a scene. He wanted them to move and flicker in a way that evoked flames in a fireplace—he was fixated, in fact, on realizing the vision in his head. But the film’s animators were really struggling to make it look right, and after five months—and thousands of hours of work—Brad suddenly realized it didn’t improve the movie in any real way. A mirage had led him astray.

The solution we implemented may have been obvious, but here’s something that wasn’t: It could never have come from the people in the oversight group, because that would have required them to recognize and admit that their group’s existence was unnecessary. They were not in a position to challenge the preconception that their group was based on

The oversight group had been put in place without anyone asking a fundamental question: How do we enable our people to solve problems? Instead, they asked: How do we prevent our people from screwing up? That approach never encourages a creative response.

Better to have train wrecks with miniature trains than with real ones

It isn’t just postmortems, though: In general, people are resistant to self-assessment. Companies are bad at it, too. Looking inward, to them, often boils down to this: “We are successful, so what we are doing must be correct.” Or the converse: “We failed, so what we did was wrong.” This is shallow. Do not be cowed into missing this opportunity. There are five reasons, I believe, to do postmortems. The first two are fairly obvious, the next three less so.

Consolidate What’s Been Learned
While it is true that you learn the most in the midst of a project, the lessons are not generally coherent. Any individual can have a great insight but may not have the time to pass it on. A process might be flawed, but you don’t have time to fix it under the current schedule. Sitting down afterward is a way of consolidating all that you’ve learned—before you forget it. Postmortems are a rare opportunity to do analysis that simply wasn’t possible in the heat of the project.

Teach Others Who Weren’t There
Even if everyone involved in a production understands what it taught them, the postmortem is a great way of passing on the positive and negative lessons to other people who were not on the project. So much of what we do is not obvious—the result of hard-won experience. Then again, some of what we do doesn’t really make sense. The postmortem provides a forum for others to learn or challenge the logic behind certain decisions.

Don’t Let Resentments Fester
Many things that go wrong are caused by misunderstandings or screw-ups. These lead to resentments that, if left unaddressed, can fester for years. But if people are given a forum in which to express their frustrations about the screw-ups in a respectful manner, then they are better able to let them go and move on. I have seen many cases where hurt feelings lingered far after the project, feelings that would have been worked through much more easily if they had been expressed in a postmortem.

Use the Schedule to Force Reflection
I favor principles that lead you to think. Postmortems—but also other activities such as Braintrust meetings and dailies—are all about getting people to think and evaluate. The time we spend getting ready for a postmortem meeting is as valuable as the meeting itself. In other words, the scheduling of a postmortem forces self-reflection. If a postmortem is a chance to struggle openly with our problems, the “pre-postmortem” sets the stage for a successful struggle. I would even say that 90 percent of the value is derived from the preparation leading up to the postmortem.

Pay It Forward
In a postmortem, you can raise questions that should be asked on the next project. A good postmortem arms people with the right questions to ask going forward. We shouldn’t expect to find the right answers, but if we can get people to frame the right questions, then we’ll be ahead of the game

One technique I’ve used to soften the process is to ask everyone in the room to make two lists: the top five things that they would do again and the top five things that they wouldn’t do again. People find it easier to be candid if they balance the negative with the positive, and a good facilitator can make it easier for that balance to be struck.

Andrew likens the director’s job to that of a ship captain, out in the middle of the ocean, with a crew that’s depending on him to make land. The director’s job is to say, “Land is that way.” Maybe land actually is that way and maybe it isn’t, but Andrew says that if you don’t have somebody choosing a course—pointing their finger toward that spot there, on the horizon—then the ship goes nowhere. It’s not a tragedy if the leader changes her mind later and says, “Okay, it’s actually not that way, it’s this way. I was wrong.” As long as you commit to a destination and drive toward it with all your might, people will accept when you correct course.

One of Kahler’s big teachings is about meeting people where they are,” Katherine says, referring to what Kahler calls the Process Communication Model, which compares being a manager to taking the elevator from floor to floor in a big building. “It makes sense to look at every personality as a condominium,” Katherine says. “People live on different floors and enjoy different views.” Those on the upper floors may sit out on their balconies; those on the ground floor may lounge on their patios. Regardless, to communicate effectively with them all, you must meet them where they live.

If you are mindful, you are able to focus on the problem at hand without getting caught up in plans or processes

Similarly, within organizations groups often hold so tightly to plans and past practices that they are not open to seeing what is changing in front of them.

Earning trust takes time; there’s no shortcut to understanding that we really do rise and fall together. Without vigilant coaching—pulling people aside who didn’t speak their minds in a particular meeting, say, or encouraging those who seem eternally hesitant to jump into the fray—our progress could have easily stalled. Telling the truth isn’t easy

In big organizations there are advantages to consistency, but I strongly believe that smaller groups within the larger whole should be allowed to differentiate themselves and operate according to their own rules, so long as those rules work

We had learned long ago that while everyone appreciates cash bonuses, they value something else almost as much: being looked in the eye by someone they respect and told, “Thank you.” At Pixar, we’d devised a way to give our employees money and gratitude

There is nothing like a crisis, though, to bring what ails a company to the surface

Managers of creative companies must never forget to ask themselves: “How do we tap the brainpower of our people?”

A character animator lamented that he didn’t know more about what people in other departments, like lighting and shading, did. “It makes it easy to vilify and resent each other,” he said.

Steve had a remarkable knack for letting go of things that didn’t work. If you were in an argument with him, and you convinced him that you were right, he would instantly change his mind. He didn’t hold on to an idea because he had once believed it to be brilliant. His ego didn’t attach to the suggestions he made, even as he threw his full weight behind them

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Searching for a Distraction

For the past decade, my primary hobby has been to sit in front of a computer screen and manage a website. Whether a personal blog, a social group’s hub, or a fan site for a particular game – this has been my way of unplugging and relaxing. Not coincidentally, for most of the past decade my career has also been intricately intertwined with the Internet.

And in the last few weeks I have begun the task of trying to find another hobby which with to unplug.

In the past two weeks I believe I’ve settled on one, at least for the short term. And that is, the study of language. There are a lot of fascinating languages, and I have always loved them. Had I not gone to college for Computer Science I believe I would have turned to a dramatically different path for my life based around linguistics. In some alternate timeline I’m wearing a cardigan sweater and working in academia as I pour myself into languages.

However, in this timeline where I exist, I am still working on the Internet with various websites. So I found myself in need of a hobby which allowed me to fully turn my back on web development as if to hide my face in the shade after years of unforgiving sunburn. Seriously, that’s how I feel. My brain has finally begun to rot from focusing on the Internet for so long and now I need something else to take my focus for a while.

Enter foreign language.

In the past two years I’ve visited Spain twice: Barcelona in 2012 and Valencia in 2013. While there I found myself enjoying the language and wanting to learn more, but resigning myself to lack of time except for my random jaunts with DuoLingo on my tablet. I had a similar experience in Amsterdam – which is my favorite city to visit – and the Dutch language. So I figure, why not begin pouring some of my drive and effort and free time into learning these other languages.

I’ve constructed a rough list of my plan for languages to tackle over the coming years decades. I’ve broken it into two lists: Fluent & Conversational. Fluent meaning I want to be able to converse easily and understand these languages without issue. I am hoping to eventually “think” in these languages. Conversational meaning I want to be able to read and write these languages, and with effort be able to converse in them.

Currently Fluent:

  • English

Future Fluency:

  • Spanish
  • French
  • Italian
  • Japanese
  • German
  • Dutch
  • Russian
  • Portuguese
  • Afrikaans

Conversational:

  • Latin (previously conversational)
  • Mandarin
  • Cantonese
  • Korean
  • Ancient Greek

Fifteen languages. One down, fourteen to go. Should keep me busy for a few months, right? I’ve listed them roughly in order of my planned level of attack. I don’t plan to get to fluency before moving on, my goal is to spend 3-4 months focused and then move on to the next with a growing back log of languages I need to actively work to maintain.

My current project is Spanish. For the past few weeks I’ve been working hard on Spanish vocabulary and getting an understanding of its grammar. I’m slowly getting better and I’ve begun posting sentences on Facebook to get feedback and lessons from my Spanish speaking friends.

I’ll do another blog post which focuses on my process and the tools I’m using.