Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Unlikely Lessons From a Plastic Cowboy

I recently watched an excellent documentary on Netflix streaming called The Pixar Story.  It’s a movie about…well…if you can’t figure it out from the title, I doubt the rest of this post is really going to help you. 

There was one particular portion of the movie that really resonated with me.  Right after Pixar had released A Bug’s Life, John Lassiter, who is the creative driving force behind a lot of the company’s movies, was scheduled to take a well-deserved vacation after putting in months of round-the-clock days trying to prep A Bug’s Life for release.  At the time, the “second squad” at the studio was working on a direct-to-video release of Toy Story 2.  Pixar’s partner, Disney, saw some of the dailies from the project, and thought it was good enough to release in theaters.  Though this sounds great, many of the people that worked on the original Toy Story thought that the sequel was nowhere near the quality of the original.  When Lassiter returned from a promotional junket, he looked at the footage and agreed that it wasn’t up to the studio’s standards.  So instead of taking his vacation, Lassiter hunkered down with the original creative team and delivered the Toy Story 2 that we all know and love on a very tight deadline, after having to re-do over half of the shots in the movie and the entire script.

I found this story to be incredibly inspiring for a number of reasons.  First of all, Lassiter was able to deliver amazing results on an incredibly short deadline.  This is a valuable skill in any line of work, and one that I became familiar with while working as an attorney.  As much as you try to manage expectations and cajole your schedule, sometimes someone will set a hard deadline in front of you that has to be met, and you simply have to push through and get the work done.  Being able to do this is the sign of someone who has the perseverance, work ethic, and (usually) creativity to take on the toughest projects.  This distinction is obviously what everyone should strive for in whatever line of work they are in, and obviously a commendable quality. 

I also think that Lassiter took things a step further, and his story illustrates an important lesson about leadership.  Lassiter was in the trenches with his employees every day, pitching in with whatever needed to be done.  Not only that, but he told his team not to ask for his approval on every little detail because there quite simply wasn’t any time, and he knew and trusted the people that worked on the original Toy Story to create spectacular results at the end of the day.

In my experience, people in leadership positions usually toe a difficult line between “showing employees that they care” by sticking around until the work is done, and a more “hands-off” approach, where their employees are able to take a project and run with it.  Err too far on the side of the former, and you have employees complaining that they “don’t get to do their jobs.”  Skew too far in the other direction, and the employees think that they don’t have enough guidance, or worse, that the project is somehow being “pawned off” on them.

By dealing with the big-picture stuff and showing that you’re working just as hard as everyone else, yet being around to help with any detail-oriented work that might crop up, I think Lassiter struck just the right balance.  I think it probably also helps if you’re not a total prick, but that’s just common sense.  In my somewhat limited experience in leadership positions, I’ve definitely worked hard, yet developed the right camaraderie with the team where if someone came to me and wanted to pursue one aspect of the larger project on their own, I felt comfortable letting that person tackle it.  It’s not like I was a Fortune 500 CEO or anything, but I have been in a leadership role on fairly complicated projects with a lot of moving parts (like Presidential Classroom’s Future World Leader’s Summit), and trusting other people on the team with important projects is often both necessary for the project and rewarding for the individual.

I think that the most important lesson to be learned from Lassiter is that he didn’t sulk, bitch, or moan about what needed to be done.  He just did it.  It can be incredibly difficult when put under pressure to not go in and scream or yell or unload on someone when a project goes ass-up, or if a partner drops an all-weekend assignment on your desk.  But as I’ve stated many times before, there are bitchers and doers on this planet, and bitchers never prosper.

“But D.J., these people were working at Pixar on Toy Story 2!  I’m writing stupid briefs and motions all day long!  It’s easy to buckle down and do things when you really love what you do!”  Well, whose fault is that?  Nobody’s forcing you to stay at whatever job you’re at.  “But the loans!”  “But the paycheck!” “But the prestige!”  These are all excuses.  Sure, you might have loans now, but at the end of the day, you prioritize how aggressively you pay those loans off, and how quickly you save up to have enough of a nest-egg to be able to embark on the life you really want to.  Until then, you owe it to yourself to be able to push your personal feelings to the side and get the job done.  You may really hate your job, and I mean HATE it, especially for a day, week, month, or many months at a time, but by setting a goal for yourself, developing an exit strategy, and working toward that strategy, you come that much closer to living the life that you want.  If you’re already happy in the job that you have, then coming up with creative solutions to unique problems on short timelines is what will distinguish you as a true superstar and advance your career. 

At the end of the day, it’s all about finding something that you want to do and working to be the best at it.  Until you find what that is, you owe it to yourself to establish a strategy to reach that point in your life and make it happen.  Anything less is, to be blunt, a bullshit excuse. 

And who would’ve thought that these lessons would come from the guy that brought you “Buzz Lightyear” and “The Claw?”

Oh, wait…

Have you ever faced an impossible deadline or ridiculously stressful situation at work?  If so, how did you deal?  Let me know in the comments.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

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