Why Feedback Is Absolutely Necessary

pictureHave you ever been so involved in a project that you can’t see the big picture?

Have you ever been so overwhelmed by the details and the familiarity with your work that you just get lost in the complexity of it all?

When it comes to any creative endeavor, it’s easy to lose perspective. You can get lost. But there’s one reliable way to claw your way back out: feedback.

On today’s episode, we’re talking about the necessity of seeking out other people’s opinions on your work. Feedback is perhaps one of the most underrated aspect of writing stories. You need it early and you need it often.

Often times our greatest resource is actually other people who can give us an objective opinion about our work and help us get unstuck when we hit a snag.

Topics of discussion include:

  • The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize
  • Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull
  • Pixar’s Braintrust
  • Actual feedback that Marc has received on his writing
  • The limitations of feedback
  • How to give good feedback

You can listen to the episode here:

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The Secret to Pixar’s Success: Honest Feedback

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

© Disney • Pixar

I live just a few minutes away from the Pixar headquarters. Although I’m still awaiting my official invitation to tour their offices, I imagine it a vast playground of artists and storytellers dreaming up fantastical tales filled with unforgettable characters. Supposedly they serve free cereal around the clock.

The reality is that Pixar is a workplace much like any other. Their themed offices and unique perks are probably not the reason behind their hot streak of successes. Instead Pixar’s true strength is how they have mastered the unseen creative process that drives all their award-winning films.

In Creativity Inc., a new book by co-founder Ed Catmull, we get a glimpse into how Pixar does what it does so well. They are popularly known for their Brain Trust, a rotating group of their top directors and writers who periodically review each other’s films from formation to the final product. And their recipe appears to be both simple and incredibly difficult at the same time:

What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it. – Loc. 56

Unlike most organizations, Pixar spends much of its effort recognizing its weaknesses and working to fix them. They devote themselves to uncovering problems, solving them, and then looking for new ones.

We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them. – Loc. 13

It’s hard work to constantly evaluate yourself and your work to find room for improvement, but it’s become part of the Pixar ethos. Instead of viewing feedback as something to be feared, they have turned it into a significant part of the creative process that needs to be embraced. If you are working on something that requires creativity, complexity, and long term thinking, Catmull argues that you are bound to get lost.

People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things—in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing. Where once a movie’s writer/ director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees. The details converge to obscure the whole, and that makes it difficult to move forward substantially in any one direction. The experience can be overwhelming. All directors, no matter how talented, organized, or clear of vision, become lost somewhere along the way. That creates a problem for those who seek to give helpful feedback. How do you get a director to address a problem he or she cannot see? – Loc. 1439

What seems to separate Pixar from the rest of the pack, and indeed other film studios outside of animation is that they embrace a deep commitment to personal feedback. It is not simply a one time deal. Their ideas are tested, refined, discarded, and exchanged. All of their movies begin as rough drafts full of bumps and flaws and only through empowering employees to speak up and make suggestions do they get better.

Essentially Pixar pursues a policy of honesty and mutual trust for one another, and in turn that allows their people to be open about whether a project is working or not working. The fear of offending someone who has worked hard on something is replaced by the fear of not making the best possible movie they can.

This principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation—you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person. – Loc. 1485

It easy to forget that Pixar is not the only studio that gives notes. But whereas most studios give notes from on high, often mandatory, not even Disney executives are allowed to intervene in the Pixar process. The people who give feedback at Pixar are other creative personnel, directors, and writers with a mutual understanding of how great stories are made. They are equals, not competitors or more powerful members of a complex hierarchy. They are other storytellers.

Getting the right people in the room and encouraging them to speak up is an essential part of the feedback process. And this advice applies to many of the creative tasks we do every day. As Edmull expresses throughout the book, maintaining an environment of true candor and openess requires constantly fighting the forces of entropy and championing the need for constructive criticism. By being honest about each and every one of their films during the development process and being willing to go back and rework the elements that aren’t working, Pixar has created something altogether unique in the film industry: a studio with an unparalleled level of both creative and financial success. This ability to separate yourself from your work and repeatedly invite the feedback of smart talented people is often challenging for Pixar but for this particular company, it is the only way forward.

Inside Out and the Purpose of Sadness

  
Total Spoilers for Inside Out ahead!

Pixar’s latest is curiously simple in its execution. The main plot revolves around a pair of personified emotions, Joy and Sadness, as they wander through the collapsing mental world of an 11 year old girl. While the actual locations of their journey are rather disposable, a dream production studio here and an abstract thought void there, what drives the deeper story is how all the events happening in the cartoonish world of the mind affects the little girl in turmoil.

While the always bubbly Joy is the protagonist of the film, the setting (and stakes) are firmly centered on Riley and her heartrending move from the warm feels of Minnesota to the discomforting strangeness of San Francisco. And Joy, the leader and cheerleader of Riley’s emotions, finally hits a wall finding herself unable to keep Riley happy in the midst of overwhelming disappointment and loss.

At the beginning of the film, Joy introduces each emotion and explains their purpose. However she cannot think of a reason or function for Sadness. Her whole role, she believes, is to shut out any sad feelings and create only happy memories for Riley. It is these continually happy days that preserve Riley’s personality islands which Joy has worked so hard to build and maintain.

In one of the film’s more inspired decisions, Riley’s memories are revealed to be flowing spheres that roll into place and light up with whatever color emotion they represent. There is something quite satisfying how a happy moment leads to a new yellow ball or a sad moment brings a rolling blue ball. My two year old decided they were Easter Eggs.

Memories are such intangible things. Feelings are such fleeting things. Animating them with weight and mass gives them legitimacy. It shows us that what is going on inside us is real, important, and valid.

What is most touching about the film is how it tries to show an honest portrayal of what it looks like to possess a human mind, a mysterious web of connections inside our brain that confounds even those who study it. Is it really possible for someone with emotions to ever fully understand emotions?

I found myself in the days after the film getting angry, feeling sad, and finding joy. I can see the little buttons going off in my head seemingly controlled by tiny forces outside of my jurisdiction. I also see it in my family, often quite hilariously.

The finale is the right kind of ending for such an ambitious idea like this. It has a message and one that is not easy to learn or apply. Joy accepts that she cannot simply force Riley to be happy but that she needs to let her grieve the loss of her Minnesota childhood. Things will never be the same. Her pure childlike joy cannot be recreated as it once was. She is growing up, maturing, and realizing that life is more complicated than she once thought.

Uninterrupted joy is no longer possible. And sadness is not something that can be suppressed and avoided. Joy begins to remember that Riley’s happiest moments were often preceded first by sadness. There is a purpose for sadness. It allows us to let go of things we can’t hold onto. It helps break down the islands that we used to rely on that are no longer stable so that we can build new ones. And most of all sadness makes us vulnerable and dependent on others, bringing us closer to other people in a way that happiness alone never can.

Inside Out is painfully honest in its approach, reminding us that life is not made up of Goofball Islands and instead laden with unexpected mixtures of both joy and sadness, anger and disgust, fear and other moments forgotten along the way.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Riley’s mind to accept is the deep sense of loss that her transformation from child to adult takes on her imagination. This is represented best by the breakout character Bing Bong, her imaginary friend whose flying rainbow wagon have long since been ignored.

When Bing Bong faded away disappearing into oblivion, my daughter looked up at me and asked worriedly, “Where did he go?” She is too young to understand the complicated mechanics of memories or the narrative device of the heroic sacrifice, but she was concerned just the same wondering if Bing Bong was okay, if he was going to come back. I replied with the only words I could think of that would make sense to her little mind. “He went bye bye.”