5 Random Life Lessons I Learned At Pixar

I was just today cleaning my office, and as it tends to happen every time I decide to re-organize my (creative) cluster of madness, I tend to find a few surprises along the way. This time around I found a whole collection of Polaroids that I took throughout my time at Pixar.

For those who know me, I have this eternally romantic/nostalgic side of me that no matter what happens in my life I'll never be able to get rid of. One of the things that make it obvious, is that I like to capture moments that seem so normal and mundane at the time, but that I feel in a few years I'll remember them as some of the best memories of my life.

So at Pixar, I had this small Polaroid-like camera and I would try to capture as much as I could remember, some of the people, colleagues and friends, that defined my several years there. Every time I took a new polaroid, I would tape it outside of my office for everyone else to see them as well. It became a pretty big deal, and I'm glad I found them just now.

Polaroid memories of my life at Pixar

These photos remind me that Pixar not only taught me most of the things I know about filmmaking, storytelling, and cinema, but also showed me some of the most crucial personal life lessons I could ever hope to have. What made those years so special, so wildly unforgettable, was not only the incredible films I got to work on, but also the friendships, the experiences, the laughs and the tears I shared with many of these people, who just happen to be some of the most talented artists in the world.

Please note these are obviously my own personal opinions about my journey there, as everyone follows a different path and perception in life.

And for that, here's five things that Pixar taught me that are not (directly) related to filmmaking but that I will always cherish in my life. There are lots more, that maybe some day I'll write about, but these are just the ones I'm thinking of right now as I look at these photos.


1. We. Not I.

One of the things I'll always remember, is that there was this feeling of being part of a team, almost like belonging to the same family. Yes, we had some fights, and sometimes we'd annoy each other at breakfast or Thanksgiving dinner, but there was this sense of respect, admiration, and true genuine friendship between all of us working there. The sense that people would listen to you. That they would stop what they were doing, and help you. We. Not I. We are a team, and we're in this together. We're making a film, something that we believe in, and love, and are excited about, and we're going to give our very best to create something that will inspire people all over the world. Yet, at the same time, we're going to be there for each other, help each other out through the bumps in the road, and we'll give each other a hug when needed.

Not only on a work level, but also on a personal level. I've been through surgeries, major illnesses, major breakups, deaths, anything you could possibly throw at me. Yet, I always felt nothing but pure genuine love and support from my team in the Lighting department, and people, sometimes co-workers I had never met from all levels of the organization.

I'll never forget that. And to this day, no matter what, I always remember to say we, instead of I to recognize the efforts and companionship of friends, partner, or co-workers, in the things we do and accomplish together.

 

2. "You don't need to run".

One of the most unforgettable moments of my time at Pixar, was the day I met Steve Jobs. Nerdy reasons aside, he was the CEO of our company at the time, and someone I have always admired through what I saw at Pixar in the way he truly cared about the company and our creative work as artists.

I was coming in to work along the beautiful path at the entrance of the main building, where the roses bloom in ways I've never seen before in the Spring. I notice from a far distance that Steve is about to enter the building. I'm listening to music on my iPod, and don't even think twice about it since at this point I was used to seeing him at Pixar all the time.

But then he opens the door of the main building, which is now actually called The Steve Jobs Building, and he stops. He looks behind him, and he sees me way in the distance slowly walking towards the entrance. There's no one else around me. Instead of going in, he just waits there. Door open. And he's looking at me. And I freak out.

My only thought is: "Shit. Steve Jobs is holding the door open for me.". And I start running. And it's a mess. Earphones flying all over the place, my heavy backpack full of crap I didn't even need. I keep running.

Until I get to the door, completely nervous (and it's not easy to make me nervous). I'm breathing heavily, looking inside past Steve and see the whole executive team at Pixar waiting patiently for him as he holds the door open for me. I heard later that day, they were wondering themselves who Steve was holding the door open for.

I look at Steve and simply say Thank You. It might have come out as a shriek. I can't remember. But he looks at me, laughs, and simply says "You didn't have to run. What's your name?". I introduce myself, he asks what I do, and from that day onwards he never forgot my name again. We had some other interactions throughout his Pixar days, and he was always kind and curious about my work, and my perspective on a few things. They were short, quick interactions, but they were memories I will never forget.

The day he died, I was at Pixar and it was one of the saddest days I can remember in the studio. And to me, on a personal level, I just couldn't feel more grateful for all the numerous things he taught me. And even though his comment at the door, was completely unrelated, it struck a chord that I still think about to this day on a personal level. Don't rush things. Appreciate what you have now, and learn to be aware of your environment and the people around you.

And never be afraid of opening the door to someone behind you.

 

3. The Sense of Wonder

Children see the world in pretty unique eyes. That innate curiosity, where everything feels new, exciting, and inspiring. As we get older, and become adults, in the never ending stresses of daily life, the commutes, the dirty dishes, the laundry, the daily routines that we try to avoid but can't ever truly get rid of, it becomes harder and harder to keep that sense of wonder alive.

At Pixar, being surrounded by such talented people was already unique enough to help that. Every day I felt that I could learn something new by just talking to someone randomly in the halls, at the cafe, or for just being there. Not only that, we were also making some of the most heartfelt family films in history. To this day, I can't forget working on the infamous Up "Married Life" sequence, the silent montage that weirdly enough also depicts the romanticized idealistic view of how I see friendships, relationships, and life. And every single time we would look at the shots in review, you would hear several people crying. No matter how many times we had seen those shots already... It always had that effect in us, sometimes the most jaded and tired of artists.

And Pixar University, where I learned such things as filmmaking techniques, but also Chinese calligraphy, or molecular gastronomy, Italian classes, or yoga and meditation practices.

I learned that I need to keep thinking to myself, that no matter how busy I get in whatever work I do, it's important to take a step aside and do something different. Learn something new. Be curious. Ask questions. Ask why. Be inquisitive. Look at the world around you with that childlike wonder. That sense that everything can be pretty magical, and unforgettable, and that you still have so much to learn about life and people.

We're all trying to figure it out. No one knows what life is about, and we just do the best we can at any given moment. But since we're all on different paths, then most likely someone else can teach you a new way of thinking, or seeing the world.

Experiences. It's all about experiences.

 

4. On Being Afraid.

We're all afraid of failing. Of not being accepted. Of being rejected, or criticized, or neglected, or ignored. So many things. When you're surrounded by some of the most skilled technicians and artists in the world, one of the hardest things for me was to learn how to not think of myself as the biggest fraud.

One day – I'd think to myself – they'll find out I shouldn't be here. It just so happens, that seven years later I was still there, and the only reason I left was because I quit. Yes, it's a company, and there are layoffs, and glass ceilings, and politics, and all that which exists in any corporation. But I've had the pleasure of working at other companies, and nothing compares to the environment I experienced at Pixar. Again, that's my own personal journey, and maybe it doesn't fit with other people's experiences.

Either way, Pixar gave me a voice. A personal voice. I gained confidence, I was challenged constantly, but I learned so much from everyone else around me, that it allowed me to grow as an artist and become fearless in pursuing certain things in my life. It allowed me to find myself, to know who I am, and what I want, and not be afraid of going for the things I love, the people I care about, and the experiences I want to have.

Ultimately, Pixar also gave me the voice to quit. To leave a job that I loved so much, and people that became my family, was one of the hardest decisions of my life. I never saw it as a permanent decision. I hope one day I'll get an opportunity to come back and work on a film, but I just needed to go on an adventure, because they taught me that I should be adventurous. That life's too short. That there's a whole world out there to experience. And so I did. And to this day, that's one of the most exciting lessons.

Fear is part of life. It's perfectly fine to fail. But if you fail for trying, then you're actually succeeding.

 

5. Yes. Yes. No.

Pixar taught me a very particular way of speaking with people. Not only speaking, but interacting, connecting, and listening to people.

Start by saying, that's great. Good job. That's a great suggestion, hadn't thought of that. Thank you for saying that. Then bring the constructive criticism. Have you thought of this way of doing it? Why don't we try this certain thing? There's ways of communicating with people that make them even more motivated to outdo their best work. Everyone is constantly working at 110%, giving it all to create beautiful images, animations, and stories. So learn to give thanks. Respect those efforts. Acknowledge them. Don't let ego take over the way you talk and interact with other people.

This is so huge in my life right now, that to this day I interact with people in this way. Friends, my partner, or even strangers. Give value to people. You don't know their story. Their baggage. What they're going through right now, what they've been through in the past. Be positive at least twice more than you are negative. Learn to listen to each other, and create deeper bonds with everyone.

It's easy to be superficial – that's the laziness of us all in human nature coming through. It's hard to go deep in human interactions, but it will allow you to experience some of the most unforgettable memories of your life.


So there you go. Five life lessons I learned from my time at Pixar, that became part of who I am today.

And as I work through my own challenges at Sutro Studios, I try to instill all of these lessons in the way I conduct my business, work on my creative projects, and collaborate with every client I have.

It's pretty powerful. And it's an adventure that I couldn't be more grateful for.