Press On

      Comments Off on Press On

In the year 2000, Pixar was riding a wave of success unrivalled in the history of movie studios. 

Their first three feature-length films – Toy Story, A Bug Life’s, and Toy Story 2 – had been smash hits.  Two future blockbusters – Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo – were in production.

Buoyed by such achievement, what did Pixar do next? 

They hired Brad Bird – a guy whose most recent animated movie project, The Iron Giant, had been a major box office disappointment.  As Bird recalls:  “For a company that has had nothing but success, to invite a guy who was coming off a failure, and say, ‘Go ahead, mess with our heads, shake it up’ – when do you run into that?”

The answer is not very often.

But Pixar’s management philosophy is that ongoing success can be one of the worst things that can ever happen to a company.  As Ed Catmull, Pixar’s then-president, put it:  “Success hides problems.” 

Catmull had noticed that dozens of successful companies – each of them blessed with great talent – had ultimately failed.  He concluded that most of those companies had come to believe that success was an entitlement.  Therefore they stopped confronting their biggest problems with honesty and ingenuity.

The Pixar Way is that failures don’t add up to disaster.  They add up to learning.  As Peter Sims writes in his book Little Bets, Pixar’s associates have developed a culture where people say what they think.  They disagree with the boss.  There is no penalty for criticizing.  This always-learning mindset announces, “Come on, shake things up.  What we fear is complacency.  If you can convince us, we’ll do things in a different way.”

Brad Bird was shocked by Pixar’s willingness to tell the truth and admit mistakes.  And he quickly put the company’s culture to the test.  His ideas for a film called The Incredibles were, to put it mildly, audacious. 

Members of the Pixar team concluded that to create the movie that Bird envisioned, it would take 10 years and $500 million – both completely unacceptable numbers.

Bird and Pixar, however, learned together.  Bird specifically sought out the “black sheep” – the malcontents on the animation team – and gave them a chance to prove their theories.

By listening to those on the margins, Bird was able to alter Pixar’s approach to storyboards and computer graphics standards.  In the end The Incredibles was made for less money per minute than Finding Nemo.  And if you’ve ever seen it (or its brilliant sequel, The Incredibles 2) you know that the adventures of the Parr family – Bob, Helen, Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack – were worth every halting step of the creative process.

Bird’s risk-taking earned The Incredibles the Academy Award for Best Animated Film.  So did his next Pixar project, Ratatouille.  Tom Cruise loved The Incredibles so much that he invited Bird to direct Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which became an international smash hit. 

As Bird’s career illustrates, life presents a series of problems.  Will we address them or try to avoid them?  That is the first great question concerning personal growth.

What if things go well, and we experience some success in life?  Does that give us permission to coast?  Success is better seen as an opportunity – the chance to trade up for more complex and interesting problems.

The apostle Paul’s assessment of the past and the future in Philippians 3:12-14 is one of the most frequently quoted texts in the New Testament:

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

The ancient world generally looked toward the past.  Those who lived in Bible times were innately suspicious of new ideas, new technology, and new pathways.  Since tradition was considered overwhelmingly more important than innovation, yesterday trumped tomorrow.  The future was a frightening, unknown land. 

That’s why Paul’s words must have seemed outrageous to his original audience:  Forget what is behind.  Strain toward what is ahead.  He had come to believe that the future is an entirely safe place to visit – for the simple reason that God owns the future.  Those who trust Christ have no grounds for fear.   

If God’s call is to “press on,” then one of the greatest obstacles to spiritual maturity is the perception that, all things considered, we’re already knocking it out of the park. 

You may consider yourself a spiritually insightful person.  You’ve figured a few things out.  Others look at your track record of personal integrity, Bible knowledge, and community involvement and wish they were you.   

But that perception of success may be one of the worst things that has ever happened to you.  Success hides problems.  It prevents us from remembering that when it comes to transformation into the likeness of Jesus, all of us still have a million miles to go.

And if you mostly picture yourself as spiritual failure?   Failures don’t add up to disaster.  They add up to learning.

So forget what is behind – both your best and your worst moments.  Press on to take hold of that for which Christ has taken hold of you.

We can do that in the confidence that there’s one thing we know for sure about the future:

It’s going to be incredible.