FF Daily #445: Betiyaan to badasses; Pixar and Steve Jobs; Deep work

August 9, 2021: Indian women’s hockey team at Tokyo Olympics; Ed Catmull on Steve Jobs; Oliver Burkeman on getting creative work done; Workplace diversity

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[By Derzsi Elekes Andor, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Good morning,

Towards the end of his book, Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, talks about Steve Jobs, who played a major role in the history of Pixar, and in whose evolution as a person and a leader, Pixar too played an important role. 

“Relentless Steve—the boorish, brilliant, but emotionally tone-deaf guy that we first came to know—changed into a different man during the last two decades of his life. All of us who knew Steve well noticed the transformation. He became more sensitive not only to other people’s feelings but also to their value as contributors to the creative process.

“His experience with Pixar was part of this change. Steve aspired to create utilitarian things that also brought joy; it was his way of making the world a better place. That was part of why Pixar made him so proud—because he felt the world was better for the films we made. He used to say regularly that as brilliant as Apple products were, eventually they all ended up in landfills. Pixar movies, on the other hand, would live forever. He believed, as I do, that because they dig for deeper truths, our movies will endure, and he found beauty in that idea. John talks about ‘the nobility of entertaining people.’ Steve understood this mission to his core, particularly toward the end of his life, and—knowing that entertaining wasn’t his primary skill set—he felt lucky to have been involved in it.”

A few paragraphs down the line, Catmull talks about how Jobs shared his comments and feedback. “Once or twice per movie, when a crisis loomed, he would inevitably come in and say something that helped alter our perceptions and improve the film. Whenever offering a note, he always began the same way: ‘I’m not really a filmmaker, so you can ignore everything I say…’  Then he would proceed, with startling efficiency, to diagnose the problem precisely. Steve focused on the problem itself, not the filmmakers, which made his critiques all the more powerful. If you sense a criticism is being leveled for personal reasons, it is easy to dismiss. You couldn’t dismiss Steve. Every film he commented on benefited from his insight.

“But while in the early days his opinions would swing wildly and his delivery could be abrupt, he became more articulate and observant of people’s feelings as time went on. He learned to read the room, demonstrating skills that, years earlier, I didn’t think he had. Some people have said that he got mellower with age, but I don’t think that’s an adequate description of what happened; it sounds too passive, as if he just was letting more go. Steve’s transformation was an active one. He continued to engage; he just changed the way he went about it.”

In this issue

  • Betiyaan to badasses
  • Get creative work done
  • Workplace diversity

Have a good day.

Betiyaan to badasses

When the Indian women’s hockey team lost the semi final match in Tokyo, they cried. And we cried. They were going for a medal. We were rooting for them. This isn’t how things were. Until very recently, this was a team nobody thought much about. But something changed. 

Sharda Ugra, who has seen them change from close quarters, put things in perspective in a lovely narrative on ESPN. She talks about what happened after they finished last in Rio and were fed-up with arbitrary changes in coaches by the administrators.  

“The women banded together and promised themselves no matter who was in charge, Tokyo had to be their personal mission… Nikki Pradhan, sparky, spunky midfielder with a sunbeam for a smile, says, ‘We had decided after Rio that coaches will come and go. We have this coach now, he may go and another will come. But the work that has to be done, we’re the ones who have to do it. Us girls, 25 of us.’ She wasn't being disrespectful, just practical.”

Ugra goes on to describe the changes she has witnessed since then. “[I]f ever any Indian film were to be made about this Indian women's team, a good chunk of it would be on their escalation of fitness levels and its on-field impact. I’d heard the stories too, how their average Yo-Yo test scores had risen from 17 to 20, the fat percentages in some dropping from 27% to 16%.

“Sport is replete with stories of athletic transformation giving up this to gain that. To watch them train is to understand where their speed and lung capacity comes from. Their ‘Superman’ back extensions turn the body into a deep bowl. Like the yogic bow pose (Dhanurasana) without holding onto the ankles, done with crazy reps.

“The Indian women were trained like 21st-century athletes—like all our elite athletes must. With GPS monitoring devices between their shoulder blades spitting out data for distance, heart rate, high-speed running, checking fatigue levels and recovery work required. After every session they enter their own data into personal logbooks, to mark how they feel, pain, muscle soreness, sleep, menstrual cycle details. There is a sign up in their gym that reads, ‘changing the 0.2%.’ To be 0.2% better than they were yesterday. Between Rio and Tokyo, those 0.2% changes have turned the Indians into a team whose hockey skills are matched by speed of foot and strength of tackle.”

Dig deeper

Get creative work done

How do the most creative people get creative work done? This is a question Oliver Burkeman, a British writer, attempts to answer in a short essay. His research has it that the most insanely prolific minds that include Dickens and Darwin invested three to four hours each day on deep work. 

Burkenman writes, “The real lesson—or one of them—is that it pays to use whatever freedom you do have over your schedule not to ‘maximise your time’ or ‘optimise your day’, in some vague way, but specifically to ringfence three or four hours of undisturbed focus (ideally when your energy levels are highest). Stop assuming that the way to make progress on your most important projects is to work for longer. And drop the perfectionistic notion that emails, meetings, digital distractions and other interruptions ought ideally to be whittled away to practically nothing. Just focus on protecting four hours—and don't worry if the rest of the day is characterised by the usual scattered chaos.”

Dig deeper

Workplace diversity

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