Saturday night I was driving home from Baltimore in the snow. The roads were awful. I was driving very slowly – at least 20 mph under the speed limit. Cars were passing me like crazy and a number of disabled vehicles on the side of the road. About a mile from home in Columbia, I hit a patch of snow and ice, spun across two lanes and hit a curb. In the moment I started spinning, time slowed down. I saw a car coming in the opposite direction and thought for sure he would hit me. Luckily my spin took me in the opposite direction and I hit the curb instead. I try not to spend too much time worrying about what ifs but for a moment after this happened I couldn’t help but think about the two feet that made the difference between a serious accident and a fairly harmless story. Thankfully, there was only minor damage to my car. But the oncoming car reminded me of a story in Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull.
Catmull is the President and co-founder of Pixar. Pixar’s story is fascinating to me. The book is an excellent read for small business owners, creative people and especially anyone that has to manage creative teams. I’ve read or listened to the audio book version at least a half dozen times. Late in the book, Catmull recounts a story where his family narrowly escaped tragedy during a family vacation to Yellowstone. A minor fender bender on a narrow canyon road almost sent the family plunging to their deaths. A mere two inches was the difference between a minor accident and tragedy. In Catmull’s words, “Two more inches…No Pixar.”
Life is full of these minor, two inch events. In the following excerpt from Creativity, Inc., Catmull reflects on how these two inch events impact our lives (and businesses) and explains why he believes that hindsight is not 20/20.
“As I write this, all of those Pixar couples I am so proud to know have no inkling of the two inches that could’ve kept them from meeting, or their children from being conceived. I have heard people say that Pixar’s success was inevitable because of the character of the people that formed it. While character was crucial, I am also certain there were an infinite number of two inch events – aside from my own – that went our way. Events that I have no way of knowing about cause they occurred in the lives of other people who were critical to forming Pixar. The full set of positive outcomes at any time is so astonishingly vast that we can’t begin to fathom them. So our brains have to simplify in order for us to function.”
“I don’t sit around thinking about what would’ve happened if John [Lasseter] hadn’t been able to join the production of The Adventures of Andre and Wally B, for instance, or if Steve [Jobs] had made good on his desire to sell Pixar to Microsoft. But the truth is, the history of Pixar would have been very different if either of these things had happened.”
“When I say that the fate of any great group enterprise and the individuals within it are interconnected and interdependent, it may sound trite but it’s not. What’s more, seeing all of the interdependencies that shape our lives is impossible, no matter how hard or long we look.” If we don’t acknowledge how much is hidden we hurt ourselves in the long run. Acknowledging what you can’t see, getting comfortable with the fact that there are a large number of two inch events occurring right now – out of our sight – will affect us for better or worse in myriad ways, helps promote flexibility. You might say I’m an advocate for humility in leaders, but to be truly humble, those leaders must first understand how many of the factors that shape their lives and businesses are – and will always be – out of site.”
“In thinking about this chapter and about the limits of our perception, a familiar oft-repeated phrase kept popping into my head.”
“‘Hindsight is 20/20.'”
“When we hear it, we normally just nod in agreement. ‘Yes…of course.’ Accepting that we can look back on what happened and see it with total clarity, learn from it and draw the right conclusions. The problem is, the phrase is dead wrong. Hindsight is not 20/20. Not even close.”
“Our view of the past, in fact, is hardly clearer than our view of the future. While we know more about a past event than a future one, our understanding of the factors that shaped it is severely limited. Not only that because we think we see what happened clearly, hindsight being 20/20 and all, we often aren’t open to knowing more.”
“‘We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there,’ as Mark Twain once said, ‘Lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again. And that is well. But also, she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.'”
“The cat’s hindsight, in other words, distorts her view. The past should be our teacher not our master.”
“There is a kind of symmetry between looking forward and backward that we seldom think of it that way. We know that in plotting our next move, we are selecting paths into the future, analyzing the best available information and deciding on a route forward. But we are usually not aware that when we look back in time our penchant for pattern-making leads us to be so selective about which memories have meaning. And we do not always make the right selections.”
“We build our story, our model of the past, as best we can. We may seek out other people’s memories and examine our own limited records to come up with a better model. Even then, it is still only a model.”
If you like this sort of thing, you can get a copy of the book on Amazon. Disclosure: If you buy a copy of the book on Amazon using any of the links in this article, you will have contributed toward roughly 3% of my next cup of coffee.