Monday, August 10, 2015

Pixar and the Pursuit of Excellence

I love Pixar. Let’s be honest, we all love Pixar. They made a movie about a trash compactor robot that invokes more feeling and empathy than most humans I’ve watched on screen. I’m not even going to talk about the first ten minutes of “Up”. Every time a new Pixar movie comes out I wonder how they can do it again. And every time they deliver. They don’t just recreate the magic, they create it anew.

Now you could assume that their seemingly unending success has been born of sheer talent. And they certainly don’t lack in that. Helmed by the genius of John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, Pixar employs a horde of the best in the animation business. But their brilliance lies not just in their ability to tell stories or their vision in regards to the technological future of their industry but in the creation of an environment that deems excellence as the ultimate goal.

I say that it is the ultimate goal because excellence is not a happening, but a process. The people of Pixar are the first to admit that their movies do not start out as masterpieces. They start as an idea, rough and partially formed, that little by little is transformed into the works that we love. This road to excellence requires the willingness to fall on your face and the resilience to get back up and correct the mistake. It requires a constant vigilance in shaking off complacency in the face of success. And when you’ve done everything right, it means going back and figuring out how to do it even better.

When I read about what Pixar has done I find a lot of parallels between their company and our USA program. We’re both trying to be the best in the world at something. But it’s not just about being better than the opponents or winning each game; we want to play the game better than it’s ever been played. To do that, we have to commit to that process of excellence. We know that there is no greatness without failure so we embrace it. We know that the comfort zone is a dangerous place to be so we consciously leave it. And that commitment is program- (or company) wide. It only works when each member buys in and takes ownership of the idea that we are about something bigger than any one of us.

Whatever I end up doing in my life, these are the kind of environments I want to be a part of. These are the kinds of people I want to surround myself with—people who are striving for excellence in whatever they do. Because it’s with that energy and passion and intent that we actively shape our world. Even if it’s in the form of an animated trash compactor just looking for love… 

(I’d recommend both the documentary The Pixar Story and Catmull’s book Creativity, Inc for a behind the scenes look into the magic of Pixar. And if you haven’t seen Inside Out, go now)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Raise Us All

There were fans yelling racist insults at our match last week. At a volleyball match. Women speaking out about women's rights are being threatened every day. Because they dared to champion equality. We're constantly losing LGBT youth to suicide. In a world that doesn't accept them they don't know how to accept the world. And I can't understand. I actually cannot understand how people can see the differences in other people as proof of their own superiority. How they can believe that their intolerance leaves them standing on the moral high ground. We can be so much better. That's where this comes from...

Raise Us All

Lower your hands
Your pitchforks, your knives
Step out of the angry mob
Long enough to see the ignorance that begets the hate
To see that you are acting in a false self-defense
That those you wield your weapons against, wield none
Their differences, their choices, their happiness don’t wound you
The only poison that may threaten you is that of your own hatred
Lower your hands
And raise your compassion

Lower your voice
And listen
When everyone is yelling, no one can hear
The power of your voice comes not from its volume
Or its ability to inflict pain
But from its ability to inspire another
Shouts and insults are not the tools of inspiration
And you cannot make someone listen if you will not
Lower your voice
And raise your ear

Lower your eyes
Stop looking at everyone else around you
Searching for his sins, his faults, his differences
Look inside yourself instead
Examine your heart and ask yourself
If you like what you find
If you are being the person that you want to be
If the world is better off for your place in it
Lower your eyes
And raise your heart

Lower yourself
Step down off of your pedestal
And stand next to your fellow human beings
No matter their color
Man, woman or other
Whoever they love
None of these things makes them worse or you better
We only find the best of ourselves when we come together
Lower yourself
And raise humanity

When you have lowered your hands, your voice, your eyes, yourself
And done your best to bring some light into the world

Raise your hands
To aid the one beside you who has stumbled
Raise your voice
In the service of another’s cause
Raise your eyes
And look for the beauty around you
Raise yourself
And it will raise us all

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Learning to Lead

The great teams (and businesses or any organizations) usually have something in common-- solid leadership. Here is another article I wrote a few years ago about what I've learned about being a leader through my time on the court.

Learning to Lead

There are a lot of elements that have to be present in order to have a great team.  Of course athleticism and talent will help a lot.  So will hard work, discipline and selflessness.  There is one element, though, that I believe helps focus all of the others and without it I don’t see how you can build a great team.  That element is leadership.  Leadership can mean many things and I will discuss some of those here.  The one thing, however, that all true leaders have in common is that they make the people around them better and they do it all the time.  While some people come across as natural leaders, leadership is actually a skill just like any other.  It requires practice, commitment and understanding in order to be great.  But if you put half as much time into becoming a better leader as you probably do into your hitting or setting technique then you become infinitely more valuable to your team. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

My Friend Po-Po

When I was in school there was a man named Po-Po who cleaned our gym. He did a great job, keeping it serviceable despite a hundred middle and high school kids trudging through it on any given day. Every time I saw him he was working, so that we could have a place to play. But every time I saw him he also had a smile for me. Not once in seven years of hanging around that gym did I ever see Po-Po on a bad day. And not once did he do anything other than brighten mine.

Now listen, I will be the first to tell you to dive headfirst into your dreams. If you find that thing that you know in your heart is what you’re meant to do then I’d tell you to go for it with everything you have. After all, the firm belief that Anything is Possible is what has allowed me to live out my own.

But in the course of our pursuit of those dreams, sometimes life happens. You have to eat, to pay rent, to pay off loans. And while dreams are built on hard work and passion, they’re also often dependent on the fickle whims of luck and opportunity. We’re thrilled by the stories of people who have succeeded in reached the pinnacles of our society but that can’t be the only definition of success. Because I don't know anybody who dreams about cleaning up after a bunch of school kids. But I look at someone like Po-Po—who goes to work every day and does his very best, who improves the quality of other people’s lives, who offers nothing but love to the people in his path—and I think man, that’s a successful guy.

The challenge, I think, as we pursue our dreams or even see them fall away, is to never lose touch with where we are right now. Because who you are isn’t based on some potential future accomplishments or what you could’ve done but your actions in the present. Can you be the best you can be in whatever you’re doing today and can you leave the world a happier place than you found it?
I don’t know about you, but being able to answer yes to those questions...THAT is my biggest dream.

Last summer I visited the team at my high school. I got to say hi to Po-Po as he was working in the gym. And he gave me a smile.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Building Wonders

One of the perks of the weird and wonderful life of the international athlete is the opportunity to see the world and take in some of the wonders that human kind has left behind throughout history. In just the past few months I’ve found myself wandering around Paris’s Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. And as I take in these sights—resplendent in their design, their color, their grandeur or, in the case of the Leaning Tower, their delightful idiosyncrasy—it makes me wonder what we’re building today. How are we adding to the wonders of the world?

The construction of massive and ornate buildings seems to be a trend of the past. Building the next great palace or pyramid would just be utterly pretentious and wasteful. But that doesn’t mean we’re finished creating grand and beautiful things. Maybe technology is our new canvas. Though it may often invite cynicism, you can’t deny the beauty in landing a rover on a comet hurtling through space or being able to talk to your family face-to-face from thousands of miles away. And for all the power it holds in its little frame, the iPhone stands just as tall as the Eiffel Tower. Maybe these feats in the exploration of human potential are the monuments that we’ll leave behind.

But I’d like to add one more suggestion—that maybe it’s time that we focused less on building things and more on building humanity. Let’s build love and trust and kindness. Let’s knock down inequality and hunger and hate. Instead of building structures that reach to the sky we can build movements that reach around the world. That’s what I want to leave behind. Let our children look around them at the prosperity and goodwill of humanity and declare it a masterpiece.

And maybe that all sounds like a na├»ve shout into the wind but wasn’t that true of every impossible thing we’ve ever achieved?

Happy New Year