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How Pixar Harnessed Sadness

My word for 2020 was “joy.” I wanted more of it but didn’t know how to unlock it. That year, I experienced joy twice. Both times while I was training for my first half-marathon. Once when I took in the many sidewalk chalk art pieces drawn by the littles in my community. There were so many during the pandemic. The second was when I came upon a cluster of plumeria flowers peeking over a fence and in my path, as if the tree were graciously bowing and presenting them to me.

But deep joy didn’t feel like I thought it would. I did delight in the beauty of these experiences, but sadness also came and crashed the party. Weird. I sought out resources to try to identify what the deal was but couldn’t find any. Maybe joy and sadness were opposite sides of the same coin? Maybe my emotions were just broken? The mystery intensified for the next couple of years. It was confusing and a little scary. What if I’d never have the pleasure of experiencing its exquisite delight?

And then, I came upon the book “Bittersweet” by Susan Cain.

“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”— Naomi Shihab Nye from her poem “Kindness

Pete Docter – the director for “Up” and “Monsters, Inc” – also made the movie “Inside Out” about Riley, an 11 year old girl. A peek inside her brain introduced the audience to a group of lovable emotions who dictated Riley’s day-to-day reactions from a control center. While Docter was doing his research, he struggled to determine which of the myriad of emotions to feature. He initially declared “fear” would be the main character. He’d considered sadness but didn’t think the audience would receive it well – it was so uncool. After all, he’d grown up in a society that told him sadness was not to be shown in public. From a directorial standpoint, fear could be a much funnier character.

Source: "Inside Out" movie, Pixar, 2015

But three years into making the movie, he realized something was off. He was due to show the drafted film to Pixar executives but felt like this version was a bust. According to the original draft of the movie, Riley would triumphantly learn a lesson provided by her fear. But they realized fear didn’t have anything to teach Riley.

What most people don’t know is that Docter had been second guessing his success. In his mind, “Up” and “Monsters, Inc” had been flukes. His imposter syndrome kept telling him that he didn’t know what he was doing and that he should just quit. His imposter was so loud, he even imagined a future where he’d lost his job and blown up his career. It caused him to go into mourning. He described this feeling as “drowning in sadness.” The sadder he became, the more he realized how much he loved his co-creators and collaborators at Pixar. And this led him to a pivotal a-ha moment:

Susan Cain wrote that Docter discovered the real reason for his emotions – for all our emotions – is to connect us. And that sadness, of all the emotions, was the ultimate bonding agent.

Immediately, Docter recognized that sadness connected with joy. He was now aware that the character of “anger” needed to be replaced with “sad,” because sad was the vehicle Riley’s character needed to learn the lesson. But Docter needed to convince Pixar executives to allow him to re-write the project. And after three years of work and resources put into it and the fact that sadness isn’t exactly the most exciting of emotions, Docter knew it was going to be a hard sell. His inner imposter most certainly was raging – can you imagine telling your boss all that time and money was for naught? But Docter followed his gut instinct which told him he needed outside help.

He brought in Dr. Dacher Keltner from UC Berkley who taught Team Pixar that:

· Fear keeps you safe

· Anger protects you from being taken advantage of

· Sadness triggers compassion

It brings people together, and – in Docter’s case – it helped him understand how connected he was to his team of fun, creative, and quirky Pixar creators.

The rest is movie history.

That year, “Inside Out” won 63 awards including the “Best Animated Film” trophies at the BAFTA and Academy Awards. It is still the #4 ranked Pixar movie of all time on Rotten Tomatoes with a 98% Certified Fresh rating and grossed $350M+ in the box office.

Not bad for a movie about emotions.

“Angry is just sad’s bodyguard.” – Liza Palmer

The world operates from a place of anger. In the common coaching language* I use with my clients, anger is designated as a Level 2 emotion. It’s one step up from victim mindset (Level 1), and these are the two emotions the world likes to spend the most time in. Yes, there are emotions like joy (Level 6), but they seem elusive and fleeting. Just as I had experienced in 2020 when I tried to manufacture my own joy experiences.

When I peeled the layers back on my complicated and layered emotions, I found myself back at the core of who I was. As a career special agent and child exploitation specialist, there was no greater defiance I felt than when I encountered injustice.

One time during an icebreaker at a training event, the group was asked a question: would you rather go to jail for five years for a crime you didn’t commit? Or ten years for a crime you did commit? After the group split, representatives from each position explained their thought process. A woman explained that five years was less than ten, and knowing jail was unavoidable in this situation, opted for the shortest sentence. I could feel the indignation rising up in me as the words came tumbling out of my mouth. “How can you accept five years in jail for a crime you didn’t commit?!” When I think back on that exchange, I can clearly identify the sadness within me disguised as anger. As a justice-seeker, jail was only reserved for guilty parties. The idea of an innocent being imprisoned was heartbreaking.

For year, the command post of emotions in my brain operated in the same way. Rather than being unable to do anything (victim mindset – Level 1) about the injustice I saw in the world, I used my anger (Level 2) to create the change I thought the world needed. The benefits of anger and control are that you can get a lot done. The downside of using anger as your fuel is that it’s not sustainable. You will burn yourself and those around you out.

What I learned on my journey to joy is that the deep sadness I felt was for the brokenness of the world. The beauty I experienced in the form of sidewalk chalk art and the dazzling beauty and sweet aroma of a bouquet of perfect plumerias reminded me of how perfect humanity and the world could be. But my body would just as quickly remind me of humanity’s brokenness. My mind hoped the little artists were safe to continue creating and mourned the ones who were so crushed by physical and sexual abuse that they weren’t able to draw yellow suns and colorful rainbows on my running path.

And being able to connect with that sadness generated compassion, because I was able to recognize my own humanity in them. And the work generated from this compassionate seed bore some astounding results within the court system. Which created other surprising opportunities like being able to teach these same team-building techniques and principles to others so they can better serve their communities.

Your anger is protecting your most valuable life purpose. And much like a bodyguard stops anything from entering into the protective bubble, it can also hinder that purpose by also blocking the positive.


- What makes me most angry about the world? (Points you to your life purpose)

- If you invited that anger to step aside, what is the human element behind it that makes you most sad?

- Why do you think these events affect you so deeply?

- Once you’ve gone to that place of sadness, how can you harness the compassion it generates to create a world of joy for yourselves and others?

Additional resources, if you really want to geek out:

“The Science of ‘Inside Out’ with Dr. Dacher Keltner”

Start at 7m 54s to get past the intros

Simon Sinek interviewing Susan Cain on his podcast “A Bit of Optimism”

*The Energy Leadership Index was developed by Bruce Schneider. If you’d like to discuss how you can learn more about the system to unlock your highest potential, book a complimentary discovery call here.


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