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February 06, 2013

A Pixar University for the Rest of Us



We hear about internal “Corporate Universities” at Pixar and Apple, and even at some of the high profile Silicon Valley startups – all organizations that want to be known for their innovation, creative problem-solving, success rates that exceed the industry norm, and engaged employees.  But what about the vast numbers of people at organizations that do not provide access to such programs internally (or otherwise through university-based executive bootcamps), or the growing number of individuals around the world who run smaller businesses (both tech and non-tech) and see themselves as “creative entrepreneurs?”  How can they design or access a program for themselves and colleagues that can provide them with both new perspectives and problem-solving skills that can rival, if not exceed, that of the corporate universities in terms of both content and integrated design?  The solution may well be in a combination of online continuing education platforms (synchronous and asynchronous) and facilitated/engaged real world realtime groups (e.g. meetups and discussion groups).  Different than signing up for a single technical course from a Udemy or Coursera (specific industry skill development), or listening to a TED Talk (largely inspiration vs. action focused), there might well be an orchestrated road map of several classes that in sequence add up to a powerful whole that bridges new ways of being with new skills.

What follows is a proposal of what one such road map might look like.  And it is one that is completely possible with technology and platforms available now.

What Is the North Star That Guides You?

As indicated by the infographic that opens this post, the touchstone for all of the classes in this model is an understanding by the individual of what their “North Star” is.  This is what guides, frames, and makes specific and actionable to them – all of the material in the other classes.  So it is only natural that the opening class in this approach is to help people begin to understand or verify their “North Star” – meaning that "internal compass that can guide you successfully through life."  It is that rock upon which your point of view and way of being in the world is built or checks into on the journey.  It is what is truthful to you, without needing permission from the rest of the world.

Sound a bit soft?  Perhaps, but that does not make it any less important.  And some of the leading agencies in the world of “challenger brands” talk about this on the level of definition for a company or brand (see the global consultancy “eat big fish” that calls this a "LightHouse Identity" for brands).

So how might we describe that foundation class?

In large part it is about the concept of path to authentic leadership and being an authentic human being – and entering the metaphorical crucible that burns away anything extraneous and untrue to reveal true intentions, character, values, principles, and path – and defines for each indivual what motivates them beyond making money.

Finding Your North Star – Your Personal Brand Truth 

Every individual’s path is personal and unique. There is no universal map that will guide us through life.  So how do we answer the questions: What do I do next? How do we deal with inertia?  Is there a necessary and irreconcilable division between the head and the heart? Can only impoverished poets follow their passions? How do we live a life that matters?

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are." - Joseph Campbell

Program Components and Structure

Four classes each then fall into two supporting categories of “Ways of Being” and “Skill Development.”  And an additional two classes fill a category that is focused on bridging these two categories.


“Ways of Being”

Traditional definitions of work culture, leadership and organizational values, along with the relentless urgency of most businesses, has resulted in an undermining of quality, creativity, engagement, and ultimately performance and productivity.  How do we redefine “ways of being” in business and other organizations to reclaim both personal and group performance levels, along with greater satisfaction and meaning?

Courses inlcude:

  1. Peak Performance
  2. Creative Confidence
  3. Emotional Intelligence
  4. Compassionate Leadership


“Skill Development” 

There are a number of skills that can be learned over time – that have been mistakenly defined as the native talents of the few.  While some may come to these skills more easily than others, all can be learned and honed with practice and guidance.  All are relevant to those regardless of their walk of business life or left-right brain orientation.  And all contribute to powerful approaches to problem solving and the generation and realization of new ideas and approaches.

Courses inlcude:

  1. Humor and Improv
  2. Storytelling and Presentations
  3. Negotiation and Conflict Resolution
  4. Design Thinking 



There are two classes that fit neither solely in "Being" or "Skills" - but that actually serve as the actionable glue between the two categories of learning.

  1. Networking and Mentoring
  2. Habits and Behavior Design

Ways of Being

1. Peak Performance 

Is sustained high performance in the face of increasing pressure and rapid change possible? Can we take the learnings of elite athletes and apply them in the business world to individuals and teams?  Is there power in minding and feeding the physical, emotional, spiritual and mental/cognitive self and the connections between them?

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“We grow the aspects of our lives that we feed – with energy and engagement – and choke off those we deprive of fuel. Your life is what you agree to attend to.” - Jim Loehr


2. Creative Confidence - Creativity Expanded

What exactly is creativity?  Just as there are multiple types of intelligence, creativity takes many forms.  What can the “creatives” and otherwise creative individuals learn from each other about tapping into that process?  How can we deal with “writer’s block,” find ways to step outside the box, and get comfortable with coloring outside the lines – as individuals, in groups, and as organizations?

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“The mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this arises from within … and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or of its departure.” ― Percy Bysshe Shelley


3 and 4. Emotional Intelligence and Compassionate/Authentic Leadership

What if we began to see how the understanding of emotions in a business environment (one's own and those of others) was actually a net positive?  Emotional maturity and understanding have been shown to directly correlate to performance and the bottom line, as they travel from leaders throughout the organization.

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“The most successful business leaders are often experts in emotions.” ―  Chip Conley

Skill Development

1. The Serious Business of Humor and Improvisation

Not everything needs to be, or even should be, planned. Inspiration can come from many unexpected sources and improvisational techniques can help surface these and increase adaptability, creativity, and flexibility - even when you don’t know what’s coming next.

So how can we rediscover a sense of play and humor and apply them to the most serious or mundane of endeavors?  We often think about improvisation in terms of comedy, music, or acting, but the art of improvisation can be applied to all sorts of pursuits – from scientific exploration and experimentation, to the subtle diplomacy of peace negotiators, to sports, to business leaders and owners who must mix long-term planning with on-the-spot thinking as the landscape around them shifts in unexpected ways.

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“Basketball, unlike football with its prescribed routes, is an improvisational game, similar to jazz. If someone drops a note, someone else must step into the vacuum and drive the beat that sustains the team.”  ―  Phil Jackson


2. Storytelling and Presentations

We are creatures of the narrative, as little is more powerful than a great story. Great presenters need to be great storytellers - as a presentation is essentially a story with a purpose - to engage the audience, and eventually have them take ownership of the story.   The art of storytelling is not limited to the world of professional actors or writers, nor is a great presentation defined by how compex a slide deck may be.  Storytelling and presenting are skills that can be honed by studying and practicing the techniques and structures of the greats, and can be a game changer in business.

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“Structure is not a template. It’s not a cookie cutter. It’s something that arises organically from the material once you have it… When I was young, I was so bewildered about how to cope with all that material. Leaning on structural planning is what got me out from under a 50-ton rock that was lying on my chest.” ― John McPhee

“Consider the kind of relationship you want to have with your audience. Do you want to be their hero? Their mentor? Their cheerleader? Like these characters, good presenters aren’t in it for themselves; they’re in it for others.”― Nancy Duarte


3. Negotiation and Conflict Resolution

Can we reexamine the roles of logic versus emotions/perceptions in the process of negotiation, and by making more powerful human connection with "the person across the table" actually become a more successful negotiator?

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“We know - intellectually - that confronting an issue is the only way to resolve it. But any resolution will disrupt the status quo. Given the choice between conflict and change on the one hand, and inertia on the other, the ostrich position can seem very attractive.”  ― Margaret Heffernan 


4. Design Thinking  - From Inspiration to Idea to Invention to Innovation

Where do ideas come from?  How do they evolve from a thought into an invention, and from there through continuing phases of innovation.  How is the birth of a big idea different from that of an incremental refinement?  What is unique about the process of generating groundbreaking concepts, and then bootstrapping them into the physical world?  How do you build a culture of innovation to birth and support this?

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“Defer judgment. Encourage wild ideas. Stay focused on the topic. The most important of them, I would argue, is ‘Build on the ideas of others.’ “ – Tim Brown


Bridging "Being" and "Skills" to Facilitate Change

1. Networking and Mentoring

How do we challenge the conventional understanding of networking and mentoring, redefining and implementing it in a way that is both personal and purposeful with an equally meaningful "give and ask".  How do we organize our relationships around our true beliefs?  What value do we want to bring to those with whom we connect in sometime murky situations?  How does this bring about measurable change?

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tired into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.  

“The ability to move others to exchange what they have for what we have is crucial to our survival and our happiness. It has helped our species evolve, lifted our living standards, and enhanced our daily lives. The capacity to sell isn’t some unnatural adaptation to the merciless world of commerce. It is part of who we are. “  ― Daniel Pink


2. Habits and Behavior Design

Are we stuck in our current way of being and addressing problems and challenges? Or can we begin to redesign and reengineer our behavior as well as that of others?

Example Books and Teachers that could support this type of class

Change might not be fast and it isn't always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.” ― Charles Duhigg  


Moving Forward

This particular idea of a "Pixar University for the Rest of Us" is based around the concept of understanding and supporting a "Personal North Star" with actionable classes that challenge conventional thinking by (1) redefining ways of being in the business world, (2) teaching new skills that transcend job titles, and (3) developing the creative glue that bridges the two.

What would you change or add to the mix in terms of topics or instructors?  And do you think this could be achieved via a year long program (one topic per month) facilitated via an online learning environment with optional real world gatherings?   Favicon 



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Liz Gebhardt

  • © Amanda Jones
    Digital and traditional (live & broadcast) media/ marketing strategist and producer living at the intersection of Web meets (live) World. More than two decades of experience in building media and technology businesses, content programming and distribution, brand stories and integrated communications campaigns.

    Believes that strategy is all talk unless it can be executed in a way that delivers on both the creative and business promises. Embraces the role of navigator of the uncharted path vs. passenger along the known road.