As much as I wish it weren’t true, nobody can attain wisdom from just one source. This is one of the most difficult parts of the pursuit of wisdom — diversifying your experiences and knowledge.
So, I’d like to occasionally spend some time talking about a book, lecture, person, experience, and anything else that will help you on your journey. That said, this isn’t a book review. The majority of this article is about the Pantheon — a personal feedback system I developed from the ideas in Creativity Inc. and from my experiences.
Written by Ed Catmull, one of the founders and current president of Pixar Animation Studio, Creativity Inc. is a fantastic guide to bringing your creativity to bear in a business environment. Ed covers every stage of Pixar’s creative process and explains why it works so well. Even more interesting, Ed spends plenty of time telling you about all the crap that didn’t work and why, giving you a surprisingly comprehensive guide to all the landmines that you might step on. To top it off, Ed has a great sense of humor and a long repertoire of entertaining stories.
If you want to bring your creative potential to the forefront in your day-to-day work, start a creative business, or just be more creative, I can’t recommend this book enough!
And, as with any book about a certain skill or trade, many of the lessons are broadly applicable. Creativity Inc. was recommended to me by Paul Silva, the then-CEO of Valley Venture Mentors, a local startup incubator I was managing events at (many stories from that experience to come). As a result, I approached it with business and entrepreneurship on the mind. I was surprised to find a candid account of both the successes and failures of what is not only a landmark creative endeavor, but also an extremely successful business.
The book also contains a few good lessons on mindfulness topics such as how to fail, how to maintain a rational self-image, and how to foster collaborative creativity.
The Brain Trust
Ed spends a solid chapter outlining a system in Pixar that he calls the Brain Trust. Without reiterating the whole chapter and spoiling it for you, the Brain Trust is essentially a loose group of the best creative minds in Pixar that meet regularly to share their expertise and ensure that everything Pixar creates meets its high standard of quality.
It’s certainly not a radical concept, yet it blew me out of the water. After I read this chapter, I immediately wanted to build a Brain Trust in my own life. A smaller scale, less formal Brain Trust of the best and brightest in my network that I could call upon in times of need. The result of that has been a system that I like to refer to as the Pantheon — and I believe everyone should cultivate their own pantheon.
The Pantheon is a semi-formal group of life advisors, chosen by you from among the people you most respect and trust. As for the over-the-top name, a pantheon usually refers to a collective of gods. The members of my type of pantheon may not be gods, but I find the name does a good job of reminding me of just how important and awesome they are, while also being just silly enough to put a smile on my face.
Here are the biggest benefits you can expect from forming and maintaining your own pantheon:
Certainty. Humans need external verification to feel confident, and getting it from someone you respect is even better. The pantheon is great for assuring you that you’ve got this.
Humility. A critical trait that any pantheon member must have is honesty, because in addition to telling you when you are right, they must also be able to tell you when you are wrong. This will suck when it happens, but if you have chosen your pantheon well, it will save you a lot of suffering when they stop you from going down a landmine-ridden path.
Safety. Another important trait of pantheon members is that they love and trust you. That means that when you inevitably arrive at the darkest night, they can help to carry you to the dawn. Knowing this can alleviate a lot of fear, and free you to do what you know you need to do.
I’d bet that you have a few people in mind that you already keep very close, and whose advice and insight you cherish. Good, because that means you already have a pantheon, you just don’t use the same name for it as I do!
In the rest of this article, I’ll outline the best practices for assembling and maintaining your pantheon. Most of this stuff I learned from my pantheon members, and I’ll bet you’ll hear yours say some of the same stuff.
Assembling & Maintaining Your Pantheon
Your pantheon should be assembled from the absolute best, brightest, and most productive people that you know. A good pantheon member is also trustworthy, honest, and of course, a good friend in their free time. That sounds like a lot to ask, but your pantheon will and should be small. I would say aim for between five and ten people. If it grows much larger maintaining the pantheon can become a time-suck, any smaller and you might not have all the brain power that you need.
Make sure that each member understands that they are a part of your inner circle, and make sure that they want to be there. It can be easy to keep going back to a smart person for advice without talking to them about how much of their time they’re willing to donate. Make sure you get some verification that they want to be in your pantheon
Find a way to integrate your pantheon into your schedule. You’ve spent time, energy, and social capital assembling your personal superhero team, don’t forget to switch on the bat-signal. If a pantheon is neglected, it will dissolve quickly. Set up a system to remind yourself that the pantheon is there to help.
Ask as little as possible of your pantheon. This seems to contradict number three, so let me clarify. The members of the pantheon are there to have conversations with you and offer their perspective and advice. They’re not there to fumble with schedules, micromanage you, and buy you lunches. In short, make it easy for them, so that they can focus on and enjoy doing what you asked them to do.
Make scheduling easy (Mixmax, a free Gmail extension, does a great job of this.), ask them the big questions, and don’t oversaturate them. Remember, you aren’t paying them! Which brings me to number five . . .
Pay it back, in any and every way you can. This is absolutely the most important part of maintaining your pantheon. The members of your pantheon are your friends and mentors, and you’re asking a lot of them, so make sure to pay lavishly in gratitude — buy lunch, keep them informed, mention them in your acceptance speeches, and help them move their couch with a smile on your face.
I recently blundered in this practice, failing to mention the original creator of the word jugwad in a previous article, which featured jugwad front and center. Sorry Will Swyers!
One great way to pay it back is to be on their pantheon as well. This won’t be an option for all of your pantheon, as some of them should be way out of your league (those folks tend to give good advice), but some of your pantheon will be folks that respect and trust your input as much as you respect and trust theirs. Don’t be stingy with it!
Keep in touch. As mentioned in number three, a neglected pantheon isn’t a pantheon for long. Keep your pantheon informed and up to date on the important parts of your life — trust me, they care, a lot. Let them know when you succeed, be honest when you fail, and generally make sure they have a good idea of how you’re doing on your latest adventure.
The best way I’ve found to do this quickly and easily is with an update email, sent to the entire pantheon at once. Mailchimp is great for this (and free), but you can do it with standard Gmail as well.
I would say an email every few weeks is enough — you don’t want to inundate them. As a measurement, if one of your pantheon members ever asks for a status update, you have to up your communication. Conversely, if they know the intimacies of your every meal, then consider scaling it back a bit.
Remember that they’re your friends. As awesome as having a pantheon is, the members of your pantheon should usually be your friends first and your advisors second. Don’t neglect the friendship side, and generally the pantheon side will go well. Chat, toss a ball back and forth, watch a movie, have a barbecue, get a manicure, or anything else that you love doing together. As with the rest of life, it’s a good idea to have fun!