Leadership Library Review: “Inside Out”

August 2015

“Inside Out” (Pixar, 2015)

What are the big take-aways?

Ostensibly a kid’s animated feature film about an 11-year-old girl’s transition to a new home and new school, “Inside Out” is a sophisticated piece of edu-tainment that seems equally aimed at its adult audience (mostly parents, presumably).  Using hilarious and well-textured personifications of the five primary emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust – these characters demonstrate that each emotion has an important purpose that is functionally inter-dependent with the others.  The film shines a shrewd light on how our mainstream culture’s ubiquitous emphasis on living a compulsory all-Joy-and-no-Sadness existence is not only unrealistic, but damaging.

Why do I like it?

I liked how deftly the movie’s plot illuminates the basics of neuroscience: what memories are; how and why memories are stored or lost; what the connections are between memory, emotion and personality; and the role of the subconscious.  The animation is extraordinary and in Pixar’s hands proves to be a spectacular medium for clever explorations of the subject matter.  (Personally, I particularly loved Joy’s and Sadness’s perilous detour into spending too much time lost in Abstract Thought.  In a delicious paradox, the creative exploitation of their further “degradation” into two-dimensionality saves their figurative asses.)  An Associated Press article about the film offers this comment from psychology professor Dacher Keltner of University of California, Berkeley, who is an expert in the study of emotions:  “‘They have done a really faithful job in thinking hard within the constraints of the movie about what the science of emotion has revealed at the most fundamental level,’ he said.  On the accuracy scale?  ‘I’d give it a nine out of 10.’”

In what situations would this be useful?

From a leadership development standpoint, this film conveys numerous worthwhile messages:

  • Emotional intelligence is crucial, perhaps especially in stressful situations, when it can be the most elusive.  Develop acute self-awareness of your feelings, and cultivate your awareness of others’, because emotions are a critical source of information that you can use to be more creative, proactive and effective at whatever you are doing.
  • Our cultural mandate to be in a constant state of Joy is treacherous and shortchanges us.  Feel all of your feelings and find productive ways to work with each of them intentionally, because ignoring “negative” emotions will come back to bite you and your team.
  • Growth is not just about learning to embrace what’s new.  It is also a process of letting go of the past, in which Joy and Sadness cooperate with each other to allow you to draw meaning (and perhaps a deeper form of happiness) from the complexity of your experiences.
  • Know that your “I” is actually a “We”-like web of thoughts, dreams, memories and feelings: insightfully working with your inner “We” you can enliven your leadership presence.  By self-observing the sources of your prejudices and motivations – with humor and compassion – you can set yourself up to make more responsible, sustainable and effectively-communicated decisions.
  • Three asides: “Inside Out” is a feminist movie in many ways, offering up a preteen hockey-playing heroine whose journey toward a more mature experience of happiness is marked by grappling authentically with a life transition, not by making princess-type acquisitions.  It is also a refreshing depiction of what healthy – loving, imperfect – privileged parenting looks like: the film takes for granted that this couple’s 11-year-old daughter can walk to her new urban school by herself on the first day, use a cell phone responsibly, and spend time at home unsupervised.  Finally, the movie very subtly makes an extremely profound observation about the common (well-meaning) instinct to go right into problem-solving mode when confronting Sadness in others: contrary to these instincts, the most helpful response to other people’s Sadness is not to try to fix it, but to simply listen.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

My immediate intuitive recommendation is the “On Being” National Public Radio show website (recently reviewed in the Leadership Library) which, as a portal, would be as useful as any for further inquiry into the complexity of human experience and the quest for emotional wholeness.  For more information about the relationship between emotional intelligence and effective leadership, I recommend the works of Richard Boyatzis and his colleagues.  For more research on emotions through the prism of positive psychology – including in terms of raising kids – take a look at Martin Seligman’s books and/or the website of the Values in Action Institute on Character (previously reviewed in the Leadership Library).

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