Precarious Turns

It was starting to get dark.  Phantom shapes suddenly materialized ahead of me as the headlights of our van reflected off the road signs.  Warning!  Steep grades and winding road signs started to appear.  We were making our way through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  Large pines lined the horizon with steep cliffs jutting up to my left.  I looked to my right and saw the shoulder of the roadway that had been carved into the side of the mountain plunge into the darkness for what seemed to be thousands of feet.  Brake lights came one.  Fellow travelers, like me were all gripping their steering wheel with the force of ten thousand angels.  I tried to exhale as I cranked the van around the precarious turn.

Behind me I could hear the faint breathing of my girls fast asleep in their seats, little aware of the incredible tension happening in the driver’s seat.  Around this corner, up the mountain, around that bend, down this curve, my eyes were fixed on the dizzying drama playing out before me.  I kept hoping to hear the GPS announce our turnoff that would lead to our rest for the night.  Instead, it just taunted me with “continue on” updates.  But at long last, the glorious words, “exit here” and “you have arrived” gave me relief.  Every muscle in my body was aching.  I knew I was tense, but I had no idea how bad it was until I tried to step out of the van.  I almost collapsed as my back reminded me that I was decades north of my youthful vigor.  But thankfully, with some careful plodding, I made it to my long-awaited rest.

Have you ever experienced anything like that?  In those moments the task at hand is so critical that you become physically tense, focused and locked.  Every muscle in your body seems to want to help, but of course, it only leaves you sore and fatigued.  The pandemic has been a long and winding road.  About the time we hit a clearing, a major event occurs, a new strain, a setback or new mandates.  Then we hit steep grades, big changes in our companies, inconceivable actions in our governments, and even chilling specters of global war.  Are you tense yet?  I know I am.  For the past several weeks I have noticed the physical exhaustion and sore muscles that would usually only accompany a hair-raising journey across the Rockies, but this time it is from the front row driver seat of my office.  I’m not alone.  I have heard from others of you that are experiencing the same thing. 

These are difficult times to navigate.  Can I suggest a few things?  The road is treacherous and winding right now.  As you turn through those corners, make sure you keep your lights on.  Hang on to your faith, your principles, your hope, your integrity and your character.  Those radiate out from you and illuminate the dark path ahead.   They also encourage those who are going along with you on this journey.   Speaking of which, you are not alone.  We are all going with you through this challenging patch together.  Hit the brakes.  Breathe.  The signs along the road say, “slow down”.  Give yourself time to process and recover from the last bend. 

Yes, there will be more highway to travel before our exit, but we can do this.  Relax.  Take another breath, roll down the window and let the anxiety float away.  Take one mile at a time.  Enjoy the scenery.  Appreciate those precious breaths behind you and enjoy the now.  Our destination is just ahead and is full of hope and possibility… and with any luck, a good bed. 

Autumn Act

“Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” – Bil Keane

Halloween is this Sunday.  Christmas is just two months from today.  Can you believe it?  As I stare out my dining room window, I notice the trees are beginning to paint themselves with the beautiful colors of fall.  The brilliant reds, gilded yellows and warming browns highlight against the faded greens.  Nature’s parade of time strikes a chime, reminding us that the year’s last act is on the stage.  

I love this time of year.  The cool crisp autumn breeze and ever-increasing autumn nights seem to pull a thick dark relaxing blanket over the mind.  Melancholy and hope dance.  There is rising optimism and wistful reflection, thinking back and looking forward.  We remember and we plan. 

Reflecting back on the year, I know it has been challenging for all of us. There has been a lot of change. We have seen wonderful successes, painful losses, personal victories and sometimes even discouraging defeats.  So much has changed since the start of the pandemic.  Yet, so much is still the same.  This time of the year we get to relive the delightful nostalgia of our past while reaching forward with hope to grab the future.  

Can I suggest something?  Stop for a few moments today and disconnect.  Take a walk, maybe even in the rain, or stare out the window.  Reflect on this past year, dream about the coming holidays, but don’t forget to soak in the present.  The act is on stage right now.  It’s beautiful.  Savor it.  

Thanks for all the great memories and intoxicating hope for the future.

See You Real Soon

“A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are built for.” – John A. Shedd

All lands, all attractions! With last week’s Disneyland Paris re-opening, once again the sun no longer sets on the Magic Kingdom. It’s hard to believe it has been over a year (17 months) since we could say that. And, as vaccination coverage increases and the COVID numbers improve, we are starting to see more restrictions lifted and some levels of “return to normal.”

My youngest is the last one in our family to be fully vaccinated. Tomorrow marks two weeks after her 2nd shot and we feel the relief and freedom that can bring. We are looking forward to traveling again and seeing more friends and family in person. While required safety measures at times, quarantining and isolation is not what humans are built for. It is amazing how well we adapted to make things work. We successfully deployed fully remote work. We adopted safe, masked and social distanced ways to safely and caringly pick up necessities. Things like Zoom and FaceTime became brilliant and sometimes lamented tools to stay connected with family and friends as well as work. But in the end, we all felt that missing part that even those of us who are introverted suddenly discovered we needed… in-person social interaction.

Humans are made to be with other humans. As a family of all sorts, strengths and sizes, as intelligent beings with our unique perspectives, personalities and pet-peeves, it turns out, we all need each other. I’m looking forward to setting sail once again on many more in-person voyages.

Hope to see you all real soon!

Begin Again

“Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s Party!’” –  Robin Williams

A blue California Scrub Jay just landed outside my window.  His beautiful white beard and bright blue feathers seemed to glow in the early morning sun.  He hopped across the fence and suddenly dove down and picked up some seeds he spotted on the ground.  He jumped back to the fence and then soared into the sky.

Spring!  I know it started a couple of weeks ago, but this weekend finally felt like Spring.  Having been safe-at-home inside for the past several months, there is something wonderfully hopeful about the budding, blooming and greening debuting outside our windows.  When I take a walk outside, I see new life emerging from the death of winter.  Fresh new green leaves are unfolding on the ivy and trees.  Seedlings are poking their heads toward the sun. Tiny flowers begin to pop color across the faded winter landscape.  I look up and see birds like my early morning blue Jay visitor, swimming through the new Spring air, singing and dancing across the sky.  I hear and see the  squirrels running across the yard, darting gracefully over fences and up the trees with renewed vigor and determination.  Spring is here!

It is easy to be busy.  We all have planning to do, tasks to complete and meetings to attend.  But before you get too lost in the hustle, I encourage you to take some time this week to enjoy Spring.  Go for a walk.  Grab a cup of coffee or tea and sit outside and relish the melody.  Listen to the sounds.  All creation sings, “We begin again!”  Drink in the new colors.  Smell that new life energy.  Breathe in the cool April air and embrace the warming sun, peeking over the housetops.  Don’t miss it!  We are all part of this springtime party.  Enjoy it!

Epilogue – Eternal Dividends

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” – Steve Jobs

My wife’s mother, Alice, has myelodysplastic syndrome.  It is a disorder that disrupts the production of healthy blood cells and is related to leukemia.  Some of you had the opportunity to meet Alice at one of the annual Christmas parties we host (prior to COVID).  She enjoyed the holiday treats and the opportunity to meet many of you and your families.  She always loved to tell the stories of her 87 years.  She came to live with us about ten years ago and has been on many adventures with us this past decade.  Last week, at her request and the advice of her doctors, we put her into hospice in our home.  She is ready.  Our goal is to keep her comfortable and allow family and friends to safely visit, commemorate her pending graduation and bid last farewells.

As the final paragraph of my mother-in-law’s life is penned, sadness and joy crash against our hearts.  Like the tide, those feelings and memories rise and fall.  Those of you who have lost parents, siblings or other loved ones know the complex fog that sets in as grief and mortality arrive with powerful force.  The emotions and the moments begin to refine the matters of the heart.  There is a clarity that surfaces.  What’s really important begins to emerge.

How will we end?  We will all face and journey through the valley of death at some point.  We all have the pending task of writing the epilogue to our life.  What will be in that final chapter?  How shall we sum up?  Will we have regrets?  What would we have changed?  These powerful questions are really a gift. It’s life’s housekeeping angel that reminds us to examine what we are doing, reflect on our priorities and focus on what really matters.

I often say, “We should focus on high value targets.”  Don’t get busy with being busy, apply your talent, time and energy to what matters.  Understand the outcomes you want to achieve and trim away everything that doesn’t contribute to making that happen.  Keep the faith.  Don’t settle.  Pursue your dreams.  Love with all your heart.  Care for your loved ones and invest in others.  Eternal dividends are not measured in dollars and pounds, they are measured in the moments, the people and the legacy we leave behind.  Today begins the first day of the rest of your life.  Optimize for greatest impact.

One Year of COVID-19

“Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.” – Fred Roger

We were boarding the flight to Orlando for a week packed full of meetings.  The plane was mostly empty.  Speculation and warnings about the new SARS-CoV-2 virus were just starting to hit the news and guidance had been given to wash hands and sanitize everything.  Scientist were still studying how long it could survive on surfaces.  My wife sent me a video on how to “sanitize your seat” on the airplane.  All of us on the trip discussed and shared wipes and sanitizers.  Little did we know that the Coronavirus variant would transmit primarily through the air, so masks were not yet a priority or recommendation. 

Walt Disney World was full of guests when we arrived, but there was an eerie feeling that something was about to change.  By the end of the week, Disney leadership announced the closure of the Parks and Stores.

“In an abundance of caution and in the best interest of our guests and employees, we are proceeding with the closure of our theme parks…”

Guests were urged to stay in their rooms.  We all worked from the hotel room on Friday, watching the news break and seeing the stock market plunge into free-fall territory.  In just a few days, California would be the first state to announce stay-at-home orders and shortly after, other states would follow.  Public venues, theaters and sporting events began reporting cancelations or closures.

Returning home on that flight was somber and surreal.  Everyone kept distance, not knowing how much interaction would be acceptable or safe.  It was clear that things were going to change dramatically. Guidance to wear masks and temporary “Safe at Home” remote work direction came.  Little did we know that these temporary measures would still be in place a year later. 

In some ways, it feels like just yesterday that we were on that flight and in other ways, a decade ago.  We have all been through a lot this past year.  So many changes and challenges.  Over this past year, some of us experienced tragic loss, sadness, frustration, and loneliness.  At times, we may have felt depressed and overwhelmed.  The dark clouds of the pandemic seemed to cover the sky, blocking out all the rays of optimism. 

Yet in the midst of this crisis, there were glimmers of hope.  I saw heroic efforts from our team to help each other, showing kindness, compassion and concern for each other.  I saw us step up to the challenge and help our company move forward with efforts to improve security, reduce costs and support our businesses.  We saw the explosive growth of our streaming platforms with hits like The Mandalorian and WandaVision, the release of Raya and The Last Dragon, Mulan and Soul, Ecommerce shopping records, the NBA Bubble and the invigorated determination of our company to help combat social injustice.  All of that proved that we can survive and thrive even during difficult times, even remote. 

On a personal note, we learned how to balance home life, child care, school and work projects, sometimes colliding together on calls as we figured out and embraced the new normal.  We might have picked up a few new hobbies, completed some much-needed maintenance work, taught ourselves some new technology or learned a new language.  OK, maybe some of that was more of a directional goal than an accomplishment. ?

The good news is that there is a light ahead. Scientists and researchers discovered not one, but many effective vaccines that are now being rolled out.  Infection and mortality rates have declined.  More things are opening up.  We are all looking forward to being able to go out freely in public again, to be able to enjoy a dinner out, a movie, a concert or a day at Disneyland.  It seems more possible with each day and it seems confidence grows as the days grow longer.

As we mark this one-year anniversary, I challenge you all to hope.  Appreciate all that has been endured and must still be healed, but celebrate the discoveries you have learned and the accomplishments we have reached. The rest of our life begins today.  Give it a warm hug and let it thrive.  We can do this!  We have just begun…

Stay well,

Jason

Remove the Barriers

“The talent is here. We just need to remove the barriers.” – Ed Catmull

I confess, I am very sentimental.  At all hands, sendoffs and celebrations, I love to show photos to reminisce about events, people, places and days gone by.  The photo storage platforms I use all know this about me and are always offering me “on this day a year ago…” teasers which I can’t refuse.  I love those.  As we wrapped up January, the AI wizards began sending me reminders of our 2020 and 2019 Cloud Summits.  First of all, I was shocked to realize it has been a year since that pre-pandemic in-person gathering and streaming event in 2020.  Second, I was reminded of the great 2019 event and particularly our special keynote guest, Dr. Ed Catmull.  The talk from this incredibly brilliant technology leader and the prior discussion over dinner was a highlight of a lifetime.  I want to share the impression he made on me by giving you a glimpse into his story 

Shortly after the acquisition of Pixar, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter were given the charge by Bob Iger to reboot the Walt Disney Animation Studios, which had been suffering a string of box office flops.  Pixar was delivering blockbuster movies that leveraged innovative technology to deliver compelling and connecting stories to the big screen.  Walt Disney Animation Studios on the other hand was not.  Ed tells how he dreaded but was expected to clean house and start over, hiring Pixar level talent to reboot the studio.  To his surprise, as he began to spend time there, he discovered that the problem wasn’t the talent.  The problem was the management and the debilitating processes and culture.  They began to change the management, removing obstacles that were blocking the creative process and unleashing the team to be able to deliver results.  That same team that had delivered a series of flops in the past, suddenly were able to deliver blockbuster hits like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen.  Ed observed, the talent was there, we just needed to remove the barriers.  

I know what you are all thinking.  Sounds great, but Jason, the lesson here is that we need management to remove barriers for us!  Yes, that is true.  Leaders must take on the challenge of empowering people and removing blockers.  Our job is to unleash potential, give opportunity with responsibility, not control people.  But that’s not all, nor does it fall to managers only.  If we want to unleash the generative potential of our organization, we all must be laser focused on removing constraints that slow down the delivery of value to our guests and to our company.  That job falls to all of us.  You are all capable of helping build platforms, tools and processes that empower our cast members to deliver magic, better, faster, safer and happier.  We just need to do it!

This week, I challenge you to look for opportunities to remove barriers.  Devise plans to make it better and raise those with your leadership.  We can swarm, align and drive the change.  Let’s remove barriers and unleash the incredible potential of our talent to do amazing things.

Ed Catmull and Jason Cox
“The talent is here. We just need to remove the barriers.” – Ed Catmull

Fragrance of Life

Flowers

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
– Amanda Gorman

Grandpa was fast asleep on the sofa.  The grandkids decided to play a prank on him and quietly smeared a dab of pungent limburger cheese on his moustache.  Hiding from the shadows, the grandkids watched as he startled to wake.  He wrinkled his nose and squinted his eyes.  He sniffed himself and cried, “Wow, I really stink!”  He made his way into the kitchen and soon discovered, “It smells bad in here too!”  Wandering from room to room is suddenly dawned on him that the odor was all over the house, “The whole house stinks!”  Hoping for some fresh air, he plunged outside and drew in a deep big breath and was shocked.  He declared, “The whole world stinks!”

As we all manage through the current pandemic, grapple with family difficulties, experience or see social injustices, face financial hardships, receive bad news or deal with health challenges, there is definitely an odor of despair, frustration and weariness.  My wife spent the weekend trying to schedule a COVID-19 vaccine appointment for my high-risk 86-year-old mother-in-law, waiting 10 hours on hold (that stupid hold music is still stuck in my head) and several days juggling the overwhelmed scheduling systems.  My wife kept telling me. “They seriously need some DevOps.”  Almost on a weekly basis, we hear about some friend or family member seriously impacted or taken by COVID.  In the US we recently witnessed a powerful assault on our democracy with the insurrection.  Division, hate and uncivilized war seems to dominate the landscape.  Each week seems to bring news of new challenges or disappointments.  Frankly, it stinks.  

The truth is, there is still so much good to experience.  Sure, the hurt is real.  Grief is real.  The fatigue is real.  But we shouldn’t miss the opportunity to count our blessings too.  This safe-at-home lockdown means I get to spend more time with my family.  My daughters and I recently made a habit of tea and Anime before bedtime.  For all the mask-wearing social-distanced adventures outside the house, I always have willing volunteers to join me.  What teenager ever wants to go with dad to the store otherwise?  Those are simple but precious times and enjoyable moments. I could continue to despair about all the bad, but I would miss the opportunity to enjoy the good.  It occurs to me that much of our experience of reality is determined by what we bring to it.  Losses can become learning.  Hurt can become hope.  Grief can become growth.  Buried in the bad is a bed of begonias.  

What fragrance are you bringing to your situation?  You can be the aroma of hope to yourself and others.  A perfume of positivity and an odor of optimism can make a difference.  Wear it well this week!

Channel of Peace

“Make me a channel of your peace… Where there is hatred let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness joy.” – St. Francis of Assisi 

“Your screen time was up 39% last week.” Just 39%?  What a week!  The events in the United States made me feel overwhelmed and numb. Like many of you, I became fixated on the news.  How will we survive and overcome this?  I remember feeling the same way after 9/11, but for different reasons.  The external threat has become internal. The insurrection is testing our core, our democracy and our ability to peaceably pursue happiness together.  The backdrop of all of that is the devastating impact of the pandemic, now claiming more lives per day than all of the souls lost on 9/11.  I need a hug, how about you?

I recognize that many of you, like me, are impacted by the events over the past week and will most likely continue into the weeks to come.  Make sure you are taking care of yourself, your loved ones and each other.  I need to constantly remind myself of that.  We are all being affected by this new stress and grief.  It can have a negative impact on how we think, work and relate to others.  We need to give ourselves time to decompress and heal.  “Breathe.”  Soak in the positive goodness as well as the negative news.

In the darkest hour, light becomes the brightest.  Ask yourself what you can do today to sow some light.  Embrace extra consideration, empathy, truth and kindness.  And that for yourself and for others.  We will get through this.  

Our work matters.  YOUR work matters.  Let’s do our best to keep bringing unity, peace and happiness to our human family that so desperately needs it.  

A New Year, A New Start

Forward

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Dan Millman

My home office is in our dining room, specifically on our dining room table.  Like many of you, I built up my home office area to best accommodate work.  I have an office chair, large monitor and plenty of accessories.  However, for the holidays, I needed to vacate the area.  As is our tradition, our dining room hosts all of our holiday treats and Christmas dinners.  We sit around the table, enjoy the feast and pop Christmas crackers.  Yes, we even read the corny jokes and wear the paper crown.  The pandemic limited our ability to gather with our extended family, but we still had a delightful Christmas holiday.

As I re-assembled my “office” this past weekend, I was struck by the amount of stuff I had accumulated.  At first, I blindly started to stack it all back onto the table.  It occurred to me that this was the perfect time to apply lean principles and deploy only what is needed, when needed.  There is an incredible satisfaction when you can thin the clutter and start fresh.  To me, that is what a New Year is all about.  Sure, it is just another revolution around the sun, but there can be a human significance. It is an opportunity to mentally restart.  It is a chance for us to reduce the clutter and begin again on a new canvas.  

As a young art student, I had just been introduced to oil painting.  I had been struggling with a landscape I had been working on for weeks.  I expressed my frustration with my art teacher.  She said she knew what needed to be done.  To my horror she grabbed a tube of Titanium white and with a large brush, quickly whited out all but the outline on my scene.  Shock became relief as new possibilities began to explode in my head.  With the constraints of my past mistakes gone, I could begin anew.  I could focus my energies forward, projecting my imagination and crafting a new world. It was a great lesson to a young artist… Don’t be afraid to start over.

What is important?  What should we start doing?  What should we stop?  What new thing should we build?  What should we leave behind?  These are all great questions to ask as we embark on this new year.  

I’m excited to dream into where we are going!  I’m looking forward to the things we will build, the investments we will make in ourselves and others, and the outcomes we will achieve.  Let’s celebrate the new adventure!  Welcome to 2021.  

Happy New Year!  Let’s make the best of this new slate.

Painting note: “Into the Dawn” by Julia R. Cox.