Have you ever noticed that some things look the same regardless of vantage? A small branch from a tree, held in a certain way, looks itself like a tree. A coastline looks like a coastline whether seen from the beach or outer space.
Those examples come from Ed Catmull’s book, “Creativity, Inc.” and are used to describe a mathematical principle known as stochastic self-similarity.
I know, right? When is the last time Clay Lambert pretended to understand a concept rooted in math? But this one I think I get and it relates to the way we all deal with stressors in our lives.
The book was recommended by Wick Communications CEO Tom Yunt, who has made it a point to pass along interesting management tracts and I’m grateful for material I wouldn’t normally crack. Catmull, the author, is the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios. He has a Ph.D in computer science and a world of experience working with creative people.
In the midst of a discussion of randomness and dealing with the unexpected, Catmull throws in couple pages on stochastic self-similarity. (Actually, the passage occurs in the exact middle of the text. How random is that?) He uses the concept to make a point about the problems we all experience. Some of them are small: You can’t find that letter to the editor, a reporter calls in sick, you spill coffee on your keyboard. Others are bigger: A reporter substituted the name of a local teacher for someone accused of a crime, your photographer quits, the newspaper’s biggest advertiser goes belly up. Then there are terrible life events: A death in the family, your child hospitalized, a fire sweeps through your home. …
Catmull wants us to realize that all these problems are fundamentally the same. They require some action and clarity of thought, even if the scale is different. “When we put setbacks into two buckets – the ‘businsss as usual’ bucket and the ‘holy cow’ bucket – and use a different mindset for each, we are signing up for trouble,” Catmull writes. “… What is needed, in my view, is to approach big and small problems with the same set of values and emotions, because they are, in fact, self-similar. In other words, it is important that we don’t freak out or start blaming people when some threshold … is reached.”
That is easier said than done, but I think his point is well taken and would help us resolve problems big and small in our newsrooms. We all know that “freaking out” is never the best way to solve anything. It just ratchets up the tension and creates an environment of fear in which people are less likely to take calculated, creative risks and much more likely to cover their own backsides instead of doing their best work.
How do we get to this zen place where all problems are resolved in a healthy way? Catmull suggests applying the morals and values that shape your organization. If you respect your coworkers and readers at all times, if you acknowledge that people want to do their very best, if you lead with an example that you can keep your cool under pressure, your problems will never seem overwhelming.
Consider it food for thought in challenging times.