Building Your Personal Braintrust
Today at a Glance
- Pixar Animation Studios has a 30+ year history of creating award-winning animated films. One of their secrets for consistently excellent output: The Braintrust.
- The Braintrust is a group of individuals who meet regularly to pressure test in process films. It is a diverse group not directly involved in the film's production, but with a vested interest in its success via their roles at the company. We can apply a similar concept to striving for excellence in our own personal and professional lives. We all need a Personal Braintrust.
- To build your Braintrust, work to assemble a group of individuals who are unbiased, have different perspectives, and want to see you succeed. The group can be dynamic over time, and it doesn't have to be formal.
- As you encounter challenges, key decisions, or inflection points in your personal and professional life, you can reliably turn to the members of your Braintrust for grounded perspectives, candor, feedback, and advice.
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Pixar Animation Studios is widely regarded as one of the most creative studio outfits of all time.
Its works have earned countless awards, including over 20 Academy Awards.
Throughout its 30+ year history, the studio has created and fostered beloved IP, including Toy Story, Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life, Monster’s Inc, The Incredibles, Wall-E, Coco, Inside Out, and more.
If you're a parent (or just grew up in the 90s or 2000s), odds are you’ve fallen in love with a Pixar storyline and character.
But this kind of prolific creative output doesn’t just happen by chance.
As Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull reveals in his book, Creativity, Inc., there were deliberate systems and processes in place to ensure the absolute highest quality and consistency of the product across the decades.
One such system—referred to as The Braintrust—is particularly relevant as a model that can be applied to our own lives.
The Braintrust is a group of individuals who meet every few months to discuss in process movies.
The group includes the director of the movie, as well as a collection of others not directly involved in the film, but with a vested interest in its success via their role at the company.
The concept originated organically with a small working group that came together during the creation of Toy Story. Given the excellence of the output, Pixar decided to formalize it as part of their creative process on all movies going forward.
Ed Catmull explains:
“Our decision making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group…we rely on [the Braintrust] to push us toward excellence and to root out mediocrity. It is our primary delivery system for straight talk.”
The general model of the Braintrust—a group of individuals with different perspectives and lenses, asking questions and pressure testing assumptions to improve the quality of the final product—is one that we can all apply to our lives in the context of our own personal and professional pursuits.
The logic here is simple: At each phase of your life and career, you're faced with a variety of difficult and new decisions and challenges.
Traditionally, people have turned to "mentorship" to navigate the uncharted waters they encounter at each stage of their life. But in this day and age, "mentorship" can feel very formal. It carries a connotation of a fixed cadence and time commitment. From the mentor's perspective, it may feel like a big commitment, which dilutes the average quality of the relationship, experience, and results.
Furthermore, having one formal mentor often falls short from a utility standpoint. Your single mentor may not have encountered the challenge you're facing—they may not have a "map" that you can leverage to navigate the terrain.
Rather than focus on finding a single mentor, which may be a flawed model for these reasons, we can leverage Pixar’s idea to form our own Braintrust—a personal board of advisors for our lives.
Just as Pixar used the Braintrust to improve the quality of their creative decisions, we can use our Braintrust to improve the quality of our personal and professional decisions.
How to Build Your Braintrust
Your Braintrust is a group of 5-10 individuals.
A few key features of the members of the group:
- Unbiased (ideally not family).
- Diverse experiences, perspectives, lenses.
- Willing to provide raw feedback and candor.
- Vested interest in your success (i.e. they want to see you win).
As you construct your Braintrust, it may be helpful to think about each member as fitting one particular archetype:
- Senior executive: navigating hierarchies and senior ranks.
- Inspirational leader: leadership principles and people management.
- Intellectual sparring partner: willing to pressure test your thinking.
- Contrarian thinker: willing to play the devil’s advocate.
- Connector: deep relationships and network.
- Peer: similar personal or professional stage to you.
As you assemble your group, avoid the formality trap of traditional mentorship.
Start with the people you already rely on for guidance and advice.
As you progress, keep your Braintrust in the back of your mind. Cultivate deep relationships, but remember that every deep relationship necessarily starts at the surface. Build real connection with people that you'd love to have involved in your journey.
You can't reasonably ask someone you just met to be a part of your Braintrust. It doesn't work that way—and you wouldn't want them, they know nothing about you and won't be truly invested in your journey.
Importantly, this is not about building the most impressive sounding Braintrust. This is for supporting your personal and professional growth, not for a soundbite. You want people who are genuinely interested in seeing you succeed.
Over time, you can add and subtract from your group. Add new and deep relationships, subtract people who have diminishing value as you or they have changed or progressed.
Unlike Pixar, you won’t need to host formal meetings of your Braintrust (this avoids the formality challenge of mentorship in general), so the members don't need to know each other, or even that they are a part of your Braintrust.
The Braintrust is a personal concept—one that you can craft in your own unique way. I have one, but none of the members know the term or that they are on it (until they read this article and connect the dots!). You can keep a running Braintrust member list, but no one else needs to see it.
Time and energy are finite, so the fact that someone is using a portion of their time to support you is no small thing. Always let them know they are appreciated. Buy them a book. Send them a handwritten thank you for spending time with you. Small things go a long way.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Sir Isaac Newton famously said, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
Consider your Braintrust as your life giants—you will always see further by standing on their shoulders.
As you encounter challenges, key decisions, or inflection points in your personal and professional life, you can reliably turn to the members of your Braintrust for grounded perspectives, candor, feedback, and advice.
You can "war game" your key decisions.
The Braintrust is a concept that has the potential to completely change your life and career trajectory. I'd encourage you to spend some time this weekend thinking about how you might build yours.
You won't regret it...