Perhaps it’s coincidence, or perhaps Pixar’s writers share my reading list, but their recently released animated film, Soul, highlights one of the core commitments in The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership in profound way.
Jim Dethmer and his team at Conscious Leadership Group proposes that the Eighth Commitment of Conscious Leadership is “excelling in your zone of genius” and encouraging others to do the same.
They highlight four “zones” that we operate within, as proposed by Gay Hendricks, PhD in his book, The Big Leap. These four zones are incompetence, competence, excellence, and genius, and Dethmer writes that people tend to get “stuck” in the prior three, which prevents them from realizing the latter.
They go on to describe how the third zone, “excellence”, can be the most difficult to recognize and escape in our journey towards genius.
According to Dethmer, the zone of excellence “is the trickiest zone, where the majority of successful people get stuck. Here, you are good at what you do. Better than most, in fact . . . It’s comfortable. It’s known. The problem is that it costs you energy . . . It feels like work. The passion dies along with your creativity and potential if you stay too long.”
Not Just “A Zone”. THE Zone.
The difference between the zone of excellence and zone of genius is profound, and profoundly executed in Soul, which (SPOILER) follows the story of a talented yet unsuccessful jazz musician who finally gets his shot to play his dream-gig. Before the performance, however, he missteps and finds himself as a soul without a body on its way to the “Great Beyond”. Trying to escape his fate and realize his dream, he stumbles upon the “Great Before”, where souls are created and their personalities developed prior to getting sent to Earth.
Director, Pete Docter “began developing the film in 2016, working from his contemplations on the origins of human personalities and the concept of determinism”.
Along his journey through the “Great Before”, our protagonist find himself in a place called “The Zone”. It’s described in the film as that euphoric place that our “souls” travel when we tune out of the world and tap into our innate genius. It’s where we travel, when we reach our flow state, lose track of time, and excel in our genius.
“The Zone”, however, is also home to lost souls who have become disconnected from their passion. They’ve let their obsession consume their spark for life.
“Some people just can’t let go of their own anxieties and obsessions, leaving them lost and disconnected from life.” – Moonwind, Soul
These lost souls need to be freed from the trap of their excellence, and not without some effort. In the film, our protagonist meets a band of souls who travel to “The Zone” to wrangle lost souls and force them to confront their situation and rediscover their spark for life.
Confronting Our Upper Limits
In Soul, our protagonist’s mystic companions from “The Zone” use bongos and folk music to help coax lost souls out of their disconnected state, snapping them out of it so they can suddenly reflect on the life they’re living and escape it.
Reading through Dethmer’s writing on commitment eight sheds more light on the barriers we must confront to find and excel in our zone of genius (aka “The Zone”), and therefore work towards our zone of genius.
As proposed in the chapter on Commitment Eight, we place “Upper Limits” on ourselves: artificial barriers that we place on ourselves that prevent us from exceeding a certain level of happiness, achievement, and genius.
Unintentionally, we self impose limits on “how much money we’re allowed to make, how much love or closeness we can feel, how much joy we can experience, how much fun we’re allowed to have.” (Dethmer)
“You didn’t sit down with your coffee this morning and make a deal with yourself to hold your Upper Limits in place.” – 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership
You know you’ve broken through your Upper Limits when you start thinking to yourself things like “this is too good to be true” or “what goes up must come down” or “I can’t believe I get to do this”.
These thoughts are a signal that we are breaking through our Upper Limits and experiencing fear as a result. As Dethmer proposes, we may fear we’re fundamentally flawed and therefore unworthy. We may fear that success would be disloyal to our roots. We may fear that success will set the next bar too high for us. We may fear that success will step on the toes of others.
These fears keep us from realizing and experiencing our genius in an authentic way. They lead to internal uncomfortabilities when we do enter our flow state (aka “The Zone”), and disconnect us from our genius. We betray ourselves and wind up holding ourselves back, not realizing our full potential.
Both Soul and Commitment Eight suggest that awareness is the key to combatting the issue. If we do not recognize and snap out of our fears we begin to reside in them, roaming lost through areas of incompetence, competence, and even excellence without fulfillment.
In Soul, they use hippy folk music and bongos as their tongue-in-cheek method to snap lost souls out of their predicament. In 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, they suggest that we take note of those moments when we lose track of time, tap into our flow state, and excel in our genius and recognize any limiting thoughts we have.
From there, it’s a matter of consciously shedding those thoughts and celebrating your genius. The book suggests following these moments with a grounding, ordinary, or otherwise mindless activity that normalizes the achievement, as if to signal your mind that excelling in your zone of genius not some holy grail. After all, putting it up on a pedestal only serves to align it with your Upper Limits.
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you watch Soul. At time of writing, it’s available for streaming on Disney+ in the U.S. and other countries. Besides what I’ve written about here, it offers up some powerful lessons about life, purpose, and determinism.
Pixar seems to have the uncanny ability to package incredibly deep concepts into fun and approachable animated films, and I may take a stab at exploring other films through the lens of 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership or other such books.
“Commitment Eight, Excelling in Your Zone of Genius.” The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership: a New Paradigm for Sustainable Success, by Jim Dethmer et al., Conscious Leadership Group, United States, 2015, pp. 188–203.
Soul. Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, Walt Disney Pictures & Pixar Animation Studios, 2020 Disney+. https://movies.disney.com/soul.
“Soul (2020 Film).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Dec. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soul_(2020_film).