The psychology of Pixar's Soul

What do you want to be when you grow up?

That's a question commonly asked of young children, a query that often produces memorable responses. When I was a child, I'd answer this question with "teacher," motivated by the insider access this would provide — imagine knowing how everyone did on their tests and assignments! A few years ago, my daughter's school asked students this question for the yearbook, and answers ran a creative gamut from "ninja" to "pet store worker" to "chef." As we get older, of course, the question takes on a more urgent filter, and a practical one, too.

Pixar's latest offering, Soul, explores a theme that resonates with many of us at different points in our lives: who we are vs what we do. The latter element refers often to that old question from childhood, and generally references a specific lane: what role does one play in the paid workforce? Am I an office manager for a dental practice, a public relations writer, or a child care provider? The roles we hold across adulthood fill our days and provide material support for our lives, and for many, they bring a lasting sense of fulfillment. But what about the first part of that original dichotomy? Who am I?

Warning: The following contains minor spoilers for Pixar's Soul.

An imagined look at our personality origins

Soul suggests that the answer to this piece lies in several parts. The film references its own novelty, the "Great Before," with language that pokes fun at corporate jargon (a soul's destiny is set in the "You Seminar," a recent "rebranding"). In the Great Before, one's personality is selected for them — some are sent off to the "excitable pavilion," for example, while others are chosen to be "aloof." It is only when a "complete personality" is rounded out that the soul embarks on a journey to begin life on earth.

Does everyone have a spark?

Of course, this unveiling is all news to main character Joe Gardner, a middle school band teacher with big dreams of life as a professional jazz musician. The film doesn't address the personality of Gardner per se, although he is depicted as self-effacing, able to connect with students, and a bit scatter-brained. Instead, the action dwells on a sometimes elusive (and sometimes problematic) component of what makes a person a person: one's so-called "spark," the meaning in life that motivates and defines an individual. For Joe's part, he spends most of the story convinced that his love of music constitutes his unique purpose. He's shown repeatedly entering a focused bliss while playing his beloved piano, what he calls being "zoned out."

Interestingly, despite the character's pleasure on the piano bench, the film depicts a spark as a source of bonafide tension, in multiple ways. For example, what if one can't figure out their spark? And two, what if the spark consumes too much energy and attention, veering toward an obsession? There's a third source of trouble with a spark, left largely unresolved as the story develops: what if my spark isn't what I thought it was?

The science of self-understanding

Researchers have long addressed themes within the ambitious storyline of Soul. The "sense of self" is a major topic of study among psychologists, from simply recognizing one's own face in a mirror during toddlerhood to the gradual recognition that life in one's own head — including one's visual perspective, knowledge, beliefs, and desires — differs from those of others. Behavioral scientists recognize that The Self often acts as a major influencer in one's life, occupying extensive mental space and coloring how we see and respond to others.

In fact, this emphasis on The Self in one's stream of consciousness has been dubbed by scientists as the Default Mode Network. The phrase "I lost myself in my work" provides a nice demonstration of the rare times when we focus intently on a task, freed for a while from all that Self-Chatter. When Gardner gets into a meditative state while riffing on favorite chords at the piano — that's effectively a demonstration of shifting away, even if just for several moments, from that default.

And therein lies the movie's central tension. The film's screenwriters seem to suggest that we humans misinterpret our own Default Mode Network, so to speak. Our selves — that multi-faceted and chronically influential "personality" — are determined before birth in the world of Soul, but humans are prone to becoming "disconnected from life" when we get too caught up in the weeds of that influence. That appears to happen to Gardner, who has convinced himself he's unfulfilled and is left chasing his vision of how to live out his life's purpose. To him, the only way to do right by the spark is to live a certain archetypal life, with his name on a marquee and countless gigs in the big city.

What is it all for?

Gardner evolves as the film unfolds, beginning to recognize something other than the oft-repeated "there's more to life than this" theme. He happens instead upon the possibility that there's less to life than this — but it's the "less" that holds the beauty, the discovery, and the unexpected dignity. Gardner pulls the most ordinary of objects from his pocket — the seed pod from a maple tree, sometimes called a "helicopter" for its wing-like structure — and is confronted with its simplicity. His task, we're led to believe, is to live within the present, not so much driven by something outside of himself to achieve his own completion, but to recognize he was complete the day he was born. Moreover, a companion theme emerges: Gardner's mentorship of reluctant soul "22" — who becomes both a source of comic relief and a sidekick of sorts — suggests that one's purpose may be realized in unexpected places, outside of oneself.

Self and soul in the workplace

At Traitify, we're focused on creating happiness in the workplace, and we take a multi-dimensional approach in that effort. When it comes to landing in the right role at the right organization, simply knowing oneself well is a potent first step. And once we're on the job, the more we get to know ourselves better, the more we can facilitate a lasting ability to get the most out of the work we're doing. On that measure, Soul helps us understand that finding joy in everyday happenings can have great power. There's value to be gained from noticing the faces at the staff meeting, dropping an extra donut in a customer's bag, or taking in the smell of fresh oranges in the produce section. By cultivating a culture of caring for the simplest and most ordinary of workdays, we can build in a sustainable peace to our work lives, an ethic that extends beyond one's job.

Finally, as the unexpected rapport between protagonist Gardner and misfit 22 reminds us, we exist as one piece among many. When we recognize that connection, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Giving even the "quietest" of talents space to thrive, teaching and learning across all levels of an organization, bonding over a shared laugh — those all can nourish the soul, sometimes in ways unexpected.

Introducing: Me

Soul is a thoughtful and creative film that is bold in the topics it takes on — big, messy questions like the nature of life and death, the manipulability of consciousness, and the conflict between dreaming big and making ends meet. The Self is a powerful force in the film and in our minds, shaping where we go and what we see along the way. Soul's greatest message may simply be the need to be kind to ourselves, to act as our own advocates, and to learn to become comfortable in our own shoes — in other words, to really get to know ourselves.

Learn more about yourself in 90 seconds, taking that first step to workplace happiness.