Lessons of Expectation Management from Pixar's Soul
BY MILENA ZHU '22
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED...
This past Christmas, with nothing to do, I watched the new Pixar movie, Soul. While it did not elicit an embarrassing breakdown like Coco did, its characters were relatable, authentic, and much more mature than those of a typical Pixar movie. Through its realistic characters and moving plot, Soul teaches us that fixating on a dream can overshadow life’s simple joys, and with COVID-19 still ravaging the world, we are reminded to live day-to-day rather than chase the unfeasible dream of a miraculous cure. Soul was the perfect movie for the end of 2020 because it showed us that in trying times, the key to happiness is to balance our expectations.
For those who do not want to pirate or support the ruthless capitalism of dear old Walt, here’s everything you need to know for my self-help/English-paper-hybrid-article. Protagonist Joe Gardner is an aspiring jazz musician who “dies” right after achieving his dream—a gig in a jazz quartet with a famous saxophone player, Dorothea Williams. He ends up in the Great Before, a place where souls gain personalities and a “spark,” or purpose, before going to Earth. There, he meets Soul 22, who has resided there for thousands of years and has never received a spark. They have no intention of ever truly living, perfectly content with existence in the Great Before. After shenanigans ensue (including a body swap with Soul 22 occupying Joe’s body while Joe lives in a cat’s body traversing the entirety of New York City, baby!), both Joe and Soul 22 end the movie with satisfying character arcs and the chance to live. Hurrah! (P.S. Here's a beautiful scene from the beginning of the resolution where Joe has an Epiphany. Spoilers are involved, of course).
For most people, including Joe, living life with expectations seems ideal, as it gives one direction and purpose. In a particularly powerful scene, while persuading his disapproving mother to support his dream, Joe admits that “[he’s] just afraid that if [he] died today, [his] life would have amounted to nothing.” He resolves to unlock his full potential in life, and this expectation fuels his motivation to achieve his goals. Conversely, people who lack self-expectations are not privy to planned lives. Their low expectations make it difficult to achieve anything meaningful, as low standards are often synonymous with a lack of passion.
However, while many assume that low-expectations equate to little progress, Soul 22’s minimal standards allow them to experience life without the pressure of a supposed purpose. Indeed, Soul 22’s lack of expectations drove them to remain in the nest for thousands of years, but this lack of exposure also enhanced their enjoyment once they finally discovered the joys of life. They savored every seemingly trivial moment, from pizza to the New York subway, activities that many workaholics cannot fully appreciate.
In a beautiful scene before Joe and Soul 22 switch back bodies, Soul 22 sits on a doorstep, illuminated by the sunset’s golden glow, and catches a helicopter seed pod in their hand. The whole scene encapsulates life’s wonder, highlighting Joe and Soul 22’s distinct perspectives. Joe, whose expectations guide his life and give him purpose, loses sight of the present as he chases the future. Soul 22, on the other hand, lives life without expectations and relishes time spent walking or sky-watching, actions that Joe finds purposeless and mundane. In failing to appreciate the small intricacies of life, Joe doesn’t realize that enjoying these moments is what life is actually about.
Indeed, even upon achieving his dream, Joe is dissatisfied with life. After playing with Dorothea, Joe laments to Dorothea that achieving his long-awaited goal did not feel as momentous as he expected. His dream becomes synonymous with achieving happiness and fulfillment, and as a result, he funnels all his hope into a single performance, expecting it to be life-changing. Yet, by doing so, Joe sets himself up for disappointment. When expectations become too high, go-getters like Joe struggle to appreciate minute details and experiences that make life worth living.
Both Joe’s and Soul 22’s attitudes towards life have their upsides and downsides, and like much of life, the key is to find the right balance. One needs some expectations to navigate life, but must also be careful not to bank all hopes on these dreams. Joe’s barber, Dez, epitomizes this balance, as he sacrificed his dreams of becoming a veterinarian to support his daughter, choosing to attend less expensive barber school instead. While occupying Joe’s body, Soul 22 expressed their condolences that Dez cannot be happy, echoing Joe’s impression of life. However, Dez quickly rebutted this, telling them that he is satisfied as a barber, despite having taken a completely different path than he had planned. Dez combines the best qualities of Joe and 22, being both passionate and driven while still enjoying life. Evidently, being able to adapt one’s expectations ensures far more happiness, no matter what challenges life brings.
Given the current state of the world, managing our expectations is especially important. Many people believe that once COVID-19 dies down, our lives will quickly return to normal. While it is understandable to hope for a bright future after so much tragedy, clinging to unrealistic expectations is dangerous, because circumstances won’t improve at the drop of a hat. Instead, by setting small goals and managing our expectations, we can appreciate life in all of its broken, beautiful glory—and isn’t that what gives life soul?