Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

I’m reading (actually listening to — I love audio books for driving and walks) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel H. Pink. Pink asserts that everything we know about motivation is wrong. What passes at the typical workplace, or school environment for “motivation” does more harm to problem solving, creativity, productivity, enjoyment and mastery than good. He covers study after study showing how typical carrot-and-stick rewards and punishments, actually reduce productivity and engagement rather than increase it. He delineates between ‘extrinsic motivation’, doing something for a reward or avoidance of punishment, and ‘intrinsic motivation’, doing something out of curiosity, joy, and progress towards mastery. He outlines the conditions for motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. This book has been richly thought provoking — I bought it to better understand how to motivate my kids, but quickly gained flashes of insight into my work life and how to improve it.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

I highly recommend Seth Godin’s new book: Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?
The book challenges us to not just settle for “another cog in the wheel” jobs — but to share our ’emotional labor’, create art, and ‘give gifts’. I just finished reading it, and think its very relevant to vfx artists. The book caused me to ‘quit’ my old manager at the day job. I just started in a new position with a group and manager that ‘gets it’, and will better appreciate my work. The book is all about how to become indispensable in an age of outsourcing, shrinking revenues, and mass market media.

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

JavaFX Silicon Valley Meetup at Google

Last night I attended a really interesting meeting, the first Silicon Vally JavaFX Users Group. It was held at the Google campus in Mountain View.

Joshua Marinacci showed some pretty amazing things that people are doing with JavaFX, like Project MaiTai which lets you connect audio and visual building blocks (oscillators, particle generators, filters, etc.) together to create interactive displays.

Richard Bair, from Sun, showed some really cool examples of how the language works (sequences, binding, list comprehensions), how to be efficient, and why they did things the way they do. He also previewed some of the new UI controls coming in release 1.3.

I got a lot of questions answered, especially in the area of media. Like: “What’s up with JMF (Java Media Framework) it seems to be dead?” A: All the JMF developers are working on JavaFX media.

Turns out that JavaFX is not just the scripting language, it is a ground-up rewrite of the client stack including fonts, image handling, rasterization, etc.

There were a lot of startups there—it definitely had that buzzy feel like the early JavaOne conferences. A common theme on why these new ventures were interested in JavaFX was the availability of the entire Java stack right from the start. They cited, for example, the ease with which you can access web services, or do peer-to-peer networking, or anything involving security, databases, 2d/3d visualization, or math.

The Google campus is a pretty amazing place. When I left at 9:30PM the parking lot was still almost full. You can just feel the buzz. There are all kinds of exhibits/projects in the lobbies showing stuff that teams are working on, and a general level of zaniness—if you have ever been on a tour of Pixar’s facilities, think Pixar x2.

And.. I won a Sun Spot development kit! http://www.sunspotworld.com/ Man, I never win anything! Its basically a kit containing two sun-spot micro-controllers with wireless radios and several sensors: 3D accelerometer, a temperature sensor, a light sensor, eight LEDs, two switches, and I/O pins. You program these things in Java and there is a special JavaVM that runs on the board. It has both 802.11 and mesh networking built-in. Now I have to cook up some projects to build with my teenagers.

So, in the end I came away even more bullish on the JavaFX platform. The future of any technology is unpredictable, especially given the pending Oracle acquisition—but in terms of client-side Java, this is where all the attention and effort is going. They might just get client-side Java right this time.

On Ups, Downs, and Perseverance

I seem to be at that point in my life where I’m starting to “get” certain basic principles. I’m not sure whether this is the normal process of aging and acquisition of wisdom, or some urgent cosmic message, but I’m starting to notice the insights arriving at a quickened pace.

One recent insight was that ideas are cheap, but passion and perseverance is priceless. In other words, “its all about execution.” Now, I have heard variations on this maxim for years, decades — but I never truly understood it. I would hoard ideas like putting butterflies in a jar, and think that all I needed was the “right” idea and I’d be all set.

But, butterflies will eventually die if left in a jar. Ideas, like butterflies want to be free and its in the observing that we derive value. Whether by choice or circumstance, I’ve had to execute tirelessly on some pretty simple ideas recently, and one day, after wading through dozens of emails full of well-intentioned ideas, I finally got it: Ideas are cheap, easy and effortless. But executing on an idea is difficult, requires trial-and-error, and requires us to fail on the way to realizing a goal.

The cool thing (for some of us, at least) is that execution is so difficult for most people that they won’t do it. Which is why ideas can be safely let out into the wild without fear that someone else will ‘steal’ them. The value of the idea is in the observation, interaction, experimentation and execution.

The reason that most people won’t execute on an idea is fear of failure. The highs and lows associated with attempting anything, whether it be sports, stock market success, a new business or creative endeavors, is hard for a lot of people to accept. Its a part of the process of creation that not everything will be brilliant. Even God, if we believe the story, had to start over.

But, if you don’t try anything new, and you take no chances, you’ll never “fail”, but you’ll never produce anything great either. We are currently struggling with that at my day job — current management is so conservative that we are not allowed to “fail”, and as a practical consequence, the quality and impact of our work has dropped off dramatically.

So, the ability to tolerate highs and lows appears to be a prerequisite to achieving greatness. In this article from the recent Startup School entitled “What Startups are Really Like”, http://www.paulgraham.com/really.html, the author interviewed 70 or so startup entrepreneurs. A common theme was the sheer magnitude of the highs and lows on the way to achieving their ultimate success:

“The ups and downs were more extreme than they were prepared for. In a startup, things seem great one moment and hopeless the next. And by next, I mean a couple hours later.”

Getting back to perseverance — in addition to getting you through the highs and lows, its amazing what you can achieve if you continuously, and over time, keep pushing towards a singular vision:

The book: The Pixar Touch (Vintage) is an absolutely fascinating story of perseverance and struggle. Over the course of more than 20 years, Ed Catmull and the others endured setback after setback on the way to realizing a dream: to make animated feature films. At one point they made commercials; at one point Pixar was a hardware company; for a time, they suffered multi-million dollar losses. But through it all, the founders kept vectoring towards their singular vision. Whenever circumstances would knock them off track, or throw up a roadblock that required a detour, they would continue pushing, pulling, nudging towards their goal.

The whole notion of perseverance in achieving one’s goals is nothing new. What really struck me from the book was that: no matter how random or chaotic the circumstances, no matter how many times you are knocked off track, if you keep applying force in a given direction you will eventually overcome the randomness of life, and move things in the right direction. Its like herding cats: the random movements of the cats will be a little less random if you keep nudging them towards the door. Its also a little like compound interest, in that the force vectors (attention) that you apply begin to multiply and compound over time.

What this model absolutely requires, however, is a crystal clear destination. Something simple, almost mantra-like: “Make animated feature films.” I’m convinced that such a vision must be the product of the unconscious mind. That is, the vision must be worthy, lofty and game-changing. And that is the real difficulty. Because no matter how disciplined you might be, you can’t force your way to a truly inspirational vision.

So, I’m afraid, dear reader, that I’m leaving you with more questions than answers: “How does one train their mind to conjure a worthwhile destination?” “How do you know when an idea is worth pursuing, or is just plain dumb?” “Does it even matter?”

Siggraph 2008 Day 3

I started the day easy with a sit-down demonstration of eyeon’s Generation suite. It builds on the Fusion compositor and allows versioning, collaboration, and annotation of assets including 4K DPX plates. They had two screens set up simulating to different users logged into the system and it was neat to see the way the collaborative features worked in real-time. The pricing for the suite, at $10K seemed high for the functionality shown, but apparently the trick is in being able to show multiple streams of 4K DPX plates, and this represents breakthrough pricing for that type of capability.

Walking around the outside of the exhibit hall, I spotted the 3DConnexion SpaceNavigator left hand controller. After about 60 seconds with this device I bought one on the spot. It allows you to pan, tilt, zoom, and rotate your workspace with your left hand, while your right hand continues to work. I’m left-handed so when I’m using my pen tablet, I’ll use this controller with my right hand. Everyone should have one of these. The company claims that it improves productivity by 20%-25%. I believe it.

I then sat in on a couple of amazing Cinema 4D demos. One on on particles and included a clever use of cloth to create a moving flame front. The other was on their new matte painting tool called Projection Man. I will probably wind up upgrading to R11 just for this, the new Mac 64-bit support, and the new SpaceNavigator support for Mac.

There are a several 3D printers and 3D printing services here at the show. This stuff is just so cool. Basically, anything you can model in 3D can be ‘rendered’ out as a plastic model. Some include color. Great for character design, prototyping new products, and architectural models. Sounds ‘so what?’ until you actually see the models. I’ve just got to think up something to model for no other reason than to have something cool to put on my shelf.

Heard about the new Squiggles iPhone App by Scott Squires (VFX artist extraordinaire) which is essentially a mini-Photoshop for the iPhone. I can totally see using it to rough out concept art as it has great brushes and support for opacity and transfer modes (like overlay, screen, burn, etc.)

The highlight of the week for me was the fxPhd roof top Bar Camp attended by John Montgomery, Mike Seymour, and Jeff Heuser of fxguide.com. A bunch of folks from fxphd.com and pixelcorps.com were there. The discussions were lively and insightful. About halfway through, they started recording on a podcast and I was the first ‘volunteer’ to talk about the conference. Several folks took pictures of the affair which featured a spectacular sunset.

My celebrity photo-op with Mike Seymour of fxguide/fxphd!

I missed the Ed Catmull talk on Monday, but heard all about it at the Bar Camp. The central theme of his talk was a question: Are good ideas, or good people more important to the creative process? This was in response to a (now infamous) high-level level Hollywood studio head’s comment that “our central problem is not finding good people, but finding good ideas”. Through many anecdotes taken from Pixar studios, he explained why some projects work and others don’t. He made a convincing argument that it is not the idea, but the team who drives the implementation that leads to success. (i.e. “Its all in the execution.” Where have we heard that before?) A mediocre team with a great idea will produce a mediocre result, and a good team with a mediocre idea will find a way to make it great, or reinvent the whole thing.

This was my first Siggraph conference and I found it to be an intensely educational and interesting trip. It will take my brain many days to catch up with all of the things I’ve seen and heard, and I met a lot of really great folks. I came away with whole new perspectives on how I might integrate more pre-vis and VFX techniques into our productions.