Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Creativity the Warhol and Pixar way

An interesting similarity
I want to make it as a fine-art photographer. I also want to start a technology company that grows. As I aspire to succeed in both simultaneously, I crave creativity. I continually analyze ideas for new startups and dream of concepts for photography projects. Recently, I noticed a strong similarity in the approaches of two well-respected creatives: Andy Warhol and Ed Catmull. Both have had an amazing streak of creative successes, and though their personalities could not be more different, they both had a similar approach to nurturing creativity.

Warhol's Factory
"Andy Warhol by Jack Mitchell" by Jack Mitchell. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
"Andy Warhol" by Jack Mitchell via Wikimedia Common
Andy Warhol has been called the most important artist of the second half of the 20th century, if not the entire 20th century. The volume of his creative work is probably unparalleled by any artist. His influence still reverberates in painting and printed media, music, film, and photography.

Aside from his endlessly provocative artwork, I am fascinated with Andy Warhol’s mode of operation. After tasting some of his first success in the fine art world, Andy leased a warehouse and hired a technician to cover every surface with silver paint or aluminum foil. The result came to be known as “The Factory”. The Factory was an instant sensation that in many ways defined the youth culture of the sixties. It became home for a constantly changing group of artists, musicians, drug addicts, drag queens, and celebrities. It was the site of a never-ending drug-fueled, inhibition-free party. Many people became famous from their association with the factory, including actress Edie Sedgwick, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the proto-alternative band Velvet Underground, to name just a few.

While many people debate whether Andy Warhol was a creative genius or a rip-off artist, no one questions the influence that the Factory had on his work. Many of his films consisted of little more than his simply turning on a video camera and recording what he saw. When he came up with an idea for a new film, his cast usually consisted of whoever was around. Many of his ideas were originally recommended to him by his Factory “Superstars” in the form of “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” With this eclectic entourage, Warhol would later state that new ideas were given to him every five minutes.

Pixar's Brain Trust

"VES Awards 89 cropped" by VES_Awards_89.jpg: Jeff Heusserderivative work: Ahonc - This file was derived from: VES_Awards_89.jpg. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
"VES Awards 89 cropped" by Jeff Heusser via Wikimedia Commons

I recently finished Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc. It is a fascinating book that details the origins of the Pixar movie studio with commentary on how to apply the principles to business leadership in general. Mr. Catmull recounts his story from his interest in animation as a boy, to Steve Jobs convincing him to take the studio public, with plenty of details in between regarding his time as a PhD computer science student at the University of Utah, and the origins of Pixar as a computer hardware company at LucasFilm under George Lucas.

For those too young to remember life before the first Toy Story, it is difficult to describe how much of an influence this movie studio has had. Before Toy Story, computer animation was a nerdy distraction. With very few exceptions (most notably, a Lysterine commercial, which itself was created by Pixar) no one had ever animated anything on a computer that didn’t seem either completely unnecessary, or that it could have been done better if it had been done the old-fashioned way. Toy Story (and the ensuing Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, UP, Wall-E, and Toy Story 3) were remarkable because they were strong stories which used 3D computer animation as an effective tool. Pixar created, nearly entirely on its own, the entire industry of computer animation, and influenced nearly every movie made in the last decade with the computer effects that they pioneered, or at least with the computer-based editing tools that they made possible.

For me, the standout lesson of Catmull’s book (which was echoed countless times across many chapters) was the importance of Pixar’s “Brain Trust”. The Brain Trust is a rotating group of employees that represent nearly every group within the company. The group meets regularly (as frequently as necessary) to review progress on a film and to provide feedback to the director. Despite the fact that the Brain Trust is organized in a corporate setting, there is no hierarchy once the meeting has started. Much like the Factory, everyone is encouraged to speak up. Scenes are rewritten and entire movies are scrapped based on the suggestions that are made in these meetings. The director still has the final say, but the suggestions are valuable because they help the director see problems to which he or she had been blind.

Making my own
I want a brain trust. I want a Factory. I want to surround myself with people that are forthcoming with ideas. I think that my greatest weakness both in business and photography is my own inhibitions. I get blank page syndrome and have a hard time thinking of something other than what I’ve already done. Some of my favorite business ideas (one of which I’m pursuing right now) came from casual conversations with friends. I want to surround myself with people that are interested in experimentation and who aren’t disappointed when something “fails.”

I’m trying to figure out how to assemble such a group. Four years ago, I organized a conference call with a dozen of the most creative and successful people I knew. I had a PhD engineer from MIT, a YouTube film maker, a musician, an entrepreneur, a product marketer, a house flipper, and several others. I scheduled an hour-long call. I picked my dad’s business as a case study, and we all shared our thoughts on what he could do to improve his business. It was a fun exercise, but there was nothing tying the group together (besides everyone being friends with me) and I never thought of another idea to reassemble the team. The potential was there, but something was missing.

I really like the idea of collective workspaces. This seems to be a recent phenomenon as “remoting in” to work has become more common. Albuquerque has a workspace named FatPipe where individuals can rent a desk for the day and work in a large cubicle-free room with other startup-minded locals. Can we create a Factory in this kind of setting?  (I plan to try it out later this month.  I’ll let you know what I find.)

There is power when groups of people are trying to accomplish something. When people are empowered to share their unique insights, everyone can do more. I’d like to create this kind of environment in my own life. 

What ideas do you have? Have you ever had a Factory/brain trust experience? Any tips for assembling a group of people who can openly share their opinions? Let me know if you’re interested in joining the team. We could all benefit from it.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Motivation: What makes you do your best?

The Team That Didn't Seem To Care

The 2011-2012 NBA season was a roller-coaster ride for Portland fans.  If you follow pro sports, you may remember that it was a short season because of labor disputes. When the contracts were finally signed, the Blazers were ready to play.  They started the season by winning 7 of 9. Among us fans, there were excited conversations about the post season.  Playing in the conference championship seemed plausible. The team was oozing talent and had enthusiasm for the game.

But somewhere around the All Star break, the wheels fell off the bandwagon. Suddenly we couldn't win a game.  When the season ended, the Blazers were 11th in the West.

The Role of the Coach

There was a lot of finger pointing in the Portland media.  Nate McMillan, who had been the coach for four or five years at that point, knew that he was on notice.The consensus among radio show hosts and fans alike, was that Coach Nate wasn't motivating the players.

That seemed about right, but then I read this editorial piece in the Oregonian. (Note that Coach Nate had played in the NBA before his career as a coach.)

Before Saturday's game, McMillan talked about the variety of ways in which he's trying to motivate his players. He's used video. He's yelled at them. He's practiced them, and given them extended rest. "Every day," he said, "you've got to think about what you need to do to get them ready and motivated."
Did McMillan need all that as a player himself?
"When I came in the locker room, I was motivated."

It's interesting that the man who is tasked with motivating a highly-skilled, highly-paid group of athletes, never needed anyone to motivate him. After reading this, I wondered if it is really the coach's job to motivate.

Personal Motivation

I thought about my own motivation.  There have been times when I was focused and put everything I had into a project.  There have been other times when I couldn't stay on task for more than a few minutes and avoided work. Was my manager influential at either of these times? Absolutely not. So what was it?

Money as a Motivator

What motivates us? In the workplace, the answer is often "money." But is that the right answer?  In his excellent book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Dan Pink makes a convincing argument that "sticks and carrots" like bonuses and raises are outmoded motivators and relics of the industrial age.  I agree with him.

In Office Space, the comic masterpiece about the mundanity of corporate life, Peter, the slacker protagonist opines to the Bobs that he's not motivated because his compensation isn't tied to performance.  (You can see the clip here.  There's a Maturity warning, but the clip is PG at most.)

"You see, Bob, It's not that I'm lazy, it's just that I don't care. It's a problem of motivation, alright? Now if I work my ___ off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don't see another dime. So where's the motivation?"

This is a pretty common view, but I'd argue that it's not really the core of Peter's problem. If his pay structure was changed so that he was paid for each unit shipped, he might work really hard for a short while.  But eventually, if he didn't find some intrinsic motivation in his work, he would slip back into doing the minimum; whether it be the minimum to not get fired, or the minimum to pay for his basic expenses.

Going back to the NBA as an example, when a professional athlete is playing poorly, it's common to hear spectators comment about the ridiculous wages that the players are being paid, and that it's STILL not enough.  But put yourself in the enormous shoes of the player on the court. Imagine that you're getting paid millions. You've got enough in the bank to retire lavishly.  At the moment, you're getting beat at home and none of your shots are going in. If your coach were to call a time-out and offer to pay you another $1 million if you can win the game, would it make any difference? Would the promise of some extra cash help you figure out how to get around the defense? I doubt it.

How did that work for the Dallas Cowboys with Tony Romo? He wasn't playing up to expectations, so they gave him an amazing raise to motivate him to play better.  Surprise! The Cowboys ended the season .500, and didn't make the playoffs. They couldn't buy his leadership.

Does money motivate?  In some ways, yes. In some ways, no. For me, money is a toggle switch.  My employer (or customer) has to pay enough for me to sign up.  Once I'm there, however, a little more money doesn't mean a little better quality.

So what does motivate? Ownership? Success? Making the world a better place? Competition? I'm sure that different people would answer those questions differently.

So what?

Motivation has a different meaning for individuals than it does for leaders.

Individuals: If you can't motivate yourself to do your best, maybe you need to change to a different project.  Ask why you can't get motivated.  What would inspire you to do your best work?  What projects in the past yielded your best work? What were the circumstances? I've written before about my past jobs.  I had a great gig with Tektronix. The money was great and the hours were short. But I couldn't bring myself to really care about doing my best.  That was one of the main reasons I left.

Managers: This is one of the reasons that it's crucial to hire right people.  If your employees aren't motivated, there might not be a lot that you can do. When recruiting, ask people what motivates them. Ask about times in the past when they were motivated. Don't hire a person until you are confident that he or she will be able to thrive in your environment.  At the same time, be willing to change the work environment to provide the intrinsic rewards that will inspire your group.  Try to appeal to different motivation engines.
Autonomy, opportunities for advancement, flexible hours, projects that use a person's strengths, constructive feedback, recognition, and control over one's own career are some of the things to try.

What do you think?
Does this match your own personal experience?  I've written about myself, some of my friends, what I've read, and what I've observed.  I realize that this is a pretty limited sample size.  I'm interested to hear about your own motivation. What motivates you? When has a manager tried and failed to motivate you? When was he or she successful?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Success in Higher Education: Small Colleges vs Big Universities

The Wall Street Journal had a pretty good article today about the current state of higher education.  You can see it here (hopefully):

This article does a good job of mixing statistics (30% of US adults have four-year degrees, which lags behind 14 other countries) with concrete anecdotes about young people that have or haven't gone to college.

I'm a big proponent of education.  As long as you're smart about what you're getting into, I think that the time, money, and effort invested in education will always benefit you. The article does a good job of describing the situation.  In this blog I like to offer ideas on how to improve the situation. 

From my own experience, I saw that there are substantial pros and cons to what kind of school a person attends.  I've written previous posts about how to choose what to study.  In this post I want to focus on WHERE to study.

Big vs Little

Let's simplify the problem a little by dividing school choices into two

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The danger of micromanagement

A pretty cool job
We MADE this! This went on a race car we built.
Halfway through my sophomore year as a mechanical engineering student, I got a pretty cool job as a lab assistant in the college machine tool shop.  I got to wear the coveralls and walk around with an oil can to make sure that the mills and lathes were maintained.  Since it was a school machine shop, I didn't do much manufacturing of my own, but spent a lot of time helping other students make parts for school projects.

The grownup
The only grownup on staff was a long-time employee of the college:  Ken Forster.  He wore his thin hair slicked to the side and had a full mustache.  Ken was as much a fixture in that shop as any of the machinery.  The decades of expertise that he provided to the students could not have been replaced by any number of books on machining.  For good or for bad, that shop was his baby.

Ken had his way of doing things.  All of it was based on experience... HIS experience.  When we calculated the proper speeds at which to run the mill,

Monday, April 16, 2012

Instagram and the golden goose

Something about golden eggs
I remember something about a fairy tale about someone that had a goose that laid golden eggs.  The details are fuzzy, but I think that the owner of the goose eventually got greedy and killed the goose to get all the eggs at once.  Obviously, that didn't work for them.

By now you should have heard that Facebook bought Instagram for a billion dollars.  A billion dollars.  Try and imagine that number.  Sheesh.  That's one-thousand millions.  That would be enough to build forty world-class indoor skateparks... in EVERY STATE IN THE U.S. (I only need ONE!)

A lot has been said about whether Facebook overpaid for Instagram.  I don't really care.  It's their money, and they can spend it however they want.  I wasn't an Instagram user, so I don't care about this rebel alliance getting bought by the evil empire.  I don't plan on building a career in mergers & acquisitions, so I don't care to make a case study about what you can get for a billion dollars (unless we're talking about skateparks.) What I DO care about is the lesson that we can take from Instagram about patiently

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Extra hours in a day

What would you do with an extra 19 hours each week?  If you could get 19 additional hours every week tax free, and with no additional aging what would you be able to accomplish?  Would you read more?  Exercise more?  Spend more time cooking? Pick up a new hobby? Volunteer?

How do you feel about television?  Take a hard look at how much time you spend watching "programming."  Is it worth it?  Do you love it?  Are you becoming the person you want to be while watching?

Do you have a realistic idea of how much time you spend watching television?  Last June, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics released a study on how people spend their time throughout  the day.  The average American over the age of fourteen spends 2.7 hours EACH DAY watching TV.  Is that okay?  That's nearly 19 hours each week.  Let me ask again: Do you love it?  Is television worth

Monday, April 9, 2012

Money Money Money: Part 1

(Edit: After reading this again, it feels really negative or arrogant. I'm not sure why. I've tried to be as realistic as possible to give some guidance to people starting out in their careers.  I promise I'm a really nice person.
Also, I SERIOUSLY don't want to hear ANYONE complain about this post by saying that  money isn't everything and shouldn't be the only factor when choosing a career.  No one believes that more than me.  Read ANY OTHER post in this blog for discussions on finding your passions or working your strengths.  THIS post is about money.  Once again, I promise that I'm a really nice person.)

( I recommend opening this link in a separate tab to set the mood for this post...)

Having "The Talk"

A lot of parents have a hard time talking with their kids about money.  It's another one of those awkward conversations that parents mean to have, but the time never seems right.  They put it off until their child is old enough, but by then, they figure that the kid has probably heard it all from their friends anyway.

School won't teach you how to make money either.  This is something I don't understand, because teachers don't seem too bothered when teaching much more awkward subjects in Sophomore Health class.

There is a lot I don't know about money, but there are a few simple things that I do know.  I'm going to go in depth on one of these ideas here and save