Monday, September 26, 2011

TEDx Prep: Dan Gilbert asks, Why are we happy?

Here's another great TED video that is giving me some more direction for my talk. Haha, actually this is a little bit "meta", as it were - Dan Gilbert's talk is helping me narrow down the potential avenues that I could go down during my talk, and hilariously enough, that's basically what his message is that I'm keen to reference from his talk.

He talks about the benefits of "synthetic happiness", a form of happiness that we create in our own minds, a sort of "internal" happiness. I see this as tying into the work of Epictetus, the great stoic Philosopher who questioned happiness. He discussed how we should be aware of what we can and can't control - we cannot control someone else's behaviour, we can only control our own internal reaction to outside stimuli. The phrase, "You made me feel bad" is impossible - someone does not force you to have a certain reaction. Rather it should be "The way I am responding to your actions is negative" - if we could say that without sounding like the android character Data from Star Trek.

Anyway that was an aside, back to my point. Dan Gilbert here talks about creating happiness with our minds, and how that requires different tools than our methods to achieve "real" or "experiential" happiness. Freedom is a natural tool for experiential happiness - you can choose between one of many different outcomes and naturally that makes you feel good. What Dan argues is that freedom is the enemy of synthetic happiness - he says, "The psychological immune system works best when we are totally stuck, when we are trapped." In other words, having boundaries on our choices allows us to pick something, stick with it (since there was no option in the first place), and we just find a way to be happy with what occurs.

This is profound, this idea is damn amazing, and it really is well supported by my own experience. I may potentially reference a couple of his quotes in my talk (which - amazingly - is freely allowed by the TED conference).

One problem I have right now as I develop my TEDx talk, is that I have WAY WAY WAY WAAAAYYY too much choice. I feel like a kid at the grocery store, looking up at the looonnng cereal aisle and having absolutely no clue which one to pick. I have so many random stories from my childhood, all with a little bit of self-deprecating humour, some silly childhood photos to back them up... so many possibilities. Maybe TOO many possibilities. I'm trying desperately to narrow it down so that I can boldly choose some of them and then make those stories really work well in the speech - to be happy with my choice. How I'm choosing to narrow them down is a little tough - some stick out better than others and some have cuter or more ridiculous childhood photos to go along with them. All of these things weigh in on whether that particular anecdote will be usable.

One method I'm using is going to, filtering existing amazing inspiring awesome TED videos by the few topics I'm going to be covering with my talk ("happiness", "motivation", "success"), and watching and listening very closely. Today I found this one from Dan Gilbert and it's so solid. I can tie this to a story about my Grade 7 art teacher in Oxford, England. My parents came in for a teacher-parent conference and he said in a direct style very atypical for someone of British descent, "Michael is an excellent student. Very motivated, always on time, very excitable, great guy, hardworking, etc. But whatever you do, don't let him be an artist. He's a TERRIBLE artist."

Hahaha. Now, most people would say this seems like it would have been a huge hit to my self-esteem, given that I wanted to "make visual effects for movies". The thing was though, my self-esteem was already too high as my Dad would say, haha, so no trouble there. This phrase from my teacher helped re-iterate things I already knew. My Math and Computer Science marks were through the roof, and I absolutely LOVED that stuff. I was bad at painting, I wasn't motivated by drawing, I found I didn't really have any kind of creativity in artwork. My stick figures were even hard to comprehend. So this helped me with something very important, removing the overwhelming amount of choices in the modern world. I wanted to do visual effects for movies - boiling it down do a very over-simplified, basic core, there are 2 jobs inside of the visual effects industry: art, and science. You can choose one or the other. Some very very very very few, ultra talented, truly awe-inspiring people in this world like my buddy Matthew Parrott have been truly blessed with exceptional skills in BOTH. But that is hugely uncommon. Usually it's one or the other. For me, this moment was very important - it was a call to arms. It was a way to tell me to cast aside the things I was not good on, and put the required time and effort into something that mattered. Something that I loved and something I was already showing a lot of potential in. I could easily have squandered my childhood, sticking to my guns and saying that I *had* to be an artist to work in visual effects. But rather, I researched the positions further, I found out more about it, and discovered that art and science really work hand-in-hand to create visual effects. John Lasseter's famous quote is, "The art challenges the technology and the technology inspires the art." It's a great collaboration, a back-and-forth between the two. This "reduction of freedom" allowed me to narrow down all the potential avenues and put my time and energy where it counted - on something I loved and was actually good at. Removing the choice was a great tool for helping me focus, and commit myself to something that I knew would be worth sticking to.

And then I was set up nicely to be happy with any outcome. I started in a technical role in visual effects and found out there was a real sliding scale of art and science talents. I was bad at drawing, but I had a pretty reasonable ability at forms and silhouettes. So at Pixar they handed me the "paintbrush" (a mouse) and I got to dabble in modeling and shading, a sort-of "technical artwork." Things have a way of working out. My long term career has slid back to where my real talents lie, in the technical world, but it was cool to get a chance to experiment and see that things aren't quite as black-and-white as "you're an artist" or "you're a scientist". But that initial judgement call from my high school art teacher could not have been more helpful for keeping me focused on the best way forwards in my studies and focus at school.

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