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You Can't Teach a Fish to Sing - the importance of motivation

Talent is important, but talent without motivation simply doesn’t cut it. Curiosity, persistence and a spirit of creative accomplishment are indispensable. It’s the responsibility of the instructor and the institution to ensure that the learning environment is one that encourages openness, individuality, teamwork, sound problem solving and creativity.

Building and sustaining a creative educational environment demands a dynamic balance among motivated participants and effective learning processes combined within a positive physical and social environment.

Nothing is more important to the success of the learning process than motivation.

Talent is important, but talent without motivation simply doesn’t cut it.  Curiosity, persistence and a spirit of creative accomplishment are indispensable.  It’s the responsibility of the instructor and the institution to ensure that the learning environment is one that encourages openness, individuality, teamwork, sound problem solving and creativity. 

I know we are all overloaded with information and it’s expedient to get a quick fix through the Internet, but I would recommend a couple of books that highlight the critical importance of finding ones natural talent and personal drive. Both are quick reads. 

The first is (Sir) Ken Robinson’s “The Element: How Finding your Passion Changes Everything”.  Robinson does a good job of documenting the successes of individuals who have focused on their natural talents – usually in spite of the educational system. In “The Element” he cites many examples of talented and accomplished people who were overlooked by their teachers and formal mentors but who excelled through passion, hard work, determination and talent.  Robinson is also featured in a couple of videos from the TED conferences (www. I just wish Robinson were more prescriptive, however he does a good job drawing attention to the consequences and impact of the strong personal drive and sustained practice required for mastery. Many of his examples are inspirational.

The second book is “Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motives Us” by Dan Pink.  It’s also available as a digital download and it’s a fairly quick read. He’s also on TED at

Pink highlights the debate about the positive and negative effects of extrinsic motivation – in our case the carrot and stick of control (timelines, deadlines and grades) versus promises (graduation, good jobs and financial success).  Of course learners need to incorporate and consider the demands of tight deadlines and quality productivity.  However, Pink points out numerous studies demonstrating that intrinsic motivation (drive, personal incentive and inspiration) and the continuous improvement needed to master core skills are of much greater value and importance to personal and professional achievement.

I see too many schools and private institutions promoting programs and accepting students on the basis of dubious extrinsic motivators.  In far too many cases applicants know little about the rigors of the profession, the discipline, the practice, or the effort required to achieve even the basic mastery.  Many students enter programs thinking they are going to graduate and work immediately at PIXAR.  The popular media doesn’t help.

I think student motivation is a core issue for assessing entrance to any program. The training institutions that do the best job are careful to choose the cream of the crop based on their assessment strategy. Many years ago, in the 1990’s we were able at Sheridan to select only the top 3-5% of applicants for entry into the computer animation program.  With fierce competition today, it a harder task to find the right students, although the best schools generally attract and can select highly motivated candidates.

In some countries, China for example, the institutions can’t choose applicants on the basis of talent but only on the results of high school grades. This often means that talented students can’t get into the program of their choice because, say, their math or English scores are too low and there are few reliable private alternatives.

In other countries, India for example, I have seen enormous numbers of private schools that will essentially take anyone who applies because they (the institutions) are driven by large numbers and a profit motive.  I have actually seems adds on garbage cans in Mumbai – “Take our latest program in Computer Animation and Visual Effects!! Enroll now!”  As a result, production companies there have to retrain graduates or, more often, find good artists from art schools and train them from scratch.

And it’s just not the students who need to demonstrate drive and motivation. It begins with the instructors and their ability to develop an environment that motivates the learner.  Students know instinctively if an instructor’s motivation is classroom control, financial security or some other reason rather than commitment to teaching as a personal vocation or a passion for the art and science of animation.  I’m surprised at how many students tell me that they learn more from their peers than their instructors.

Luckily the best schools are generally able to attract a core of dedicated full-time instructors enriched with a range of part-time professionals from the production sector. The best schools manage to bring together highly motivated instructors with talented and highly motivated students. Even then, the challenge is to maintain a positive, supportive and creative physical and psychological environment.  This is especially difficult to do in the public sector when educational infrastructure, regulations and graduation requirements work against the dynamics of natural learning process.  I meet too many teachers who are discouraged by the lack of true collegiality and collaborative spirit that exists as a result of current institutional practice and administrative pressures.

As a result, we see the rise of mentor-driven learning communities that use contemporary on-line practices and strong cultural and social networking to provide a creative environment for learning. Animation Mentor and fxPhD are good examples. 

We learn best when we are driven by the motivation to acquire and master stills and techniques irrespective of time and place. Learners want and should demand individualized attention rather than packaged solutions.  In a rapidly changing world of information and technical evolution, why are so many of the world’s traditional learning institutions so far behind the times?  It’s time to transform the formal academic environment and bring it into the 21st Century.