Is this the right degree?

I receive quite a few emails from all over the world, but obviously most from Portugal. The age range varies, but they tend to be among high school or college students. And I do get quite a lot. I love it. I try to reply to everyone, since who knows, some day they might hire me for a job and boss me around. You should always help everyone around you. I'm all about sharing whatever I have learned through my career so far. You never know.

They all have a pretty common question. They're not sure if what they are studying is the right thing to do, to allow them to follow the career they dream of. What Universities are the best? What degrees are the best? What schools should they apply to? Does it even matter?

In one word, and this is solely my own opinion, no. Not really. It shouldn't really matter. I studied Computer Science, and even after my undergraduate degree, I was so lost in what I actually wanted to do with my life, that I actually decided to study it again, and complete a Masters program in Computing. I remember being pretty miserable. I mean, I loved computers all my life, but not for programming, not for technical stuff. I loved the visual aspects of it, the power and freedom they already allowed back then for me to achieve. It was like having a whole new medium for art, for conversation.

Either way, my college experience taught me a few valuable lessons, some of which include:

  • it allowed me to figure out one less thing i wanted to do
  • helped me dig deep and figure out what i enjoy in life
  • realize sometimes you have to do things you don't like to figure out what you love

And the list keeps going for a bit, but these are pretty valuable already. Yes, in some cases a college degree is pretty necessary, and incredibly valuable, but we're talking about my circle of life. Arts, film, visual effects, whatever else. To this day, even though I haven't programmed a single thing since I graduated, I can still pick up code and figure out what it's doing, maybe even alter some things, and make it work better for me.  It gave me a slight confidence over anything technical, of analyzing problems, and compartmentalizing issues into smaller little and more manageable chunks. These were all useful while working at Pixar and DreamWorks, but also while dealing with whatever life throws at me.

I honestly and truly believe that if you want to make films, if you want to take photos, whatever it is you want to do, the most important thing is that you learn to connect with yourself and others. You open up that space to allow for those deep connections to occur. For example, you need to be out there, taking photos of everything and everyone, coming home, sitting down, opening them up and looking at all the details. Analyzing the color, figuring out what you like, or don't like about a certain look. Post them online, see the reactions you get, how many likes, how many tweets. Sometimes your favorite images don't have a single comment, sometimes they do. Why? What creates a mood for you, and why doesn't it work like you expected it to?  What's the story you were trying to tell? Does it translate? Does it emote?

Or watch a film. Pick up your favorite movie, and why is that your favorite film? You're watching it? Great. Now stop and pause it on your favorite shot. Why is that your favorite shot? How is the story told? Where is the camera? Deconstruct everything in your mind. Where's the light coming from? The fill? How do the surfaces, and the objects, and the set, how does everything compose and frame the characters in the shot? What other subtleties can you pick up? What is the emotion behind it, and where is your eye going to?  Mute it. Watch it without sound. Does it still tell the same story? Why?

The beauty of this? All these things are free. Well, of course to take photos you need a camera, but if you have a cell phone, you probably already do. If you don't, get something cheap, something you can afford, and use it to your advantage. If you can't film or photograph, analyze work from other people, directors that you love. You can still observe, you can still learn from others, talk to people, and learn to listen. And trust me, all that knowledge will stay in your brain if you keep exercising it regularly with more questions, with more ideas. It will come back to you when you're actually manipulating lights, animating characters, moving around filming, taking photos, painting, whatever else you want to do. 

You can actually learn all this in film school, or animation school, or wherever else, but you also can on your own. I do believe there's an inherent social value of attending college that is central to becoming successful in life, and that is the human element. The fact that it will force you to connect with people in ways you never had to before. And that alone, will have one of the most significant impacts in the way you conduct business, and collaborate and create with your friends and colleagues.  So college is great, and there are amazing places out there you can attend that will bring you one step closer to finding out who you are.

So do what makes you happy. And if you can't afford it yet, keep that as your goal. Move in that direction. And always remember that it's natural that you feel like you're stuck. That you wasted a few years studying something that you didn't like. And that's fine. Do internships, practice, work hard, learn, teach yourself, use and abuse the internet, post videos, post photos, email people, reply back, laugh, breathe, and go for a walk. Talk to people. Offer something. How can you help them? If you help someone else create something, you'll be one step closer to your own goals of success. Shadow someone while they are working. Learn by observing what they do. Would you do it differently?

You can always change your career several times through your life. I have known people in the industry that have walked many different professions before, and somehow, one day, we found ourselves working on the same film. You never know where you going to go, but if you follow your passion as best as possible, you will at least always be heading in the right direction. And that's what really matters. The now. This day.

So yeah... is this the right degree? I don't really know. But will it make you reasonably happy for three or four years? Then it just might well be.  If when you graduate years later you find yourself burned out, and want to open a cafe, why not? What's the problem? Do it. Just make it the best cafe in your city, in your neighborhood. And look back at the past few years as one of the most wonderful chapters of your life. If you play your cards right, it will always be there for you to remember and revisit whenever you want.

And keep creating. Tell your stories. Connect, engage, and always be curious.


As usual, comment below, share it, tweet it, or send me questions about what you'd like to know more about, or my opinions on. And thanks for reading.