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How to be a great commercial digital artist: Collectivism

How to be a great commercial digital Artist through Collectivism

Being a great commercial digital artist only BEGINS with your technical and aesthetic skills. Beyond this, it is about how you work in a collective, whether or not you maintain situational awareness, plug in to your team resources, share information openly and seek collaboration. Unfortunately, today’s world is all about social individualism. Do what makes YOU happy. Follow YOUR dreams. Make YOUR choices. It’s about being the best, the top, the winner; it’s about competing against others to determine your self-worth, even if they’re in your own team. If you win, you’re the best. If you don’t, you’re a loser. It’s about not sharing information that might help others succeed. It’s about deliberately keeping information to yourself to make others fail. It’s about not seeking information for fear of looking ‘stupid’. The fact is that individualism is an illusion. No person inherently exists in and of themselves. Each of us is a massive, chaotic, barely controlled collection of diverse elements gathered from across the years of life. We are all the sum of many things and to presume individualism is a major act of hubris.

There is certainly value to the concept of individualism as it pertains to discovering one’s own identity, strengths and weaknesses, but the philosophy of winner/loser is a falsehood. It is a falsehood because, while you may win a contest, there is always someone better than you. And, although you may lose a contest, there is always someone worse than you. The only way to make winner/loser valid is to compete against every other potential contender, which is almost impossible. Since it is almost impossible, it is barely even worth consideration, except perhaps in the Olympic Games. But even in those world games, not all of the contenders appear at the games. The Games conduct competitions among those who show up. It is the same in any contest, official or unofficial, whether on the court or in the back office. This means that those who engage in daily competitions with their co-workers to determine who is the best or most valuable or hardest working employee are wasting precious energy on illusory victories. There is only one really valid competition, and that IS individual; it is the competition against yourself to do better than you ever have before. The victory against other individuals is a total illusion; a complete falsehood with no validity. These workplace ‘victories’ are used by the incompetent as an attempt to create an illusion of competence.

Understanding the invalidity of competition against others is very good because it removes a lot of stress. Knowing we don’t have to compete against our co-workers feels great and frees up a lot of energy and time that we might have otherwise wasted on an illusion of competence instead of developing real competence. Becoming really successful is not about a game of measuring yourself against others to determine who is not the worst worker, it is about consistently improving your own game by knowing your skills, seeing the skills of masters who you admire, and learning how to get there yourself. Becoming excellent is a far more valid and efficient use of your time than playing political games against others in your office. It pays dividends over the long term as well. While your co-workers are backstabbing each other for the next promotion, your boss is looking past them at the kid who is growing, learning and becoming excellent. Excellence is rarely trumped by politics. I know it doesn’t seem that way, but it is absolutely true. History is our evidence.
Individualism is the killer of workplace efficiency. People, so focused on themselves and creating their illusions of competence, have forgotten how important it is to think and work as a collective unit. Most digital artists believe they are a single individual working at a single computer workstation doing a single task for a person who asked them to do that task. They have little or no awareness of the maelstrom of activity that swirls around them. Because of this lack of awareness, they make many invalid assumptions, many mistakes and many poor decisions. The net result is spectacularly damaged efficiency for the entire team.

The fact is that every digital artist and TD in a production pipeline is a very important part of a collective whether they know it or not. Every digital artist is directly connected to the work of every other person working in the team. Every single decision they make affects every other team member. If the artist chooses to arrive 5 minutes early for work, that affects the whole team. If the artist chooses to arrive 5 minutes late, that affects the whole team. If they choose to use a tablet instead of a mouse or one monitor instead of two, if they choose to use keyboard shortcuts or all menus, these things affect every team member on the project.

Now it probably seems that choosing one little thing over another cannot affect anything very much at all. And that is true. One choice does not have much of an effect. And if that was the only choice made during a production, it would be insignificant. But the reality is that every team member makes hundreds, perhaps thousands, of decisions every single day and every single one of those decisions affects the whole team. The effect of these decisions is cumulative. Efficiency does not come from large structural decisions in the pipeline. Those decisions only permit the project to function. Efficiency comes from the millions of little decisions made by every member of the team over the course of a project. During a large project, a team might easily make ten million decisions. If each decision were to save one second of time instead of cost one second of time, the difference would be a savings of 140 full-time weeks of work. That’s nearly three full-time employees for a year. It adds up fast, no? The difference is decisions that were made with the rest of the team in mind instead of decisions made with only the individual self in mind.

Project decisions need always to be made with the team in mind. If I choose to save my geometry in the images directory, it doesn’t affect me because I know where my geometry is. On the other hand, when I am sick or on vacation and another team member needs to track down my geometry, it will take them much longer to find it because I decided not to put it in a place that was team friendly. If I was thinking collaboratively, I would have made sure to put my geometry in a ‘geo’ or ‘obj’ directory where it would be completely obvious to anyone looking for it. By hiding my geometry, I have made a choice that slows down the team, makes my work more expensive and sacrifices time that could have been used to make the shots better. It’s not that I deliberately hid the geometry. I just didn’t think it would matter to anyone else and that was my mistake. When we make decisions that are not team friendly, it damages the team again and again as team member after team member runs into the same problem and has to take the time to solve it before moving on; all because one team member ignored the fact that other people have to work with their assets, methods and organization.

Don’t buy into the illusion that thinking only of yourself will put you ahead of others in the company. When you withhold information to deliberately damage others, it hurts the team, which means it hurts you. Because whether you choose to believe it or not, you are a team member and the success of that team reflects on you. Also, you are working with smart people. If you think you are so smart that they won’t notice your nasty antics, think again. Dumb people don’t make it into our industry. Inevitably, your political acts will absolutely be self-destructive.

Here’s what happen when you start thinking collectively, making sure your team can be as successful as possible:

-You share information openly with your team knowing it will become more successful, which means you will become more successful.
-You are not afraid to ask a question because you know the answer will make your team more successful, which will make you more successful
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-You begin paying attention to casual work conversations around you because you know there could be important information floating around. This means you catch the occasional critical bit of information that saves you hundreds of hours of useless work.
-When saving assets to disk, you think of your team every single time. You imagine what it will be like for them to try to find your assets when you are away. You take pride in knowing that your assets will be extremely easy to find because your directory structure is so simple and intuitive and matches the rest of the production pipeline.

As you begin to shift from a self-centred, individualistic mindset to one of genuine concern for team effectiveness, you will find there is a bounty of success, friendship, respect, appreciation and reward.

Party on, dudes.

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