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By: Jess Canty

In his Motivation Series Brian talked about both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, so it was interesting when I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast this week on creativity that this topic came up – albeit in a bit of a different way than we’ve talked about previously.

There is a section of the discussion with an artist who used to create covers for The New Yorker and they were talking about how for the first part of his career he was largely working in extrinsically motivated situations.

The New Yorker had a story, and they wanted him to create a visualization of it. The story was already written, or about to be, and therefore his job was to take those parameters and create a visual metaphor that enhanced the story. He was not the writer of the story, nor was he the one deciding to put the story in the magazine. He was a hired interpreter. He was not at liberty to sit around and come up with the ideas HE wanted to draw – but instead bound by the parameters of the brief he was given. His success or failure was based on his ability to creatively provide them what they wanted.

In the same interview they spoke about how this same artist is now in a position in his career where he is working intrinsically – he IS sitting around and coming up with both the story AND then the visualization of it. And he talks about how freeing that is but also how it took an enormous shift for him mentally, as he is now both drawing the lines in the coloring book, so to speak, AND filling them in.

What struck me as I was listening to this interview, is that it is the SAME trajectory we talk about with each of you when we sit down during our onboarding meetings: that the first half of your career is putting you in a box, and the second is getting out of it.

Or one could say in the first half of your career as an artist you will be working extrinsically, and if you are one of the lucky few you will get to a place where you will be given the opportunity – or you will make the opportunity yourself -- to work intrinsically should you desire. One could argue that the reason why many actors start producing and directing is that they largely get frustrated creatively by only working extrinsically.

So let’s talk about the extrinsic half for a moment.

Right now you are all in the position of working extrinsically – in your acting, as a cinematographer etc… you are being hired to fulfill someone else’s vision. You are being hired, yes, for your creative-take on that vision, but for most of the bill-paying acting jobs you are not coming up with that idea and producing it in the first place.

It is someone else’s TV show, someone else’s film. Acting, in fact, is a completely extrinsic job. Do the best actors take what is on the page and lift it beyond what writers have envisioned? Yes, of course – but the story still isn’t their idea and you have no control over the final product.

So back to the New Yorker Illustrator - his name is Christoph Niemann - and he was hired to create a cover after the Fukushima disaster in Japan. So he created a black cover with a cherry blossom tree that instead of blossoms it sprouted the nuclear hazard symbol. Amazingly creative – but still within the brief. Probably one of his top covers that was the summit of his extrinsic creativity.

I always joke that I stopped acting because I just liked food too much. But in reality, I think I stopped because I simply am terrible at working extrinsically. But I think the truth really is, ultimately, somewhere deep down I knew I didn’t want to spend my life interpreting other people’s ideas, words, thoughts. That didn’t turn me on creatively.

Do you LIKE working extrinsically? Do you like interpreting other people’s ideas? Or do you find yourself constantly fighting this? If you are having problems booking work – is it because you are fighting the very nature of the job or where you are in your career?

Do you perhaps wear something that doesn’t fit the character to the audition – in the name of ‘being creative’ when what you are really signaling is ‘I WANT TO BE IN CHARGE?” Do you do something too “silly” for the tone of the show? Not silly enough? Do you refuse to wear makeup in the name of “authenticity” when no actor ever appears on screen without makeup?

Are you reaching for work far beyond your resume? This to me is another signal that perhaps you have an issue working extrinsically. That you really don't want to do what is required to get to the top - i.e. working for other people's visions. Do you have to believe that ultimately you could play a scene against DeNiro if given the chance? Yes, of course.

But if you believe you get there without building your resume you may need to figure out if this is really the job you want in this industry. Don’t believe me? Go watch Space Cowboys and find the future TV Star with a one-liner. And this was not too many years before he became that star.

Do you want to be a film lead, but don’t like the gym? Good luck there. Brie Larson may be the first woman to head a Marvel movie but guess what? She was still expected to do extensive weight training just like any leading man would for a similar role. She now can dead lift 225 lbs and push her trainer’s Jeep up a hill. The brief: “lead in superhero movie” has not changed because a woman is in the role.

In a podcast I referenced earlier this year Mahershala Ali talks about the difference between being a supporting and a leading actor – and I am paraphrasing here – but that as a lead they finally want to see what your character is thinking. The supporting role you are there to serve the lead, but as the lead your job is to sit in the space and behave. Sounds like its own extrinsic to intrinsic change in job description to me.

Are there jobs in this town that are less extrinsic than acting? You bet. A writer will work both intrinsically – coming up with their own ideas – and extrinsically – being hired to write the next Marvel Movie. Want to decide what gets made? Go work in development or at a studio or, increasingly, at a big agency.

If you are finding it hard to work extrinsically, for whatever reason, but don't want to stop acting, perhaps you need to infuse some intrinsic work into your creative life.

Can you write and produce a short? Can you start a sketch comedy group? Start a theater company? Or even just a group for actors to meet and work on material. Any of these options might give you some feeling of ownership in your all-extrinsic current existence.

But for now, as an actor your job is this – to be creative within the brief.

This is why we want you defining the box in which you want to work. If we know you are going to have to work extrinsically for a time, and possibly your entire career – then what is going to allow you the most ability to be creative?

What is going to allow you the most freedom within the brief? What turns you on? Comedy vs. Drama, TV vs. Film vs. Theater vs. Voice Over. These are all over-arching assignments that require different kinds of creativity within them.

This is why we want you working current material in class. This is why we want you perfecting one specific set of briefs – of breakdowns – so that when you go compete for that job against 150 other people you will book it.

Christoph Niemann did covers for The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and New York Times Magazine. Which means he got good at creating a certain kind of magazine cover.

He didn’t also design covers for Cosmo and Time and National Geographic and Fish and Game. He got great at what he did extrinsically and now he works intrinsically writing and illustrating a blog for the New York Times Magazine – from his home in Berlin – called Absract Sunday.

Every artist needs a patron – right now your patrons are the roles on TV shows and in films that are available to your representatives. These are your “briefs.” This is what you need to get good at – interpreting the brief in your own personal creative way.

To come up with your own personal New Yorker design of the breakdown that is given to you and see your creative work on that cover.

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