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February 7, 2012


by Howard Suber

In my UCLA class, “Strategic Thinking in the Film and Television Industry,” I said this week that very large proportion of the time and effort we spend discussing or writing about motivation, in films or in life, is a waste of time that doesn’t yield much that is useful for understanding human action – and certainly not for trying to figure out how to deal with people.

I used Walter Isaacson’s book Steve Jobs as an example, where the author makes a big point about Jobs being adopted, and then repeatedly reminds us that this left him feeling abandoned but special, with the suggestion that this accounted for why Jobs was so often an asshole when dealing with other people. (There are two million adopted people in the U.S. today – are all of them assholes?)

I was referring to a section of Letters to Young Filmmakers, which I am including below because it has a complete explanation of my point.


When most of us were young, our parents, teachers, or some other authority figure introduced us to questions about our motivations, often by asking, “Why did you do that?” They may have said, “WHY did you do that?” or “Why DID you do that?” or Why did YOU do that?” or “Why did you do THAT?” No matter how they inflected it, we knew it was not a request for information, it was an accusation.

It’s useful to distinguish between motivations and objectives. Motivations are internal; objectives are external – what one is trying to obtain or reach. Whether in movies or in real life, many of our attempts to figure out someone’s motivation are a waste of time.

We only discuss motivation when something isn’t working the way we want it to.  don’t bother to consider motivation when we like what’s happening. (Someone who asks, “Why do you love me?” or “Why are you so nice to me?” is probably in trouble.)

Figuring out someone’s objective however, doesn’t depend on looking into their mind. We need to look at the world that exists outside the individual. Objectives are most efficiently reached through conscious reasoning, and we at least stand a chance of understanding someone’s reasoning process by figuring out what object they want to possess.

For example, the head of production who has the power to greenlight your film has a simple objective: to produce films that make enough money to satisfy investors so he/she can continue to be head of production, fly on private jets, eat in trendy restaurants, get his/her name in the paper, put his/her kids through college, and drift on his/her golden parachute with his/her latest spouse to a very satisfactory villa in Tuscany.

The goal of a director may include some of the same things but may also include earning the right to “final cut” so producers and studio executives can’t butcher his/her vision. The goal may be to get bigger budgets, better material, and, with some directors, the freedom to do more personal work.

Trying to explain motivation leads you to focus on where a person is coming from; what is really important, however, is where they are going.



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