How Useful Is A Philosophy Degree, Really?
I still remember being woken up at 3AM when I was 9 years old, and running with my mother and sisters in the darkness across the beaches of Bimini, desperately trying to escape my abusive step father– Aaron Gilman, CEO
Overall, I would describe my early childhood as wild and turbulent and filled with many traumatic events. As a result, I don’t really remember my early years in public school in Montréal.
By the time my life started to settle down at around twelve years old, my formal education was pretty lacking. I wasn’t particularly good at reading or writing, and looking at basic math equations made my brain go to mush. So when my grandfather decided I needed to get “straightened out”, he drove me to a small town a couple of hours outside Montréal, where I spent an afternoon completing the entrance exams at a posh military boarding academy. I remember not being particularly surprised when my mother informed me that I had failed the exams and the school had rejected my application. But then suddenly the school changed its mind. I received a wax-sealed letter congratulating me for being accepted. It was only years later that I was told my grandfather had made a “donation” to the school which somehow encouraged the academic committee to “re-evaluate” my tests. By the time I left the boarding school I was a fine-tuned, disciplined academic.
Throughout my high school years I thought I wanted to be an actor. I was that Glee-style kid who often found himself as the lead in the camp or school play. I remember my voice cracking at 13 as I belted out Greased Lightnin’ as Danny Zuko. I really loved acting and how it made me feel and the confidence it gave me to breathe life into a character. While my passion for acting would eventually become a constant source of inspiration for my life in animation, I ultimately decided to abandon the idea of pursuing acting as a career. I don’t think I realized then how much I was craving a stability that I did not have in my childhood. Unconsciously I think the cliché of being endlessly rejected as an aspiring actor was not the direction I wanted my life to take.
When I eventually got to the University of British Columbia on an academic scholarship, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I have always been incredibly envious of young animators and other professionals who seem so sure of their career path at such a young age. Not only did it take me many years to find my path in life, but as you’ll see, my education had little to do with my career in animation. In fact, animation kind of just fell in my lap because of a very personal incident in my life.
Entering university, I had no clue what I was interested in learning. It was only when I took an Introduction to Philosophy class that I felt a real connection to something important. For the first time, my mind was opened to so many powerful questions about life and existence. Is the universe real? What is “truth” if we all experience the world differently? Should we all follow the same moral code? Does God exist?
I think what attracted me to philosophy so much was the structure and analysis it forced on my brain. Having had so many traumatic events in my childhood, I felt like philosophy provided me with a kind of psychological anchor point with which to tether myself. Philosophy, at its essence, is about problem solving through analysis, logic and argumentation. Systems of thought need to be constructed coherently, logically. I don’t know if philosophy unlocked something I was always drawn to, or if it simply trained me to think in a certain way that I found fulfilling. I was particularly attracted to the subject of epistemology, the study of knowledge and the distinction between opinion and truth. Whether it was Descartes’ Evil Demon Theory, or the study of empiricism which posits that knowledge is derived from human sensory experience, I fell in love with the way Philosophy forced me to rationalize my thought process, look at it objectively, remove my personal bias from it, and ultimately construct my ideas in a way that anyone could make sense of.
After 3 years at the University of British Columbia and 1 year at Concordia in Montréal where I would eventually meet my wife, I completed my Bachelor of Arts with a major in Philosophy and minor in cinema in 1996. During those years, I remember being very conscious that I didn’t think I could actually do anything practical with my degree. It was when my grandfather, who I respected so much and wanted to please so badly, asked me in his thick Syrian accent, “Aaron, what salary will you make now that you have finished university?”, that I remember thinking I had wasted 4 years of my life studying philosophy and now, faced with the real world, I had no idea how it was supposed to help me.
I can honestly say that had I not reconnected with my estranged sister, Chloe, at the age of 26, I would have never found a career in animation. We had not seen each other since we were 5 years old. So in 2000, when she reached out to me and we reunited at her work, my life would change forever. Until that moment, my degree in philosophy had proved to be pretty useless. I worked a ton of miscellaneous jobs that I couldn’t stand. I sold ladies shoes, was a clerk at a video store for years back when VHS tapes were in fashion, was an assistant wedding photographer, and a P.A on film sets.
I met Chloe at her work, which was a small VFX production studio in Montréal, called Icestorm. Walking around the facility watching artists model and animate dragons blew my mind. I had always been active in visual arts and filmmaking. I made a couple of short films in university, acted a lot when I was a kid, and was into film theory and graphic design. When I was 13 years old my mom bought a Commodore 64, so I was always very comfortable around computers. After meeting my sister, I flew back to Vancouver and immediately took out a loan from the bank so I could enroll myself at the Vancouver Film School, in the 3D Animation Program. Within 3 months I knew I needed to be an animator. I loved everything about it! Animation combined my passion for acting, filmmaking, and cinematography. It opened my eyes to a whole new world of creative collaboration within a team. But perhaps what I would come to love most was the creative and technical problem solving needed for every shot I worked on. I loved the quiet solitude of what I would eventually come to call “mental weightlifting”. Those contemplative moments in the shower, on the bus, or lying in bed where I would detangle the complex interconnectedness of the technical and creative aspects of my shot. This endless cycle of analysis, problem solving, logic and performance brought me enormous joy because of the constant challenges it imposed on me.
As I grew into my career as an animator I was fortunate enough to find leadership opportunities early on in my development. Very quickly I started to realize that those moments of self-reflection and analysis within the context of animating a shot started to evolve into a passion for working with people. I realized that while I loved animation and always would, there was something about working within a team towards the common goal of delivering a project that really excited me. I started to love the relationships I could build with animators and artists from all departments, and began to see myself as a kind of “people strategist”. I really enjoyed casting animators to their strengths and helping them develop their weaknesses, as well as designing and executing solutions to animation challenges on a large scale. Engaging in dialogue with Clients and synthesizing abstract information so artists could see a clear path forward was something that brought me a great deal of happiness. I think a lot about how my degree in philosophy may have helped me after all these years in the animation industry. Animation as an art form, and the business that surrounds it is extremely complex, with a lot of moving parts and a great deal of problem solving every day. I feel like philosophy has taught me how to break down my ideas more effectively, whether it be analyzing performance as an Animation Director, designing organizational systems, or strategizing with clients on how to realize their vision.
I have been fortunate to have a career in animation that has constantly provided me with challenges that provoke my philosophical way of thinking. I started as an animator, then became a Lead, a Supervisor, an Animation Director, a Head of Animation, and am now helping to run the operations at Steamroller Animation. Underpinning all of those pursuits has been a passion for working with people, solving problems, and helping to carve a path forward for the people I work with.
I guess in a way, I owe it all to my grandfather for getting me into that boarding school and setting me on the right track in life.