Takeaways from writer Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech.
Neil Gaiman‘s 2012 commencement speech to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia entitled “Make Good Art” is brilliant, timeless, and necessary. His advice, while delivered to students looking to lead an artistic life, is applicable to… well, everything.
The funny thing is, Gaiman isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before or since. Yet he articulates everything so eloquently and in his own unique way (a point in and of itself we’ll get to later). In fact, as I was listening, I was reminded of many other influential speakers, authors, and thinkers, and I’ve included them — everyone from Brené Brown to Teddy Roosevelt. The more inspiration the better, right?
While I run the risk of summarizing the entire speech here, I urge everyone to watch and listen in its entirety. Gaiman talks about inexperience and making mistakes. He talks about being unique and being vulnerable. He talks about how to pursue an artistic life against all odds. Here are a few brilliant takeaways.
First, some secret freelancer knowledge:
People get hired because, somehow, they get hired… But people keep working in a freelance world — and more and more of today’s world is freelance — because their work is good, and because they’re easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. People will forgive the lateness of your work if it’s good and they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as everyone else if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.
I listened to most of this speech nodding along with my hand raised like a southern woman in church, but this was the one gem that made me laugh and exclaim out loud (to no one), “Holy shit, that’s true!”
I obviously touch on freelancing quite a bit, and like to brainstorm how to obtain new clients; however, Gaiman is right. You’ll get hired somehow. The trick is to get hired again and again.
Just do it
If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that.
If this one sounds familiar, it should. Bottom line: nothing should stand in your way. Gaiman talks about picturing a goal as a mountain. Once you have a goal in mind, everything you do should take you closer to that mountain. If you make a decision that takes you farther away from your goal — whether it be for financial gain, prestige, or some form of comfort — it’s the wrong decision.
I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work. Which meant that life did not feel like work.
I’m a strong advocate of this because this is also how I operate. It’s led me to pass on opportunities, stubbornly refuse to make “good career moves,” and has probably stressed out a number of loved ones. But it’s also an adventure.
This isn’t for everyone. There’s nothing wrong with “playing the game.” However, I continually hear people talk about “getting through” work (both in terms of that day and in terms of retirement) so they can do “what they really love.” I submit that’s no way to live.
Do work you’re proud of
I decided…not to write books just for the money. If you didn’t get the money then you didn’t have anything. And if I did work I was proud of and I didn’t get the money, at least I’d have the work.
This speaks for itself, and I don’t think it has to pertain to art. Even if you work in a cubicle, doing work you’re proud of carries with it a sense of accomplishment and pride.
That said, their is noble pursuit is simply making art (whatever “art” may be to you) for the sake of it. Much of Gaiman’s address reminded me of quotes from Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Here’s one: “You might earn a living with your pursuits or you might not, but you can recognize that this is not really the point. And at the end of your days you can thank creativity for having blessed you with a charmed, interesting, passionate existence.”
This isn’t always easy. But as Neil says, “When things get tough… make good art.”
If you’re making mistakes it means you’re out there doing something.
This one probably also sounds familiar. Mistakes are gifts. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll make a lot of mistakes. But, as Gaiman says, “Make glorious and fantastic mistakes.” That’s how you grow. That’s how you know you’re alive.
Gaiman’s point goes further though. The ones who matter are the ones who fucking go for it. It reminds me of the quote by Theodore Roosevelt that came to be known as “The Man in the Arena:”
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming… Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
— Theodore Roosevelt, 1910
Make your art
Do the stuff that only you can do. The one thing you have that nobody else has is you… So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.
This is fairly obvious for the artist — albeit a lifetime of difficult discovery. But I’d like to speak to it in a business sense. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a solopreneur, a small business, or a multi-national corporation, what people are buying is you.
You is what makes you stand out from the crowd. Simon Sinek speaks to this well (and it’s something I’m working on writing more about). Sinek explains that all great leaders and all great companies have one thing in common: they “start with why.” Why do you do what you do? What you do and how you do it are (likely) not original. That’s not your art. Why you do it is your art.
The moment you feel that just possibly you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself, that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.
Vulnerability may just be the key to unlocking greatness. Enter: Brené Brown. You’ve likely seen her TED Talk, and she recently came out with a Netflix special. (Yes, a researcher who talks about shame and vulnerability got a Netflix special. That’s how good she is.) She gives a lot of talks to corporations and businesses who ask her not to “mention vulnerability or shame.” Instead, business leaders mainly want her to talk about “innovation, creativity, and change.” Her response is this: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”
To tie it back in to Gaiman’s speech, Brown goes on to say, “To create is to make something that’s never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that.”
It’s been an amazing ride, but there were parts of the ride I missed because I was too worried about things going wrong, about what came next to enjoy the bit that I was on… That was the hardest lesson for me, I think, to let go and enjoy the ride. Because the ride takes you to some remarkable and unexpected places.
No need to say more. The end.