Say Yes until you can say No.

Watching Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech it reminds me of a short talk I gave a few years ago to a college class of art and design students.

The title of the talk was “Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No.”

To summarize, I shared with the students that, based on my own experience, when they graduated and entered the “workforce” they would need to take on work for others. Jobs, projects, gigs, whatever you wish to call the work. They would need to say Yes to projects that could pay the bills, give them needed experience and help them over time find a core group of collaborators they wished to work with. Individuals who have skills they lack or interests they don’t.

When you pursue this work you can lie. You can fake it till you make it. You can figure it out as you go along. It is what everyone has always done. No one tells you that. You think there is a good book. There is none. We all make it up and learn on the job.

The work would build up a portfolio that they could then use to get even better work opportunities. Over time they would be capable to be choosier and hopefully the work would start coming to them and they could begin to say No.

When you are able to say No to most of the opportunities that present themselves you can consider yourself having “made it.” People want to work with you and you can now choose where you wish to focus your energy. You can now choose. Having choice is the greatest asset anyone, especially an artists, can have. It means freedom to pursue the work you wish and not have a job (or work you view as a burden).

But up to that point you need to say Yes. You take on some projects that might not be fun. You most certainly will work with and for people you wish to never work with again. But all of this is necessary to know what you want to work on and whom you wish to work with and the path you want to set your life.

So say Yes until you can say No.

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