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Bill Watterson: How to Find Your Life’s Meaning

Five years before Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson was living a life of loud desperation.

He’d followed all the rules. He got into a good school. He interned. He graduated. Yet, within a year of finding his first job (as a political cartoonist), Watterson was back at home living with his parents.

Failure led to despair and despair to questioning:

Watching my career explode on the launchpad caused some soul searching. I eventually admitted that I didn’t have what it takes to be a good political cartoonist, that is, an interest in politics, and I returned to my first love, comic strips.

That would be Watterson’s first step towards making the legendary comic we know today as Calvin and Hobbes. But first steps don’t pay the bills.

Watterson had to find a job — a real job.

A REAL job is a job you hate. I designed car ads and grocery ads in the windowless basement of a convenience store, and I hated every single minute of the 4–1/2 million minutes I worked there.

For five years, Watterson drew comics, submitted them to newspapers, and waited — fingers crossed — for a reply. For five years, he opened the mailbox to find a pile of rejection slips.

The world is filled with artists fighting for a handful of valued positions. Watterson had no guarantee that he would ever make it as a comic artist.

Most of us give up after one or two failures. Why was Watterson different? What kept him going for five years?

“To endure five years of rejection to get a job requires either a faith in oneself that borders on delusion, or a love of the work. I loved the work. […] Drawing comic strips for five years without pay drove home the point that the fun of cartooning wasn’t in the money; it was in the work.

There was no promise that success would ever come. But, for Watterson, that was okay. He was fueled by something else.

There is no such thing as an overnight success. You will do well to cultivate the resources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success or failure.

How can we learn to find meaning outside of success and failure? Bill Watterson’s commencement speech — given at Kenyon College in 1990 — gives us some clues…


1. See the Future

Forced into a job he hated, Watterson got to see a bit of the future.

Watterson looked at his coworkers saw a glimpse of what he might become:

My fellow prisoners at work were basically concerned about how to punch the time clock at the perfect second where they would earn another 20 cents without doing any work for it. […] It was incredible: after every break, the entire staff would stand around in the garage where the time clock was, and wait for that last click.

They call it a “rude awakening” for a reason.

It was a rude shock to see just how empty and robotic life can be when you don’t care about what you’re doing, and the only reason you’re there is to pay the bills.

When you see the empty, robotic people — ten or twenty years older than you — who followed the same script you were raised to follow, you start to wonder. Is that all there is?

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” -Thoreau

2. Realize There Is No Ladder

I come from an Asian family. For many of us, life is scripted from day one. Piano. Math competitions. Straight A’s. Ivy League. Doctor, lawyer or physician.

Up and up the corporate ladder. We are born to climb.

Watterson warns against this:

Many of you will be going on to law school, business school, medical school, or other graduate work, and you can expect the kind of starting salary that, with luck, will allow you to pay off your own tuition debts within your own lifetime. But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.

Somewhere at the end of the ladder — they tell us — lies happiness. Too bad the ladder has no end.

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success.
You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

What do we do when we realize climbing isn’t the answer?

3. Ask Questions

There’s a reason life is scripted. It’s easy, and it works. If you’re prepared not to climb, get ready for a lot of questions — questions nobody wants you to ask.

It’s a terrible thing to be responsible for yourself. Suddenly, you have to make hard decisions:

You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.

In some ways, Watterson was lucky he was fired. Perhaps, if he hadn’t been forced into that dark, meaningless convenience store basement to make drawings he didn’t like for a cause he didn’t believe in, he would’ve taken the easy way out.

After all, most of us do.

A powerful friend to those who ask questions is philosophy:

Reading those turgid philosophers here in these remote stone buildings may not get you a job, but if those books have forced you to ask yourself questions about what makes life truthful, purposeful, meaningful, and redeeming, you have the Swiss Army Knife of mental tools, and it’s going to come in handy all the time.

(Interesting fact: Watterson named his comic strip after two philosophers, John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes)

In school, we’re taught that philosophy is dead. Old man philosophy has been kicked off his throne and in his place is a new king — science. But there are big questions that science can’t ever answer. Who am I? What happens after I die? Why am I here?

Maybe not asking those questions is why so many young (and not-so-young) people are lost today.

After all, how can we head in a meaningful direction when we don’t even know which way meaningful is?

4. Find the Spark

Somewhere amidst all the questions and doubt and trial and error, a spark will come. It might be triggered by a class, a book, or a midnight conversation.

It will leap at you, grab your interest. It will light you up inside and make you say, Hmm.

Cultivate that interest, and you may find a deeper meaning in your life that feeds your soul and spirit. Your preparation for the real world is not in the answers you’ve learned, but in the questions you’ve learned how to ask yourself.

Find that spark, cup it in your hands, and let it grow…

“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”