Neil Gaiman: How to Make Success Happen

Growing up, I thought Neil Gaiman was some sort of demigod.

As he lumbered about the Earth, bits of hair and eyelash would fall from his body. Where they touched soil, out sprang magical creations — Sandman, Stardust, and American Gods.

We worship our childhood heroes — the Tolkiens, Le Guins, Pratchetts and Gaimans. We gather signatures, touch their hands, and watch them on TV screens. They are not of our world.

This is dangerous thinking.

For when you grow older and decide you want to make stories, where do you look?

To your heroes.

And if your dreams and aspirations as reserved for the realm of gods, spirits and faeries, you start to think… How can I — a mere mortal — ever create what they did?

And so we give up before we begin.

Our heroes are human. Neil Gaiman takes out the trash in the morning. He struggles and fails and doubts just like the rest of us.

If it wasn’t magic that got him here, what was it?

To find out, I dug into interviews and The View from the Cheap Seats — a collection of Neil Gaiman’s nonfiction writings.

1. Believe in Growth

For most of his childhood, Neil wanted to be a writer. But wanting doesn’t get you published.

“I was failing to sell stuff and I was getting lots of rejection slips back.”

When we fail, we have two options. We can stay on our knees. Or, we get up and fight.

Neil chose to fight:

“I got up one morning and I said, Ok, either I have no talent — which I do not choose to believe for reasons of personal pride — or I am going about this the wrong way.”

For most people, failure triggers blame. “Man, publishers are too stupid to recognize my genius.” “The economy’s busted so I can’t get paid.” “I wish I was born with more talent.”

For Neil, failure triggered questioning. How can I get the publisher’s attention? How can I make a living? How can I improve?

Decisions in the face of failure — that’s what defines us.

2. Demand to Be Heard

The great Kurt Vonnegut once said that, in a class of twenty writers, only two will ever publish anything worth reading.

When asked what made those two students special, Kurt answered,

“They will have something other than literature itself on their minds. They will probably be hustlers, too. I mean that they won’t want to wait passively for somebody to discover them. They will insist on being read.

When Neil Gaiman was writing and writing but not getting published, that’s exactly what he did.

He hustled:

“[I said], I really don’t know how the world works, so from tomorrow morning I am going to be a freelance journalist. I’m going to learn how the world works and I’m going to learn how publishing works. I’m going to figure all this stuff out for myself.

Neil’s decision here is a vivid example of the growth mindset. Success comes from from believing you can grow.

Fail. Then, figure out why.

3. Make Your Own Rules

Neil didn’t go to college. Another four years of torture? No way. He wanted to be a writer now.

But Neil had no credentials and no published work. The odds were stacked. If Neil had made all the “normal” decisions, he would have failed.

Do what the average does, and you become average.

Stuck in a locked room, Neil made his own exit:

“When I was asked by editors who I’d worked for, I lied. I listed a handful of magazines that sounded likely, and I sounded confident, and I got jobs. I then made it a point of honour to have written something for each of the magazines I’d listed to get that first job, so that I hadn’t actually lied, I’d just been chronologically challenged… You get work however you get work.”

Creativity, risk-taking, experimentation — that’s what got us here. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo.

“The old rules are crumbling and nobody knows what the new rules are… So make up your own rules.”

4. Burn the Ships

Everyone wants to make the next Uber, Facebook, or Google. To make the perfect company, they say, we need to wait for the perfect conditions.

In 50 years, they’ll still be waiting.

Perfect conditions aren’t found, they’re made:

“I was very good at talking myself into things, be it book contracts, articles or whatever. Then I’d have to find out if I could do it. Kind of the wrong way around, but it always worked very well for me. That feeling of sort of terrified adrenaline. Ok here I am with a book contract, what do I do now?”

Waiting is easy. You can’t fail if you wait.

But if you want to grow fast, faster than all of your competition, sometimes you need to burn the ships.

Launch a product before you make it. Bet your friends $1000 you can lose weight. Promise editors something you’ve never done before…

Make yourself an offer you can’t refuse. Then, adapt.

5. Why?

Neil sees failure differently. He demands to be heard. He’s not afraid to take risks. We can learn to do all of this.

There’s one more thing, though.

Neil has purpose behind what he does — his why.

If it’s not the money…

“Nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was the money was ever worth it, except as bitter experience.”

…then what is it?

“The things I did because I was excited, and wanted to see them exist in reality have never let me down, and I’ve never regretted the time I spent on any of them.”

Why do you create?


Many of the quotes in this article are from The View from the Cheap Seats— a collection of Neil Gaiman’s nonfiction writings.

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