6 Life Changing Lessons for Creatives From Neil Gaiman
In this article of Neil Gaimain’s advice for creatives, I think it’s best to start with Neil’s favorite piece advice from one of his idols, Stephen King, that he received when just starting out.
In response to the success of Neil’s Sandman comics, Stephen King said, “This is great. You should enjoy it.”
But he didn’t.
It was the best advice that he ever got, which he ignored.
Instead, he worried.
Worried about the next deadline, the next idea, the next story.
And there was not a moment for the next 15 years that Neil stopped and enjoyed the ride.
But in his commencement speech in 2012 at the University of Arts Philadelphia, Neil shares his regret about this and outlines his most important lessons he wish he knew starting out as a writer and a freelancer.
Hopefully, these 6 lessons help you let go and enjoy the ride and where you’re at in the creative journey, while you’re here.
Because you will never again be in this same place as you are now.
Lesson #1: You Don’t Need to Go to School to Create Good Art
The idea of four years of enforced learning is enticing to no one, least of all creators who know that the more often you create, the better you get.
You become a better writer the more you write. And the more you write, the quicker you realize that no one minds that you’re just making it up as you go along.
They don’t know you don’t have a plan.
They don’t know that to you, it’s only a list of things you might one day want to do.
They don’t know that you don’t know the rules of what can or can’t be done.
“When you start out on a career in the arts, you have no idea what you’re doing. This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules. The know what is possible and what is impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can.
If you don’t know it’s impossible — it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone from doing that particular thing again.”
Lesson #2: Know Where Your Mountain Is
As a creative, you have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debt, finding work.
It’s a brutal and harsh reality all freelancers know all too well.
So, how do you know when you are straying too far from your goal or moving towards it, while juggling multiple deadlines and priorities?
“Imagine where you want to be is a distant mountain. Your goal. And as long as you walk towards it you’ll be alright.
Ask yourself if something is bringing you towards or moving you away from your mountain. And use this to know whether to say yes to an opportunity, or no because it moved you away from your mountain.”
Lesson #3: Learn How To Deal With Failure
As you try to reach your mountain you will no doubt experience failure, which is why you must learn how to deal with it.
Not every project will survive. So, in order for you to survive, too, you need to be thick skinned.
“A freelance life, a life in the arts, is like putting messages in a bottle hoping someone will find it and send something back to you. Appreciate. Commission. Love. But not all bottles will get a response. “
Neil’s first book should have been a bestseller, but it wasn’t due to involuntarily liquidation. He wrote for the money and never received it.
Luckily, this didn’t stop him from writing again and he learned not to write only for the money.
He learned that instead when you write for the sake of making good art, you will always have the satisfaction of having created something you can be proud of.
Besides, what would be the fun in making something you knew was going to work?
Lesson #4: Learn How to Deal with the Problems of Success
No one talks about the problems of success, because no one who makes it to the other side wants to be found out…
“You don’t want anyone to discover the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something and at any moment you will be discovered.”
This is imposter’s syndrome at its best.
The fear that any day you will get a knock on the door and a man with the clipboard would come and tell you that it was all over and it was time to move on and get a real job. That you could no longer go on just making things up, doing what you love, writing things down and reading books you want to read.
The problems of success are real. And with luck, you will experience them.
Which is why, when you send bottles into the ocean each day, you will inevitably get messages back and you will have to learn how to say no to anything that takes you away from your mountain.
Because success means nothing if you can’t do the things you really want to do.
“The world conspires to stop you from doing the thing you do. The greatest tragedy of success is you grow up to professionally respond to email and spend less time doing what you love.”
Lesson #5: Make Mistakes and Make Good Art
When you create every day, you will make mistakes. And mistakes can be useful.
They will fuel your art.
“Whatever discipline you’re in, you have one thing that’s unique: the ability to make art. That’s your ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through the good times and the other times. Life can go wrong and it often does.
When it does all you can do is make good art.
Husband runs off with a politician… make good art.
Leg crushed and eaten by mutated boa constrictor… make good art.
IRS on your trail… make good art.
Cat exploded… make good art.
Someone on the internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before… make good art.
Probably things will work out well and eventually time will take the sting away. Do what only you can do best: make good art.
Make it on the good days. And make it on the good days, too.”
Lesson #6: Make Your Art
Neil says that the instinct most creatives have starting out is to copy and that’s not a bad thing. That most artists find their own voices only after they’ve sounded like a lot of other people.
But the one thing you have that nobody else has is you.
Your voice. Your mind. Your story. Your vision.
So write and draw and build and dance and play as only you can.
And in his own form of dance, in a way only he can, Neil shares his most powerful quote of all that shook me to my core…
“The moment that you feel, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked… Exposing too much of you 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.”
BONUS: Secret Freelancer Knowledge
Being someone who started out as a freelancer and went on to become one of the most wildly influential authors of our time, his advice for freelancers is priceless and especially useful for anyone who plans to make art for other people for a living.
“People get hired because somehow they get hired. You get work however you get work.
Most people get work because their work is good. They are easy to get along with. And because they deliver the work on time.
And the secret is… 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 you’re 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.”
Call To Action
Neil Gaiman is an inspiration for me and I hope you got some inspiration from this article about his commencement speech and the lessons he shares.
They have helped me enjoy the good and get through the bad, and I hope they help you, too.
Use these lessons to remind yourself of where on your creative journey you are. To become present. And enjoy the ride, while you can.