Neil Gaiman is an English author of prose, poetry, film, journalism, comics, song lyrics and drama. His prestigious awards include the Newbery and Carnegie Medals. In the video above, he shares his insight into failure, success, art and work.


My two favorite takeaways from Neil’s speech were “Make good art” and “Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people.”

Make good art. First, don’t you love it when just a few words are meaningful enough to take and run with as a life motto?

And even if you’re not an artist by trade or hobby, these words still apply to you. Yes, he’s talking about art, but what he’s really talking about is focusing on the work you’re doing – what you’re producing and how you’re using your passions – rather than the paycheck in your pocket.

Neil adds, “If I did work I was proud of, and I didn’t get the money, at least I’d have the work.” Yes. That. Because isn’t the work the important thing anyway? Shouldn’t income be the result of pursuing what we are deeply passionate about? Shouldn’t income be a byproduct of investing our time and talents where they will reap the most benefit for both ourselves and others? I’m not just referring to financial benefit here; I’m referring to those intangible goodies like fun and inspiration and mastery of that one thing we never, ever tire of – you know, our passion.

What if the thing you spend the most time doing is the thing you enjoy most, and you just figure out a way to make a living at it? Wouldn’t that be grand? I’m convinced that basing our goals off of what we have passion for, and then spending our lives doing that thing, is the recipe for happiness. I know, I know: my naivete is showing. So is my hippie artist.

But consider this: what if we’re doing it all backwards? Most of us wield our sensible like it’s the only option we have. We choose the right school and the stable, lucrative career in hopes that it will garner enough profit to enable us to spend our tiny bits of free time on our passions. Except that we’re usually too busy advancing – in school, in work, in the race against the Joneses – to maintain a commitment to those passions. They become dusty pictures on the mantle and nostalgic, remember-when conversations over beers on Saturday afternoons… (If you’re nodding right here, guess what? Your sensible is showing.)

So what if we did the opposite? What if we chose our passions as our priorities and we tried to excel at them much as possible? What if invention and inspiration and good old-fashioned poetic stuff held more importance than money? They certainly hold more meaning, don’t they? What if we fed our souls instead of our bank accounts?

Which do you want to show, your sensible or your passion?

And the other one: Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people.

I envy those young, buoyant folks I meet that are already settling comfortably into their own oddball skins and speaking their minds, that have found their “thing” early on and have started chasing it before they reach the age where sensible choices and everyone else’s voices take the wheel. Congratulations, kiddos.

As for the rest of us, well… Remember that finding our own voices is a process, a journey; it rarely comes from some sort of epiphany or innate microphone of the soul. It has taken me some wrong turns, heartbreaks, college major-hopping and religious conversion to find my own voice. The only epiphany-like clarity I’ve had along the way has been moments of, “wait, what the hell have I been doing?!? This can’t be right.” If your journey has been smoother, I envy you, too. Feel free to take your place beside the sure-voiced kiddos.

But, really, I don’t envy you. The upside of trying to sound like all those other people before is that there won’t be any second-guessing now that I’ve started using my own voice. Trying to fit into the chorus of shoulds for so long made it clear that my voice doesn’t harmonize well with the They (They say. Oh, do they? Good for them.) or the Joneses or whoever else isn’t, uh, me.

That’s the big problem with this world of technological ease we live in. Everyone has a page, a platform, a profile, an app. Everyone has a voice. It gets loud sometimes. It gets hard to hear ourselves… No wonder we struggle to find our own voices.

The flipside of this is that we have a page, a platform, a profile, an app. We have the world at our fingertips, literally.

Remember that art we were talking about earlier, that good stuff we’re making? We can use our art in any way and any place we choose. We can share it and post it. We can edit it with free software. We can learn about it with free educational tools. We can combine it with someone else’s good art, even a someone who is halfway around the world that we’ve never met. Now that’s having a voice.

The important part is to make sure that what we’re making and what we’re saying is ours. That’s the sweet spot. That’s when we become our own art, when we figure out that we are the good stuff.

Now, as Neil says, “Go, and make interesting mistakes.” And good art, of course.   

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