Joy and sorrow are like milk and cookies. That’s how well they go together.” – Neil Gaiman, ‘American Gods’

There are few writers who can span the genre breadth of Neil Gaiman from novels to comics, film scripts and more. His Commencement Address at the University of the Arts (thanks Chase) shares a few secrets of his creativity bounty…

  1. When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and 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 doing that again, yet.”
  2. If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that. – Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut, and sometimes it will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you are doing the correct thing, because you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.
  3. When you start off, you have to deal with the problems of failure. – You need to be thick-skinned, to learn that not every project will survive. A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back. The problems of failure are problems of discouragement, of hopelessness, of hunger.
  4. I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. – If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful. I once misspelled Caroline, in a letter, transposing the A and the O, and I thought, “Coraline looks like a real name…”
  5. While you are at it, make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do.
  6. People get hired because, somehow, they get hired. – “People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And 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. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”

The entire speech advocates the free embrace of failure. The first four points do so explicitly and the final two advocate an acceptance vagaries of success and failure. He echoes Hugh MacLeod’s pragmatic advice about ‘Sex and Cash’ which ethos the need for personal Leadership and Management of one’s life and work.


And he captures the lottery element behind so much of success with his priceless ‘message in a bottle’ metaphor. This is a problem I observe with jaded and seasoned salespeople. They are so caught up in the ‘qualification’ process, they are not (literally) floating new ideas and prospecting. For me, the number one indicator of a transformative salesperson is the number of unsolicited proposals that they they close. Unsolicited proposals are not cold calling (usually). Most often they are made to established relationships and customers. It is what separates the order-taking boys from the moving-and-shaking risk-taking men. To be successful, they need to be based on a sharp insight into customers problems and the ability to address them. An insight so keen that it really exceeds the customer’s own knowledge (or else the customer would have asked for the solution by tender).