Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art

"A freelance life 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."


by Matt Hart

In May of 2012, author Neil Gaiman gave one of the greatest college commencement speeches of all time at Philadelphia's University of the Arts. It's called "Make Good Art," and in it he talks about his career, how he didn't go to college and has never had a career plan. Gaiman simply made it up as he went along. This isn't to encourage haphazardly going through life however, but instead it highlights the distinct ways not playing by the established rules can play to your favor.
  • First of all: When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. This is great.
  • Secondly, If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that.
  • Thirdly, 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.
  • Fourthly, I hope you'll make mistakes. 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...”
  • And Fifthly, while you are at it, make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do.
  • Sixthly. So make up your own rules. You get work, however you get work. People keep working in the freelance world 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.
Revisit his speech in its entirety below:

Compliment Gaiman's work with the wonderful book by Carl Newport, that I found invaluable to getting anything done, called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted WorldNow go craft some messages for your bottles.