Every now and then I come across something that expresses an idea I sort of know and believe, and snaps it into sharp focus. Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech did this for me.* You’ve probably seen it already, but I thought I’d break it down into parts, explain why it’s such outstandingly good advice, and use some examples from my own life to show how it has worked in practice.
“When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing”. And this is a good thing. Neil explains that by not knowing what’s possible and impossible, you can break the artificial rules that those that know what they are doing have created, and so you can end up doing incredible, impossible, things that no sensible, knowledgeable person would ever attempt. In my case, move to Helsinki and open a school of swordsmanship. No business plan, no experience running a professional school, not much skill or knowledge of the Art itself; but I had no idea how far beyond my reach it really was, and somehow managed to stretch myself to attain it.
“If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that”. Most people have no idea what they should do, could do, were born to do. But if you do, then pursue it. Neil describes it as a mountain he was aiming for, and so long as he kept moving in the direction of the mountain, he would be alright. This is very like the question I posed in my previous post about How to Plan Your Life. Saying yes to whatever takes you in the right direction, and no to anything that does not, no matter what other benefits it might offer. This takes discipline (some would say pig-headed stubbornness). He also notes that something that you should say yes to in the beginning, because it leads you towards your goal, you might say no to later, because you’ve moved past the point where it is between you and your goal. If you’re in London and want to get to Edinburgh, a ride to York is helpful. If you’re in Newcastle, a ride to York is in the opposite direction. Sure enough, I’ve found over and over that opportunities I would have jumped at 10 years ago, I say no to now because they’d be a step backwards.
Dealing with failure. Neil has failed many times, sometimes through no fault of his own. His solution is simple: only do work that’s inherently worthwhile. That way, if it fails commercially, or in any other way, it was at least worth doing for its own sake. This is an incredibly useful idea, and one I’ve lived by for a long time. My best failures are things I'm still proud of, even though they failed. My worst failures have done more than anything else to spur my development.
Dealing with success. Neil has had more opportunities than most to get to grips with the problems of success. First up is the problem of Imposter Syndrome, which he acknowledges, but has no solution for. It’s just a thing, and to know that Neil effing Gaiman has felt like a fraud for writing stories kind of puts your own imposter syndrome into perspective. I made some critical mistakes in the first few years of my school thanks to the same thing, but that’s another story.
Another problem of success is you have to stop saying yes to everything, because suddenly everyone wants you to do things for them. It’s a hard switch to make, and is related to the email revelation: by answering fewer emails he got more writing done. Think about that for a minute. In essence, he had to figure out what he was uniquely good at, and focus on that at the expense of other things. Productivity is not so much getting stuff done, as allowing inessential things to slide so you can get the important stuff done. (Deep Work, by Cal Newport, is excellent on this.)
“Make mistakes, because it means you are out there doing something.” Less than half the things I try, projects I start, ideas I have, work. But I do a lot of things, and some of them work, and lo and behold, I have a body of good work to look back on. Sometimes the mistakes are really bad, such as when I managed to kill an ailing branch of the school with a single bad email. Sometimes they are merely embarrassing. But you have to make peace with the idea that, as my grandfather used to say, “if you never make mistakes you never make anything”. Surgeons and pilots are excused from this, of course. But by and large, if nobody will die for it, get out and make as many survivable mistakes as you can.
Make good art. “Husband runs of with a politician? Make good art.” This is the core of the speech, and oh my god it is 100% right at every level down to the very bedrock. When shit happens, as shit inevitably does, it really really helps to have a plan. You can’t predict all the shit that will happen, so you can’t plan for all eventualities. But you can determine your core response, and Make Good Art is the best response to have.** It encompasses everything. When life throws you lemons, make (artistic) lemonade. When everything is hunky-dory, make the best art you can. And it doesn’t matter if you’re ‘not an artist’, because, as Neil says: Make your art. Looking after babies is an art. Cleaning streets is an art. Writing really clear contracts, maintaining public order, designing buildings, running an office, creating spreadsheets, whatever it is you do, make it your art. And no matter what happens, respond by making more of it, and better.
One way to know that your art is good, is to do the things that scare you. The things that leave you vulnerable, the things that might fail. And if they fail? Make (more) good art.
I use this all the time, no matter what has gone right or wrong. Especially when some gimp on the internet disparages my work, I just up and make more of it.
This even works when an orange megalomaniac becomes president-elect of the USA. Make. Good. Art.
Secret Freelancer knowledge: “Be good, be reliable, be nice. Two out of three is enough.” This is useful, but it’s one area where I have to respectfully disagree with the master. As one who hires freelancers, you’d better be good, or I won’t hire you, reliable, or I won’t hire you again, and nice, or I will tell all my friends not to hire you. My freelancers are excellent, dependable, and lovely.
And the kicker: the best advice Neil ever got was from Stephen King, when Sandman was doing really well. “This is really great. You should enjoy it.” And that’s really important. To be really good at something you have to be able to see all the flaws, so it’s hard to take real pride in your work. My solution is to put progress over attainment, process over outcome. But also, when the students clap at the end of a seminar, or when somebody brings a book for me to sign, or when somebody says something nice about my work somewhere public, or when I get a particularly good month of book sales, I try to take a moment to acknowledge the moment. To let go and enjoy the ride, as Neil so wisely put it.
There are many other snippets of usefulness in this amazing speech, but my purpose here is not to rewrite Neil’s work and present it as my own; it’s to exhort you to read it, listen to it, absorb it however you may, then put it to work. As Neil put it: “Make interesting mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.”
I can’t put it better than that.
*His commencement address at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, 17 May 2012. You can and should buy it in print in his recent collection of non-fiction The View from the Cheap Seats. And watch it here:
**It’s one way of breaking the OODA loop. Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. If you know bad things can happen, you’re less likely to get stuck on “orient” (I know people who have lived in denial for years!). If you have a default response, you can cut “decide” altogether. So you end up with “Observe-Act”, which is the goal of operant conditioning training. Who knew Neil was a martial artist?