Neil Gaiman’s Commencement Address

Neil Gaiman’s keynote address to The University of the Arts from May 2012 kicked my ass and sent my self-reflecting tendencies into overdrive.

I sat, mesmerized, for twenty minutes watching the speech; I think I spent at least twice that amount of time considering his words and reading the transcript afterwards. While doing so, it struck me that most times when I struggle with how to deliver and build my message, I find myself staring into a computer screen reading words similar to those from this speech and pledging to push forward.

For me, so much of what Neil said is true—about writing, about working towards a “distant mountain” of goals, about failure and mistakes and the important role they play in accomplishing anything. His words are another wake up call, a smack in the face from a frigid gust of wind that says keep working and writing and working and writing.

Although I enjoyed the entire speech, three quotes jumped at me with particular force.

1. “If you have an idea of what you want to make, or what you were put here to do, then just go and do that.”

Figuring out goals is hard. Worse, sharing them honestly with others can be almost impossible. In my case, it’s always terrified me to vocalize my goals. Once that goal leaves the comforting seclusion of my heart and mind it becomes subject to the judgment, interpretation and criticism of others. Once a hope hits the public domain, there’s no turning back, no place for me to assign blame or accountability if failure strikes. It’s on my shoulders to achieve what I set out to and the threat of falling short is often so paralyzing that I choose not to proceed.

I hope to someday make a living from writing and speaking. However, I’ve neither written enough to be considered a writer nor given enough speeches to be considered a speaker. Although I’m presently a “wannabe,” I know I want to deliver a message rooted in giving and compassion. Despite the goal being the aforementioned “distant mountain,” it remains a defined goal that I can pursue with purpose.

It’s not worth your time to worry about what others think of what you hope to achieve. Trust me, I’ve spent the better part of thirty years doing so. Instead, find something you’re passionate about and attack it with all the faith and dedication your heart can muster. Failure and outside opinions be damned.

2. “I learned to write by writing.”

Hearing this quote reminds me of many conversations I shared with my dad during my youth.

“Dad, how do I get faster at sprinting?”

“By practicing running fast.”

“Dad, why do the guys guarding me make me dribble to my left?”

“Because you suck at dribbling with your left hand. Practice dribbling that basketball with your left hand until your better with it than you are dribbling with your right hand. Then it doesn’t matter which way the defender wants you to go. They’re damned if you go right and damned if you go left.”

“Dad, why do I keep fumbling through this stupid science fair speech on bacteria?”

“Because you haven’t practiced it enough. Don’t practice until you think you have it right, practice until you can’t do it wrong. Then do it again.”

Dad’s advice, often simple and blunt, was typically accurate and true. He understood that improvement necessitated practice. Frankly, there’s no substitute for effort and commitment. If you are fortunate to find something you love doing, then practice it. When you notice progress, practice more. And when you think you’ve nearly perfected your craft, keep practicing. The cycle of wanting to improve is endless.

3. “The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your 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.”

The thought of revealing my vulnerabilities always terrified me. It wasn’t until my defenses crashed after losing my dad that I realized it was OK to display cracks in my armor. As I rebuilt my psyche after his passing, I began to understand the importance of raw emotions when it comes to engaging others on a personal level. When I opened up, a richness developed in my relationships with friends and family—even those I’d known most of my life. I’ve grown more willing to bring them closer to me, which in turn has brought me closer to them.

Whether it’s with art, work, friendships or relationships, sometimes leaving yourself bare and vulnerable is the only way to grow.

There are many lessons to gain from Neil Gaiman’s address. If you want to share your thoughts, I’d love to hear what other messages you take from this speech.


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