Neil Gaiman – Inspirational Commencement Speech at the University of the Arts

Neil Gaiman is most known for his work in a number of literary mediums including journalism, comic books, and novels.

In 2012, Gaiman gave a commencement speech at the University of the Arts where he talked about success. He stated that when you become successful, you may be unintentionally swayed from performing the actions that made you successful. Gaiman recalled his early success and how he felt pressured to answer emails all day long and it actually prevented him from writing as much as he wanted. So he reminds us to keep doing what makes us successful and to not let others get in the way.

Neil Gaiman – Inspirational Commencement Speech at the University of the Arts

Transcript of the Speech:

0:00
thank you I never really expected to
0:08
find myself giving advice to people
0:10
graduating from an establishment of
0:13
higher education I never graduated from
0:17
any such establishment I never even
0:20
started at one I escaped from school as
0:23
soon as I could when the prospect of
0:25
four more years of enforced learning
0:28
before I could become the writer I
0:29
wanted to be seemed stifling I got out
0:34
into the world I wrote and I became a
0:36
better writer the more I wrote and I
0:37
wrote some more and nobody ever seemed
0:39
to mind that I was making it all up as I
0:41
went along they just read what I wrote
0:43
and they paid me for it or they didn’t
0:46
and often they commissioned me to write
0:49
something else for them which has left
0:52
me with a healthy respect and fondness
0:55
for higher education that those of my
0:58
friends and family who attended
0:59
universities were cured of long ago
1:02
looking back I’ve had a remarkable ride
1:05
I’m not sure I can call it a career
1:08
because a career implies that I had some
1:11
kind of career plan and I never did the
1:16
nearest thing I had was a list I made
1:17
when I was about 15 of everything I
1:20
wanted to do I wanted to write an adult
1:23
novel a children’s book a comic a movie
1:25
record an audio book write an episode of
1:28
Doctor Who and so on I didn’t have a
1:32
career I just did the next thing on the
1:33
list so I thought I’d tell you
1:36
everything I wish I’d known starting out
1:38
and a few things that looking back on it
1:41
I suppose I did know and then I also
1:43
give you the best piece of advice I’d
1:45
ever got which I completely failed to
1:47
follow first of all when you start out
1:52
on a career in the arts you have no idea
1:56
what you’re doing this is great
2:01
people who know what they’re doing know
2:03
the rules and they know what is possible
2:05
and what is impossible you do not and
2:08
you should not the rules on what is
2:11
possible and impossible in the arts were
2:13
made by people who had not tested the
2:15
bounds of the possible by going beyond
2:17
them and you can if you don’t know it’s
2:21
impossible it’s easier to do and because
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nobody’s done it before
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they haven’t made up rules to stop
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anyone doing that particular thing again
2:39
secondly if you have an idea of what you
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want to make what you were put here to
2:43
do then just go and do that and that’s
2:48
much harder than it sounds and sometimes
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in the end so much easier than you might
2:52
imagine because normally there are
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things you have to do before you can get
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to the place you want to be
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I wanted to write comics and novels and
3:00
stories and films so I became a
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journalist because journalists are
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allowed to ask questions and to simply
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go and find out how the world works
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and besides to do those things I needed
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to write and to write well and I was
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being paid to learn how to write
3:15
economically crisply sometimes under
3:18
adverse conditions and on deadlines
3:22
sometimes the way to do what you hope to
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do will be clear-cut and sometimes it’ll
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be almost impossible to decide whether
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or not you’re doing the correct thing
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because you’ll have to balance your
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goals and hopes with feeding yourself
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paying debts finding work settling for
3:38
what you can get something that worked
3:41
for me
3:42
was imagining that where I wanted to be
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which was an author primarily a fiction
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making good books making good comics
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making good drama and supporting myself
3:56
through my words imagining that was a
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mountain a distant mountain my goal and
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I knew that as long as I kept walking
4:06
towards the mountain I’d be all right
4:09
and when I truly was not sure what to do
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I could stop and think about whether it
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was taking me towards or away from the
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mountain I said no to editorial jobs on
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magazines proper jobs that would have
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paid proper money because I knew that
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attractive though they were for me they
4:30
would have been walking away from the
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mountain and if those job offers had
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come earlier I might have taken them
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because they still would have been
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closer to the mountain that I was at
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that time I learned to write by writing
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I tended to do anything as long as it
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felt like an adventure and to stop when
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it felt like work which meant that life
4:49
did not feel like work
4:52
thirdly when you start out you have to
4:56
deal with the problems of failure you
4:59
need to be thick-skinned to learn that
5:02
not every project will survive a
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freelance life or life in the arts is
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sometimes like putting messages in
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bottles on a desert island and hoping
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that someone will find one of your
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bottles and open it and read it and put
5:15
something in a bottle that will wash its
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way back to you
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appreciation or a commission or money or
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love and you have to accept that you may
5:25
put out hundreds of things for every
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bottle that winds up coming back the
5:30
problems of failure the problems of
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discouragement of hopelessness of hunger
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you want everything to happen and you
5:37
want it now and things go wrong my first
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book a piece of journalism I done only
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for the money and which had already
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bought me an electric typewriter from
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the advance should have been a
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best-seller it should have paid me a lot
5:52
of money if the publisher hadn’t gone
5:53
into involuntary liquidation between the
5:56
first print runs selling out and the
5:58
second print run never happening and
5:59
before any Broyles could be paid it
6:02
would have done and I shrugged and I
6:06
still had my electric typewriter and
6:08
enough money to pay the rent for a
6:09
couple of months and I decided that I’d
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do my best in future not to write books
6:14
just for the money if you didn’t get the
6:17
money then you didn’t have anything and
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if I did work I was proud of and I
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didn’t get the money at least I’d have
6:23
the work every now and then I forget
6:26
that rule and whenever I do the universe
6:29
kicks me hard and reminds me I don’t
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know that it’s an issue for anybody but
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me but it’s true that nothing I did
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where the only reason for doing it was
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the money was ever worth it except as
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bitter experience usually I didn’t wind
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up getting the money either
6:49
the things I did because I was excited
6:51
and wanted to see them exist in reality
6:54
have never let me down and I’ve never
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regretted the time I spent on any of
6:58
them the problems of failure are hard
7:01
the problems of success can be harder
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because nobody warns you about them the
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first problem of any kind of even
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limited success is the unshakable
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conviction that you’re getting away with
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something and at any moment now they
7:16
will discover you it’s imposter syndrome
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something my wife Amanda christened the
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fraud police in my case I was convinced
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there would be a knock on the door and a
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man with a clipboard I don’t know why he
7:37
had a clipboard but in my head he always
7:39
had a clipboard would be there to tell
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me it was all over and they’d caught up
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with me and now I would have to go and
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get a real job one that didn’t consist
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of making things up and writing them
7:51
down and reading books I wanted to read
7:54
and then I would go away quietly and get
7:57
the kind of job I would have to get up
7:59
early in the morning and wear a tie and
8:01
not make things up anymore the problems
8:06
of success they’re real and with luck
8:09
you’ll experience them the point where
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you stop saying yes to everything
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because now the bottles you threw in the
8:16
ocean are all coming back and you have
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to learn to say no I watched my peers
8:23
and my friends and the ones who were
8:25
older than me and I’d watch how
8:26
miserable some of them were I’d listen
8:29
to them telling me they couldn’t
8:30
envisaged a world where they did what
8:32
they’ve always wanted to do anymore
8:34
because now they had to earn a certain
8:36
amount every month just to keep where
8:38
they were they couldn’t go and do the
8:40
things that mattered and that they’d
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really wanted to do and that seemed as
8:44
big a tragedy as any problem of failure
8:48
and after that the biggest problem of
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success is that the world conspires to
8:53
stop you doing the thing that you do
8:56
because you’re successful there was a
8:59
day when I looked up and realized that I
9:02
become someone who professionally
9:03
replied to email and who wrote as a
9:07
hobby I started answering fewer emails
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and was relieved to find I was writing
9:14
much more fourthly I hope you’ll make
9:19
mistakes if you make mistakes it means
9:23
you’re out there doing something and the
9:26
mistakes in themselves can be very
9:27
useful
9:28
I once misspelled Caroline in a letter
9:32
transposing the A’s in the oh and I
9:35
thought Caroline looks almost like a
9:38
real name remember whatever discipline
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you’re in whether you’re a musician or a
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photographer a fine artist or a
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cartoonist a writer a dancer singer a
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designer whatever you do you have one
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thing that’s unique you have the ability
9:54
to make art and for me for so many of
10:00
the people I’ve known that’s been a
10:01
lifesaver the ultimate life saver it
10:04
gets you through good times and it gets
10:06
you through the other ones sometimes
10:09
life is hard things go wrong in life and
10:13
in love and in business and in
10:15
friendship and in health and in all the
10:18
other ways that life can go wrong and
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when things get tough this is what you
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should do make good art I’m serious
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husband runs off with a politician make
10:34
good art leg crushed and then eaten by
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mutated boa constrictor make good art
10:45
IRS on your trail make good art cat cat
10:49
exploded make good art someone on the
10:54
internet thinks what you’re doing is
10:56
stupid or evil or it’s all been done
10:58
before make good art probably things
11:02
will work out somehow
11:03
eventually time will take the sting away
11:05
and that doesn’t even matter do what
11:08
only you can do best make good art make
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it on the bad days make it on the good
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days too and fifthly while you’re at it
11:20
make your art do the stuff that only you
11:23
can do you’re starting out is to copy
11:26
and that’s not a bad thing most of us
11:28
only find our own voices after we’ve
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sounded like a lot of other people but
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the one thing that you have that nobody
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else has is you your voice your mind
11:41
your story your vision so write and draw
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and build and play and dance and live as
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only you can the moment that you feel
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that just possibly you’re walking down
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the street naked exposing too much of
12:00
your heart in your mind and what exists
12:02
on the inside showing too much of
12:03
yourself that’s the moment you may be
12:06
starting to get it right the things I’ve
12:11
done that worked the best were the
12:13
things I was the least certain about the
12:15
stories where I was sure they’d buy the
12:16
work or more likely be the kind of
12:19
embarrassing failures that people would
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gather together and discuss until the
12:23
end of time they always had that in
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common
12:26
looking back at them people explain why
12:28
they were inevitable successes and when
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I was doing them I had no idea
12:33
I still don’t and where would be the fun
12:36
in making something you knew was going
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to work and sometimes the things I did
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really didn’t
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there are stories of mine that have
12:44
never been reprinted some of them never
12:47
even left the house but I learned as
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much from them as I did from the things
12:50
that worked okay six late I’m going to
12:54
pass on some secret freelancer knowledge
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secret knowledge is always good and it’s
13:02
useful for anyone who ever plans to
13:04
create art for other people to enter a
13:06
freelance world of any kind I learned it
13:08
in comics but it applies to other fields
13:11
too and it’s this people get hired
13:14
because somehow they get hired in my
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case I did something which these days
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would be easy to check and will get me
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into a lot of trouble and when I started
13:26
out in those pre-internet days seemed
13:28
like a sensible career strategy when I
13:30
was asked by editors who I’d written for
13:33
I lied
13:35
I listed a handful of magazines that
13:39
sounded likely and i sounded confident
13:41
and i got jobs
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I then made it a point of honor to have
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written something for each of the
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magazines I’ve listed to get that first
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job so that I hadn’t actually lied I
14:02
just been chronologically challenged you
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get work however you get work but people
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keep working in a freelance work and
14:14
more and more of today’s world is
14:16
freelance because their work is good and
14:19
because they’re easy to get along with
14:21
and because they deliver the work on
14:23
time and you don’t even need all three
14:28
two out of three is fine
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people will tolerate how unpleasant you
14:36
are if your work is good and you deliver
14:38
it on time people will forgive the
14:43
lateness of your work if it’s good and
14:45
they like you and you don’t have to be
14:48
as good as everyone else if you’re on
14:50
time and it’s always a pleasure to hear
14:52
from you
15:04
so when I agreed to give this address I
15:07
thought what is the best piece of advice
15:09
I was ever given and I realized that it
15:13
was actually a piece of advice that I
15:15
had failed to follow and it came from
15:17
Stephen King it was 20 years ago at the
15:21
height of the success the initial
15:22
success of Sandman the comic I was
15:25
writing I was oh thank you I was writing
15:29
a comic people loved and they were
15:30
taking it seriously and Stephen King
15:33
likes a man and my novel with Terry
15:35
Pratchett Good Omens and he he saw the
15:37
madness that was going on the long
15:39
signing lines all of that stuff but and
15:41
his advice to me was this he said this
15:43
is really great you should enjoy it and
15:49
I didn’t best advice I ever got that I
15:53
ignored instead I worried about it I
15:56
worried about the next deadline the next
15:59
idea the next story
16:02
there wasn’t a moment for the next 14 or
16:04
15 years that I wasn’t writing something
16:06
in my head or wondering about it and I
16:08
didn’t stop and look and look around and
16:10
go this is really fun I wish I’d enjoyed
16:15
it more it’s been an amazing ride but
16:17
there were parts of the ride I missed
16:19
because I was too worried about things
16:21
going wrong about what came next to
16:23
enjoy the bit that I was on that was the
16:26
hardest lesson for me I think to let go
16:29
and enjoy the ride because the ride
16:31
takes use to some remarkable and
16:33
unexpected places
16:35
and here on this platform today for me
16:39
is one of those places and I am enjoying
16:43
myself immensely
16:56
I’d actually put that in brackets just
16:58
in case I wasn’t I wouldn’t say to all
17:05
today’s graduates I wish you luck luck
17:09
is useful often you will discover that
17:11
the harder you work and the more wisely
17:14
that you work the luckier you will get
17:16
but there is luck and it helps we’re in
17:21
a transitional world right now if you’re
17:24
in any kind of artistic field because
17:26
the nature of distribution is changing
17:29
the models by which creators got their
17:31
work out into the world and got to keep
17:33
a roof over their heads and buy sand
17:35
which is while they did that they’re all
17:37
changing I talked to people at the top
17:40
of the food chain in publishing and book
17:42
selling in music in all those areas and
17:45
no one knows what the landscape will
17:48
look like two years from now let alone a
17:50
decade away the distribution channels
17:53
that people had built over the last
17:54
century or so are in flux for print for
17:58
visual artists for musicians the
18:00
creative people of all kinds which is on
18:03
the one hand intimidating and on the
18:06
other immensely liberating the rules the
18:10
assumptions then now we’re supposed to
18:12
zuv how you get your work seam and what
18:14
you do then they’re breaking down the
18:18
gatekeepers are leaving their gates you
18:22
can be as creative as you need to be to
18:24
get your work scene YouTube and the web
18:28
and whatever comes after YouTube and the
18:30
web can give you more people watching
18:32
the old television ever did the old
18:35
rules are crumbling and nobody knows
18:37
what the new rules are so make up your
18:41
own rules someone asked me recently how
18:44
to do something she thought was going to
18:46
be difficult in this case recording an
18:48
audio book and I suggested she pretend
18:51
that she was someone who could do it
18:55
not pretend to do it but pretend she was
18:58
someone who could she put up a notice to
19:01
this effect on the studio wall and she
19:04
said it helped so be wise because the
19:08
world needs more wisdom and if you
19:10
cannot be wise pretend to be someone who
19:13
is wise and then just behave like they
19:14
would
19:27
and now go and make interesting mistakes
19:31
make amazing mistakes make glorious and
19:35
fantastic mistakes break rules leave the
19:38
world more interesting for your being
19:40
here make good art

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