on making your art, doing the stuff that only you can do, freedom, and being fully human

some person, podcast, or hyperlink in an article told me to listen to this graduation speech by neil gaiman so i did. it was pretty great and this chunk felt pretty relevant to me and also to the work i want to do in the world. 

“…make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do.

The urge, starting out, is to copy. And that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.

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 things I’ve done that worked the best were the things I was the least certain about, the stories where I was sure they would either work, or more likely be the kinds of embarrassing failures people would gather together and talk about until the end of time. They always had that in common: looking back at them, people explain why they were inevitable successes. While I was doing them, I had no idea.

I still don’t. And where would be the fun in making something you knew was going to work?

And sometimes the things I did really didn’t work. There are stories of mine that have never been reprinted. Some of them never even left the house. But I learned as much from them as I did from the things that worked.” — neil gaiman

at first, my takeaways were personal:

  1. no one else has my voice, mind, story, vision, or experiences. that means that there actually are things that only i can produce.
  2. starting out copying is fine, normal even. we find our own voices by copying others. like, literally that’s how we learn to speak. so the fact that it’s the same in terms of creating work is actually unsurprising; maybe even obvious.
  3. just put out work. in hindsight, people will call it good, bad, whatever. but people can only call it something if it’s out there. 
  4. this line: “…Which has left me with a healthy respect and fondness for higher education that those of my friends and family, who attended Universities, were cured of long ago.”

then i started to connect that first point to the systemic. when i think about the fundamental ways we need to shift our thinking about work, it seems increasingly clear to me that individuality is the solution. automation and overconsumption (both of which are driven by blind capitalism) will destroy us if we don’t get out of these crazy hedonistic cycles.

by recognizing that my experiences create a unique vantage point, it’s clear that there is work only i can produce. then, if i create or find for myself systems that support my livelihood while also allowing me to do the work that only i can do, i will never be made obsolete. this replicated at societal scale means that all people have value and need to be supported to do their work. the type of work only one person can do is likely to be highly complex, connected, humanity-centered, and experiential. we could then really let the machines do all the boring stuff and be totally freed up to live life well and be fully human.

i’m still not totally sure what it means to be fully human, but it’s a question i’m increasingly interested in.

writing: 15:51
​spell-check, link-finding, & formatting: 7:41