Have you watched the commencement speech Neil Gaiman gave at The University of the Arts last spring? It’s been floating around this week on Upworthy and Facebook and Twitter. If you haven’t, check it out when you have twenty minutes to spare. You can watch or read it here.
The speech is full of many great tid-bits and life lessons, especially for those of us who make art or are freelancers. But this part, near the end of his speech, stopped me dead in my tracks:
When I agreed to give this address, I started trying to think what the best advice I’d been given over the years was.
And it came from Stephen King twenty years ago, at the height of the success of Sandman. I was writing a comic that people loved and were taking seriously. King had liked Sandman and my novel with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, and he saw the madness, the long signing lines, all that, and his advice was this:
“This is really great. You should enjoy it.”
And I didn’t. Best advice I got that I ignored. Instead I worried about it. I worried about the next deadline, the next idea, the next story. There wasn’t a moment for the next fourteen or fifteen years that I wasn’t writing something in my head, or wondering about it. And I didn’t stop and look around and go, this is really fun. I wish I’d enjoyed it more. It’s been an amazing ride. But there were parts of the ride I missed, because I was too worried about things going wrong, about what came next, to enjoy the bit I was on.
That was the hardest lesson for me, I think: to let go and enjoy the ride, because the ride takes you to some remarkable and unexpected places.
Oy, I can really relate to this. Maybe you can too?
Often, we’re so hellbent on getting it right that we miss the point entirely. The right career, the right school, the right spouse, the right restaurant, the movie with the good reviews, wearing the right outfit and snagging that just right opportunity and hopefully doing something really meaningful and perfect with our lives: these things obsess us.
I can look back on a (very large) handful of times in my life when I was given an amazing opportunity or experiencing something really great that, in retrospect, I stressed way too much over. Will I blow this? Will it work out? Where’s the next opportunity going to come from? What if people think I’m crazy?
Do I deserve this?
And you know what? It worked out. Or it didn’t. But here I am, still ticking along and, in almost every instance, better for that experience or opportunity.
Sometimes I think we’re all so busy looking for the blueprint that we miss the tiny twists and turns, the side streets, the quiet moment in a little park off of the main road, the mountain we might have climbed had we given ourselves just a little more breathing room.
Besides, there is no blueprint. Not really.
This is something that took me a very long time to understand. You would think that picking up and moving to another country to live with a guy I had just met and walking out on a career in real estate to repursue the arts would have taught me these things ages ago. I mean, I knew there was no blueprint but I, like so many others, still felt the need to fit an ideal.
I’ve been surrounded by hard working, well-educated doctors (my husband and his friends) for the past seven years and, though I know that theirs is not a path I care to travel, the prestige and seriousness and money can certainly make a girl question her own aspirations. Is mine the right path? Will it pay off? Will people respect me? Will I die penniless and alone, clutching a tattered, unpublished book manuscript?
It took me a while to chill the heck out and stop worrying about what other people thought of me. So what if they don’t see massive dollar signs when they look at me. Hopefully, if they’re really looking, they see me. And I’m kind of awesome. I bet you are too.
The sticky truth is, whether we are at the bottom of the heap or the top, there will be challenges. There is no magic antidote guaranteed to take away insecurity, unhappiness and stress. Gaiman’s success only brought more pressure. It’s funny how that happens. We wish and wish for something and when it finally arrives, we say, “What next?”
There is no right way to be. No right job. No right amount of money. No one-size-fits-all perfect balance of love life and career and finances and babies and spiritual wholeness.
So what do you say we stop striving for right and get on with living our amazingly imperfect lives, guilt free?
Life is a back and forth, an up and down, a bit like one of those crazy, rickety mechanical bulls that everyone is scared to ride. We can either strangle the heck out of it, trying to steer it in exactly the right direction or we can relax, take a deep breath and enjoy the ride.
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