Keep walking toward the mountain: staying true to your goals

Author Neil Gaiman offered practical, heartening advice in commencement speech at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia last year. The speech, and his delivery of it, is warm and generous—listening to him deliver it is highly recommended.

Short of that, I love his perspectives on persistence, quoted below. If it seems that I’m obsessed with optimism and motivational inspirations, it’s because I am. Day-to-day life is filled with the mundane: hours spent commuting, generating income, sending off applications for things that may or may not come into fruition, and so on. In the muddle of quotidian distractions, the clarity of advice from a fellow traveler is helpful.

I love Gaiman’s suggestion of how to navigate over the long haul—by envisioning a longterm goal as a distant mountain:

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.

Another way of having faith in a slow process with unforeseeable results:

A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back.

The problems of failure are problems of discouragement, of hopelessness, of hunger. You want everything to happen and you want it now, and things go wrong.

… nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was the money was ever worth it, except as bitter experience…. The things I did because I was excited, and wanted to see them exist in reality have never let me down, and I’ve never regretted the time I spent on any of them.

I’ve also been observing more successful peers with a mix of envy and dread, wondering how I would cope with the constraints they perceive as imposed on them. How is it that one can avoid an upwardly-mobile treadmill, in which opportunities increase while autonomy and creative freedom decrease? Gaiman perceives what some would call a trade-off for the tragedy it is:

…The problems of success. They’re real, and with luck you’ll experience them. The point where you stop saying yes to everything, because now the bottles you threw in the ocean are all coming back, and have to learn to say no.

I watched my peers, and my friends, and the ones who were older than me and watch how miserable some of them were: I’d listen to them telling me that they couldn’t envisage a world where they did what they had always wanted to do any more, because now they had to earn a certain amount every month just to keep where they were. They couldn’t go and do the things that mattered, and that they had really wanted to do; and that seemed as a big a tragedy as any problem of failure.

And after that, the biggest problem of success is that the world conspires to stop you doing the thing that you do, because you are successful. There was a day when I looked up and realised that I had become someone who professionally replied to email, and who wrote as a hobby. I started answering fewer emails, and was relieved to find I was writing much more.

That tragic entrapment of success is not an inevitability. Keep re-assessing; be led not by fears of losing what you’ve gained, but by your commitment to your practice.


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