Neil Gaiman's Advice on What You Need to Know when Embarking on a Creative Career

It's that time of year when waves of freshly minted graduates head out to make their way in the world.  It's both an exciting and daunting moment -- there's all the possibility and anxiety of the unknown, mixed with the uncertainty of one's ability to do what one has set out to do.  This is especially so for anyone pursuing the creative life.  If you're one of those nutty folks, or even someone already well on their way, Neil Gaiman offers some great advice in this commencement speech he delivered at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  As Gaiman puts it, it's "[e]verything I could think of that someone starting out on a career in the arts right now might need to know."

Watch the full speech in this video:

Or read the transcript here.

I honestly can't add much, other than to say, I find these words reassuring.  It's so easy to get caught up thinking you can plan a career, that somehow by taking steps A, B and C, you'll get to D.  But most careers don't work that way, especially in creative fields.  How many folks today think there's a surefire path to establishing yourself as a well-paid director or screenwriter or director of photography?  You'll hear advice -- make a short film, make a web series, write three feature scripts, network.  All good advice, all solid goals, all worth pursuing, but it's important to realize that they don't guarantee anything beyond themselves.  Making a short film guarantees you made that short film, writing those 3 feature scripts guarantees you've written 3 scripts.  You have to take each project on as an end in itself -- make it because you're passionate about it and because you believe in it.  Sometimes we have to balance a project with a part-time job, or a full on day job, that's just the reality of establishing ourselves in a creative field.  Ultimately, in pursuing one personally compelling project after another, and dedicating ourselves to creating the best project we can create, we not only hone our crafts, but we make ourselves more likely to be hired for our skills.

For those of you at the beginning of this journey, what are your biggest fears?  For those already in the thick of it, what would you advise your younger self?  Let's hear it!

[via Neil Gaiman's Journal]

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This is some of the best inspirational words I've ever heard. If this won't motivate people, I think they're lost :)

June 8, 2012 at 4:57PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Rune Gade Chris...

I'm 22 years old and I am about graduate with a BA in Communications, concentration in film and video production. I guess the biggest, and really only, fear of mine is the uncertainty that goes along with graduating, stepping out into the world. My passion is cinema, art house cinema. The desire is to work within a world of filmmakers who make work based on the human experience and the human condition and do it independently, with a low budget and utilizing state of the art equipment to tell those stories. The uncertainty is, how do I fall into that kind of a group? Maybe I make it myself? Right now, I am working on a script for a short film, designing a website for myself and working on DVD production for a small, local documentary I worked on all last year. Before that, I've held internships and made my own work, both in non-fiction and fiction forms. I guess one might say that I've already started to separate myself from others my age. But, living in a town like Memphis, TN where there seems to be little work in the video production world, life and the future just feels so insecure. After I graduate I'm looking to save up some money and eventually pursue an MFA degree and along the way work on small, no-to-low budget films with other talented people. I guess what I am learning right now at the young age of 22 is to be pro-active, be patient, never lose that passion and be eager to show others that passion. Still, that unwritten future seems so far away and, often times, unlikely to reach any of the goals and aspirations I have looked to accomplish.

June 8, 2012 at 7:37PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Andrew G.

That ended rather negatively. I'd like everyone to know that I do have my chin up. Haha!

June 8, 2012 at 7:38PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Andrew G.

nashville has a thriving arts scene. move there.

June 8, 2012 at 9:32PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

john jeffreys

I'm 22 as well and in my final year studying marketing and advertising I had to complete an internship. I was very worried I would just graduate and keep my current job at the time as a grill cook. So I decided to stick my neck out and I called the CEO of the company I worked for and said I wanted to do their marketing because I thought I could do better. I got the internship and then got hired on as the marketing person right out of the internship. Falling into what you do is virtually impossible so I would encourage you to take some heavy risks with people and prove to them you know what you are doing.

June 9, 2012 at 6:40AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Are you sure Memphis won't work for you? I mean... it's a city of over 600,000 with an ever larger metropolitan area. Several high profile films have been shot there and I'm sure there are some top tier production companies out there. I'm not saying don't move to Nashville like the other guy said, but I notice that several people turn a blind eye to their hometown way too quickly. This is especially true in the city I'm currently in, Cincinnati. Despite some very high profile production houses and extremely talented directors/graphic designers/editors/animators/etc. being based here, locals are always complaining about how the city is "slow" compared to Chicago or East Coast/West Coast cities...

June 10, 2012 at 9:59PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


What if, you like to do a lot of things, what if, you feel passionate about some creative fields, like, cinema, writing, music, graphic art, and so on, but somehow, you don't know exactly where to focus on, you don;t know exactly which field could be the best for you.

I got a day job and a family to support, i do wedding videos, and somehow i like it, but it's not exactly what i would like to do for the rest of my life, and that's how i feel, i don;t know exactly what to do for the rest of my life, i would like to have that idealistic creative life that Mr. Gaiman mentioned, i don;t have a plan and sometimes i feel like hopeless, i do a lot of stuff but never focus on one single thing, but somehow, I'm still hoping that one day i;ll have the answer, it;s just that waiting feels like hell.
Recently i saw The Wrestler, of Darren Aronofsky, and i thought, i dont wanna be like that.

June 9, 2012 at 12:58AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Right there with ya Gerardo! An interest, passion and talent in many areas but feeling you need to focus on one thing.

I like what Gaiman said about envisioning his goals as a mountain and every new project he takes on either gets him closer or further away. And I thought the best realization he shared was that jobs he would say no to now he would have said yes to earlier because they would have brought him closer to the mountain at that time. Which is to say he recognized there was never a clear path; rather just a sense of how close or far away he was to that foggy notion of what he wanted to be.

Not having a clear goal is a fine thing. It just means the mountain is covered in fog. But I think most of us in the creative field have a vague sense of what feels right for us. We need to trust that sense. As long as we're working on projects that excite us in some way, we are moving closer to the mountain.

June 9, 2012 at 5:44AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Launching a career is quite synonymos to calming a storm among storms. What could guarantee the future lies within uncertainties. Filmmaking has won so many hearts but only few had broken through, well, trials unceasing....

June 9, 2012 at 4:54AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Adeneye Adenuga

Great timing on this post! It's always very difficult to know how to go about starting to work in the creative field. I'm slowly working towards cutting my hours down at my current job to make more time for my passion of video production. This is always a very daunting step, but a necessary one in order to make progress.

Something I have noticed that is really accelerating my goal of getting into the video production field is how we are living in a time now where being successful in this type of thing is about making strong connections with people that also work in the field. Get to know people who do what you want to do and just hang out with them. Observe what they do well and figure out where your work can fill a need. I'm not a web designer or a great graphic designer but I have been building connections with those that are in my area because they aren't video producers thus we have a reciprocal relationship that allows us to work together under different names.

The other thing that I couldn't be more thankful for is the people who have given me a chance. This sounds sappy but there are people out there who believe in opportunity and something I learned to appreciate more than anything in the industry is those people. Some people have given me opportunities that have really motivated me to push forward and have helped me to become more confident in pursuing bigger clients.

June 9, 2012 at 6:31AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


A truly wonderful inspiring speech by Neil Gaiman. I'm still in the stage of my career where I am saying yes to everything. And to have that "yes" attitude is the best advice I have received and can give. Don't say no to something if it relates to where you want to go, no matter how smaller or silly it may seem. As a musician and videographer I have said yes, and now I have met some amazing artists who I can call as friends.

For me I have a Day Job which allows me to pursue other creative pursuits in the evenings and weekends. It provides a structure and support for my life, and fortunately doesn't drain my energy away.

June 10, 2012 at 2:34AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Great blog. Thank you

June 10, 2012 at 8:49AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Lliam Worthington

I'm 21, started off shooting weddings in high school with a company. Then started shooting them myself w/ HDSLR as my own business. I began to subcontract shooters. I went to college for a couple semesters for film, it was all bullshit so I dropped out. I started shooting short films. Now Im traveling the world. Im shooting commercials in London, NYC, Miami, Saint Kitts, Saint Martin and Dominica. I also do a lot of side jobs to try to put my name in different arenas and get more
"Experience"(documentary's, music videos). I haven't worked for someone else since I was in high school. I'm 100% self made, I wasn't born into any money at all. I would say stay passionate about your area of film, make use of your time well, each day is another move (like a turn in a chess game), dont waste your turns, keep your work quality, surround yourself with artists and take risks. I hope be apart of major films in the future and my ultimate goal is to be the DP of many. Make your own opportunity. Don't wait for someone to hand them out. I'm not claiming to be Mr. Bigshot but guys Ive only been doing this for 2 1/2 years. I'm not turning 22 until October. I didn't know what I wanted to do until I was 19 honestly. Most of the guys I work with are 30+. I don't think age really matters. If anyone wants to talk/network.

June 10, 2012 at 1:34PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


That's awesome, Derek! Where are you based now?

June 10, 2012 at 10:02PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I'm very happy to have a BA and that diploma is on my wall but I didn't feel like university was extremely useful to me... knowledge-wise, anyways. My work habits did improve, but although Political Studies were interesting, I didn't feel passionate about it.

I always worry about where I'm going, but I'm taking Neil's advice and enjoying the moment, because I am extremely lucky to be where I am at (that is, directing nationally-broadcast documentaries and news magazines since the age of 19... I'm 22 now). I work for a fantastic production company that does stuff I'm passionate about.

I for one am now venturing tentatively out into my own freelance world, getting contracts with other companies for commercials and such... which has been a fun change and complement to my doc work.

And now, this summer, I'll be filming my first "pro-indie" feature (my other one was "amateur-indie"). IndieGoGo campaign is going well and just closing out now. But the whole process, including grant applications and the lot, is crazy nerve-wracking. It's coming along nicely though!

It's amazing to hear everyone's awesome and inspiring stories!!

June 11, 2012 at 11:59AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


1. Hard Work, lots of it. It will never end.
2. Learning does not end with the degree. Study things outside your chosen discipline/field.
3. Persistence & Perseverance
4. Work on a multitude of projects - statistically, something will "hit". Having a goal in mind helps.
5. Being creative is not a license to ignore the "business" side of things: study accounting.
6. Attitude: optimism doesn't guarantee success, but it will weather you through the tough spots
7. Know yourself: know which things are important to prioritize in your life.

June 14, 2012 at 7:22PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


This sounds crazy but be careful as to just how MANY passions you have. I have for a long time joked about my"disease", my creative affliction because it affected everything. I had TOO many passions. Too many interests and had a fair amount of ability in anything I tried. I think you need to narrow things down a bit and concentrate on one field. I eventually concentrated on Music but also did Graphics/Commercial arts (an old term I think ),Film and many others. I became too spread out and diffused. I still don't have time for all my passions/Interests.
As George said previous - PRIORITIZE

June 17, 2012 at 6:34AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM