Finding Your Mountain: Career Advice From Neil Gaiman
I’ve made a silly New Year goal to watch the best college commencement speeches of all time.
In the past, I found these speeches hackneyed: the same tired advice to work hard, never give up, and follow your dreams repeated ad nauseum. It didn’t help that my commencement speaker was the equipment manager for the football team.
I had a change of heart after re-watching David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water. Last night I fired up another classic: Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech at University Of The Arts.
Like Wallace, Gaiman hits on a number of topics: The ups and downs of life as an artist, how to survive as a freelancer, and ways to deal with failure.
What jumped out at me was a section of the speech where Neil discusses how he makes career decisions :
“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be, an author, was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal. 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.”
Here are a few reasons why I love this metaphor:
It Begins With An End In Mind:
Many of you may recognize the expression “begin with an end in mind” from Stephen Covet: 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People. The image of the mountain illustrates this adage. The mountain represent the “end” or purpose you work towards.
Neil’s is clear cut, to be a fiction writer, but I think the metaphor works just as well for someone who doesn’t have a clearly defined career/life goal.
If you want to do something creative, but don’t know what that “something” is: substitute the goal for a principle or life style. Your mountain might simply be to have a career that gives you the flexibility and time to do creative work.
Decisions are difficult. Especially big life decisions involving your career. Neil’s mountain provides a simple, actionable template for making these decisions.
Will (X Decision) move me closer or further away from my mountain (life goal or principle).
If it moves you closer: Do it!
If if moves you further away: Don’t!
This isn’t to say it is easy to know which direction a choice takes you. But it gives you a system for evaluating your choices. And a clear criteria for what the “right move” is.
After illustrating his mountain metaphor, Gaiman explains that at different points in his career he accepted and turned away jobs because they took him closer or further way from the “mountain”.
He emphasizes certain choices moved him closer to the mountain at certain points in his career, but further away in others.
For young writers like Neil, a steady job at a established publication may be just what you need to get more experience. For someone more seasoned, this might be a tempting distraction from the work you really want to do.
The same opportunity can be both good or bad at different times in your life and career.