a breakdown of Neil Gaiman’s tips: how to live big

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I watched this speech called “Make Good Art” that got me all hyped up — so much so that I haven’t stopped thinking or talking about it since I saw it a month ago. In it, Neil Gaiman gracefully walks his audience of graduating artists through seven tips on “everything I wish I’d known starting out.” The title’s command, to “Make Good Art,” is half of the fifth tip, complimented by “make your art.”

Below are his tips followed by the tips translated for a different audience — educators, parents, learners.

Unschoolers let the student take the wheel, trust them, give them freedom. As I discover more about unschooling, as I read Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto, as I take notes on Emile (Rousseau) and How We Think (Dewey), this idea — this effing idea — just makes more and more sense. Let students decide for themselves — what to learn, where, when, how. Let them come up with questions and answers. But it’s a huge idea that will take decades to fully incarnate.

Until then, we, the big idea people, need some guidance along the way. Who better than a comic book writer to divulge seven of life’s secrets? Neil Gaiman’s tips are applicable to anyone aspiring to do something big.

For those who dream big, here's a collage of John Lennon. Artwork by Lauren Epifanio.

For those who dream big, here’s a collage of John Lennon. Artwork by Lauren Epifanio.

In order of appearance (not necessarily in order of importance):

  1. Embrace the unknown! Gaiman encourages us to try what nobody else has. “And you can. If you don’t know it’s impossible, it’s easier to do. And because no one has done it before, no one has made up rules to stop them from doing that particular thing again.”  Within the context of education, this piece of advice is especially liberating. Right now, unschooling IS the unknown. The numbers aren’t there — how many kids unschool in this country? In the world? What are the demographics like? How do they fair in adult life? There is little research to answer these questions because the movement is relatively new and, well, unknown. But it’s a lifestyle that excites me and a movement that I believe in. I believe, and so I embrace.
  2. Just go and do it. How do you know if you’re doing the right thing? Gaiman says as long as you’re focused on your goal, you’ll be fine. He suggests imagining your goal as a far off mountain. “I knew as long as I kept walking towards the mountain, I’d be alright.” Gaiman explains how he turned down “proper” jobs because he knew it wouldn’t be going towards his mountain. Likewise, we shouldn’t just do the next thing on autopilot — high school, college, that job offer. If you have an idea or a dream and you know how you want to do it, do it and do it your way. If your dream is to enjoy learning or to learn astrology or interior design, then go and do it. If your dream is to teach classes that are founded on building and creating and getting inspired, then go for it. If your dream is to work in a school with no grades, find that school or start that school. Why? Because if you’re not moving towards your mountain, you know it — on some level, you’ll know it — and it will tire you, sadden you, possibly slowly kill you.
  3. Get back up and keep trying. How do you deal with failure? Success? “You want everything to happen and you want it now and things go wrong,” Gaiman says. The trick is to be relentlessly resilient. I recently read a few chapters from The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. My favorite chapter hands down was the one on Iceland. “Happiness is Failure” is the name of the chapter, and it revealed all sorts of insights that truly resonated with me. For example, during Icelandic winters, most of the day is night — the sun only shines a couple hours a day — but they suggest not trying to fight the darkness, but instead to embrace it. (Remind you of anything? *cough* Embrace the unknown *cough*) According to Weiner, Icelanders are unafraid, even proud, of getting back up and trying again. Switching professions is expected and encouraged. In education, this kind of flexibility is critical considering the reality that everyone can, does, and will fail at some point. Especially with a movement like unschooling that is still so young, so put together by hand, it is important to keep at it. Rome wasn’t built in a day, right?
  4. Make mistakes. A friendly reminder — don’t be afraid to fall down because getting up will strengthen you. (See tip #3 for what to do after you’ve fallen.)
  5. Make good art and make your art. Here, think of art as a creation. Not just an expression, but an innovation. Make good ideas happen, and Gaiman stresses, do so with your ideas. Personally, my art form is mostly writing. Not novel writing or lyric writing, but note taking, record keeping, journal writing. I document my life — how I feel, what I’ve learned, my ideas, etc. I reflect. I have a notebook collection (that began in 2009) that is now 21 books and counting. Gaiman talks about art as that activity you turn to every time something happens. “Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.” Make art because it’s practice, make art because it’s a good habit, make art because you might make something (or think of something) masterful.
  6. Be bold and do what must be done. Gaiman described how he used to lie about job experience to get positions he really wanted. He also suggests 3 practical ways of keeping a job: quality work, popularity, and timeliness. “2 out of 3 is fine.”
  7. Enjoy it!!! “Enjoy the journey,” Gaiman advises. If it’s not satisfying and pleasurable along the way, what’s the point? Part of the reason I love unschooling is because it, unlike traditional schooling, values the journey, the process, the experience. Without standards and exams, there is no real “end point.” Usually, students are working towards that almighty, end-of-the-year exam. But with unschooling, every day matters.