“…To thine own self be true,” I bet most of us have this written at least twice in our yearbooks. For me it was second next to dozens of Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (I was really active in youth group). As a High School graduate full of hope and emotion, these words resonated with me and helped build up my Lutheran-crushed ego. I also found deep meaning in the cultural truism: “Follow your heart.” I spent most of my twenties trying to live out the last quote, doubting Jeremiah, and ignoring Shakespeare’s Polonius. Where has it landed me?
Mike Rowe published a video during graduation season to give some advice, as celebrities, politicians, and successful people do. In the video he warns graduates about “following their passions” and how this can be a false road. I wonder how much of his video was created from a misunderstood reaction to Millennials as the “everyone gets a prize, we are all unique snowflakes generation.” Maybe it came from a deeply American place, pragmatism. Either way, or neither way, I think he raises some good points.
Mike warns graduates about the dangers of following a passion without the right kinds of ability and opportunity. Ability is amorphous and hard to test what amount someone possesses. I happen to believe that many abilities can be trained. Yes, some people are genetically or culturally more apt in certain abilities (see Michael Phelps’ physiology), but most of us can learn how to play a musical instrument, draw, design, cook, etc… What makes a certain ability exceptional, a “dirty truth” Mike fails to mention is, hard work and having people who will be truthful and push you to do better. The second point he raises, opportunity, is much more difficult to achieve than ability.
Opportunity is often not something easily available to people who have no direct avenues to it. In the video it shows how people try to get on American Idol (or the Voice) and fail due to a lack of ability, but even those with the ability who are granted the opportunity to compete, fail. Opportunity, in my experience, can be found in a few ways, namely, open awareness of situations and entitlement. Jada Pinkett-Smith’s kids have the entitled opportunity to enter the world of high entertainment without having to do the hard work of their mother. An entitled opportunity isn’t only hereditary, but also cultural and educational. The American Idol analogy works here too, an entitled opportunity doesn’t automatically equal success, happiness, or ability.
I was following my passion, my heart, when Kristin and I moved to Vermont in 2007. I wanted to be a cartoonist. I was trying to follow a drive my 12-year-old self had developed in the mid-1990’s. Yet, I didn’t know what I wanted. Did I want to be a syndicated cartoonist? Did I want to be a graphic novelist? Did I want to make zines? All I knew was I loved comics and I wanted to chase my passion and make a career out of it.
It was a hard two years in cartoon school. I felt woefully inadequate compared to the other students. I didn’t have the years of drawing and Adobe software experience others possessed. I didn’t have a clear vision of where I wanted to be in the comics world. I didn’t realize how much work being a cartoonist actually entailed. I also didn’t realize how bad I was at cartooning.
During my last year in graduate school, I remember worrying and fretting about making a living from cartooning. I knew that graphic novels didn’t pay much for the work that went into them, I also knew this was true of comic strips. I knew careers that actually paid good money took years to build and were tinged in industry politics, relationship building, and *gasp* self-marketing. I also knew that if I wanted to build a strong career I should move to New York until I had proven myself enough to move back to rural New England. None of those things appealed to me. I am a Midwestern/Western person at heart. I have a hard time building and maintaining professional relationships. I deplore the dishonest way most self-marketing is done. I get massive anxiety from spending more than a weekend in New York. I panicked.
Where had my heart led me? Was I dooming my wife and myself to financial ruin? Was I willing to sacrifice things in my life to make my passions a reality (look at most successful people’s biographies, they are filled with collateral damage)? I decided that I would try to make a living illustrating, but I would not sacrifice people or places that meant the most to me. I had to look for opportunity. I had to be aware of my options and be happy to follow those less-than-sexy creative job offers.
Since graduating, I haven’t created a single panel of comics toward a passion of my own. I have cartooned for some great clients. I have illustrated posters, websites, and books. I have failed to deliver quality to some clients, I have over delivered to others. I saw opportunities to use my training other cartoonists were not pursuing and I went on to build a modest career using my abilities, but no longer following my heart. The comics work I and others were doing encouraged other cartoonists from the school to follow. Eventually the Center for Cartoon Studies made a new track for students called, Applied Cartooning. I’d like to think I played a part in their decision to create this track, but I didn’t. I was just someone working in the applied cartooning field. I think it was James Sturm’s initial, brillian brainchild.
I reread a lot of Shakespeare in my mid-20s. It wasn’t until 29 or 30 that the oft-quoted line from Polonius had better meaning for me. “This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!” The line lost the cliched meaning of so many poorly done tattoos. The quote is warning against self-deception. A quote to wisdom and being honest with one’s self. I had not been practicing self honesty. I dreamed of being successful, of publishing important books, of being a thin, dapper man, of being a respected giant of comics. I dreamed these things, but did nothing in reality to explore if they could happen.
Mike Rowe ends his video with a good piece of advice, “Never follow your passion, but always take it with you.” I’m learning to do this in my daily work and illustrations. If I am being honest with myself, and with you, I am a perfectly mediocre illustrator and writer. I can get the job done, but not as well as others. I value my friends, family, and local community more than I do fame and success. Given the choice between spending three hours doing a kick-butt illustration for likes on instagram or playing a game with someone, the game will win out (this isn’t true if I have deadlines for clients, but that’s a different value). I don’t have the stuff of a Schulz, Pfeiffer, or Spiegelman, and that’s ok. I am a crafts-person, not an artist.
Finally, the heart can be a poor judge of reality. My “heart” is a mix of primal-emotion and frontal-lobe hope, and can easily deceive. It’s better for me to not let my “heart” drive me, but instead of throwing it in a locked box the trunk, allow it a place in the passenger seat. I wouldn’t be true to myself by denying my heart, nor would I be if I continue to let it guide me.