Neil Gaiman commencement address explains the artist's life

Here's Neil Gaiman's commencement address to Philadelphia's University of the Arts, who awarded him an honorary doctorate. It's a wonderful talk on being an artist and pursuing a career in the arts.

I'm getting an honorary doctorate in Computer Science from the Open University next month, and I've been boiling my brain to come up with my own speech -- this has really raised the bar.

Gaiman addresses the graduating class


  1. Here’s a different “bar” to aspire to: (Eugene Mirman’s 2012 Hampshire College Keynote)

  2. Cory, to me Gaiman’s speech sounds like every other graduation speech or pep talk I’ve heard.

    – Life is hard, stick to your guns!
    – there is no one way to succeed, you have to persevere!
    – your chosen field of study is exalted, go for it!
    – do what you want, it’s difficult but you will triumph!

    It’s easy for Gaiman and other grad speakers to make pep talks. After all, they’ve already succeeded and can dish out the “I did it, so can you” line of BS – the point of every graduation speech is to delude grads (and their indebted parents) into believing that the valiant efforts they’ve made (and the money their parents have spent) wil pay off with high-paying jobs. Of course, we all know it’s silly and improbable that all of these Arts majors will find jobs in their chosen field (does the world really need more graphic novelists and ballerinas?) One day I’d like to see an un-successful, unemployed homeless person give a graduation speech. At the very least it would be a more realisitc talk

    1.  People don’t like when reality intrudes upon their fantasy. The fantasy is so much more comforting.

    2.  does the world really need more graphic novelists and ballerinas?

      Oh, yes. Yes, indeed it does.

      1. In order to meet the needs of the workforce, soon the separate titles of Graphic Novelist and Ballerina will have to be combined into one job called GRAPHNOVELLRINA – unfortunately all the graphic novels produced under this job title will revolve around ballerinas, specifically zombie ballerinas.

    3. I believe you need to watch that video again, friend.  That speech was for you.

      1. I graduated from university years ago and currently run my own graphic novel cleaning and ballerina rental shop uptown

    4. While visiting the mall next time I suggest einstein pick up a few graphic novels and ballet videos. I’ll continue to live in the world where Neil Gaiman is a time lord and I continue making glorious mistakes and occasionally good art and loving every second of it.

      Does the world really need more unsuccessful, unemployed homeless people?

    5. “I’ll make more money with my honorary doctorate than you ever will with your real one.  The world needs great scientists, educators, and thinkers like you, but will never, ever pay you for it.  James Franco made more money portraying a scientist in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” than you will ever see as a a real, honest-t0-God scientist.  

      If you work hard and do great things, someday I’ll write a novel with a fictional character based off of you – maybe it’ll *be* you.  That character will be more entertaining and more attractive than you, and will make me rich(er).

      But carry on – I achieved success through preposterously slim odds and arrived at a societal role that about five living human beings get to occupy at any given moment.  All however-many-thousand of you can all do this, if only you follow your dreams.  Or at least, my ficitonalized portrayal of you will be able to.”

      Yes, I know, I’m being a bitter sourpuss.  Actually earning a real doctorate is hard work, dammit.

      1.  For most reputable universities, you only get an honorary doctorate if you’re pretty darn close to deserving a real one. And please keep in mind that he was addressing a graduating class of the Philadelphia University of the ARTS. There were no future scientists/doctors/engineers that day listening in to him, just apprehensive young 20-somethings with an Arts degree. What was he supposed to have said?

    6. The reason those are always talking points is because they are basically true (the persevere  and so on parts).  These graduates will have large doses of realism quite soon, it’s merely polite to let them feel good about their graduation until they at least get off school grounds. 

    7. The tenor of the speech was: make good art. That was his main and only entreat with the idea being that, with luck and the wisdom that comes from making (hopefully interesting) mistakes, your work will provide you with rent and sandwiches. I listed to the whole thing and nowhere did he vindicate the monopoly of academia. From the sound of it, he was self-taught and something of a hustler. It was a fine speech.

    1. Maybe nothing, maybe (probably) a lot.

      Commencement fees range from a couple of thousand dollars to over $100,000. Katie Couric received an astonishing $110,000 to deliver the commencement address at the University of Oklahoma in 2006. Rudy Giuliani, a year earlier, charged $75,000 to speak at High Point University. Giuliani reputedly now gets about $100,000 plus a private jet for a speech. In 2007 Senator John Edwards received $55,000 for a speech at the University of California at Davis. The rates have probably increased significantly with inflation in recent years.

    2. And more on the topic from Gaiman himself, at his own site. Actually, it must’ve been A LOT–

      Q. How can I get Neil Gaiman to make an appearance at my school/convention/event?

      A. Contact Lisa Bransdorf at the Greater Talent Network. Tell her you want Neil to appear somewhere. Have her tell you how much it costs. Have her say it again in case you misheard it the first time. Tell her you could get Bill Clinton for that money. Have her tell you that you couldn’t even get ten minutes of Bill Clinton for that money but it’s true, he’s not cheap. 

      On the other hand, I’m really busy, and I ought to be writing, so pricing appearances somewhere between ridiculously high and obscenely high helps to discourage most of the people who want me to come and talk to them. Which I could make a full time profession, if I didn’t say ‘no’ a lot. 

    3. Wasn’t he getting an honorary doctorate that day? Meaning that he was there delivering the valediction because he was “graduating”, not for being a paid speaker?

  3. I didn’t charge them anything at all. It was the first time I’ve ever been asked to give a commencement speech, and thought it would be fun and educational – and I’d enjoyed being with Amanda last year when she gave one at the Institute of the Arts in Brooklyn. I enjoyed doing it.

    Einsteinatthemall, you put words into my mouth, and feel-good empty words at that. Did you actually watch the video? Or are you just saying what you think I would have said?

    1.   I didn’t charge them anything at all. 

      Thank you for filling us in! I was going to write “Good to hear it,” but upon reconsideration of what I quoted from your site, I take it back. I think your spoken words (and inspiring presence) are worth whatever you want to charge for time taken away from your written ones.

    2. Muahahaahahaahaha!!! PWND!!! 

      All in all though, nice speech. True, not everyone can be the sun, but happiness and contentment can be possessions of all men and women.

  4.  Well, I am glad you took the time and did this one speaking engagement. I’m a dormant writer trying to wake up and really get to writing, but it can be daunting and frustrating. Hearing encouragement like yours is truly a help.

    Plus I always try to keep in mind that even my favorite authors can have trouble writing. As the great Douglas Adams said, writing is “Easy – all you have to do is stare at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds.”

  5. “The odds are sadly against the Artist or the Dancer or the Video Game Creator or the Science Fiction Editor.” – said einsteinatthemall
    The odds are also against the Scientist wanting to make a big breakthrough, the Engineer wanting to plan and execute the next wonder of the world, and the Doctor wanting to Make A Difference TM. The truth is that to make it to the top in any field, you have to be incredibly exceptional. This used to be true only of glamour professions like writers, singers and actors but now is also increasingly becoming common for science related fields. There are an increasingly large number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Medicine) PHds who are never going to get tenure, are never going to run their own labs, and are NEVER going to amount to anything regarding their chosen field of study.
    Maybe everyone was raised with the promise that they’d be the protagonist of their own legend, and that they’d “win out” or something in the end, but the truth is what Thoreau said all those years ago, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

    1. Except the very definition ‘top of their field’ is becoming something of a misnomer.  And you seem to be confusing ‘being successful’, ‘being famous’ and ‘making a difference’.

      The doctor who performed quadruple-bypass surgery on my father-in-law is just not famous, not ‘top of his field’.  He was and is a journeyman medical professional, someone who entered our lives for a brief two-week span (and who we met only a few times, once for several hours).  And yet he made a bigger difference in the lives of my wife and my children than many Nobel medicine winners (certainly more than Egas Moniz, for example).

      Gaiman doesn’t tell the students that they can be incredibly successful.  Hell, he tells them that they’ll need luck.  What he does tell them is how they, as artists, can enjoy their lives and their art.  He is telling them how their art will benefit and how they should look to making good art…which in turn will improve their chances of success.

      1.  Well to be clear, I meant “make a difference” as in, get a Nobel prize for medicine, or a disease or procedure named after them, that’s all. I don’t disagree with you at all, just wanted to reply to people that seem to think that going into the sciences is suddenly a way better bet than going into the arts.

  6. I don’t know which I enjoyed more, the speech or the conversation here… nah, it was the speech but this conversation pretty darned entertaining. Nice point Mr Wizardru. Same thing with my dad and about a dozen other people I know. 

    Riches and fame aren’t all their cracked up to be anyway, look at how many miserable people there are who have ‘the dream’. Wisdom dictates being content. You can’t get that if one always giving up. 

  7. Ha, always fun when the artist himself steps into the comment pool.  No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

    It’s true that an awful lot of those kids listening raptly, if they are working in arts-related jobs at all, will soon be sitting in cubicles making banner ads for dentist’s offices and car dealerships. That’s life. Not everyone gets to be awesome for a living. But if they can make their art anyway, through all of that, it will mean something. Maybe just to them, but what’s the alternative — lay on the couch and watch reality tv every night? I spent too many years like that. Make the art — it will lead you to new things every single time, some that may earn you money, some that don’t. Either way,the result is a life full of art.

  8. Well Neil, I went ahead and forwarded this video to my 18 yr old daughter, who’s a budding photographer. Now we sit back and wait 30 years to see what effect it had. If she winds up tattooed and living in my basement with her BF Lars and their love child SoozyQeuue, I’m gonna be a little irked.

  9. J. K. Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech from a few years back is still my gold standard against which all other speeches are measured.

    Neil’s comes pretty close, though…

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