Two years ago, Neil Gaiman, perhaps my largest living hero, gave the commencement speech to the graduation class of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mr. Gaiman has not only created some the deepest, darkest, and most intricate stories, novels, and comic books I’ve been privileged to deliberate, but he has done so with a persona of humble, blitheful endearment. As I began the 20 minute video, now immortalized by the internet, my blood ran cold as he explained he had never actually attended a university.
The concept of intelligence, success and even education not being prefaced solely on a Bachelor’s and Beyond is not new to me. Frank Zappa, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Quentin Tarantino all experienced obvious success, and the clearest examples of technological success coming from Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Gabe Newell, each never finishing college, and each rewriting the Game to become billionaires. Anecdotally, the dismay and disillusionment of my peers I’ve observed in Bachelors’ toting graduates further enforces the concept of a quiet conspiracy to the real importance of an expensive and time-consuming education system rooted in the fear-mongering tactics of third grade cursive handwriting practice.
But perhaps these people’s goals are not the same as mine and certainly there are myriad ways to account for and decide success, as well as failure. And I’m here at university already. So I feel gotta be learning something, at least.
But as Mr. Gaiman almost bashfully admitted never even starting at a university, or even that he’d “escaped from school as soon as he could”, my heart began to do things I could not rightly explain. However, unlike Frank Zappa’s sneering condescension, Gaiman’s warmth and sheepish, unassuming charm soothed me as he explained his “healthy respect and fondness for higher education that those of his friends and family, who attended Universities, were cured of long ago.”
He described his mercenary lifestyle as a young writer, one which I’ve often decided seems more accessible and achievable than the rat races of film or theater, as an actor or otherwise creative.
But then he said something, something of such profound and poetic simplicity and beauty that everything that swirled uncontrollably and uncertainly about the world suddenly came together in peace– something he as done for me already so many times before.
He said that in his earliest days, he began to imagine his goal, of being an author of good books and good comics and supporting himself through his words, as a mountain. And as long he kept walking towards his mountain, he’d be alright. And whenever he was unsure of what to do, he would stop and think if his choice would take him towards the mountain, or away from it. He said no to editorial jobs on magazines, “proper jobs that would have paid proper money” because taking them would have been walking away from the mountain.
This made a calm sense out of my grit and fear. And it further brought to light a problem: I had not defined my mountain. I wanted to make things. I wanted to make and be everything I loved and that had inspired me. I wanted to act and write and make movies and stageplays and comic books and create stories. But this felt more like the highlands that ubiquitously surrounded me as I seemed to scratch and slump in circles at the bottom of its basin.
But Gaiman knew what he wanted. Even as the floppy goth kid I imagine he was, he had sorted the layers of the mountain he was walking towards: to write an adult novel, a children’s book, a comic, a movie, record an audiobook, write an episode of Doctor Who.
And perhaps the university system is a terrible lie. Maybe it’ll only an arbitrary status. Maybe for many it’s a badge of achievement and self-betterment. And yet maybe still, its part of the mountain for doing the kind of science you want to do or find things you want to explore. But the kind of despondency that comes from eternal existential dilemmas is finally sorted by clear dead reckoning. Without knowing the mountain, you won’t be able to see it on the horizon, and certainly won’t take those steps towards it.
Find your mountain. Make it. Learn it. Stack it up, bit by bit. And then once you see it, looming but as a comfortingly identifiable sight, you can, step-by-step, walk towards it.
And as long as you keep walking towards your mountain, it’ll be alright.