Make Good Art – for Business Professionals


I’m a sucker for a good graduation speech, and one of my favorites is Neil Gaiman’s 2012 speech to students at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. The speech was also made into a best-selling book.

Neil Gaiman is a successful author of adult novels, children’s books, graphic novels (the Sandman series), and has written for film and TV as well.

A major theme of his speech is that the best way to deal with tough times is to “Make Good Art“. And while his target audience that day were graduating arts students, pursuing careers such as acting, dancing, drawing, and singing, I think his message should resonate with everyone.

I try to show his speech in all of my classes every semester, and today was the day I showed it in one of my accounting classes. I am sure the reaction of the students while they  are listening to the talk is “What does this have to do with me; I’m planning a career in the business world? I’m not an artist.”

So I be sure to leave a few minutes after the video to offer my interpretation of his “Make Good Art” message, as well as reinforce some other sage advice he offers.

I tell them to think of their work as art, a chance to express their capabilities.

  • If they go into marketing, and one day are working on an ad campaign for a client, make it the best ad that client has ever had.
  • If they go into accounting, and one day are helping to put together the company’s Annual Report, make it the best Annual Report that investors have ever seen.
  • If they become a manager, and one day are evaluating an employee’s performance, make the evaluation the most useful one that employee has ever had.

In other words, treat whatever you do with the love and care that an artist brings to his or her work. Whether it’s an ad campaign, an Annual Report, or an employee evaluation, Make Good Art.

The following are some additional words of wisdom from Gaiman, and for each of them I’ve indicated in italics how the words relate to the world of business.

  • Never do anything just for the money, but rather do things only if they help move you towards your goal. This is relevant to business students since I think many of them are studying business primarily because they believe that’s where the money is. Their true passion may be elsewhere, and listening to Gaiman may give them the courage to pursue that passion.
  • The traditional channels of distribution for many works of art, such as books and music, have changed dramatically. And while those changes may be disruptive to some individuals, it would be better to view such changes as opportunities. Seth Godin and Fred Wilson are business people, but their blogs enable them to share their thoughts and ideas with the world; others, such as Gary Vaynerchuk, may use YouTube to do the same.
  • Gaiman learned to write by writing, and the more he wrote, the better he got. Virtually any profession requires strong writing skills, and business is no exception.
  • Freelancers only need to be good in two out of the following three: their work is good, they are easy to get along with, or they deliver their work on time. Many people working in the business world either supplement their income as a freelancer, or leave their job to pursue life as a freelancer.
  • Make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. Virtually every successful entrepreneur talks about the importance of being willing to make mistakes.
  • Take time to enjoy your successes. We’ve all heard the stories about the businessman who works 80 hours per week and never takes a vacation, despite having enough money to last several lifetimes.

So my hope is that my students see the relevance of Gaiman’s speech to their future careers in the business world, and take his advice to heart.

And I can’t think of a better way to end this post than by using Gaiman’s closing words:

Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.”

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