Neil Gaiman – The Best Commencement Speech You May Ever Hear (20 Minutes)

139 Comments

This will be a short post as, sometimes, brevity counts. I want to let Neil Gaiman speak in this instance. Neil is one of my favorite authors, and I first became fascinated by his imagination with The Sandman comics in the 90’s. So much so, in fact, that I imported The Sandman from different countries to help me learn languages.


The Sandman from Brazil. Wonderful for studying Portuguese, as I have identical English editions.

My love for his work grew from there. From Anansi Boys to The Graveyard Book (my favorite audiobook of all time) to Neverwhere, the list of favorites is long.

The above commencement speech, mandatory listening for anyone who hopes to be creatively successful, is right up there with Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech, which I’ve embedded below. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments on either, as well as links to any favorite speeches of your own.

Posted on: May 22, 2012.

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139 comments on “Neil Gaiman – The Best Commencement Speech You May Ever Hear (20 Minutes)

  1. I found Neil’s speech terribly boring. Sure, the message is valuable, but the delivery was lacking much inspiration IMO. Steve Job’s speech on the other hand, resonated with me. As for favorite speeches, none comes to mind, but I very much enjoy listening to any of Alan Watts’ timeless lectures and can recommend them.

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  2. Tim,

    One of the best talks I’ve seen in a while. I’m moving in a week to teach writing in a very disadvantaged school in Denver (93% low-income and 96% non-white) and I’ll definitely be pulling from this.

    I’ll also be incorporating a lot I’ve learned from you, Tim. I barely got into a state university but ended up being the first undergraduate to present in the main program of the American Philosophical Association in its 110 year history, was one of two Rhodes and Marshall nominees out of 24,000 students, facilitated a national fundraising partnership without prior networking, and landed an amazing social change agency consulting job straight out of college. I went through major lung surgeries throughout all that and am now bouldering V6-ish after having my left lat cut completely in half (largely thanks to 4HB).

    Anyway, that’s all pretty small beans compared to a lot of your readers but I really can’t thank you enough for all the work you’ve done (and will continue to do, through me, for my students). I wouldn’t have done even a fraction of that if I hadn’t stumbled upon a talk of yours back in the day. I also realize how ironic it is that this comment is abysmally written, given that I’m a writing teacher, but it’s late and beef+coconut aminos are calling my name.

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  3. Absolutely brilliant. If more people’s aim was to make art then not money then more people would have much more money and the world would be full of great art.

    I always say to people who I am helping to get published on kindle that there is great money to be made but do not publish with making money in mind. Publish because you want to get your work out to people globally. If you do that then the money will come.

    Thanks again Tim.

    Louis

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  4. This is not a commencement speech but it’s very inspirational and one of my favorites:

    The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch:

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  5. One of the most useful speeches I’ve seen must be JK Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech.
    Sure, she’s a bit nervous. But her words on failure (“Failure means a stripping away of the inessential”), happens to be some of the best advice I’ve ever heard.
    It’s here:

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  6. Very inspiring thank you!

    Other great speeches, well I always liked Schwarzenegger views on hard work & determination.

    “You’re going to find naysayers in every turn that you make. Don’t listen. Just visualize your goal, know exactly where you want to go. Trust yourself. Get out there and work like hell. Break some of the rules and never ever be afraid of failure.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger”

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  7. What a great speech!

    I loved the decision process around whether a next gig will take you towards your distant mountain, or away from it… tempered by the fact that you have to eat.

    I loved his stories of ‘doing it for the money’ almost never working out (been there, done that).

    I loved the transition between putting bottles out to sea, to having to refuse some of them when they come back with offers attached.

    It worked for me.

    Thanks Tim.

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  8. I’ve never heard Gaiman’s speech before. It was good and there are some great nuggets of information in there. Job’s has always been a favourite of mine though ever since I heard it. I’ve occasionally refered to bits of my life as dots like Jobs mentioned in this speech.

    The only problem is all these great speeches seem to come from people who didn’t complete higher education. I’m working hard at finishing my degree (doing my third year after a 7 year break) and wondering if I should just quit and make an effort like these guys (Mark Zuckerberg being the modern example). Maybe the dot of finishing the degree will make sense in the future though.

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  9. I loved it. Gaiman is a writer not a speech maker. The fact he’s even standing up there in front of all those people is pretty cool. I reckon there’s great insight in his words. Thanks for sharing the video Tim. Cheers.

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  10. I’ve seen Steve Jobs’ speech several times (it’s one of my favs), but I am adding Neil to the list. ” Pretend that you are someone who can.” Best advice in the vid, and the words I needed to hear the most right now. I’m going to link to this vid on my blog.

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  11. “So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom. And if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would”. 

    This will come in handy.

    Gracias Tim. Unos tacos a tu salud.

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  12. Great speech! Nice to see you have these Sandman editions from Conrad. I worked as proofreader on these books.

    Cheers from Brazil,
    Marcelo

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  13. Thanks for this.

    I am 4 weeks away from finishing my degree (which has taken me 25 years to complete – literally). Just this week I’ve made a huge shift toward pursuing a career in not only something that I’m good at, but something that I *enjoy.* It sounds so simple, just typing it out.

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  14. I really like this one by Victor Lucas (TV producer and creator of the Electric Playground). I’ve met him in real life and he’s extremely kind.

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  15. Jon Stewart.

    “College is something you complete…Life is something you experience. So don’t worry about your grade, or the results, or success.

    Success is defined in myriad ways. And you will find it. And people will no longer be grading you, but it will come from your own internal sense of decency.”

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  16. I love ‘The Greatest Speech Ever Given’ and with this video. It’s not a commencement speech but more so one that is suitable for all people at all stages of life. It’s a true ‘how to think and how to live speech’. Often the whole point of life is lost to pointless want and greed within the grand scale of things. Excellent.

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  17. I especially love the when Neil said:

    “Be wise.. But if you cannot be wise, just pretend to be someone who is wise and then just do what they would.”

    I first heard something like this from Tony Robbins as an NLP concept, but it’s always great to be reminded to model your heroes or ideal self and then act “as if” you were them.

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  18. I liked Jobs’ speech. I love David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech from Kenyon College in 2005. I listen to it and re-read it often. Right up there with Roosevelt’s The Strenuous Life speech for personal impact.

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  19. Great speech! I have been a fan of Neil Gaiman’s since he actually came to speak to a class I took as an English major at UC Santa Barbara. The class was on science fiction writing, and I remember the professor felt that science fiction didn’t get the respect it deserved from so-called literary critics. More specifically, the professor felt that graphic novels didn’t get the respect they deserved as works of literature, which is why we were reading Neil Gaiman. It really gave me an appreciation of how incredibly creative Gaiman’s works were.

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  20. This is great Tim. A truly great reminder to do what you love and everything else will follow.

    Love the comment about when you feel like you are starting to expose yourself, you are starting to get it right.

    Let go and enjoy the ride!

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  21. The Neil is always good stuff. The audiobooks of him reading his own stuff are fantastic. And his live readings are excellent as well.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say: importing foreign language versions of Sandman to help learn other languages–Slick. I think you have given me a tool I can use there…many thanks.

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  22. That was an amazing speech. With great humor Neil was able to get several points across that I wish I had learned earlier in my life. =)

    I will be sharing this with my kids with the hope that they will listen, learn, and leverage the life lessons shared.

    Thanks Tim for sharing with all of us.

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  23. Great point by Neil – “If you don’t know it’s impossible, it’s easier to do.”

    The $100k debt that college graduates find themselves in these days is pretty humbling, unfortunately…

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  24. Good timing, as I was just preparing a blog post “commencement speech” built around the advice I plug and play when asked to visit with a recent grad or someone between jobs. I liked lots of what Neil had to say. However, I the “you get a job however you can” mentality is discrediting.

    Recently, an oft-recommended blogger’s post explained about how to sneak into a not-for-profit fundraiser to make professional connections. (Yip. Sneaking and stealing advice made worse still, because his mentor suggested he do so!)

    So Neil’s retelling of his lie-ful resume, with no embarrassment and a soundtrack of audience applause, is another disappointing moment.

    Such lack of integrity is an instant business deal-killer for me. Why on earth would I want to work with a lier? (I hope no one dare reply with “everyone lies on their resume,” or something equally juvenile.)

    That both of these men, from positions of influence, boasts their lack of integrity is nearly worse than their original and repetitive offenses. Get caught stealing from QT, and there’s due process. Steal from a not-for-profit, or lie to get a job (essentially stealing what isn’t deserved), and it’s all acceptable if it helps you get what you want?!

    Slippery slope to Enron, Wall Street, and a long list of sad tales of people pursuing money at all costs. Slippery and slimy.

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    • I too was disappointed in the encouragement and justification of lying to get the job. Let’s set the bar high for integrity!

      I do, however, believe that people should worry less and enjoy the journey more. Easier said then done, I know.

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  25. Love that speech. I thought his delivery was very genuine and if the substance of it wasn’t enough to keep you awake, then no one can help you.

    Reminded me a bit of the book Born to Run where the connection is made between the introduction of money and the decline of the American long distance runner. The best work comes from passion and enjoyment for the work itself, not from the pursuit of money. Money is the byproduct of passion and joy-filled work.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing Tim. Gaiman nailed it. He addressed all the fears that come with trying to do something creative. Very inspiring.

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  26. Wow amazing. Cheers Tim! Definitely one of the best graduation speeches Ive ever heard. The other one that had a profound effect on me is by J K Rowling: http://harvardmagazine.com/2008/06/the-fringe-benefits-failure-the-importance-imagination

    I was fascinated that failure seemed like such a common thread between many of these talks… yet it is something which the majority look to avoid at all costs. It inspired myself and a few friends to try and start a global movement gathering failure stories or in Neil’s words: “glorious and fantastic mistakes” and sharing them with the world.

    Thanks!

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  27. This was nice. I have been a fan since the Sandman days but regardless of my enjoyment of his work, I appreciate the universality of his message. I work in a field where taking risks is not encouraged. Mostly, though, I think about these things as I have a little girl and I want her to be brave enough to leap, fall down, get up and leap out again.
    Thanks for sharing.

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  28. Jobs’ speech is the BOMB!

    But Gaiman’s speech is also full of great advice and slightly entertaining. Nice way to get a break without getting too pumped up (as Jobs’ speech makes you feel!).

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  29. J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech is ridiculously inspiring. She’s a beautiful human being inside and out.

    Also, I’ll second the endorsement of Conan’s speech, which is riotously funny.

    Thanks for posting.

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  30. I surreptitiously watched the Gaiman video after I got into work, while I should have been doing something else. I have been tinkering around the edges of a full-time writing career for years – years! – and after pondering over Mr. Gaiman’s comments for the next two hours, it made me so crazy that I knew I couldn’t sit in my cubicle for the rest of the day. I claimed illness, slipped away at lunch, and came home so I could watch and listen to the video again with full attention. It has left me with the unshakable conviction that I can’t screw around any more. It’s time to do and not think about doing.

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  31. Never heard of the first guy, but that was fantastic. I’ve definitely seen the Steve Jobs speech at least a dozen times, and watching it for #13 was just as good. Thanks for the awesome shares.

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  32. Tim! Love this! The funny thing is I never considered myself an artist/writer until recently and am still waiting for the “fraud police” any day to knock on my door and discover my secret as well. Make good ART! is a mantra that anyone should follow. Pour yourself into what you do and let everything else fall into place. That’s “your” art. whether it’s numbers, sports, or singing. Make good art.

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  33. sandman is the best comic oh man. is anyone going to make a movie out of that? its long overdue, although it will be tough to do the comic justice. I hope Keanu doesn’t play the sandman in the movie…I’m hoping for Peter O’Toole.

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  34. That’s great – replace “art” with “work” or “X” and the lessons transfer across domains.

    I love the moving towards a mountain metaphor. I left law school at the end of 2011 without the slightest idea what I would do. But I had a goal in mind – I had read your book and wanted to be independent and live life on my own terms.

    So I just concentrated on moving in that direction. If anything new came up, I asked myself if it would help or hurt my goals.

    Somehow it worked. Now I earn ~15,000 per year in royalties, do work I enjoy and have plenty of free time, which I’m using to learn computer programming.

    People look at what I did and after the fact say “good plan”….but there was no plan, and *while* I was on this path people thought I was crazy.

    My only plan remains: move towards the mountain. I still don’t know what I’m doing, except that each month I seem to be closer than I was before.

    “Pretend like you’re the sort of person who can do that.” is also key.

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  35. “You have one thing that’s unique. You have the ability to make art”
    I think no matter who we are, we all have that ONE gift, that ONE thing that no one else can do better. I’ve always had trouble having fun, and getting in touch with my passion. I was really into creative writing, particularly short stories. But I put so much pressure on myself to succeed as a published writer. I’ve been striving to get in touch with my passion, I’m not sure if creative writing was meant to be my special gift, but I’ve always had a knack for writing. The way to know that it is a passion is if you lose your sense of time, you become so immersed in it, because it just makes you so excited and alive inside, you just let go of all the bullshit that’s been weighing you down. The real challenge is taking that passion and learning to make a living off of it. So people can pay you to follow your passion.

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  36. No alot of speeches REALLY inspier me but this one did. There’s one main thing that really touched me and it was, “The urge, starting out, is to copy and that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people, but the one thing that nobody else has ….. is YOU.”

    Fantastic and thanks Tim for bringing this video to our attention.

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  37. Tim,

    You deserve a very warm (and mighty) thanks from me. If you didn’t introduce Neil Gaiman to me, I would never find out I was missing such an awesome world created by him.

    The video is so inspiring. And it’s not superfluous, like a lot others.

    Thank you again.

    Torumoy!

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  38. Thank you. This was a wonderful treat to watch and listen to. The timing for me was fantastic!

    I have to admit…I don’t follow any other blog…most are one read and I’m done. You…I look forward to the email…so again…Thank you.

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  39. To start with the positives. Somewhere between seeing Gaiman’s gaunt face and the mention of comics, I was reminded of Dylan Dog, a great comic from my childhood. Also, the autobiographical bits might be interesting to those of us who already like Gaiman, and the few bits of humor helped with the overlong 20 minute mark.

    Aside from that, I didn’t get much out of this talk. It’d make a good read, perhaps?

    There are two nonexclusive types of great speakers. Teachers and inspirers. Gaiman did a fine job, but I didn’t learn anything particularly valuable… and I certainly don’t feel inspired. Other’s mileage may vary.

    My favorite talk? I’m biased, but:
    Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?

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  40. Hi Tim,

    My primary school’s motto was, “A child’s mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled”, which is tidy way to summarise many of the brilliant links above.

    Back in April, I discovered a written version of a talk called ‘Mind Twists’, by a man called Ian Rowland, who is a member of the Magic Circle and has taught the FBI to read minds. At the time, I was compelled, like you, to compare it to Steve Job’s commencement speech in terms of brilliance and power.

    You can read ‘Mind Twists’, and my thoughts, at this link –

    http://bit.ly/Jn8wzo

    Thanks,

    Paul

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  41. Incredible speech, the best 20 minutes I’ve spent in a while.

    My favorite speech has always been Jim Valvano’s 1993 ESPY speech.

    Cheers,
    David

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  42. Although not a speech, but a collage of interviews with Will Smith, this is very inspiring. This one quote sums it up.

    “If we get on a treadmill together, there are 2 things. Either your gonna get off first, or I’m gonna die, its really that simple”

    Cheers,

    David

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  43. you’re right tim this may be the best commencement speech i will ever hear!!!

    he has a tasteful humor and a brilliant honesty that exudes class..now im compelled to read his material. as a creative, i feel it was an honest message and a clever and different way of looking at things..

    i also like how he shouted out his own work “Coraline” and says how it came about as a mistake. great post tim..

    thanks

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  44. Both Great.

    I often watch the speech from Uncle Steve to keep me on track.

    Very powerful.

    Another one you might like is the “How Bad Do You Want It?” video:

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  45. Sorry to be late, that was enjoyable, maybe not the best ever, but I think I want to read Sandman now, I know me and my kids enjoyed coraline, so if that is any indication of sandman, and Tim is a big fan, then I have at least try a book or two of his! Thanks for the post!

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  46. I especially heard Steve Jobs’ 3rd story. If what you are doing now is NOT what you would be doing if today were your last day, then you better change something.

    I’m reading your book “The 4-Hour Workweek”, and am endeavoring to make my new business ultra efficient and ultra effective, like I imagine you teach in your book.

    This all ties into creating a life I find exciting and leveraging more intelligently in order to have the time, the money, and the freedom to move about.

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  47. Tim, you never fail to amaze me. As I strictly follow your information-diet-advice, at the moment I only allow myself to consume thoughts of Neil Gaiman – and you ;o) And how wonderful to check your blog today and to see his speech ;o)

    Cheers from Cologne,

    Laura

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  48. Refreshingly honest and resonates with my life…. not everyone who is successful went to college, some of us were lucky enough to follow our bliss and make it!

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  49. Great speach if you are creative or an artist most likely you would have stayed awake to understand his great points.

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  50. I had the profound good fortune to sit in on another remarkable commencement speech a few weeks ago. This one was for the UC Hastings College of Law class of 2012, and the speaker was San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi (wikipedia him – his story is freakin’ cool).

    The man has done quite a job of designing a lifestyle centered around his obviously genuine and true passion for justice. I was impressed by not only his achievements, but by his expressions of gratitude for those who came before him (and how he highlighted key aspects of their characters and personal experiences), and the valuable gems he shared for the new graduates as “take-home” messages for their budding law careers.

    Adachi is in your backyard, Tim. I (and quite a few others) would be intrigued to see what may come of an interaction between you and him – social, of course; don’t get yourself into any trouble… not that you’d ever need a PUBLIC defender at this point in your 14th minute of your 15 min of fame ;)

    Much love and many thanks for all you have done and will continue to do – that goes for many of this blog’s readers, as much as it goes for Tim.

    Best,
    Mahdi

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  51. “Mary Schmich’s “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young” was published in the Chicago Tribune as a column on June 1, 1997. In her introduction to the column, she described it as the commencement address she would give if she were asked to give one.”

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