Bill Watterson on painting his ceiling and success

By herbertlui on March 1, 2020 — 6 mins read

One of the few known images of Bill Watterson. Image: The Guardian


Some kids get to watch Saturday morning cartoons. I didn’t have that; my Saturday mornings were for going to Chinese school. Every weekend, I would spend three hours writing Chinese characters and speaking in Cantonese. It was terrible, and I got very little out of it.

One important thing that did happen was I got to meet people outside of my day school. I sat beside a boy named Kelvin, and he loved doodling and drawing. I was pretty good at drawing, but Kelvin was next level. He held his pencil like a caveman, but he drew like Bill Watterson. 

I can only make that reference because Kelvin showed me Calvin and Hobbes; he opened The Essential Calvin and Hobbes (or maybe it was The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes) right beside me, and would practice drawing during the teacher’s lecture. He also owned School is Hell by Matt Groening, if I remember correctly. We were way too young to be reading that, but then again, I watched The Matrix at another friend’s place around that point in my life, so who are we kidding?

For the unfamiliar, Bill Watterson is like what the Weeknd was in 2012 — you can Google him, and still see only a couple of photos on what the guy actually looks like. A couple of guys made a documentary trying to find him, and he’s made only a few public appearances. I digress…

This commencement speech he made for Kenyon College’s graduating class in 1990 is really great. And given the lack of YouTube and iPhones, the best we’ve got is this .edu website’s written transcript. I love the excerpt where he talks about painting a copy of Michelangelo’s the “Creation of Adam” on his own dorm room:

Despite the futility of the whole episode, my fondest memories of college are times like these, where things were done out of some inexplicable inner imperative, rather than because the work was demanded. Clearly, I never spent as much time or work on any authorized art project, or any poli sci paper, as I spent on this one act of vandalism.

[…]

If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.

We’re not really taught how to recreate constructively. We need to do more than find diversions; we need to restore and expand ourselves. Our idea of relaxing is all too often to plop down in front of the television set and let its pandering idiocy liquefy our brains. Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery-it recharges by running.

You may be surprised to find how quickly daily routine and the demands of just getting by: absorb your waking hours. You may be surprised matters of habit rather than thought and inquiry. You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your life in terms of other people’s expectations rather than issues. You may be surprised to find out how quickly reading a good book sounds like a luxury.

Watterson did have a job fresh out of school as a political cartoonist, but he got fired and had to make money. He writes, “A REAL job is a job you hate. I designed car ads and grocery ads in the windowless basement of a convenience store, and I hated every single minute of the 4-1/2 million minutes I worked there.” Damn, son. He must doing that cartoonist math (literally 75,000 hours, at 8 hours a day that’s over 25 years), but I get the idea.

I tell you all this because it’s worth recognizing that there is no such thing as an overnight success. You will do well to cultivate the resources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success or failure. The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously where I was going all along. It’s a good idea to try to enjoy the scenery on the detours, because you’ll probably take a few.

I still haven’t drawn the strip as long as it took me to get the job. To endure five years of rejection to get a job requires either a faith in oneself that borders on delusion, or a love of the work. I loved the work.

Drawing comic strips for five years without pay drove home the point that the fun of cartooning wasn’t in the money; it was in the work. This turned out to be an important realization when my break finally came.

And of course, the closing — why are there no Calvin and Hobbes TV shows, action figures, and such? This is why artists (i.e., cartoonists, devs, designers, authors, recording artists, visual artists) hate the majority of business people, because business people are incentivized to try to extract value, and artists are generally just trying to spend more of their time and energy either making stuff or recharging. 

The syndicate was offering Watterson literally millions of dollars for merchandising deals, but Watterson wasn’t interested. Watterson goes on a “motivational stream of consciousness” that would’ve made Kanye proud: 

The so-called “opportunity” I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I’d need.

What the syndicate wanted to do, in other words, was turn my comic strip into everything calculated, empty and robotic that I hated about my old job. They would turn my characters into television hucksters and T-shirt sloganeers and deprive me of characters that actually expressed my own thoughts.

On those terms, I found the offer easy to refuse. Unfortunately, the syndicate also found my refusal easy to refuse, and we’ve been fighting for over three years now. Such is American business, I guess, where the desire for obscene profit mutes any discussion of conscience.

You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.

[…] 

But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.”

It’s a lesson that I can’t revisit often enough. I wrote about it six years ago for Lifehacker, and still feel tension about this in my day-to-day life. Capitalism is a great system for innovation  and economics, but we all need our own philosophies and values to live by and stand up for to be the backbone that guide capitalism in the right way.

Define your values. Do the hard work of challenging yourself and resolving conflicts, living in ambiguity, and being happy no less. As Watterson says, “To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

Mic drop from Bill Watterson, your favorite cartoonist’s favorite cartoonist.

Posted in: Snapshot

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