The Importance of Saying No


“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.”

Neil Gaiman, 2012 keynote address to the University of the Arts Philadelphia*

“’s critical that we (both individuals and companies) get really good at “pruning” – learning to say “no” to opportunities and projects – that don’t align with the important work that we’re doing. This means passing on opportunities – even really good ones – in order to preserve the energy needed to bring our best effort to the work that we know we need to excel at.”

Todd Henry, author of The Accidental Creative**

They say that opportunity knocks only once and I suppose a lot of us have been conditioned to open the door when that happens. Creating and grabbing opportunities is not easy, especially when competition is fierce and people are all vying for the same thing. So anyone can understand how hard it is to even find paths that can lead us to the things we want most in life.

But in many ways, it’s probably more difficult to walk away from an open doorway or to stop ourselves from taking a peek inside an open box. As hard as it is to find something to say “yes” to, it may even be harder to say “no” to opportunities that come along the way. As I grow older, I’m beginning to realize that the things we decline are as important as the things we accept. Maybe saying no to something doesn’t mean turning away from an opportunity but more of a conscious decision not to be distracted from the things that matter to you.

Lately, I’ve found myself saying “no” to things. It’s not like I couldn’t use the money. I need it more now than ever before. At one point, I may have viewed them as opportunities. But It’s getting to a point where I’m trying to be more deliberate with my choices because I know that time is short.

The time I spend creating a storyboard for another person’s product could be better spent making a storyboard for my own movie. The effort required to create an illustration that deliberately apes another artist’s style while forgetting my own (which may be easy and at the same time profitable) can best be used to make my own stuff. Of course, I’ve done all these things before and may do them again, but does it bring me closer to my “mountain”?

The heart of every decision seems to boil down to discernment. Something parents don’t always teach their children, but may ultimately be the most important thing one can learn. To know oneself and one’s desires is a gift. Nevertheless, there is never any real assurance that one is “on the right path” and moving toward one’s mountain doesn’t guarantee an easy time. The future is always an uncertain and doubt will always remain.

So, it may not be about learning to say NO as much as learning who you are. When the image you see in the mirror is clear, hopefully the decisions we make for ourselves become right and true.

* Read the full transcript of Neil Gaiman’s speech here.

** Read Todd Henry’s article “Want to Get More Done? Stop Doing So Much.”

The Mysterious

“The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.”

– Albert Einstein, quoted from Einstein: His Life & Universe by Walter Isaacson

Theft and Art


Image taken from, quoted from

“Originality is the art of concealing your sources”
– Benjamin Franklin

“Good artists copy; great artists steal”

– Pablo Picasso

I think it was Gerry Leonardo who told our class that it was okay to “attach” ourselves to another  artist, to have a similar visual vocabulary and artistic concerns. It was normal for artists starting out to reference more established artists. But a break must occur, where an artist must find his or her own vision.

Tethered Heart


Greater and more successful people have talked about it better that I ever could so I’m putting down some pretty nice quotes that have stuck to me over the past few years:

“Often people attempt to live their lives backwards: they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must be who you really are, then, do what you need to do, in order to have what you want.”

– Margaret Young

“I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

– Steve Jobs in his commencement address

I used to think it was a mountain, a thing I wanted to do, a thing I wanted to be, and as long as I was walking toward that mountain, it was okay. I told her she needs to figure out what her mountain is, and you can sort of judge these things by – does it take you away from the mountain?”

– Neil Gaiman on giving her daugher Hollie advice on what career to pursue

I have spent the better part of the last decade trying to discover the thing I was meant to do. I still don’t feel any closer to my “mountain” and lately I’ve been waking up with “no” as my answer for many days in a row. I’d love to wake up everyday knowing that I’m doing something I was meant to do. Wouldn’t that be beautiful?