As some of you may know, and I suspect most don’t, my path to becoming a cartoonist wasn’t exactly predictable. Least of all by me. I was a laborer, a stockbroker, an operator in the Navy’s Special Boat Teams, a special agent in law enforcement, and finally, a cartoonist.
Along the way, I learned a lot of valuable lessons that weren’t taught, at least to me, in school. I had the opportunity to work with and observe Ivy League financial wizards, Navy SEALs, and brilliant detective minds in law enforcement. My own experience as a Navy SWCC, (here’s a video featuring special forces training featuring SWCC – Making the Cut – SWCC) and the challenges encountered in making it through selection and training taught me a lot. From all of these things I found patterns and similarities in achieving success which I apply to my own career as a cartoonist. To be sure, I’m not where I want to be yet, but the key points below have brought me far closer to the goal. I’m sure there are other paths, and other truths, but this is mine, and I hope you find value in it.
Be crystal clear about your mission
It’s difficult to achieve anything if you don’t know what it is you want, and cartooning is no different. Are you seeking syndication? Is it your intention to follow the path of great webcomic trailblazers? Magazine cartooning? Animation? Humorous illustration? Self-syndication? Licensing? There are many areas in the field, and by knowing where you want to go, you can efficiently apply the most critical and valuable resources to them: time and creative energy. Be clear enough in your intent to be able to articulate it and write it down. By identifying the direction, you will more easily detect and benefit from the paths of those who have gone before you. It’s not to say you can’t seek success in more than one of the above, and perhaps all of the above, but time is a precious thing, and few of us have it in abundance. Expending your precious resources in a scatter-shot way, hoping you’ll strike something will likely result in disappointment. Know your target.
Know where you are so you can determine the distance that needs to be traveled
This is among the toughest, but most important elements. Self-honesty about where you are as a cartoonist is not an easy thing. It involves stepping outside yourself, your ego, and being objective about your art and writing. If you are moving toward syndication, does your work stack up well against what you see in the newspapers? One of the ways you can find out is by seeking input from industry professionals – both your fellow cartoonists, and those who are the decision-makers in the markets you’re trying to crack. Send samples and ask for feedback. And be prepared to receive feedback – it can sometimes be uncomfortable. But remember your mission – is it to seek accolades and adoring remarks, or are you genuinely trying to succeed? Knowing where you are and how far you have yet to go allows you to create a considerably more accurate map to success. And you can arm yourself with sufficient tools and resources to see you through.
Study the terrain
Each area of the cartooning industry has it’s own unique characteristics. For instance, if you seek success in magazine cartooning, you’ll approach it differently than you would syndication. And syndication requires focus that won’t necessarily bear fruit in licensing or animation. Knowing the terminology, history, players, success stories and decision makers will lay out the map clearly, and will allow you to avoid the impassable climbs, pits and roads to nowhere. You will be able to find the path of least resistance and move far more quickly than if you amble along, hoping to stumble on the right path. Navigate, don’t guesstimate.
Be honest with yourself, acknowledge your deficits so you can focus on them and bring them up to where they need to be
Similar to knowing where you are, self-honesty is like having a key to the supply room. If you know what you need and where to get it, you can supply yourself with it. And in the age of Youtube, Vimeo, and individual instructional sites by the thousands, there’s absolutely no reason to operate in a deficit position. If your art needs something more, there’s an abundance of help waiting for you to show up. If your writing isn’t up to snuff, the free resources out there to fix it are a click or two away.
Learn to love learning
The rate of change in today’s world is positively astounding. Whether it’s technology, society – even markets, things are dialed up to eleven. In order to prosper in a changing environment, we have to take on new information, new skill sets, and sometimes new resources and equipment. If you look at it as a burden, you add an anchor to your future that you’ll have to drag along, slowing you down to a crawl while others divest themselves of that mental attitude and seek the opportunities in learning. It broadens their creative horizons, exposes them to new capabilities and skill sets, and subsequently new markets.
Accept no excuses from yourself – discipline, discipline, discipline
This is another area where self-honesty is critical, and honestly, an area where I sometimes struggle. In today’s world of social media and infinite distraction, staying on task is no easy feat. The biggest challenge for most is time. Time to write, time to draw, time to learn, time to submit, time to market, and on and on. I’m sometimes approached by aspiring cartoonists who wish to jump into the art because they think it’s a path to easy money. They think, because the art looks relatively simple, and because they’ve told a joke or two at a party, that’s all the ingredients required to make it as a cartoonist. We know different. What we do looks simple because we’ve worked hard to make it look that way. And we’ve acquired that skill by investing the time and resources to perfect our craft, understanding that this is a highly competitive, professional vocation.
Time – it’s the one commodity that’s most precious and in greatest need of being used wisely. Every minute, if we fully appreciate its value, should be used in a way that advances our mission. Many have said to me, ‘I just don’t have the time.’ I catch myself saying the same thing sometimes, and I have to purge that thought as quickly as possible. If you want something – really want something, there’s time.
Right after my second son was born, I had to figure out how to continue to create cartoons, while balancing the needs of my family. After careful consideration, it came to one obvious answer – I just had to get up earlier, and in this case, that meant 4:00 AM. It takes a good deal of discipline to make that change, but which is more costly, changing the time on your alarm clock and walking away from the TV or Facebook a little earlier, or surrendering your dreams and aspirations? Appreciate the value of your mission, discipline yourself to do what needs to be done, consistently over time, to get you there, and hold yourself accountable – no excuses. You will own the outcome whether it’s positive or negative, so it’s worth building the discipline muscle to get you there. And that means now. Not tomorrow, or next week, or when you think things might lighten up. Now. New Year’s Resolutions be damned.
Strategic and tactical analysis
Strategy and tactics. Macro and micro. Big picture and little picture. As I’ve mentioned earlier, things change, and it’s happening at an exponential rate. Since things change, we need to step back periodically and reassess our situation, and where we fall on our strategic map. For instance, say you’ve learned new skills, which have opened up new possibilities and markets. Maybe you’ve learned vector art and have some logo design opportunities come your way. Or you’ve been approached to illustrate a children’s book. Or your magazine cartoons might make a good syndicate submission. Whatever the case, it’s wise to take a step back now and again and make sure your map remains accurate, or that the mission might need updating, requiring a reallocation of time and resources. In tactical terms, maybe you see an opportunity that requires a slight adjustment in your approach. Or you need to temporarily change directions to better position yourself for your ultimate goal. Like most things in life, success in art and cartooning is comparable to a chess game. Think about your immediate moves, step back and stay up to date with your overall strategy, and by all means:
It’s widely understood that these times, they are a’ changing. If this was a hundred or so years ago, and we were the best wagon wheel craftsmen in the world, the outcome would still be the same – our market is now driving off the assembly line in Model Ts. As conditions and markets take their own paths of least resistance, we need to take a look at where we are, what we’re doing, and our current resources and see if they still add up to mission success. If they don’t, what do we need to change to get back on track? Often, it won’t require a radical shift, just a mild adjustment.
When the going gets tough …
Success in most worthwhile endeavors will require perseverance, some fire in the gut, and the ability to pick yourself up off the ground, dust off, and move forward when you get tripped up. As most experienced cartoonists will tell you, rejection is an abundant part of your working diet. It’s not personal, it’s not a rejection of you as a human being, and it may not even be a rejection of your work – it might just be bad timing. Whatever the reason, understand that your mission is valuable enough to take the lumps when they come. In time, you’ll learn to shake them off with indifference, unless there’s a learning opportunity contained therein.
When a military unit returns from a mission, it goes into self-analysis mode; what did we do right? What did we do wrong? What can we learn from this? How can we capitalize on this experience to make ourselves better, more effective? So it is with cartooning. You made a submission and you got rejected – was any feedback included? You become aware of another cartoonist who is successful in your target market – are there discernible differences in what he’s doing or how he’s doing it that you can learn from?
This is a big one. In the military, we lived by this basic tenet – you own it. Succes is yours, and so is failure. If you don’t get what you want, the answer lies with the one you see in the mirror. There will always be outside forces that will not be acting to your advantage. That’s life. We can hang our hats on that fact and use it as an excuse for walking away from our mission, or we can embrace our personal responsibility in our outcomes and remain in the fight. I’ve heard it said that Babe Ruth, the Home Run King, was also the Strike-Out King – he swung more than anyone else, and actually missed more than he hit. But he knew that if he let the strike-outs define him, it wouldn’t be worth the effort to step up to the plate again. I believe that’s true for us too – own the outcome, learn from it, and don’t let the misses define you or your potential.
Spread the wealth
For me, this is one of the biggest rewards – getting to share with and assist those who come after me. I consider myself so fortunate, and therefore so grateful to be able to do this, to be a cartoonist, and to have people who enjoy my work. And I see how others are dedicating themselves and working so hard to succeed in this endeavor. Before me were great people who selflessly offered me guidance and the fruits of their hard-earned lessons to benefit me. It’s a great joy to be able to share my experiences and offer that same hand to those who may need it. As you stack up your successes and achieve career milestones, I hope you’ll stop to look around, see others who might be struggling and reach out to pull them back onto their feet. It’s impossible to replicate or quantify the value of that feeling in monetary terms.
To conclude, I find it most fitting to use the motto of my SWCC brothers: On time, on target, NEVER QUIT!