Bill Watterson on Satisfying Your Soul

“Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement,” Bill Watterson tells the Kenyon College Class of 1990.

He is 10 years out of college himself. Five years into Calvin and Hobbes. Already fed up with the merchandising and commercializing pressures the syndicates are pushing on him. We could do bumper stickers! T-shirts! Mugs! the executives tell him, rubbing their hands. There’s big millions to be made.

“Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in,” Mr. Watterson makes clear to the graduates. “Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values.”

For Mr. Watterson, it would mean swapping his voice for that of the syndicates hungry to paste his work all over gas station tchotchkes and trinkets in the name of some unholy dollar. “It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things.”

And he will have none of it. Before Calvin and Hobbes took off, Mr. Watterson had spent five years being rejected. It stung. But it was okay. Because Mr. Watterson loves the work itself. Which is why he does the work. Not for some unholy dollar.

“You will do well to cultivate the resources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success or failure,” he says to the Class of 1990. His suggestion? Your title and your salary need not be the sole measure of your worth in the real world.

Mr. Watterson will stay with Calvin and Hobbes for another five years. And then, with the cartoon’s popularity soaring and commercial pressures raging, he will send a note to readers – “I am eager to work at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises” – and walk away from Calvin and Hobbes for good.

But that’s still five years from now. Now, he is at Kenyon, breathing in that graduation air filled with anticipation about the real world out there.

And he is beginning to wrap up, to send the graduates off into that real world. So, Bill Watterson offers one final bit of guidance on living a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul:

“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.”

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