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4 Life Lessons I Learned from the Author of “Calvin and Hobbes”

October 30, 2015

Cartoonist Bill Watterson, best known for his “Calvin and Hobbes” series, is one of my lifelong heroes. As kids, my brother and I obsessively read and re-read the various “Calvin and Hobbes” collections. Along with Gary Larson’s “The Far Side,” these were the guiding texts of my youth—perhaps somewhat unconventional, but ultimately instructive and enlightening.

I look back on these books and am amazed by how deeply they still resonate with me, 20 years later. Lines like “Reality continues to ruin my life” are as funny and relevant as they were when I was ten. Back then, my reality consisted of suffering through math classes and grudgingly attending piano lessons. Now, it’s paying Manhattan rent and going grocery shopping without a car. In all these scenarios, Calvin’s observation seems fitting.

Watterson understood that children and adults find many of the same things touching, searing, hilarious, disappointing, and joyous. In fact, his greatest strength is his ability to connect the child and the adult: he understands that the critical elements of the human experience are ageless.

When I was in my early twenties, during a particularly miserable day at the office, I stumbled across the 1990 commencement speech that Watterson gave at Kenyon College, his alma mater. I read and then re-read the speech several times, just as I had as a kid with the tattered, earmarked “Calvin and Hobbes” books I owned. I blinked back tears, profoundly moved. In this speech were all the lessons I unknowingly learned as a ten-year-old reading comics—now articulated directly, fearlessly, and with a dose of Watterson’s signature humor. Here are the four that stuck with me.

Life Lessons

1. Learn without expectation.

We live in a society that is becoming increasingly efficient and specialized, and that fact is reflected in our attitude toward learning. Why read Wordsworth if you’re a computer programmer? Why bother with calculus if you’re a painter? Why study a subject that won’t be featured on a standardized test?

Watterson shows why this line of reasoning is hopelessly, terribly flawed, explaining: “Letting your mind play is the best way to solve problems.” I couldn’t agree more. Yes, reading “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” might not have a direct, practical application to a coder’s line of work; but this doesn’t reduce its impact or importance for the reader. Learning for the sake of learning is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Moreover, to be able to draw from a vast, diverse education is a tremendous resource in any profession—one that can’t be quantified through a certification or license. As Watterson explains, “Reading those turgid philosophers here in these remote stone buildings may not get you a job, but if those books have forced you to ask yourself questions about what makes life truthful, purposeful, meaningful, and redeeming, you have the Swiss Army Knife of mental tools, and it’s going to come in handy all the time.”

Books like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and movies like Citizen Kane—both of which featured in my liberal arts education—continue to enrich my adult life, much more so than a marketing deck that correlated directly to my career.

2. Don’t expect to have a destination. Do expect to take a ride.

Ten years ago, would I have seen myself writing this particular article, in my current apartment, with my current life? Not really. Does it make perfect sense now? Absolutely. As Watterson explains, “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.”

The old cliché—“life’s a journey, not a destination”—exists for a reason. Unless you’re living in a vacuum or are exceptionally clairvoyant, there’s no real way to definitively map out your life. Moreover, the idea that there’s some sort of linear trajectory is absurd: Life is a continuous ebb and flow of events, where moments of “arrival” quickly turn into moments of departure.

To illustrate this point, Watterson notes that he “smugly” landed his dream career as a political cartoonist right out of college. Within months, he was a spectacular failure, without a job and living with his parents. It was only after some soul-searching that he decided to return to his first love: comic strips. Watterson’s anecdote is a reminder to be present for all of life’s moments—even the ones you’d like to wish away, as they’re often the most formative.

Life Lessons

3. We are defined by our actions, not our words.

Later in his speech, Watterson remarks, “We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are.” What a totally rational, yet radical point: We are formed not by the way we think, but by what we do with those thoughts.

As someone who engages in a lot of inner dialogue, this was a real lesson for me. I tend to do a lot of thinking, thinking, thinking—with a disproportionate amount of action. In some instances, it has benefited me, but at other times, I have regretted not acting. Indeed, I feel most fulfilled when I step outside of my head and make a point to live out my thoughts. It’s not always easy, but it has ultimately made me a more genuine person and, frankly, I like myself more because of it.

4. Define your own version of “success.”

This is the linchpin in Watterson’s argument, the part that really stings (in a good way). He tells the students, “Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.” Success, he argues, has come to define a singular type of existence—one that usually encompasses the accumulation of money and power in the form of an “enviable career.” While those goals aren’t to be looked down upon, they aren’t the only measures of success.

Success can—and should—be different for everyone. Watterson notes, “In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success.”

There are many different versions of success, most of which cannot be measured in quantitative terms. My mom, for example, has found success and meaning in raising her children, caring for her dog, and quietly creating art in her small attic studio. She does not have a LinkedIn profile; she does not care that her paint-splattered jeans are from Costco. Her definition of success is not measured in that language, she knows it, and I deeply admire her because of it.

As Watterson most poignantly explains, “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.” I’m still trying to figure out what my version of success will look and feel like. It does take time, and it isn’t easy. But I take comfort in knowing that my hero Bill would approve of whatever version I land on.

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Julia Sweeney is a freelance writer and the Director of Marketing at S.W. Basics, an all-natural skincare brand based in Brooklyn, New York. As a copywriter and editor, she’s worked on behalf of brands like Marriott Hotels, ABC Carpet & Home, and DARA Artisans. She lives in Manhattan’s West Village and considers My So-Called Life a profound source of wisdom. Spirit animal: red fox. Read more of Julia's posts.

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