Finding meaning in life on your own terms

Bill Watterson, the creator of the iconic and much-loved Calvin and Hobbes that was syndicated from 1985 to 1995, walked away from one of the most successful comic strips in US history at the height of its popularity, when he felt that he had said and done all that he could with that particular medium. Thanks to my daughter, who was an even bigger fan of the strip than me, we now own all the C&H anthologies and they remain fresh upon re-reading.

Watterson looked on his strip as a work of art that was primarily a vehicle for him to express his views about the world, and he had long-running battles with the syndicates who distributed his work to prevent them from merchandizing his characters and making it, like everything else, into a commodity. He also fought with newspapers that insisted on decreasing the space for cartoons, thus undermining its artistic potential, and won from them the right not to have the disposable opening panel from the Sunday strip, which was what enabled his to have those wildly imaginative drawings, like this one.

Watterson is also notoriously reclusive, though not quite to J. D. Salingeresque levels. He almost never gives interviews but just recently he gave a rare one, to the same magazine Mental Floss that in 2007 wrote about the cartoons he did for the Kenyon College student newspaper, the school from which he had graduated in 1980 with a degree in political science.

Watterson has lived for a long time in the small town of Chagrin Falls, just a few miles from me, though he recently moved to the even closer adjacent suburb of Cleveland Heights. I have never met or seen him and have no desire to invade his obvious love of privacy.

Just recently I came across the text of the commencement speech he gave to Kenyon College in 1990. In his speech he talks about his own career and how he walked away from an unsatisfying life working for an advertising agency in order to seek personal fulfillment as a cartoonist, though that led him to five years in the financial wilderness.

Commencement speeches tend to be long on exhortations about reaching for the stars and following your dreams. There is a bit of that in his speech but he makes a bigger point that how you define success is also a significant factor. He says that sometimes the biggest obstacles to happiness comes from others who want to define for you what should make you happy and he says that it takes great strength to resist that. He says that others could not see how he could be happy working at a low-level job so that he could indulge in his cartooning. And even after he became a successful cartoonist, he got pressure to be even more ‘successful’ by merchandizing his work and thus making more money, pressure that he resisted.

He is a key portion of his speech.

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.

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. Many of you will be going on to law school, business school, medical school, or other graduate work, and you can expect the kind of starting salary that, with luck, will allow you to pay off your own tuition debts within your own lifetime.

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

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. 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. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

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.

In an homage to Watterson, cartoonist Gavin Aung Thang has taken the text of the speech and converted it into a comic strip drawn in the style of C&H. It is really well done.

I am sure that this post would have rekindled in readers’ memories of favorite strips. If so, there is a wonderful website that enables you to search and find strips, using words from any strip that you recall.


  1. eidolon says

    Great post.

    In the comments for Gavin’s work, I think a lot of people have confused the message in that they claim this is only for people with TALENT – what ever that is. I have to tell you this was not the case for me and I think the message applies to most people. In my particular case, it took me years to figure out and be comfortable with the fact that I am a teacher. I tried the corporate thing, but I am finally a teacher. Pay was lousy, not a world of respect, but that is what I am. Oh – and the job really does make a real difference in the lives of real people.

    The same applies to anyone. This whole Job=Value thing is tough to overcome, but with luck, people can find a path towards being what they really are. I ran across an episode of “Dirty Jobs” last night. The best thing about this series was the fact that it showcased people who had found what suited them best – not necessarily what was the ‘best’ job.

  2. deepak shetty says

    I still remember being frustrated the strip ended – I was so angry that I was even briefly tempted to continue the strip myself. And then after reading the collections for possibly the hundredth time the ending finally clicked.

  3. smrnda says

    When people choose to end something just when it seems to be at its peak – I have to commend them because, in the long run, I feel better knowing something great never got stale, old, or repetitive but finished strong. I commend this choice out of respect for the artist and their work – trying to produce to keep up with demand isn’t something an artist wants, they want to actually be inspired and motivated.

    All said, C & H are an important part of out culture, familiar to about everyone I know.

  4. says

    Yeah, the comments to the effect of “I want him to get back to work” I think completely devalue the art that he’s created. I feel like people on the whole complain about stale, worn out work, to the point that it’s become a trope, without realizing that it’s our demand that the “art product” keep being manufactured is what drives that phenomenon. If Calvin and Hobbes had continued in perpetuity it would be sneered at in the same way that Garfield or The Simpsons are now.

  5. thewhollynone says

    Some people have enough talent and are so self-actualized that they can afford to stay children forever. The rest of us find that charming as long as we don’t have to depend on or even deal with “l’enfant terrible” except “on our own terms.”

  6. Paul Neubauer says

    I am sure that this post would have rekindled in readers’ memories of favorite strips. If so, there is a wonderful website that enables you to search and find strips, using words from any strip that you recall.

    Like this one?


  7. trucreep says

    Calvin & Hobbes is one of the rare treasures we have today, and we are very fortunate that the man behind it ensured it would remain as an uncorrupted, brilliant example of what people are capable of.

  8. Chiroptera says

    Heh. I always wanted a t-shirt advertising “Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs” with the mascot, Buzzy the Hummingbird.

    I figure that it would be subtle enough that only the true Calvin and Hobbes fans would pick up on it.

  9. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Calvin and Hobbes indeed rocks. Best newspaper cartoon series ever.


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