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The Fool's Guide to Life After School

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This article is adapted from a short speech I gave at a Certificates Evening in my old school of Cherwell in Oxford, for students who had just left sixth form. It was meant to help offer some advice to those now seeking further education or launching straight into work, from the perspective of someone around eight years their senior. It went down well, so I figured I may as well post it here for all:

This school's been very good to me.

Nobody has a perfect time of it in school, but the good times outweigh the bad. Growing up as an artistically minded twin in a world of his own, I lived in a kind of creative bubble, and it was in this bubble that I first became obsessed with writing and illustrating my own graphic novel.

This graphic novel started in the classroom; I was never seen in lessons without my sketchbook, huddled over the pages with ink stains on the back of my hands, an intensely focused stare contorting my young face into a rictus. And I did this for a whole year; it was basically what I did instead of getting a girlfriend and being, y'know, popular.

And obviously it got confiscated on many occasions, and one day I was caught drawing it in a history lesson by my teacher Mr. Heritage. It was like I turned and he had apparated over my shoulder, with a stern look on his furrowed brow. And I steeled myself for the confiscation. In fact I had a little bit of attitude prepared just in case: "Yeah, I'm drawing the book again. What of it?"

But something else happened instead.

Mr. Heritage asked me a question: "Have you photocopied this?" When I replied in the negative he looked even more concerned. "David, you've been drawing this for six months, you could spill tea on it at any time!" And so he took my sketchbooks and went and photocopied every page.

But more than that, he recommended that I should submit it for an annual creative prize held in the school, theDan Hemingway Prize for Creativity. And I did, and it won that year, and then it was published a few months later by the judges.

And that story says a lot about this particular school. It doesn't run on the assumption that all kids learn the same. It recognizes and caters to individual talents and passions, and sometimes it gets out of the way to let a pupil shine.

So of course, I was very honored when my old teachers asked if I would say a few words.

Show of hands, how many of you know what you're going to do from this point on? Who here has a PLAN? Anyone?

Even if you don't think you know what you're going to do for the next decade, everyone has a subconscious idea of what their future will be, how they see themselves looking, acting, and succeeding, even if it's not burdened by specifics. We can't help it. We all have some kind of plan.

See, I was wondering what I could say to all of these newly ex-students, because I can't simply teach the whole crowd about what it means to be a struggling freelance artist; this was a sea of different skillsets, talents and vocations, more than I can even name...

So, in preparation for the speech, I asked my friends on Facebook what they would say to their younger selves in this situation, and I noticed a common theme through all the pieces of advice they offered:

They all warned their younger selves against getting too bogged down with the PLAN, because the one thing we all learn in life is that the PLAN is a constantly moving target.

As my friend Eleanor told her younger self:

"Your ambitions will constantly change because YOU will constantly change (which is a good thing! Only the dull don't change!), and actually half of the fun is finding out what you DON'T want to do."

So rather than telling you exactly what to do in life, I'm going to list three important "don'ts" instead. I've loosely titled it "The Fool's Guide To Things You Won't Truly Realize For About 10 Years." You may know them all already, but they always warrant repeating.

And like your futures, they shall be told in no particular order...

1: DON'T (WHATEVER YOU DO) COMPARE YOURSELF TO ANYONE ELSE.

I spent a bit of time in America this year, and it got me thinking about the American Dream. You know, the concept that anyone, no matter if they came from the lowest dredge of society, can reach their highest ideal.

Can anyone tell me what the English dream is?

There doesn't seem to be one. In fact, I asked my dad about it one time and he told me that the English equivalent was something like: "Even if it could happen, it probably won't happen to you."

It's a pretty melancholy dream for a country, don't you think?

But it does raise an important issue which is that we spend far too much time comparing our progress to the progress of others.

I mean, that starts in school doesn't it?

And as much as we'd like to believe that autonomy is the secret to individual success, the most successful people in the world got to where they were not through competition, but through co-operation. Collaboration and working well within a structure is the unsexy truth behind success.

The other problem with comparison is that it breeds deep insecurity and frustration needlessly.

Have you ever noticed that when you're comparing yourself to others you never compare yourself to the person who has less than you? So when you compare, you almost always lose.

This is further compounded by the fact that the age of success is getting younger and younger. To give you an example, my biggest illustrating job this year was for a book by a 17-year-old CEO of a nonprofit organization, who raised $10 million for Hurricane Katrina relief when she was 10 years old. If that weren't emasculating enough, my NEXT illustration job may well be for a 14-year-old teacher and activist who published her first book when she was 7 years old.

This leads me to believe that my next job after that will presumably be working for some kind of fetus; like the space embryo at the end of 2001, and my future will resemble some kind of inverse Benjamin Button universe where everyone else gets younger and I just get fatter, hairier, and more pathetic.

But of course, when you add a little bit more perspective, you realize the whole thing's a bit silly, because we all come into our own at different times.

So whether you go to University or you launch into work right away, don't compare, because the results are in no way useful.

2) DON'T FORGET THOSE WHO HAVE HELPED YOU, AND RETURN THE FAVOR

My contract with the Sun Newspaper ended about two years ago, just before the phone-hacking scandal broke and a lot of my former bosses were arrested and charged. Everyone I'd worked with at the paper had been more than good to me, and I left the newsroom very amicably, but even so, it would have been very easy to put my retro-spectacles on and slag them off in public.

But I didn't, and a few months ago I was contacted by one of my former colleagues, who had just been released on bail. And he asked me if I would consider drawing a Christmas card for a charity he was now working with. Only he wouldn't be able to pay me for it.

And I was more than happy to, because this was the man who had got me my biggest job up to that point. He had plucked me out of a pool of 200 or so other struggling artists, based solely on the strength of my work, and started off my career.

And the point I wanted to make is that nobody succeeds in a vacuum. I got that job because he picked me, just like I applied for the job because one of my friends saw the ad on a website and told me to go for it, just like I would never have won the Dan Hemingway prize if my history teacher hadn't photocopied my work and told me about the award and encouraged me.

So whenever possible, if you have the chance, try to help those who have helped you, even if it's in a small way.

It will keep you humble, grateful and honest.

3) DON'T PANIC BECAUSE LIFE HAPPENS IN THE WRONG ORDER.

This is a lesson I learned earlier this year.

I had been working for six months illustrating a book for this 17-year-old genius, and during phone chats with her mother I would absent-mindedly tell her how much I adored the TED conference.

For anyone who doesn't know (I think it's about five of you) that stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, and it's a massive series of conferences where experts give speeches and they're posted on Youtube for everyone, garnering a billion views from its inception. And this has led to hundreds of independent youth conferences called TEDx conferences.

And I told her that one of my ambitions, ever since uni, was to do a TED talk of my own one day. Well, shortly after that she told me that she was on the board for the TEDxYouth conference in Des Moines and she wanted to fly me over to give a speech to about 400 people in Iowa.

So obviously I said... no.

And she said: "Um... what?"

And I said, "I... I'm sorry, but I can't do a TED talk."

And she said, "Why exactly?" to which I replied, "Well, because... because smart people do TED talks. And I'm NOT smart! No... I just have an English accent! You know, I'm from Oxford but I didn't actually study in any of the fancy universities, I mean... sometimes dumb people happen to smart places!"

And she very calmly responded, "First of all, I never want to hear you use the D word ever again, and secondly, you're an award-winning artist, you've directed short films, you were a political cartoonist for the 10th largest newspaper in the world, and you're illustrating our book. Why wouldn't we want you to talk at our conference?"

And I said, "Yeah, buuuut... but I haven't... I haven't done..."

And I kind of trailed off, because really the end of that sentence was I hadn't done the thing I was supposed to. You know, that thing in my PLAN for how my life was supposed to go, some incredible, intangible, much-revered thing that I hadn't thought of yet.

In my mind, I was supposed to give a speech after that thing I hadn't thought of yet. I hadn't earned it yet.

And this is where I saw the ridiculousness of the PLAN. I was saying I couldn't do something I wanted to do, because it had happened too soon.

Life happens in the wrong order.

Whatever template you have for your future, reality is not going to stick to it. And you have to be ready to deviate accordingly, because you could wind up turning down opportunities that don't fit with your paradigm.

And I gave that speech, and I made connections that have led to incredible opportunities, which have taken me to New York and LA. It got me my spot as a blogger on The Huffington Post. It also introduced me to an autistic boy named Zander, who I grew a unique bond with, and who's inspired me on a journey of my own to try to do my small part in helping children with learning disabilities.

And on top of that, I've met people I will know for the rest of my life.

Ironically enough, once you understand that the future will never happen exactly as you plan it, then it actually has the potential to be better.

So to wrap up, no speech is complete without a nice hoity-toity quote, so here's one that a friend shared with me a few days ago, by psychiatrist and author Theodore Isaac Rubin. And his philosophy on how to walk through life is one I also subscribe to:

"I must learn to love the fool in me -- the one who feels too much, talks too much, takes too many chances, wins sometimes and loses often, lacks self-control, loves and hates, hurts and gets hurt, promises and breaks promises, laughs and cries. It alone protects me against that utterly self-controlled, masterful tyrant whom I also harbour, and who would rob me of my human aliveness, humility, and dignity but for my Fool."

The biggest myth of school is that it's a rigid, ordered structure that prepares you for yet another rigid, ordered structure, but that's not the case at all.

School teaches you the rules, trains you to be disciplined, and equips you with the skills you might need, but it does not predict nor control your path.

The rest is down to your ability to improvise, to adapt, to deviate, to lose, often, and to listen to the Fool as much as possible.

So my advice for all you talented, resourceful, smart people is: Form the plan, but follow your feet.