June 16, 2012

My College Commencement Speech to the SF Art Institute 2012 Graduates!

Good morning!

This is my very first college graduation ceremony!

You see, I only went to a 2-year college and I don't recall us actually having a graduation, so this is a first for me too! And frankly I think it’s amazing that you all have already accomplished this much.

I have so much I want to share with you today, and my only hope is that if even one thing I say sinks in, makes a difference in your life, or causes a shift in your thinking to inspire you to do better, or to help someone else do better, then I am happy I got up at 4 am to fly here today.

The only downside for me in addressing you all is that I am speaking to you and not speaking with you. My preference would be to hear your stories...your ideas and hear your amazing minds twist and turn, that is what charges me up, your story, your passion and your love of living a creative life.

For me it’s all I have ever known. Few of you here know me and probably wonder how I ended up here addressing you today. I started as a Graphic Designer, then an Art Director, then, I began to produce Music and eventually Feature Film, Television and Events.

I have turned every one of my hobbies into a business of some sort and over the years have become somewhat known for my work. But more important than business, money and awards is the fact that I absolutely love what I get to do for a living. I have designed my life exactly as I wish it to be, I live in 3 amazing cities, here, Los Angeles and New York City. And I have yet at 54 years old to have two days the same. My life is filled with ideas, passion, amazing people and a terminal curiosity about life.

So many of us here are different that most, we think left of center, we live, breathe and exist within a passionate paradigm that so many could if they wanted to but that few actually do.

We all realized, most likely early on, that we were different. I certainly did...for me it was a stormy morning in Kansas when I was about 7 or 8 ...the smell and the power of nature invigorated me. I was alive and full of ideas and wonder about why everyone complained about storms while I thrived on them, while all went about the day complaining about "bad" weather, I would gutter dream, I would lay down in the rain gutter at the end of the driveway and watch shapes and images and faces form in the clouds letting my imagination run rampant, years later I our house burned to the ground, I told my dad "let's build it back better, let's change it, let's design it so the rooms were cooler, new and in different places”...he said no. Don't get me wrong my parents supported every creative idea, Kool-Aid stand, art project, tree house, hobby, trip, conference, drum lessons, or numbskull idea I ever had, well except the house redesign… and they still do...yet they still don't understand fully what I really do for a living. In fact I called my parents when putting my thoughts together for this address today and asked my Mom. “I'm curious if you were asked by someone what I do what would you tell them? Her answer was...Oh brother, why do I always answer the phone when you have these questions? Want to talk to your dad? And I said no, answer this for me ok? So she hesitated first and then said, “Well you are a graphic designer, you design different graphics for people who need a logo for things.”

And I wondered, does she not know I also art direct, advertising and photography, produce and direct music, or feature film or events and concerts? How could she not? And it bothered me because maybe I don’t always articulate the value of that or fully explain what it is to them. Maybe just being creative is enough or in this case maybe she just needs to know I am safe, warm and dry.

So I thought why has that always bothered me? Is it because I want them to understand me better, or perhaps what drives me? Or is it because as creatives we often fail to connect with others as deeply as we should because we speak a different language?

And if we in fact do, then how do we bridge that gap with our ideas and our communication rather than it being a point of difference...whether we do it through art, art and commerce or targeted strategic design and branding, or…through an image, a painting a sketch, an app, a film, a song or a sculpture.

For the fine artist it's often just art, pure ideas in pure form...for the commercial artist it's art and commerce, but what are our drivers? What motivates us? Why do we do this?

I say because we have to...there is no option for us other than living a creative life there is no option in my opinion for anyone to not live a creative life. Even if you do not WORK in the creative arts.

And that my friends are where we need to celebrate our differences and as creative's bring the world together. We can be the bridge through life and ideas because of our differences. No arrogance, no layers, no looking up to or down on someone because of their choices of craft, or profession.

I smile when I think of my ex-wife Gretchen whom by the way is still my business partner running all 13 of our business divisions. When we first met in 1979 she was attending the Kansas City Art Institute. She was a weaving, fiber arts and painting major. One night, we were talking about what we both wanted to do...and I was in graphic design school.

In that conversation she said, “You are a commercial artist, you sell your self and your work to anyone. You are like a whore, but I am a fine artist,” Don't you love the description fine artist? She continued…”and people come to me for my art and what I do...I create and they choose it.”

I saw her point and I must say, that for 33 years now I have loved being a big ol whore...But the ultimate irony of this is she now runs the entire whore house as Director of Business Operations. Absolute Perfection, don’t you love how the Universe works sometimes?

So ask yourself today as you take your next big step into life. What is it I want to sell the world?

And no I am not necessarily using the word "sell" in financial terms. Ask yourself instead: Who am I? What am I? Why do I do this? And what image do I wish to project with all I am?

Some of you here are aiming to wealth, others to fame, others to changing the world for the better, others still I am sure are uncertain. But whatever it is you decide, build a strong personal brand grounded in ethic, craft, tolerance, and openness and exist every moment in the possibility of YES!

Remove from your vocabulary words like can't, don't, shouldn't and won't...and surround your self with impeccable people. Surround yourself with diversity of thought, culture and image, Embrace unique, embrace giving, sharing and recognize your innate talents as tools to be honed and refined in service to the world.

And if in the process you stay on that beautiful creative track, living an amazing creative life, and you just happen to make a shit load of money, and on top of all that you experience extraordinary fame, good on you!

But when that happens, I ask that you remember this day and turn to someone who is amazed at you and all you have accomplished and say this. “So what's your name? What is it you wish to do? And how can I help you do better right now in this moment to make that happen?”

In fact don't wait until then, start that now, start building extraordinary relationships. Because at the end of the day, if I need to hire someone, I will go out find three people great at what I need done.... and I will decide that these three are the ones I like best, and one of you will get the gig.

For purposes of this example you are all equally qualified for what I wish to achieve or you would not be under consideration. And trust me, you will all be within the same price range give or take and you will all be over flowing with amazing creative approaches to help me solve my problem right?

Of course!!! That's how we are wired.

So my friends...who gets hired?

It's very simple:

The one I know best, whom I trust and who I LIKE!


Every project I have ever done can be traced back to someone else referring or liking me. The relationship IS what matters.

And right now for all of you...the journey is the thing, not your GPA, not your work, not your portfolio or your resume, so be open to the extraordinary relationships ahead.

Be open and absorb people. Homeless people, CEO's, Creative people, Closed off people. Young minds and old minds alike. All are within your reach...discard no one. Embrace possibility! AND NEVER BE INTIMIDATED BY ANYONE! But everyone matters! Don’t be so narrow in your thinking that you miss that fact.

And with that I would like to read you something that I came upon decades ago. And my apologies to whomever initially wrote this but it came to me unattributed.

So I took parts of it and heavily rewrote over the years it and added to it so much that there is not too much of the original left, but this is something that I hand to each of our interns on the final day with us at my studios.

It’s something I hope they will carry with them into the world for support, because some of you have flown through this school I am certain, others are here not without bruises, and this might just help all of you on your personal and professional journey ahead!

You see as creative's we sometimes wear our hearts a little too much on our sleeves. Our passion leaks out and it's hard to contain. Other times our ideas are just too good for the audience or the timing is a little off, and other times yet we are way off and somehow we’ve totally missed the target.

It ultimately goes without saying that we all get bruised right?

But during those ups and downs, the experience is what makes us great, and it's how we learn if we are open to possibility and truly trusting our selves.

So here goes:

“In the beginning, when you start out in your career, hope and optimism will be your chief assets. This will be a time of Spartan existence-a time for paying your dues; and we all go through it. 

Spend this time wisely by creating an invincible portfolio that is full of extraordinary thinking, develop amazing communication and networking skills, and hone your technical skills by creating your own commercial assignments and projects that nourish your soul.
Make yourself a working, busy highly creative person. Create an aura of success, and success WILL attract success.

Those who succeed in any endeavor, realize that it is not luck but the total mental commitment to succeed that governs their outcome. I truly believe that LUCK IS WHAT YOU MAKE IT! 

And that passion must drive our creative thoughts. When a person is seized with such a passion, it cannot be hidden. You can see it in their eyes, you can hear it in their voice, and you can feel it in their manner. 

There is an enthusiasm, which surpasses the most carefully rehearsed state of optimism. When such a passion is set in motion, all difficulties can be overcome. For the creative spirit who is passionately committed to their art and craft, nothing will stand in their way of achieving creative and technical excellence. You can have anything and everything you want and more!

Strive to create visual triumphs, powerful messages and effective communication, execute any project perfectly or to the absolute best of your abilities. Listen carefully to your clients and superiors, accept and listen to all opinions, avoid the safe approach, and attack competition with courage.

In all things, fortune favors the brave. In your work remain true to your ideals and your ideas. Your ethics, standards and relationships are all that matter, the same goes for your personal life!

If you try to remember some of these things, work your tail off and strive to be the best creative thinker you can, you will create a wonderful career and life for yourself!!!

So…Never stop learning. Look at everything, and read even more. Load your personal camera and sketchbooks with amazing images daily but refine how you see in even the most personal of photos and images. 

Keep a journal and collect memories, images and your ideas. Collect things that interest you and read outside of areas you know. Sketch, feel the pencil and play! It's NOT about the computer it’s about the creating of your life and the realization of concepts and your ideas, the computer is merely a tool, one of many you can access, it’s your mind that creates not your tools. 

Think on your feet, and NEVER stop thinking. Show your work to everyone you can, listen to their opinions but decide for yourself if it is good work and if you believe it is, then refine it if they say something is wrong, but stay with it. 

Most of all never let anyone discourage you or destroy your passion for design, art and the beauty in the sheer creativity of your ideas. You must grow a tough outer skin without losing compassion for others and at times that too will be hard.

If you are looking for a job, don’t be discouraged by naysayers, unreturned calls and brush-offs. Remember, you are the one asking for help and a job, don’t expect people to drop everything to see you. Be aggressive, excited and passionate in your search!

Few are lucky to get to do what we do for a living, and even fewer yet reach the level we have been able to reach, and even despite this ever-changing global economy and tools that allow for greater creativity among the less trained, great ideas and true targeted strategic thinking will always be rewarded.

You can have a great impact on the world with your, ideas, actions, design and your thinking. You will impact the fortunes of companies or the messages of non-profits and can have great impact with your creativity because it can breakthrough, so select your Clients and Partners carefully and stick to your belief structure and ethics at all times. 

You are but a mere cog in the wheels of commerce but an important one if you do your job right. Communicating an idea in a creative way, I believe, can be the most passionate form of expression and with it you can change the world in large ways or may effect a single life in one small way. Either way you have made your point and done some good.

I love my life, I have carefully designed it to be able to live where I want, move when I want, do what I want; and the ups, downs and trials would not have been possible without creativity, wonderful influence and an amazing team around me...pure and simple. 

Even now as I consider big creative changes once again in my life, homes, career and what's next, I still at the core, LOVE what I do and how I think when I wake up in the morning, it fuels my heart.

Almost daily I’m told “Mark, you’ve never met a stranger have you?” And my answer is always the same…nope.” "I'll talk to anyone, if I get to hear their story!"

I’m terminally curious about people and all life, including every conversation, idea or opportunity. And I hope you will do the same thing in your life. People deserve to know of your inherent talent. They deserve to see your heart and know your standard. And you deserve to be clear about your own personal brand and what it stands for.

Please always make sure you do when you open your eyes each day no matter how hard that may be some mornings.

Go create! And love it!

And please…never be a stranger to me!
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