The following is a transcript of the commencement speech given by Cory Fossum to the Art Institute of California — San Francisco Class of 2013.
Good morning everyone. I am beyond humbled to be here and I would especially like to thank Dean Michelle Skoor for going through what I can only assume is a giant contact list of ridiculously creative people and thinking “Yes, Cory would be... perfect for this.” It is an honor not only that you think that of me, but that as a result, I am able to stand in front you all and impart some wisdom as you go forward and take on the world.
So first of all, I think it goes without saying that huge congratulations are in order for all of you. But wait, does it really go without saying?
Because it didn’t go without saying that while your old high school friends were pursuing traditional degrees at traditional universities that you would chase your artistic dreams at a college specifically designed for artists.
It didn’t go without saying that you would have enough confidence in your artistry to study it alongside the most talented rising stars in your fields.
And it certainly didn’t go without saying that you would recognize what you do the best and commit the past few years of your life towards putting yourself in a position to do what you love for the rest of your life.
So no, I don’t think it goes without saying that huge congratulations are in order. I think it deserves to be said — Congratulations to you, the Art Institute of California, San Francisco Class of 2013!
Now, I can tell by the absence of iPhones being held up in front of you and the flashes going off nowhere that most of you have no idea who I am. And by most of you I mean none of you. Which is completely fine. You shouldn’t.
So by way of introduction, my name is Cory Fossum and I do for a living what I suspect a lot of you want to do for a living: I am an artist and I run my own business where I am paid by some pretty big-name clients to practice my art on their dime. In other words, I do what I love and I get paid for it and — spoiler alert! — that’s the goal. Do what you love and get paid for it. Even better, get paid really well for it.
Now that business of mine is an award-winning creative agency down in Los Gatos called Fossum Creative. And we produce awesome corporate videos—which I call social videos because they are meant to be shared online through social networks—and since I’m also a copywriter, we specialize in writing marketing copy for websites and presentations and the such. And we get to do this for a lot of consumer electronics companies, since I'm pretty much a gadget geek and easily distracted by shiny things.
And since this is my business, it should come as no surprise that the two big loves in my life are filmmaking and writing. I should also mention my third love, which is music, but since my life as an aspiring rock star ended around the same time that the Nineties did, today my life only revolves around those other two loves: filmmaking and writing.
And this has always been the case. Like from when I was a kid. I mean, I always knew I wanted to write and make movies, even if I had no idea how it would actually happen or what it would look like when it did. I had just always assumed that being a writer meant you had to write novels and other great works of fiction. And that being a filmmaker meant you had to move to Hollywood and direct big-budget blockbusters.
And had this been the case, I can safely say that, statistically speaking, I would be waiting tables today and not here talking with you. Which is not a knock on service professionals at all, I think they're awesome. It just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to write and make films. And if you want to be a writer and make films, where’s the one place you should move to? That’s right. Los Angeles. And did I? No.
Instead, I moved back home to Silicon Valley at the end of the first dot-com bubble and started working as a copywriter in Corporate America. It wasn’t the sitting-in-a-Parisian-coffee-house lifestyle I had a originally imagined my writing career would take me, but it paid nicely and I was able to call myself a professional writer. And as you will soon discover, being able to call yourself a professional anything to do with the arts is a pretty cool feeling.
And during these years, I learned a lot about writing. And it was fun. And exciting. And interesting. For the most part. Except for being cooped up in a cube all day. And having to work for someone else. And not really fitting into the system and the politics and the corporate hierarchy. And looking around at the people I was working with and feeling, well, different. Not better. Not superior. Or worse or inferior. Just different. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it, but I knew I wasn’t cut out for the corporate world. At least not as a traditional employee.
Finally, after a few years of this, in the fall of 2002 when I was just a few months shy of finishing grad school, the last boss I ever had called to tell me the company was having layoffs and I was out of a job. Again.
This was the second time in two years that this had happened and it was at that moment that I decided I would not let it happen again. I was going to take control of my career as a writer and go into business for myself. Which actually sounds pretty crazy in hindsight. But so do airplanes. And look how that turned out.
Within minutes, the feelings of fear and dread normally associated with being laid off were replaced by hope and optimism. I knew right then and there that being laid off that day was going to be the best thing that ever happened to my career. And looking back now, I can honestly say that it was.
You see, as a really good copywriter, I had a skill that was in high demand by a lot of different companies. And I figured I would rather work for myself and make my own rules and chart my own path and have a bunch of great clients that I loved, but who also let me see other people. So I set out on my own with absolutely no idea how I would pull it off. Just the confidence that somehow I would.
“But, oh my gosh, what about job security?” my friends would ask me.
I’d explain that after being laid off twice in two years, there was no such thing as job security anymore. And I still hold this to be true today. If you want job security—especially as an artist—the goal is to become your own boss. Take charge of your career and the path you are on. Do not put your fate into the hands of others. Don’t get me wrong, you can work for someone else and still be your own boss. In fact, I recommend that no matter what, you take these next few years after graduation and work for other people.
You’ve learned all about your art form here in school. And based on where you are sitting right now, you’re obviously very good at it. Now find out how the business side of things works. Learn to navigate office politics. Make connections with your colleagues and nurture them always – a lot of these people will become your clients down the road. Or they will help you land your ultimate project.
But most importantly, get a taste for the business world that most of the people you know live in so you know what you’re talking about outside of your particular skill. It might be a perfect fit for you. Or it might not. But believe it or not, learning about business will give you more control over your career and more credibility as a professional artist.
“But, oh my gosh, what is your Plan B?” some of my more cynical friends would ask.
I never had a Plan B. I rarely do. Because while I didn’t know how I was going to pull off this new business, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t. Having a Plan B implies a certain amount of self-doubt is at play which, of course, is always the case for people like us. But it can also plant the seeds of failure in your mind. And when you’re putting yourself out there in life and exposing yourself for the whole world to see, you can’t afford to think that there is any chance of failure – even though we always know there is.
So forget about Plan B. Just focus on Plan A. Don’t even call it Plan A. Just call it your plan. And if your plan doesn’t work out, take a new approach. Be fluid and flexible. Or come up with a different plan altogether. Because when you don’t have a Plan B, you’ll be surprised at how often Plan A works out, well, just like you planned.
“But, oh my gosh, why don’t you just go get a real job?” some of my more non-artistic, traditionally-employed friends would ask.
What they didn’t seem to realize was that I had a real job. One I had created for myself and designed around the lifestyle that I wanted to have. And one that I still have today, over ten years later. It looks a little different than it did then – I do more filmmaking than copywriting these days and I have more help doing it – but the fundamentals are still the same. I still have to do the work. I still put my name on it. And it’s as real as any job I’ve ever had. If not more so because I don’t get paid if I don’t do it.
It’s just that the idea of a real job has completely changed in the past twenty years, which, by no coincidence, is about how long we’ve had the Internet. You are no longer tied down to the traditional ideas of what a job looks like, where it needs to happen, or how long you need to work each day for it to be a real job. As a professional artist in today’s hyper-connected world, you have more say than ever before in how you want to work and what you want your real job to look like. Yes, there will be tradeoffs either way you choose, but you get to call the shots.
Which is exactly what I’ve been doing at Fossum Creative for the better part of my adult life. Working as a professional filmmaker and writer for some of the biggest names not just in technology, but in the world. All of whom have allowed me to do what I love and get paid for it which, as you recall, is the goal.
And remember when I said I felt different than a lot of the people I was working with? Well, it turns out that the reason I felt different than the others was because I was.
You see, like all of you, I’m an artist. And our minds don’t work the same as everyone else's. We tend to operate best on the fringes of normal society where the mainstream simply doesn’t get us. We see the world in colors and shapes and flavors and patterns and rhythms. Math is hard and it confuses us. Literal people don’t make any sense to us nor do we to them. We don’t just experience life, we feel it all. Deeply and passionately and emphatically.
We don’t think outside the box. We grab cans of paint and brushes and pens and cameras and lenses and ingredients from all over the world and we push and we pull and we design and we decorate the box so that it inspires us and makes us feel alive. And then we climb back in and do our best thinking inside a box that is uniquely our own and nobody on the outside can truly understand it.
But they are nevertheless amazed and moved and inspired by what comes out of it.
And whether you end up working for yourself or someone else, always remember that this is your job as an artist. To make people feel. To show them something they have never seen before. To dazzle and delight them with something that you created.
Whether you are using your art to advertise a product, design a new line of clothing, prepare a five-star meal, animate the latest video game, decorate a home, design an amazing user experience, or produce a groundbreaking feature film and soundtrack, always remember that you have the power to instantly alter the way people feel and to enhance their lives, if only for a moment. Great art takes us outside of ourselves and it can bring us all closer together.
Know that you have been given a gift. Never take it for granted or assume that because it comes easy for you, it comes easy to anyone else. Because I promise you it doesn’t. Most people consider what you do to be nothing short of magical. I saw your portfolios last night and I happen to agree.
So once again, it both goes without saying and deserves to be said – congratulations to you, the Class of 2013. You now have a blank slate in front of you. Make it beautiful. Make it your own. And make great art.