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Episode 72: What is success anyway?

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All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü

What draws you to your work? For cartoonist Tom Fishburne, it’s literally being able to fully express his feelings at any moment, through paper and pencil.

A man with deep self awareness and grace, Tom realized degrees and promotions weren’t fulfillling, that embracing his real joy, drawing cartoons, was his true calling.

Paying attention to what he calls his inner yardstick — and not other people’s— Tom uses that gift to connect with like-minded people via his business, Marketoonist.

On this exceptional Xero Gravity episode, you’ll hear his amazing story, including the importance of daily idea generation, his two selves, his Czech Republic startup, and how accepting the ups and downs of entrepreneurship has brought him serenity.

All that plus Tom’s connection with David Hyatt and Miles Davis, and his ultimate wish to help fellow cartoonists through an ever-expanding studio.

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Episode transcript

Host: Elizabeth Ü [EÜ]

Guest: Tom Fishburne [TF]

EÜ: Hi, everyone. I'm Elizabeth Ü and this is Xero Gravity.

TF: There's the old Joseph Campbell saying of, “Follow your bliss” which I love. But the other part of that I've found is to market your bliss. To be an artist, you have to be an entrepreneur — meaning that you have to find a market for your work. It's not just about following your bliss, but figuring out on an entrepreneurial sense how to connect your work with other people who will value that work.

EÜ: Meet Tom Fishburne. He's a cartoonist and entrepreneur who really digs Miles Davis. Tom recognizes the importance of setting aside time that's free from distraction, not only to foster creativity, but also to make sure that we stay true to our own definition of success. He admits that making the leap to full-time entrepreneur was a really tough one.

TF: I find that over time, you know, being an entrepreneur is not the easy path. Being an entrepreneur is the hard thing, but it's also the most fulfilling thing. When there are ups or downs, revenue flow, cash flow, people not paying, that kind of stuff, there's an element of that that's constant. If I can get comfortable with that always being there then I can have a sense of serenity in my life. That's important to me.

I started to find myself looking at others. I went to school with imagining there was this yard stick, every time I would have a conversation, how do I measure up with what you're supposed to do in a business school environment. That became a big barrier for me in my entrepreneurial life in general. Over time I have learned to measure myself by different metrics than I was measuring myself with at the time.

EÜ: I think this is a thing that comes up over and over and over again, is that there is some vision of success that comes from the outside. So whether it's our teachers, or our parents, or society as a whole, or advertising, whatever it is it, it’s like this is what you need to do to be successful. How do you actually keep those things you really want to hold true to as that yardstick for success?

TF: It’s really tricky. At first for me, I think, I kept it as kind of almost splitting myself in half. There was my external projection of success, and I was working in a variety of different level at all these different companies, I was getting promoted, I had all those markers of what success would look like for somebody who went to business school and had my background.

And then nights and weekends, I was drawing cartoons at a drafting table, and expressing myself that way. It was sort of like a tale of two selves. Over time I realized that I was feeling less fulfilled in the part of my work that had to do just with those external markers. I was feeling a little bit frustrated that I wasn't able to extend what I was doing beyond the drafting table life.

But it was a barrier for me because I was imagining going back to five-year reunions, 10-year reunions, 15-year reunions, and explaining what I'm doing, to other people. The concept of leaving it all behind to draw pictures, you know, felt like it was a compromise. It was a big internal evolution for me to start to become more comfortable in my own skin, and with who I really am. It's something I still, from time to time, still struggle with.

The reality was when I later made the leap to turn this passion into an entrepreneurial venture and eventually — I've been doing this now for six years full-time — I actually learned that those I expected to ridicule it the most were those that were most impressed with what I was doing. And actually I learned the biggest battle was just overcoming my own internal task master. I think my biggest battle was redefining my own sense of self worth and what my own yardstick looked like.

EÜ: And that's one of the things I think you have done so well through this medium of cartoons. And so tell us a little about how you got into drawing cartoons, or creating cartoons. What is the verb even, for cartoons?

TF: [Laughs] I’ve heard it described as so many things. I just call it cartoons or cartooning or drawing cartoons. I think that's one of the things I love.

I started as a kid before you’re aware of any of that stuff. Which is one of the things I love about the medium, It’s the most immediate way to get from what I’m thinking to the page.

So I loved cartoons and I started sort of mimicking cartoons. I mimicked a lot of Shel Silverstein, I mimicked a lot of Farside. And I just fell in love with it at a very early age. And then as I got older I kind of got to a point where I stopped doing it as much. I kind of got to a point where, like a lot of kids, I just stopped drawing. I would always doodle in the margins of papers, but that was about it.

And then weirdly enough I picked it up again in a very unlikely place: Harvard Business School, where I found myself in an environment with a lot of inside jokes, and they had a school paper. And I’d always wanted to draw cartoons later in life, I always imagined that for myself when I was a kid and then I just got older and got serious, and it didn't happen. And then in business school, because there was a student paper, I let myself play with this youthful hobby again and I fell back in love with it. And started publishing a weekly cartoon about student life.

EÜ: Let's go back again into this story about getting more serious. And like at some point there was some story you were telling yourself about how cartoons could not be serious. Why did that visual medium go away for you?

TF: Yeah, it’s one of those things when you tell people your dreams when you're a kid, very often you're ushered toward the things that sound more “sensible.” And that was kind of my experience.

And I remember even specifically, even in art classes, I feel like a lot of art professors aren't necessarily geared toward inspiring you to become the best artist you can be. But instead, acting critical in certain ways I guess to push through that if you really want it. But often I took the opposite extreme; I took it as feedback that I didn't have any potential there so I just sort of gave it up. One step at a time I gave up drawing.

And it’s an interesting thing now that I'm a parent. I have two daughters, 13 and 10. And over time it's interesting that you see year upon year as kids in their class kind of lose their interest in drawing. I often go in and teach a cartooning class to my kids' school. And you go in at the first grade level and ask how many kids like to draw; they all jump out of their chairs enthusiastically. And by the time they're in eighth grade not so much, there are just a few kids left. I was one of them.

EÜ: And what happened to bring that back in? I mean clearly, you said you were in this Harvard Business School culture of inside jokes that just needed to get out there somehow. So you know, you were doodling and showed something to a friend? Or what happened that this came back to the forefront for you?

TF: Yeah, I also needed a bit of stress relief from the student life. And I happened to mention it to a guy in my class who was editing a student paper; he was looking for people to submit stories or pictures. And eventually he cornered me in a crowded lecture hall where we were going to be there for the next hour, and I wasn't on the aisle seat so I couldn't get up. And he said, "You're going to draw something over the next 45 minutes, and I'm going to put it in the paper." And so I eventually, I did and I put it in the paper.

And the cartoon made fun of one of the classes we all took. And I went into that class the next time and the professor started out the class by suddenly throwing it on the overhead. And I had this moment of complete terror, but then everyone started laughing. I was just so hooked by that feeling that people were reacting to something I had created in that way. It felt great.

I loved it. I was hooked from then on. That professor now has one of my cartoons framed in her office.

EÜ: That's a great story. So what motivated you to go to business school? I mean obviously this dream of being a cartoonist was not in the forefront; it was sort of in the background waiting to come out again. But there was something about business school that was more compelling. What was that?

TF: Yeah, I was an English major, I loved to write. So I stayed somewhat in the realm of creating something. And then I, kind of fell into business. I ended up, out of undergrad, moving to the Czech Republic a few years after the wall came down, and joined a few guys who were starting the first English language magazine in Prague. And I wrote a bit, but then I also — because we were so small — I ended up doing a lot on the business side. And surprised myself by really liking the business aspect of it. It was a real startup environment in the Czech Republic in 1995. And I loved the early-stage startup aspect of it, but I didn't know anything about business. I went from there to work for an internet company in San Francisco in the late '90's. It was also a real crazy start-up environment and it grew really quickly like the late '90's was in the Bay area.

EÜ: As they did, yeah.

TF: Yeah. I learned a lot through that, but I realized how little I had actually any sort of training in it.

EÜ: Were you writing copy, were you doing marketing? What was your role in these companies?

TF: Yeah so it’s funny I started to gravitate, I guess, and at the one in the Czech Republic, I did a little bit of everything. I had a little bit of design background from an internship, just doing simple computer layouts. I would literally layout ads, that type of thing. But because it was a startup environment I was selling ads. I was trying to convince a lot of these businesses to run advertising in our very new magazine. You kind of do a little of everything. I've realized later in life, as I've done more entrepreneurial ventures, in the early stage you do a little bit of everything. I really like that aspect of it. I kind of dabbled in everything.

But the business side was just something I had never learned.

The cartooning sort of became this relief for me. It became a way for me to get away from the stress of the student life. But it also became a big personal thing for me. A way I could communicate how I was feeling. Because you're in an environment with a lot of students going through the same shared experience, I found it was a way to connect with other people who were experiencing the same thing.

EÜ: Well, and at what point did your experience in actually selling ads, you know, your business experience prior to being in business school — that must have influenced your revelation that you could be using cartooning as a vocation, and some of these other businesses would find that kind of shared connection, or that mode of communication to be really effective in marketing their products. So how did that connection happen for you?

TF: For several years the cartooning was purely a creative output and something I just saw as a creative passion. I started to think, whatever I do in life I want to hold true to this. Because I started to feel this was pretty important to me. But all of my cartooning heroes I had grown up with were... what I learned from that experience was traditional cartooning was broken and it wasn't a career I could see myself pursuing. My three greatest heroes, Bill Waterson, Gary Larson, and Berkeley Breathed, who were the cartoonist behind Calvin and Hobbes, Farside, and Bloom County, they all quit cartooning completely in 1995, the year I got out of college. All of my mentors left the industry. So I thought, well, it's not a serious profession. I'll just continue to do this as a hobby. It was only years later that I started specializing in marketing.

Out of business school I worked at General Mills, I worked at Nestle, and I was working in marketing and finding myself publishing a weekly cartoon about marketing. And much like my student life experience, this weekly cartoon about marketing became a way for me to express how I was feeling and also connect with an audience of people who were all feeling the same way. At first I thought it would literally just be relevant to my own company and people I worked with. But suddenly it started to get shared and I found people writing to me from all over the world who felt the same thing.

So for several years, that's all it was. But as I thought more about it I realized, here I was doing this weekly hobby and I was building an audience and engaging with people, and when I was wearing my brand manager hat that's exactly what I was trying to do with the various brands I was working with. The light bulb started to go off for me. I started to see some potential for cartoons to help communicate ideas.

EÜ: How would you describe the ultimate impact that you want to have on people?

TF: Gosh that's a great question. So I’ve had the opportunity, as I've expanded this business of cartoons into a real studio, I now get to work with some of my heroes. Some of my heroes are cartoonists, but have been forced, by the fact that newspapers and magazines are going away, to take different jobs than what their cartooning passions have always led them to, because those markets aren't there. One mission I feel like I have is I would love to continue growing this studio and help provide more markets for those out there who are cartoonists to help bring their creative talents to bear.

EÜ: What are those markets currently?

TF: My job, because I've worked in both the business world and the cartooning world, my job is to help connect those storytellers with brands that needs storytelling. And to help act as an editor to really bring the two together. It's a very specialized medium. And so the cartoonists who we work with in this business I see as, basically, the world's best storytellers.

EÜ: I think every time we can shine a light on someone who has turned their passion into a viable business, is a great way to put that spark of inspiration in front of somebody else who maybe has that latent desire to do something else that they have been shelving. Just because they think oh, well, there's no way I can make a living at that.

I'm wondering if there is a bit of a shadow side to doing that. You mentioned Bill Waterson was one of your inspirations, and he has a really brilliant cartoon that I've seen. This makes the rounds in social media every so often. You'll see it when someone has just quit their day job. He's using his illustrative power to draw up images.

I think it's a jeep in this particular cartoon, but he's basically saying he's going to work, he's drawing the jeep, he's coming home, he's spending time with his family. Then by the end of this story arc he's thrown in the towel, he's quit the job working for Jeep, and he's spending all day with his family rather than using his creative powers to bring home the bacon. So I'm curious how you respond to that. How you have maybe reconciled some of the challenges of doing work to support somebody else's mission rather than your own?

TF: As I mentioned earlier, I had sort of two selves. There was the external self and the internal self. I've realized I'm happy living in both, but I pick and choose my projects. One of the really nice benefits of starting something on my own, along with my wife — we run this business together — is we can be very choosy about who we work with and choose projects that are intellectually stimulating with people who we like to work with, and say no to those who aren't a good fit.

I recently got a request to give a cartoon-based keynote talk for a fair amount of money to a tobacco company. And I had this moment of hearing two voices in my head. One saying, you're a small business, this could really help your revenue. Another voice saying, well, how would I feel about myself and if I'm following this business to tell my story how would I feel about going to a tobacco company and helping them become better marketers at selling tobacco.

It's not an easy decision — as easy as you would think — if you don't have very clear lines. Because the one voice in my head said there could be a lot of money and was rationalizing, well, you're only going there and giving a talk for an hour. But, ultimately, the voice that won out and the voice that always wins out — if I listen to it — is the voice that said that's not why you went down this path. You need to follow and listen to who you really are. So I turned it down.

And it felt great to turn it down, frankly. It'll make it easier for me the next time I'm faced with some sort of choice along those lines of whether work feels good or not.

I find that pursuing your passion as a business, it's a business. There's a lot of stuff that isn't my favorite thing to do in my day, chasing late payments, for instance. But at the end of the day those aspects are just a cost of doing business and the cost of doing what I love. Over time if I listen to my true north, I'll continue going down a path of doing what I really love.

EÜ: Was that realization part of what led you into the speaking gig part of your work these days too? Because here you are talking about these really personal struggles that you had to really accept who you were. And now you've become such a successful cartoonist, not only bringing so many of us joy when we get to see what you have created, but also you are helping a lot of business convey messages that might not otherwise be effectively conveyed, to use a buzzword, effective.

You know, using this medium that is so much about connection, as you have said, what was it that made you want to then be a role model, perhaps? I don't want to put words in your mouth, but there was something that spawned this other channel of speaking in front of others and I'm curious how that came out of this whole experience.

TF: It's so circuitous and a little bit serendipitous. When I made the decision to take this leap I wasn't thinking about public speaking at all. I wasn't thinking about connecting with other entrepreneurs. At some point down the road, my story might help inspire them to do something similar. That all came later. If anything, I found myself benefiting from a lot of other mentors who had followed similar paths. I would read stories and I would hear interviews with people who had somehow managed to take a leap and turn their business passion into a real business. I got inspiration from that.

One of those guys was a guy named David Hyatt, who started an adventure clothing company in the UK called Howie's — he would write a little bit about his experience, and I found a lot of inspiration in that. And then I found when I had the chance to move to England — I was working for a consumer products brand called Method at the time and I was asked to go over to England to help get the Method brand started over there. This was a great entrepreneurial adventure and I love it and I loved the Method brand, I was really inspired by it.

And I was drawing these cartoons on the nights and weekends. I came across David Hyatt and he was just about to start a yearly lecture series called the Do Lectures. The idea for the Do Lectures is that you go to this very remote part of Wales and they have about 20 speakers and about 80 attendees and everybody stays in tents over three days. At the time I was so passionate about Method, the brand I worked for, I contacted David and I said I think Method as a story would be a really inspiring story to hear. I'd love to come if you're looking for a speaker, I'd love to share the story of Method. He got back to me and very politely said Method is a great story. I think it would be really inspiring for people to hear. But that's not your story.

EÜ: Right.

TF: And it left me wondering. It really shell-shocked me. What's my story? If that's not my story... because I loved my cartoons and stuff but I thought that's just a hobby and my story is this business I was helping bring to life in this other country. That was how I spent most of my day, was on the story of Method. Suddenly here's somebody saying that's not your story. It haunted me because I knew he was right.

I was paying off my student loans, we had two kids, we were living in this other country. I thought how could I possibly turn this into a business? Then, eventually, when I made the leap, it took a few more years, when I made the leap I contacted him and said I've done it. And he said now that's your story.

Now, I hear from a lot of people who are in similar situations. I love responding to them and hopefully giving some sort of hope that if you pursue your passion long enough, with enough diligence, and you're open to the experience, and you can learn to not pay too much attention to the naysayers, perceived or otherwise, that there is a great life for you to go down this path.

EÜ: So you mentioned that you want to keep evolving and you don't want to keep recycling the same old ideas, and as we were getting set up for this interview you mentioned you had spent part of you morning on idea generation. What are some of your favorite tips?

TF: Well the biggest thing I've learned over time, when I used to draw one cartoon every week, I could wait for these serendipitous moments to happen. In the shower or on a run I would come up with an idea and then that would be my cartoon for the week. But now my output has to be so much higher. I've had to be very disciplined on protecting my creative time and not letting it become something that I'm too busy for. So for me I really see it like exercising, like exercising a muscle. So I spend the first two hours of every work day purely on coming up with ideas. In that time it's crucial that I have no electronic devices, I have no phone calls, and I can very quickly get into that creative space.

I have a lot of little creature comforts I've established over time. I always listen to the same album every morning. It sounds very repetitive but for some reason Miles Davis "Kind of Blue", that album, I can listen to it endlessly. I never get tired of it.

EÜ: Fresh eyes and Miles Davis.

TF: Yeah. It's the key. One goal I have is to have one weekend day where I don't have a device in my pocket or pick up a device for an entire 24-hour period so I can really be present and notice things more and connect with people face to face more without the tyranny of the device in my pocket.

EÜ: Well great. I want to hold that vision for you and I want to hold that for myself and everyone listening who also want to relieve themselves from the tyranny of the device in their pockets. Thank you so much for this amazing interview, Tom. This has really been fun and inspirational. Again, thanks for all of your work in supporting all of us in paying closer attention to what that yardstick measure of success is for us, and not necessarily what we’re hearing outside. This has really been lovely.

TF: Thank you so much I’ve really enjoyed it.

EÜ: That was Tom Fishburne founder and CEO at Marketoonist. Thanks for listening to Xero Gravity. Make sure you join us next episode because we’ll be speaking with Daniel Flynn, co-founder and managing director at the Thank You Group. So don’t miss that one and we’ll catch you then.

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