On killing grizzly bears

During my internet travels today, I found myself watching a video of a surprisingly compelling presentation made by Howard Tayler, the creator of the web comic Schlock Mercenary, on the subject of monetizing free web content. Launched in 2000, Tayler’s strip was successful enough that he was able to quit his good-paying job with Novell in 2004 to work on Schlock exclusively. In the video, he shares some obvious and less-obvious insights into new media business models, but for me, this quote, delivered late in the video, stood out:

Getting a degree in English in order to become a writer is like studying grizzly bear anatomy in order to kill a grizzly bear. You know a lot about the shape of the bear, but you’re gonna set foot into the woods and have a tree fall on your head. What you should have been studying was geography and climatology … and a zillion more things that make your life interesting.

This is — as Tayler disclaims — not an attempt to offend any of those of you out there holding B.A.s or M.A.s or (shudder) Ph.D.s in English. Some of my best friends wasted 8 years of their life earning hold advanced degrees in English. But Tayler’s right.

Yes, I do hold a degree in journalism. But I didn’t get it as a primary step to becoming a writer. In fact, I didn’t go to college until I was already years into a freelance journalism career, and not until I had a bevy of life experiences under my belt. My motivation for the degree was multifaceted: 1) I wanted editorial jobs and a bachelor’s degree was usually (though not always, as I’d later find out) required, 2) A liberal arts education afforded me the exposure to all sorts of subjects I’d otherwise not have approached (I ended up doubling my major to include sociology as well), and 3) I just like the college environment.

Tayler’s grizzly bear references actually started with a much simpler analogy. After presenting all sorts of marketing and business 101 type of advice, he tossed out this: Successfully making a living offering up free web content such as a web comic, blog or what have you is like making grizzly bear soup: First you kill a grizzly bear — the rest is making soup.

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