Neil Gaiman and Debbie Millman - The Tim Ferriss Show

Neil Gaiman and Debbie Millman - The Tim Ferriss Show

Start (00:00:00)

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  • The Tim Ferriss Show is a podcast that interviews world-class performers from various fields to uncover their habits, routines, and favorite books.
  • This particular episode features Neil Gaiman, a renowned author, and Debbie Millman, a renowned designer.

Notes about this supercombo format. (00:05:27)

  • Tim Ferriss introduces the super combo episodes, a curation of the best moments from over 700 episodes of The Tim Ferriss Show, to celebrate its 10th anniversary and surpassing 1 billion downloads.
  • Listeners are encouraged to enjoy both well-known and lesser-known guests who have had a transformative impact on Tim Ferriss's life.
  • Bios of all guests can be found at

Enter Neil Gaiman. (00:06:30)

  • Neil Gaiman is introduced as a bestselling author and creator of various literary works, including novels, graphic novels, short stories, films, and television shows.
  • His notable works include "Neverwhere," "Coraline," "The Graveyard Book," "The Ocean at the End of the Lane," "The View from the Cheap Seats," and "The Sandman" graphic novel series.
  • Neil Gaiman can be found on Instagram at @neilhimself.

What Ian Fleming taught Neil about writing — even when he doesn't want to. (00:07:00)

  • Neil Gaiman discusses an article by Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond books, about his writing process.
  • Fleming revealed that he did not enjoy the process of writing and had a specific method to complete his James Bond books.
  • Fleming's method involved checking into a not-so-nice hotel room to avoid distractions and focusing solely on writing, completing a book in two weeks.
  • Neil Gaiman tried Fleming's method a couple of times, including while writing the American draft of "Neverwhere."
  • He found that being in a room with no distractions helped him focus and write efficiently.

Neil's biggest rule for writing. (00:10:12)

  • Believes in the importance of making rules for writing.
  • His rule: "You can sit here and write or you can sit here and do nothing, but you can't sit here and do anything else."
  • This rule gives him permission to write or not write, but prevents him from doing anything else.
  • Compares it to John McPhee's rule of sitting in front of a blank page from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. with no distractions.

Neil's process for writing first drafts. (00:12:57)

  • Prefers to write first drafts in longhand with a fountain pen.
  • Enjoys the physical process of writing with a fountain pen.
  • Uses two fountain pens with different colored inks to track his progress.
  • Believes that first drafts are not meant to be read by anyone else and can be messy and experimental.

What Neil aims to accomplish with his second drafts. (00:14:46)

  • Aims to make his second drafts look like he knew what he was doing all along.
  • Focuses on editing and revising to improve the quality of the writing.

Something Neil noticed when he first started writing and editing with the use of computers. (00:14:56)

  • Neil Gaiman noticed a change in the length of short stories when writers transitioned from typewriters to computers.
  • In the mid-90s, stories submitted for an anthology he edited were longer, averaging between 6,000 to 9,000 words, compared to the 3,000-word stories he received earlier when writers used typewriters.
  • Gaiman attributes this change to the ease of adding content on a computer, leading to a tendency for writers to include unnecessary details.

Neil's editing process (00:14:56)

  • Neil Gaiman's editing process involves typing his drafts into the computer, which he considers his second draft.
  • He prefers this method because it allows him to easily delete unnecessary content without feeling like he's losing work.
  • Gaiman compares the feeling of deleting text on a computer to losing work, while deleting handwritten text feels like saving work.
  • He emphasizes the importance of treating each word as if he's paying someone to write it, ensuring that every word matters and has meaning.

Notebooks Neil prefers for writing first drafts. (00:17:43)

  • Neil Gaiman has used various notebooks for writing first drafts, including Big Draw, Moleskine, and Leuchtturm1917.
  • He currently prefers Leuchtturm1917 notebooks for their pagination, paper thickness, and overall quality.
  • Gaiman also writes in beautiful leatherbound blank books purchased from a stationary shop in Venice.
  • He has a 19th-century accounts book with 500 numbered pages that he plans to write a novel in, using a dip pen or a Flex nib pen.
  • Gaiman emphasizes that the perfection of a blank page can be daunting, but anything you do can be fixed.

Fountain pens Neil has known and loved. (00:22:12)

  • Neil Gaiman recommends trying out fountain pens at a reputable store like New York's Fountain Pen Hospital to find the right one.
  • He suggests Lamy Safari pens as a good starting point for those new to fountain pens.

How Neil's default writing time has changed over the years. (00:23:13)

  • Neil Gaiman's default writing time has changed over the years.
  • As a young writer, he was a late-night writer, working from 9 pm to 3 am.
  • After moving to America, he tried to continue being a late-night writer but found it increasingly difficult.
  • He realized that he was no longer able to write effectively late at night and started experimenting with different writing schedules.

The value of the Groundhog Day routine. (00:25:12)

  • Neil Gaiman believes that writing a novel works best if you can do the same day over and over again.
  • He describes his writing routine while staying at Tori Amos's house in Florida, where he would wake up, jog, do yoga, get dressed, drive to a cafe, and write for several hours.
  • He repeated this routine day after day until he completed his novel, "The Ocean at the End of the Lane."

Today's methods may not be tomorrow's. (00:26:40)

  • Neil Gaiman emphasizes the importance of being aware of change and adapting one's methods accordingly.
  • He acknowledges that his writing habits may change in the future and that he may one day become a morning writer.
  • He cites the example of his friend Gene Wolfe, who was a morning writer for many years but is now a late-night writer in his 80s.

Lessons learned from Terry Pratchett. (00:28:09)

  • Terry Pratchett taught Neil Gaiman the importance of moving forward without knowing all the answers.
  • Gaiman compares writers to architects and gardeners, preferring to be a gardener who plants seeds and nurtures them as they grow.
  • The joy of writing Good Omens was having Terry Pratchett as an audience, as making him laugh was a significant achievement.
  • Many of Gaiman's fans are also fans of Terry Pratchett.

Parting thoughts and gratitude. (00:29:38)

  • Gaiman expresses gratitude to Debbie Millman for sharing her gifts with the world and making a positive impact on his life.
  • Millman's work has transported, delighted, shocked, scared, and evoked a wide range of emotions in Gaiman.
  • Gaiman thanks Millman for creating and sharing meaningful art.

Enter Debbie Millman. (00:31:37)

  • Introduction of Debbie Millman, host of the Design Matters podcast, chair of the SVA Masters in Branding program, editorial director for Print magazine, and one of Graphic Design USA's most influential designers.
  • Millman is welcomed to the show.

How Debbie describes her diverse background to new acquaintances. (00:32:01)

  • When asked about her profession, Debbie Millman introduces herself as a designer.
  • Sometimes, she elaborates by adding that she's also a writer and podcaster.
  • People often react with confusion due to the multiple roles she holds.
  • To simplify matters, she used to state her occupation as "executive" on official documents.
  • On Twitter, she initially used "Debbie Millman as a girl" as her handle until she received backlash and changed it.
  • Debbie acknowledges that her diverse interests and activities can elicit both positive and negative reactions from different individuals.
  • She believes that trying to please everyone all the time ultimately leads to self-disappointment.

A childhood drawing predicting Debbie's future. (00:33:54)

  • Debbie Millman kept various items from different stages of her life, including journals, drawings, and report cards.
  • Her mother moved from Queens, New York to Florida and gave Debbie boxes of her childhood belongings that she had kept.
  • Among her belongings, Debbie found a drawing she made when she was 8 years old that seemed to predict her future.
  • The drawing depicted the streets of Manhattan with detailed buildings, buses, taxis, and even a delivery truck with the logo "Glaze Potato Chips."
  • Debbie realized that the drawing foreshadowed her life as a native New Yorker living in Manhattan, going to the bank, taking taxis and buses, and working as a logo designer.
  • Neil Gaiman's creative process involves a combination of inspiration, discipline, and persistence.
  • He starts by gathering ideas and inspiration from various sources, such as books, movies, music, and real-life experiences.
  • Once he has a good idea, he lets it sit and marinate in his mind for a while before starting to write.
  • Gaiman emphasizes the importance of discipline and consistency in writing, treating it like a job and setting aside specific times each day to write.
  • He also highlights the value of persistence and not giving up, even when facing challenges or rejections.
  • Gaiman views failure and rejection as essential parts of the creative process.
  • He believes that failure is an opportunity to learn and grow, and that rejection is a sign that one is pushing boundaries and trying new things.
  • Gaiman encourages aspiring writers to embrace failure and rejection, and to keep trying and experimenting until they find success.
  • He emphasizes the importance of not letting fear of failure or rejection hold one back from pursuing their creative passions.

Debbie's unintentional path to becoming a designer. (00:38:10)

  • Debbie Millman moved to Manhattan in 1983 and discovered her passion for design while working as the editor of the Arts and Features section of her college newspaper.
  • She gained hands-on experience in layout, paste-up, and stat cameras.
  • After graduating, Millman freelanced in editorial and layout work.
  • Neil Gaiman, despite being intimidated by the talent at his college newspaper, eventually wrote for the paper and became the editor of the Arts and Features section.
  • Working on the paper gave him a sense of purpose and excitement, and he enjoyed learning about design and collaborating with writers.

Overcoming initial rejection. (00:45:57)

  • Neil Gaiman often gets easily hurt by initial rejections, which discourages him from trying again for a long time.
  • He gives examples of how initial rejections affected his decisions throughout his life, including:
    • After being rejected from college, it took him 3 years to try again.
    • After facing difficulties finding a job he loved, he considered getting a master's degree in journalism but gave up after being rejected from the only school he applied to.
    • He also abandoned his dreams of becoming an artist after being rejected from an independent study program at the Whitney Museum of Art.

Debbie's advice to her college self after that first major rejection. (00:50:20)

  • Don't accept the first rejection.
  • Give yourself time and try again at your own pace.
  • Understand why you were rejected and work on presenting your best self when you try again.
  • Just because someone rejects you doesn't mean they don't like you.
  • Consider the other person's perspective and try to understand their reasons for rejecting you.
  • Debbie Millman reflects on the advice she would give to her college self after facing rejection at the newspaper.
  • She suggests taking time to learn and grow in different ways, as those experiences can contribute to future success.
  • Debbie emphasizes the importance of not comparing oneself to others and focusing on personal growth and development.
  • She encourages individuals to persist in pursuing their goals despite setbacks and to carefully consider the reasons behind rejection in order to improve their approach.

Empathy vs. feeling slighted by those who reject us. (00:54:41)

  • Feeling slighted by rejection is common, especially when starting out and feeling fragile.
  • Ambiguity in responses is often perceived negatively, leading to misinterpretations and hurt feelings.
  • It's important to consider that a short or seemingly dismissive response may not indicate malice or a lack of worth, but rather busyness or other factors.
  • Holding grudges based on perceived slights can be counterproductive and hinder relationships.
  • A story about Nantucket Nectars founders being unsure of the meaning of "POS" (point of sale) during a meeting with a distributor.
  • The founders pretended to know what "POS" meant and later learned its true meaning.

Manhattan's influence on Debbie's pursuit of happiness and career. (00:59:44)

  • Neil Gaiman emphasizes the significance of location and surroundings in shaping one's life.
  • He discusses his personal journey and aspirations, including his desire to live in Manhattan.
  • Gaiman reveals that his true motivation for pursuing a career as a designer was to live in Manhattan.
  • He lived in deplorable conditions in Manhattan because it was the most important thing to him at the time.
  • Gaiman believes that if something is truly the most important thing to you, you will do whatever it takes to achieve it.

Debbie's abuse history and its impact on her self-sufficiency and charitable work. (01:06:58)

  • Debbie experienced abuse in various forms throughout her childhood and early adulthood.
  • Her father rejected her multiple times, leading to estrangement.
  • Her stepfather was physically and sexually abusive to her and her brother.
  • Debbie's mother's subsequent partner was sexually provocative and emotionally abusive towards her.
  • To cope with the abuse, Debbie engaged in art and extracurricular activities, becoming an overachiever.
  • She aspired to self-sufficiency and independence to avoid vulnerability.
  • Despite the shame she feels, Debbie shares her experiences to inspire hope for victims of abuse.
  • She works with the Joyful Heart Foundation, founded by Mariska Hargitay, to combat domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse.
  • Debbie's branding expertise, combined with her personal background, gives her a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Coping with abuse aftermath and feelings of isolation. (01:12:57)

  • Therapy has been instrumental in helping Neil Gaiman cope with the aftermath of abuse and feelings of isolation.
  • He has been in therapy with the same analyst for over two decades, engaging in talk therapy sessions that started at 5 days a week and have now reduced to 2-3 days a week.
  • Gaiman emphasizes the importance of seeking help and resources for those experiencing abuse or its aftermath, as it is not an isolated experience.
  • He recommends the Joyful Heart Foundation ( and No More ( as organizations that provide support and resources for victims of abuse.
  • The Joyful Heart Foundation is working to end the backlog of untested rape kits in police departments across the country.
  • This initiative, supported by Vice President Joe Biden, aims to analyze DNA evidence and bring serial rapists to justice.
  • By addressing the backlog, the Joyful Heart Foundation hopes to change the culture of victim blaming and contribute to a safer society.

Debbie's experience being called a "corporate clown" and "she-devil." (01:18:56)

  • Debbie Millman was rejected from the board of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) brand experience group after her initial two-year term despite her active involvement in organizing fundraisers.
  • This rejection led her to pursue her passion for design and creativity more fully.
  • During the judging process for AIGA's annual design competition, Millman clashed with another juror over the inclusion of mass-market packaging, resulting in an intense disagreement.
  • Millman faced intense criticism and personal attacks when her Burger King logo redesign was featured negatively on the design critique website, Speak Up.
  • Despite the ongoing insults, a positive comment from brand consultant David Weinberg helped mitigate the situation.
  • Millman became fascinated with the concept of blogging and real-time communication and started a column called the Darth Vader column for Speak Up.
  • Feeling rejected by both the traditional design world (AIGA) and the anti-AIGA group known as the Renegades, Millman found a sense of belonging among a group of Misfits trying to change the world through graphic design criticism and online conversations.
  • In 2003, Millman and other Speak Up writers attended the AIGA annual conference in Vancouver as a group and distributed a brochure called "Stop Being Sheep," critiquing the state of graphic design.

From lowest point to godmother: a transformative journey. (01:37:16)

  • Neil Gaiman was previously vilified by people who later accepted and befriended him.
  • Gaiman became the godmother to the eldest daughter of Armen and Briany, who were once among those who criticized him.
  • This experience is similar to Gaiman's college encounter with Robert Edelstein, who initially rejected him but later became a lifelong friend.
  • Gaiman now considers Armen and Briany as family.

The world-changing potential of brochures. (01:37:54)

  • Neil Gaiman met Print magazine's editor-in-chief on a flight and participated in a live design competition at a conference.
  • After the conference, he had lunch with design critic Steve Heller, who judged the competition and gave him feedback on his book ideas.
  • Despite Heller's criticism, he recommended Gaiman to a publisher who offered him a book deal on graphic design.
  • Gaiman's journey into writing began with interviewing graphic designers, leading to his first book.
  • He wrote a review of Wally Olins' book on branding for Print magazine, marking his first piece for the publication.
  • Gaiman has consistently written for Print magazine for 13 years and was recently appointed as its editorial and creative director.

The Design Matters podcast: origins and evolution over 12 years. (01:43:30)

  • Debbie Millman started the Design Matters podcast in 2004 on Voice America, a fledgling internet radio network.
  • The podcast was initially about branding but evolved to focus more on design.
  • Millman paid for the airtime on Voice America for four years before moving the show to Design Observer in 2009.
  • The podcast won a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in 2009 and was designated as one of the best podcasts on iTunes in 2015.
  • The show has transitioned from focusing on why design matters to how creative people design their lives.
  • Millman is about to approach her 300th episode.

Milton Glaser's impact on design and Debbie's life. (01:47:02)

  • Milton Glaser is a renowned graphic designer known for his iconic works such as the I ❤️ NY logo and the Bob Dylan poster.
  • Debbie Millman took a summer intensive class with Glaser in 2005, which had a profound impact on her life.
  • Glaser had his students envision the life they could have if they pursued everything they wanted with certainty of success.
  • Debbie wrote an essay outlining her long-term goals, which have mostly come true 12 years later.
  • Debbie now incorporates this exercise with her students at the School of Visual Arts.
  • Debbie Millman met Steve Heller through the SpeakUp experience.
  • Heller offered Debbie the opportunity to run a masters and branding program at the School of Visual Arts.
  • Debbie describes Heller as a generous and engaging person who has consistently supported her career.

The "10-Year Plan for a Remarkable Life" exercise. (01:52:32)

  • Neil Gaiman assigns his students a 10-year plan exercise to envision their ideal life in 2027, covering aspects like living situation, career, relationships, and daily routine.
  • The exercise aims to foster hope, optimism, and a sense of possibility, especially for students at a vulnerable stage in their lives.
  • Gaiman recommends writing the plan as if one's life depends on it and revisiting it annually to witness its transformative effects.
  • Renowned author Neil Gaiman and renowned designer Debbie Millman discussed their creative processes and experiences on "The Tim Ferriss Show."
  • Gaiman emphasized embracing failure and learning from mistakes as essential for growth and creativity, while Millman highlighted curiosity and exploring new ideas for innovative work.
  • Both Gaiman and Millman stressed the importance of persistence, dedication, and finding joy in the creative process rather than solely focusing on external validation or success.

The nature of hard decisions. (01:58:07)

  • Debbie Millman experienced a significant life transition involving a difficult decision.
  • She felt trapped in a cycle of self-doubt and feared not being worthy if she didn't achieve or produce enough.
  • Millman emphasizes letting go of a scarcity mindset and embracing possibilities by creating openings for new opportunities.
  • Hard decisions are challenging during the decision-making process but become easier once made.
  • Waiting for confidence can be a trap; courage is more important for taking the first step.
  • Confidence comes from repeated attempts and success, not waiting for it to appear.
  • Don't limit yourself to what you're qualified to do; take risks and try new things.

Recommended Design Matters episodes for design novices. (02:07:23)

Parting thoughts. (02:08:11)

  • Tim Ferriss promotes his weekly newsletter, "Five Bullet Friday," which summarizes interesting articles, books, and gadgets.
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