Jim Henson's "ridiculous optimism" and other wisdom for writers
Remembering the creative genius of Jim Henson, thirty years after his death
Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets, died thirty years ago this month, on May 16th, 1990. The cause of his death was the sudden onset of bacterial pneumonia. He was just fifty-three years old.
Known as a creative genius, Jim Henson impacted the world of television, education, and entertainment with his Muppet-puppets and their lives on Sesame Street.
He loved his work, saying,
“I believe that we form our own lives, that we create our own reality, and that everything works out for the best. I know I drive some people crazy with what seems to be ridiculous optimism, but it has always worked out for me.”
Writers can relate to the philosophy of “ridiculous optimism.” That’s what we practice every day:
Maybe this campaign will make me wealthy
Maybe I’ll find an agent
Maybe this post will go viral
Maybe my book will be the new best-seller
Maybe a huge firm will see my work and hire me
Writers and creative souls everywhere can learn from the thoughts of the man who positively affected children throughout the entire world with his Muppets, the creation of Sesame Street, and “ridiculous optimism.” His brain-child, Sesame Street, has been on the air for more than fifty years and is the most-awarded children’s show in the history of television. 150 Emmys, 11 Grammys, and 4,500 episodes later, Sesame Street remains a beloved children’s program aired in 120 countries.
6 Quotes from Jim Henson to inspire writers
1. “Do everything at 100 percent of its potential and never accept second best.”
Some bloggers on Medium urge people to publish every day, even if the writing is crap. They emphasize quantity instead of quality. Jim Henson would contest that advice. Make it great. Never accept second best. Great writers are willing to put in extra effort to produce quality work. If you’re going to put it out there, shouldn’t the piece live up to its potential? Do you want your name associated with “crap?”
2. “I’ve always tried to present a positive view of the world in my work. It’s so much easier to be negative and cynical and predict doom for the world than it is to try and figure out how to make things better. We have an obligation to do the latter.”
The writing life can be a hard one consisting of rejection, criticism, and the constant need to produce. That daily grind causes negativity. As Henson reminds us, part of the creative’s job is to be a problem-solver, to present solutions, and to improve the world instead of complaining about it. This principle works whether you’re a writer, a teacher, a contractor, or an accountant. Being positive brings joy to yourself, your work, your colleagues, and everyone you meet.
3. “Follow your enthusiasm. It’s something I’ve always believed in. Find those parts of your life you enjoy the most. Do what you enjoy doing.”
If you don’t love writing, why are you here? If you’re lukewarm about what you do to earn a living, you’ll never achieve greatness. If you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you’ll have to work to live. Why would you spend your whole life working at something you don’t enjoy? Embrace your passion and “follow your enthusiasm.”
4. “I really do believe that all of you are at the beginning of a wonderful journey. As you start traveling down that road of life, remember this: There are never enough comfort stops. The places you’re going to are never on the map. And once you get that map out, you won’t be able to re-fold it no matter how smart you are. So forget the map, roll down the windows, and whenever you can pull over and have a picnic with a pig. And if you can help it never fly as cargo.”
The writing life is a journey. Writers often find work in unexpected places that pulls you in a different direction than originally intended. Don’t be afraid to follow where opportunity takes you. Be spontaneous. Be daring and original. Keep working wherever you are and do more than your share, so no one ever thinks of you as baggage that has to be hauled along.
5. “Certainly I’ve lived my whole life through my imagination. But the world of imagination is there for all of us — a sense of play, of pretending, of wonder. It’s there with us as we live.”
A writer’s best asset is imagination. Explore the uncharted territories of your mind to produce ideas. Have fun with your thoughts. Wonder is part of a writer’s world and a necessity for creative output.
6. “Take what you got and fly with it.”
Use the talents you have and then put all your energy into making those talents shine. Work every day to polish writing talent and send it out, dazzling like diamonds, into the world. You’ll be surprised where it will take you. “Take what you got and fly with it,” is the embodiment of hard work and hope. The sentiment closely parallels the phrase that Elizabeth Gilbert used when discussing the success of her book, Eat Pray Love:
“I had no idea what five million readers looks like. I still don’t, but…fly, little book, fly!”
Jim Henson found joy in his creative journey and reminds us to do the same. His quotes sum up the traits of a successful creative: Effort. Positivity. Enthusiasm. Spontaneity. Imagination. Hard work and Hope.
Remembering Jim Henson inspires me to join hands — or feathers — with Big Bird and fly to new writing heights, smiling all the way.