Acknowledging 2016

Before you read this it’s important to note two things; this will be long and it will be all about me. And really, it’s because this is for me. 2016 has been the best year I’ve ever had. And so I want to take the time to acknowledge and be grateful for all that has occurred. My goal is that this will lift my spirits now and any time in the future that I revisit this.

Despite this being a totally self-serving article, I believe that to the right person there is value to be gained. Value in seeing, much as I have this year, how much can happen in a short span of time. That is why I’m posting this here rather than keeping it to just my journal.

So, if you have no interest in hearing me ramble on about everything I have done this year—don’t :)

The Shift

So much about what made this year great came from how it began—with a decision. From 2014 to 2016 I had been living and working as a contract web designer in London, England. I had plenty of work, lots of freedom and more money than I knew what to do with. It dawned on me that if I just continued to do what I was doing for the rest of my life, I would be just fine.

But something was missing. In fact, it was the one thing that had me choose a creative career in the first place. Joy. I did not enjoy my work nor did I take much pride in it. It was just this thing that I did. Yes I was compensated well for it but here I was taking the majority of my time and putting it towards something I didn’t want to do. After a soul-searching trip to Portugal to visit with Mother Volcano, I decided to take the plunge into the work I knew I truly loved—illustration.

At the beginning of 2016 I stopped accepting all web design work and focused entirely on illustration. I had no idea how I was going to make it happen but I owed it to myself to try. It led to the best year I’ve ever had.


I have never created as much in a year as I have in 2016. When I was not working as an illustrator it took a real effort to do that kind of work. After 8 hours of design work, it wasn’t the most natural thing to sit down and draw. Suddenly with all that time and creativity free’d up, nothing was stopping me and I was able to pump out a lot of work. And I quickly realized that in making a lot, I improved a lot.

Here, in chronological order, is everything I made in 2016. Click on anything to view it larger.


And because it would take an eternity, I haven’t included the sketchbooks. Clearly, this has been a year of making.


As I said, I did not know how I was going to fully support myself while I pursued the work that I wanted to do. And now looking back at the beginning of the year from the end, I would never have guessed how it happened—with being one of I assume 100’s of recipients of a recruitment email from the teaching platform Skillshare.

For as long as I can remember, I have always held the notion that whatever line of work I got into, I would teach it. I didn’t know what it would be, when it would be or how it would look—but it was something that just made sense to me. Maybe that’s why getting an email suggesting that I create a class on Skillshare was all I needed to actually do it. Most likely it was the $250 new teacher bonus though. Here was an opportunity to pursue a path that I had thought about often and make some money on the side. Given that I was making next to nothing anyways, it made perfect sense.

I was blown away by the experience. It literally checked so many of the boxes of the sort of thing I seek out in life. It put me in an uncomfortable position that would stretch me for the better. It had me learning more about my craft so that I could better explain it. And most importantly, it showed me that I could actually use my skills and knowledge to help others. My first class did not achieve outstanding success but I was excited for every person that joined. The thing though that got me to create my second was the response I got from those first few people. I had people telling me that they too wanted to ditch their design jobs and pursue illustration—and that I had helped inspire them through my class! I began the year just thinking about creating the career that I wanted but all of a sudden I saw that I could have one that was for other people. And that actually got me much more excited.

Since March of 2016 I have created 7 classes, had over 10,000 people take them and am considered one of the top teachers on the platform. Which is absolutely nuts. I NEVER would have expected this is where I’d be at this point in time and I couldn’t be happier about it. Today I am creating classes on the subject I love, for people that I love and I’m getting paid for it. It’s surreal.


I want to capture the results of a big achievement for me in this section. Growing up I had never been the biggest reader. For instance, I can easily recall my strategy going through school of reading the first and last pages of each chapter to cheat my way through a reading assignment. But over the past few years I’ve really discovered it as something of great benefit and enjoyment. At the beginning of 2016 I decided that I was going to read 24 books—double my record from the previous. I didn’t quite know if I would do it but having not so long discovered the value and pleasure in reading, I wanted to give it a shot. Well, as the year comes to a close I can report that I have read 25 new books in 2016 :)

In the order I read them, they are:

  1. The Bees by Laline Paull
  2. Die Empty by Todd Henry
  3. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
  4. Start by Jon Acuff
  5. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
  6. Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb
  7. Sugar Impact Diet by J. J. Virgin
  8. Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb
  9. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
  10. Essentialism by Greg McKeown
  11. Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin by Jamie Doran & Piers Bizony
  12. Show Your Work by Austin Kleon
  13. The Go-Giver by Bob Burg & John David Mann
  14. If You’re Not First, You’re Last by Grant Cardone
  15. The Wealthy Barber Returns by David Chilton
  16. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
  17. Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon
  18. The One Thing by Gary Keller & Jay Papasan
  19. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  20. Stardust by Neil Gaiman
  21. Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
  22. The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss
  23. The Blood Mirror by Brent Weeks
  24. Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett
  25. The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

As much as I’d like to make recommendations based on these books my suggestions would vary from person to person. So if anyone has any questions about these books, ask away :)


It’s worth mentioning, both for myself and anyone reading this, that other people are essential. As much as my default is to put my head down and work away for days on end, the biggest shifts in both my work and quality of life came from interacting with other people. Up until 2016 I have not been very active in the social media space. My relation to most social platforms was that they were for selling to people or showing off—two things I really wanted to stay away from. But I can say now that my opinion has changed.

What I have learned from taking another stab at being active on places like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook is that a lot of genuine joy can be found there. All of a sudden it clicked for me that there is a sea of people out there who share the same passions, drives and interests as I do—and that I could become friends with them. Today many of who I consider to be my best friends are people I have met online. I chat with them in Slack channels on a routine basis, interact with them through Twitter and Instagram and have video calls by the plenty. And it’s to these people I turn to when I am toying with a new class idea, struggling with a current piece or looking for insight into a particular mental block I’m facing. I’ve realized this year that if I want to make my best work and biggest difference, it would foolish (and a lot less fun) to do it alone.

Biggest Influences

On the back of acknowledging the impact other people have had on me this past year, I want to name individuals who have been a significant contribution to me through 2016. Whether a friend or a hero (or oftentimes both), these people have made more difference in my life than they will ever know.

Melissa de Nobrega: It makes a world of difference to have someone at my side who I not only admire as an artist but can turn to for honest feedback on my work. Melissa supports me in all that I do, cuts through my internal dilemmas with ease and is the biggest source of fun and play in my life.

Tim Ferriss: Melissa’s sister introduced me to Tim Ferriss earlier this year and that has led to a year-long journey through his books, blog posts and podcast. How I approach success, the work that I do, friendships and my goals have all been shaped by him. I couldn’t be more grateful for the content Tim is producing as it really has changed the way I live my life for the better.

Andy Miller: Early on in my transition to illustration I faced a lot of self-doubt, concern and fear (still do). Andy’s Creative Pep Talk podcast became my daily ritual for overcoming those roadblocks and getting me excited to be pursuing my dream once again. Andy is such a force for good in the creative community that in many ways he has inspired me to do the same in all that I do.

Andrew Kolb: There is something so wonderful about getting to speak to someone who’s work you admire and finding out they are even greater a human being than an artist. Andrew’s work has been a huge influence on me and since we started speaking, his words have too. He’s aided in the creation of my classes, helped me realize what’s missing in my work and reminded me of how important it is to my art that I have a life outside my art.

Terry Pratchett: I never would have anticipated how much I would get out of Pratchett’s whimsical Discworld novels but they have had such a strong effect on me this year that I can’t help but acknowledge their inspiration. They have shown me what comes from creating the work you truly want to make, how insignificant (and funny) life really is and shown me that I don’t need to be so serious in my life or what I do. Not to mention, when I needed a break from my work, nothing quite shifted my focus like Pratchett.

Jörn Heidrath, Maggie Appleton and Ryan Prudhomme: I don’t think these three realize how much of an impact their conversations with me have had. Talking shop with these fellow creatives has always led to great things in my work and I’m so grateful that I have them to chat to. They are always in pursuit of becoming their best selves and forever an inspiration for me to do the same. I love them.

Major Takeaways

Over the year I’ve learned a lot of very valuable lessons. I would hazard that we all do each year. Amongst these are a few stand-out messages that have been so important in 2016 that I want to keep them in mind as I step into 2017. Of course, these work for me and may not for you—so only take what you wish :)

  1. Never stop learning: Sounds cliché and obvious but wow did I ever get this lesson this year. After so quickly going from a no-one on Skillshare to one of the top teachers it was really easy for my ego to inflate. And an inflated ego means there was a period of time where I really didn’t feel I needed to be learning—just teaching. This meant I stopped progressing, my classes weren’t reaching the level they could be at and all of a sudden I had this image to preserve. And how could I possibly dream of making a difference with others when I’m so focused on myself. So to kill the ego I enrolled myself in several art programs and vowed to always be a student before a teacher. Not to mention a big part of what makes my work fun for me is the road to improvement so taking that away is a great way to kill my love for it. A big thank you to Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy for making this realization.
  2. Question common advice: A big lesson I learned this year was how much advice out there is no good for me. I think when we hear something so often from so many people (especially ones we look up to) it’s really easy to accept it as gospel. But it has been extremely helpful for me to amp up the skepticism even when I’m listening to my heroes. And it’s not because of bad advice, but because all advice doesn’t work for all people. As Austin Kleon writes in Steal Like an Artist, “Your mileage may vary”.
  3. Not all actions are equal: This is something I have to remind myself of constantly because it’s so important. Less actions do not mean less results. I can spend an entire day answering emails and have little to show for it. Similarly, I can spend 30 minutes talking to the right person and come up with an entire new class topic. The quality of actions is so much more important than the quantity. In fact, playing the quantity game has only ever led me to scattered focus, poor work and stress. The books Essentialism and The One Thing have been vital tools in me understanding and applying this principle.
  4. Slow down: I discovered a very simple but powerful thing about myself this year. I never enjoy anything when I am rushing but have the capacity to enjoy everything when I take my time. There have been times when I’m literally so at ease that washing the dishes is a pleasant experience. On the other end, I have rushed through countless drawings because I’m trying to get to the next thing and completely missed out on one of my greatest loves. So the goal is to have patience in all that I do so that I enjoy more of it.
  5. It’s not about me: I have been told both by people in my life and in books that if you focus on other people you will be taken care of. And as much as it has made sense coming from these sources, it has only really taken hold in my brain now that I’ve experienced it. My year really turned around when I took the focus off of what I needed and what good I could bring to others. And not long after that is when my needs started to get met. I began the year with no sure way of generating income and am now ending it more comfortable than ever. If I don’t worry about me and just focus on the difference I can make I’ll be just fine.

Going Forward

After reviewing 2016, listening to Creative Pep Talk #114 and doing a lot of journalling I am ready for 2017. As I find is more and more the case, my direction in life is constantly changing. So what I say here will likely not be my north star indefinitely. But, what I have learned is that the only way for me to reach tomorrow’s focus is to shoot for what feels right today.

My do everything mentality wants to list 10 things that I am going to focus on in the new year. But I know this only muddies the water. Instead, I will be focusing on the single most important thing with the belief that everything else that needs to be taken care of will be taken care of. And of course, if things aren’t working I can change them.

2017 will be about creating for others. I have learned this year that when I am creating for others, everything just works. I earn enough money to support myself, I improve as an artist, I get to meet all sorts of wonderful people, I feel fulfilled, all sorts of opportunities find me and I genuinely enjoy my work. All of these results I do not need to set out to accomplish—they are just byproducts of that one focus. So, it only makes sense that I step into the new year ready to make work for other people. This means more classes, tutorials, articles, illustrations and anything else that is going to help others be the best that they can be. And I’ll be kicking that off by putting myself through a 10-week concept art course starting January. This is so that by being a student I can be a better teacher.

I hope you found value in reading this. I wish you your best year in 2017.

Hayden AubeComment