Review: Zen Pencils: Cartoon Quotes from Inspirational Folks

zenpencils cover

I first delved into Zen Pencils, the home of Gavin Aung Than’s inspirational comic strips when I was teaching abroad. Through Than’s stories the wisdom of hundreds (there are 210 strips available on his site) was available to me in one place in a format that I could quickly enjoy and understand.

I was lucky enough to receive copies of Zen Pencils: Cartoon Quotes from Inspirational Folks and Zen Pencils-Volume Two: Dream the Impossible Dream as a birthday gift from my brother. Reading from a screen vs. a book are very different, with paper being my favourite by far. Now I can reach up to my shelf for a quick inspiration fix whenever I like or share my favourite passages with my friends and colleagues in person instead of through a screen.

Gavin Aung Than had been working as a graphic designer, idling his time reading profiles of his heroes on Wikipedia until using his passion for cartooning to break free of his job and create stories from his favourite quotes. A lot of the quotes he has chosen to illustrate in this first volume centre around the theme of finding your passion and making it possible to do it full time; What if money was no object by Alan Watts, Ask Yourself by Howard Thurman, The Fire Within by Sophie Scholl.


In Aung Than’s own words “it’s easy to get tired of the ‘anything is possible’ and ‘follow your passion’ mantras that saturate today’s social media world” but not all of these stories are sunshine and roses. Some of the strips are loud and angry, the illustrated version of What Teachers Make by Taylor Mali and Who’s the Crazier Man by Henry Rollins meant to wake up the audience from living life passively.

This first volume holds some of my favourite strips from the site. Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman had each incredible tragedy (‘your leg get’s eaten by a crocodile? Make art!) make me laugh out loud. I read aloud the Stephen Fry quote Ultimate Self-Help Book with my boyfriend as it is something we both admire Fry for saying. Something I love about Than’s strips is the recurring characters. Ultimate Self-Help Book is the first of a few strips with the fat middle aged man as he strives to become happier is revisited again as he plucks up the courage to run a marathon (see 160. Edgar Albert Guest It Couldn’t Be Done).

make good art zenpencils
Make Good Art based on a quote by Neil Gaiman – art Gavin Aung Than

My two absolute favourite strips are placed together in the book. On Kindness by Roger Ebert and Make Gifts for People by John Green. Both of these strips have influenced how I interact with people and how I go about my work and life.

This book would be a great gift to anyone teenage or older (although be careful, there is strong language in places) or a treat for yourself as a place to dip in to for inspiration or a kick to become stronger and live a bigger life. There’s even a pull-out poster included (although I myself have my eye on some of the prints in the Zen Pencils Store) I know that there are a lot of poems, quotes and people in this book that will stay with me for a long time.


All quotes and images are copyright to their respective owners, Gavin Aung Than and Andrew McMeel Publishing. Their inclusion is for the purposes of review.


Why failure is the key to your success.

Showing that you can view negative situations with a positive light will show people your true resilience.

Many successful people cite failure (and lots of it) as the key to their success. Thomas J Watson, the founder of IBM, is quoted as saying

“If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”

Man swining on rope swing over waterfall
Don’t let a fear of falling stop you from flying.

It’s difficult to do the mental maths of failure + failure = success; we all know the old adage ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’, but if approached the right way, failure can be a powerful tool.

True Failure

There is only one failure which deserves to fill you with regret; the failure to act. You’re applying for a job that you really want but you’re afraid that you won’t get, or that your application won’t be good enough so in the end, you don’t apply. You’re scared that if you roll down that half-pipe you’re going to fall flat on your backside. You’re scared that if you try that BJJ class you’ll look like a baby giraffe on roller blades.

You’ve failed at the first hurdle. Inertia hidden as caution stops you from taking those steps towards success. No, you may not get the job, or the girl/guy or raise for your pay…

…but how will you know if you don’t try?

Reliable Feedback – don’t fail the same way twice

‘Once bitten, twice shy’. Failure is often inevitable. I don’t know anyone who turned up to their first martial arts class and was better than the regulars who’d been training there. They too failed to execute the techniques at some point, but as they tried again, they were told what they were doing wrong and changed their approach. The key to finding success in failure is to collect the correct feedback.

By keeping a journal you can collect information about what you did, how you felt, what was said and done so that you can go back to those moments when similar situations occur. When I write something down, it becomes written in my memory for a long while. When I do forget, I know where I can remind myself.

Failure tells you who you really are (and what you really want)

This time last year I was a quarter of the way through a daily project I’d set up; to make a drawing every day for a full year. The goal was to become a professional illustrator, fulfilling my lifelong dream of making money from my art.

By March I’d already burnt myself out.

I was spending less time on each drawing, each day. Instead of excitement I felt dread and frustration. The results were less than stellar. Even though I did a drawing every day without fail, drawing had become a chore. By the time 31st December came around, I hadn’t created that wonderful portfolio and I wasn’t a professional illustrator.

I had learnt something very important. I didn’t want to be a professional illustrator. I didn’t want to draw every day. I wanted to draw some of the time, only when I wanted to.

I’m proud that I stuck to my goal and rose to the challenge. Realising that I no longer wanted that goal made me feel free to concentrate on the other things I wanted in life.

Failure tells other people who you really are

Call me ‘old fashioned’ but I don’t like it when people swear. Or talk badly of others or of work. When something didn’t go your way, of course you feel like venting and letting those bad feelings out. But it is important that you do this privately.

Showing that you can view negative situations with a positive light will show people your true resilience. You demonstrate focus on long term outcomes rather than the present roadblocks. You show strength of character by not crumbling when knocked and are therefore seen as better able to take on greater challenges in the future.