The Daring Interview Series: Meet Gavin Aung Than

4/14 UPDATE: Congrats to William Chan! We’ll get your poster in the mail ASAP.

I started this interview series because I wanted to know more about the people who share their work with the world and inspire me to show up, be seen, and live brave.

Gavin Aung Than is one of those people. Meet Gavin!

Photo by Morganna Magee

Photo by Morganna Magee

Gavin Aung Than is a cartoonist based in Melbourne, Australia and creator of Zen Pencilsa cartoon blog which adapts inspirational quotes into comic stories.

Gavin launched Zen Pencils as a desperate, last-ditch attempt to turn his passion for cartooning into a career. He previously worked in the corporate design industry for many years which left him unfulfilled and finally quit his job and sold his house to fund his first year of full-time cartooning.

Since launching in 2012, Zen Pencils has been featured by The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Slate, Buzzfeed, Gawker, Brain Pickings, Upworthy, Mashable and was named one of the top 100 websites of 2013 by PC Mag. A book collection of his best comics will be released later this year. I can’t wait! 

I fell head over heals for Gavin’s CS Lewis comic the minute I saw it (it’s below). I even printed it and hung it on my inspiration board. You can only imagine my surprise when someone sent me a link to his “Man in the Arena” comic beautifully mashed with my TED talk on shame. I think I actually screamed, “I’ve been ZEN PENCILED!” It’s also below!

I took a chance and emailed Gavin about doing an interview for the blog. He is as generous as he is talented.

Enjoy the interview and leave your name in the comments! We’re giving away one of his Daring Greatly posters!

1. Vulnerability is pushing the ‘post’ button every time I share a new comic with the world. I get really anxious on the morning of a new update and become a jittery mess of nervous energy. I put everything I’ve got into each new strip and the moment it gets ‘released’ into the big, bad, scary internet is frightening to me. “What if everyone hates it?” “Have I stayed true to the meaning the original author intended?” “Those cartoon feet I drew look terrible!” I’ve done nearly 150 Zen Pencils comics, but that anxiousness hasn’t gone away.

2. What role does vulnerability play in your work?  I never thought of myself as an artist. When I think ‘artist’ I picture the stereotypical tortured soul, wrestling their inner demons to create a haunting painting, heartbreaking poem, song or piece of art. A ‘cartoonist’ is often seen as the lowest rung on the artistic ladder – I mean, we just draw funny pictures! But the longer I’ve been doing Zen Pencils I’ve come to accept that I am expressing myself through my cartoons and influencing the way people see the world, which is what art is meant to do.

I believe art = vulnerability. They are one and the same. I share a little bit of myself in each piece of my work and the more honest and vulnerable I let myself be, the more the audience connects with it.

3. What value inspires you to show up even when you’re fearful and/or uncertain?  Gratefulness. I am so thankful and happy to be able to do what I’ve always wanted for a living, and I know how much work I put into making it a reality, that it always helps me push through times of uncertainty.

I have vivid memories of working my old office job where it felt like my creativity was being sucked out of every pore of my body, not to mention the shift work hours, trudging to the office on weekends and national holidays. Whenever I need that extra jolt of motivation, I just think back to those days. I’m most fearful of public speaking (I could learn a thing or two from you!), and thanks to Zen Pencils, I’m being asked to do it more and more. Whenever I get nervous I just tell myself to be grateful for the opportunity, because it’s a hell of a lot more exciting than what I did in my previous life.

Photo by Morganna Magee

Photo by Morganna Magee

4. What’s something that gets in the way of your creativity and how do you move through it?

My own inner gremlin telling me whatever I’m working on is utter garbage, which I think all creative people wrestle with. Having a regular update schedule means I can’t get too precious about the work, there’s no time to over analyze or self-criticize – I just get the comic done and try to improve each week.

As for actual things that get in the way of my output – online distraction! Internet, Twitter, Facebook, emails – all the usual culprits. It seems like my attention span has been rewired to the equivalent of a gnat with all this technology and information we get bombarded with. Whenever I would sit down to think of ideas, my mind would wander easily, get distracted and just wouldn’t focus. I’ve recently tried setting aside a day each week where I totally unplug, don’t use the internet at all and just try to work on new ideas. So far it’s been great, whether I have the willpower to stick to it is another matter.

5. It’s often difficult to share ourselves and our work with the world given the reflexive criticism and mean-spiritedness that we see in our culture – especially online. What strategies to you use to dare greatly – to show up, let yourself be seen, share your work with the world, and deal with criticism?

Funny you should ask this because I’m in the middle of a multi-part comic story that deals with precisely this issue of online hatred and ‘troll culture’. The more popular my site has become has meant that it’s a lot more open to criticism, which is fine with me – but some of the comments I get baffle me – just pure, hateful stuff. I deal with it by accepting that it comes with the territory, and that I’d much rather be “in the arena” contributing and creating new work, than be one of those in the crowd.

7. Describe a snapshot of a joyful moment in your life.

It’s a sunny weekday (meaning there’s not too many people around) and I’m out having brunch with my wife and our two dogs. Or I’m in the shower and an idea hits me out of nowhere for a new story that I’ve been struggling with (for some reason it mostly happens in the shower).

8. Do you have a mantra, manifesto, or favorite quote for living and loving with your whole heart?

Well, we both share a love for Teddy Roosevelt’s “Daring Greatly” speech (it was one of the first quotes I adapted into a comic and I always recall it when I’m doubting myself, dealing with negative people online or just need to kick myself in the butt when I’m slacking off.  


Now, for some fun!

From James Lipton, host of Inside the Actor’s Studio

What is your least favorite word? “Smash.” – It’s an Aussie thing – people here say it when you’ve done well or going to do well. For example, “You smashed it Brené” translates to “You did great Brené” It drives me crazy!

What sound or noise do you love? Toast being buttered.

What sound or noise do you hate? My schnauzer’s ridiculously high-pitched bark.

What is your favorite curse word? F–k. The original and the best.

From JL’s Uncle Jessie Meme

A song/band/type of music you’d risk wreck & injury to turn off when it comes on the radio?  The commercial dance music that seems to dominate the charts these days.

Favorite show on television? I could try to show-off my pop-culture cred and say something cool like Breaking Bad, The Wire or Deadwood, which are all fantastic. But at the end of the day, for me, nothing will beat The Simpsons. 

Favorite movie? Being a child of the 90s, it would have to be Pulp Fiction. Totally blew my very impressionable teenage mind.

What are you grateful for today? My comics allowing me to connect with people like you.

If you could have anything put on a t-shirt what would it be? Just Do it. I think that’s already been done though. 

Favorite meal? Mohinga. It’s a traditional Burmese fish gravy with rice noodles and a variety of yummy condiments.

A talent you wish you had? Definitely something music related. My grandfather was a jazz guitarist and I would go to my grandparents’ house everyday after school to wait for my parents to finish work. There were guitars everywhere. Apparently my grandfather tried to teach me to play … but I was more interested in watching Bugs Bunny cartoons. Seems like my path was already chosen.

Favorite song/band? “Don’t Let Me Down” by Lennon/The Beatles

What’s on your nightstand? The new Jim Henson biography. I’m hoping to find a good quote or story from it to turn into a comic. It’s taking a long time to read because I keep going on YouTube to watch the Muppets clips mentioned in the book!

What’s something about you that would surprise us? I’m a web cartoonist but I don’t read many webcomics.

From Smith Magazine’s Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs from Writers Famous and Obscure 

Your six-word memoir: Finally beat the system by scribbling.


If you’re like me and you’ve fallen in love with Gavin’s work, please visit his website, Zen Pencils.

You can also follow Gavin on Twitter at @zenpencils or on Facebook here.  Click here for his Tumblr. And Instagram! 

Leave your name in the comments and one lucky winner will get his AWESOME Daring Greatly poster!

Thanks, Gavin!


Leave a Comment

  1. Varuna

    I’m totally Zen-penciled as well!
    The interview was a great read Dr.Brown!

    P.S.You probably want to correct ‘heals’ on paragraph4.


  2. Hello friends, its fantastic paragraph about cultureand entirely defined,
    keep it up all the time.

  3. Pingback: Must-Reads for Creatives 1.9.15 - In Tandem

  4. Steve S

    I think there’s sometimes another frame after that. It’s when the joy of flying is so scary, that she pops both balloons again.

  5. Hello, all is going sound here and ofcourse every one is sharing data, that’s really good, keep up writing.

  6. Tracey Humbert

    Thank you for introducing me to Gavin’s work in Zen Pencils!! Amazing work!
    I will be eagerly awaiting the release of his book. Not just to keep for my own inspiration, but to share it with loved ones who I know would delight in the artistry and the wisdom he shares.
    This is my first response to a blog. I’ve always worried what others would think and deleted previous responses to blogs over the years. Your work and Gavin’s Daring Greatly cartoon inspired me to ignore the gremlin and give it a try.
    Thank you Brene and thank you Gavin for your courageous example of showing up.
    You will be seeing more responses from me in no time!

    Tracey Humbert

  7. Pingback: The Arena | Embracing Life

  8. Laura Morwood

    Brilliant Reading this interview has given me the strength to be creative today. Thanks!

  9. Norma

    How amazing, refreshing, AND inspiring to meet like minded, vulnerable people once we’re in the arena daring greatly. Those comics make me want to get back in the arena again tomorrow to see who I may meet there.


  10. Bill Stough

    Fascinating dude. Live the artistry. You have a new fan.

  11. Olga

    Great work! Smash 😉
    These pics are simple, easy and comprehensive even for children, but this is the reason they are precious… this simple truth inspires and move you in the right direction!
    Thank you

  12. Lisa Pinney

    Brene you are an inspiration to all who listen, really listen to you! thank you so much!
    Gavin- Youre brave beyond belief!

  13. ilya

    nice comixes) need more

  14. This is a cool interview. The more I learn about inspirational people who have made it big in the world, the more I realize it’s all about taking that chance. It doesn’t matter if you fall on your face 50 times because you only need to succeed once to do something great. I will definitely check out Zen Pencils in detail now.

  15. Kristin

    Thanks so much for sharing your story. I am a photographer struggling with vulnerability and daring greatly. I love your cartoons and the fact that you are living your dream!

  16. Agni Kostarakou

    Amazing work……Thank you very much for showing this to us

  17. Cathy Bertell

    Cathy bertell

  18. Even as an “older” @ 72yo, I long to see all ages “daring greatly,” and not sitting down thinking they are ever done. Thank you both for reminding us to not lock away our sorrows or joys. ‘Til we breathe no more there is life to live. Thus, thank you for keeping us reminded to keep daring greatly, to be vulnerable, to know we are not finished, we’ve not yet paid all our “dues.” Some day you and will both breathe our last…….but!…until then, I choose life!!! Thank you for helping all of us do that, daily, hourly, secondly. Keep writing. Keep drawing. Keep re-astounding us with the truth that does bring life. Thank you, Brené. Thank you, Gavin.

  19. Ann

    I love the C.S. Lewis Cartoon on Risking Your Heart for Love. I love Zen Pencils, too.

  20. Vikki

    Thank you for sharing – this made my morning, and has inspired me to really show up today 🙂 That final image of the girl walking through the door will stay with me. Please continue the lovely work you’re doing, the world needs it.

  21. Melanie

    Wow!! Great interview and I am definitely going to check out his site. I love comics, cartoons. Laughter/humor is my medicine for everything. I think you either have that (cartoon/comic humor) love or don’t get it. I am grateful that I enjoy the simple pleasure of looking for the comics first in the paper. Everything he said hit home for me. Thank you for bringing him and his “Funnies” to my attention. Best of luck!

    Melanie Monical
    Native Houstonian who now lives
    in the funny town of San Leon, Tx.
    (Galveston Bay)

  22. Audra

    That daring greatly poster should be hung in every young persons bedroom. We could change the next generation!

  23. Roxy Reed

    I absolutely love the Zen Pencil for Daring Greatly. Who would have known someone would make a comic strip out of such meaningful, life-changing concepts?? This idea is bringing me such joy!! I’m a new fan!

  24. Kirsten

    Pictures just tells more than words, you are great.