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What SpongeBob can teach us about following more than one dream…

Last Updated:

May 24, 2024

Table of Contents

Welcome to Edition #52 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

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Did You Know? 1+1=3!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? “SpongeBob SquarePants” was created by a marine biology teacher who loved to draw

It’s July 1999. A new animated TV show, called SpongeBob SquarePants, just aired on the children’s television network Nickelodeon.

Within one month, the show had 1.9 million viewers—outranking Pokemon, which had 1.7 million viewers. Within 3 years, the show had 61.5 million viewers per month and was the top-rated show for children aged 2-11.

How did SpongeBob come to be?

Let’s go back fifteen years, to 1984. Stephen Hillenburg, a recent marine biology major and art minor from the California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, had just started working at the Ocean Institute in Dana, California.

Hillenburg’s job? To “teach kids about the diversity of the intertidal pools.” 

But Hillenburg didn’t just want to teach biology in the old-school textbook way. He wanted to do it in an “entertaining way.” 

His solution? A comic book featuring “Bob the Sponge” who was a “sea sponge with cool black shades… narrating the shenanigans of [his ocean habitat].”

For 5 years, Hillenberg used this comic book character to teach visitors at the Ocean Institute. Then, in 1989, Hillenburg decided to pursue his artistic passions more formally. He hoped that “Bob the Sponge” could become his ticket to becoming a professional artist. There was just one problem: Not a single publisher was interested.

Despite the rejections, Hillenburg kept going. Later that year, he attended the California Institute of Art’s Experimental Animation program. After graduation, he switched careers and joined Nickelodeon as a storyboard artist for a show called Rocko’s Modern Life.

Then, a chance encounter at work changed his life—and the world.

One day, a coworker at Nickelodeon saw Hillenburg’s “Bob the Sponge” comic and said: “This should be your own show.” 

Hillenburg agreed—and started refining his old drawings. First, he added limbs to his sponge. Then, he made the round sponge square.

The result? “Sponge Boy”, whom Hillenburg described as a sponge with “an abnormal love for his job at ‘The Crusty Crab.’” He also sketched other characters: Squidward (“the kind of guy who subscribes to Martha Stewart Living”) and Plankton (“a textbook case of the Napoleon complex.”) 

Then, after realizing that the name “Sponge Boy” was already copyrighted, Hillenburg changed the name to “SpongeBob SquarePants” and, with Nickelodeon’s green light, aired the show. 

Within a month, SpongeBob SquarePants bumped Pokemon off the #1 spot on TV.

Today, 25 years after its debut, SpongeBob SquarePants has won 61 awards and was ranked as recently as last year as the “most in-demand children’s show.” In doing so, SpongeBob has also achieved Hillenburg’s goal of using “naivete [and] slapstick humor” to show children “the plankton and the crabs and starfish… and want to take care of our oceans.”

So, the next time you find yourself picking between passions, remember Hillenburg—who took more than one passion, combined them, and made 1+1=3.

Stephen Hillenburg in 2006 with the SpongeBob character from SpongeBob SquarePants (via Junko Kimura/Getty Images).

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Magic happens when you merge your interests and strengths.

There are lots of comic artists and lots of marine biology teachers—but far fewer marine biology teachers who are also comic artists.

In combining two seemingly unrelated interests and strengths, Hillenburg stood out—and created something that stood out.

This could be you!

Wondering if you should pursue “strength A” or “passion B”?

Try filling in these blanks:

(1) “I’m good at _______ and interested in _______.”

  • E.g., “I’m good at data science and interested in basketball.”

(2) If I applied my skills in _______ to my interest in _______, I could _______.”

  • E.g., “If I applied my skills in data science to my interest in basketball, I could use statistics to help players improve their performance and predict the outcome of games.”

Interviewing for a job—and facing the question, “Why are you interested in this role?”

Try saying this:

(1) “Having worked in [past role] and [other past role], [new role] makes sense..."

(2) "... Since it blends [type of work from the first role] with [type of work from the second role].”

*Like this fill in the blank? This one appears in my “How to Say It” flashcards in “The Ultimate Bundle"!

Not all domains can be merged, but I have yet to find two domains I could not combine. (For example, are you good at cooking and do you like kids? Maybe creating kid-friendly recipes is in your future!)

I know it because I’ve experienced it: I love designing things. I also love “frameworking” the heck out of everything. And I’d like to think that I am half decent at helping others navigate their careers. Who knew that the combination of all of those interests would be a flashcard deck!

Make 1+1=3!


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