“I am determined to have fun doing my work…If I’m enjoying myself then that feeling is passed on to the reader.”
The date is 11th of September 2001. A young college graduate named Gerard Way was in a commuter train, on the way to work.
He had studied in the School of Visual Arts in New York City, with a major in cartooning. Now, most of his focus was spent on drawing a comic book series called “The Breakfast Monkey”, which he hoped to pitch as a show to Cartoon Network where he worked. But it was turned down, as the company was “more interested in turning it into toys and pillowcases and shit like that.”
Secretly though, he was harboring ambitions of playing music — it was an idea that he locked away deep inside his mind. Until that day.
It was a pretty mundane train ride, until he saw the World Trade Center buildings collapse before his eyes. “It was like being in a science fiction film or some kind of disaster film,” he said. “It was exactly that kind of feeling. You didn’t believe it. You felt like you were in Independence Day. It made no sense. Your brain couldn’t process it.”
“All these people behind me, they all had friends and family in those buildings. I didn’t,” he added. “So when that first building went, it was like an A-bomb went off. It was just this emotion and it made you nauseous. One of the first thoughts that went through my head when they went down was, “What does this mean?”
In that moment, he had an epiphany. He suddenly thought to himself, “Everything’s kind of pointless that you’re doing right now…This doesn’t mean anything. This is all garbage. This is all bullshit. I need to do something that actually means something, or my life’s gonna mean nothing. Just like this cartoon means nothing.”
“Since then,” he said, “I’ve continued to think about what we would do at the end of the world if we knew we only had a little time left.”
Very soon after that, Gerard started taking his musical ambitions seriously. One of his first songs was “Skylines and Turnstiles”, written about the traumatic 9/11 incident. Over a short period of time, he had recruited enough members to form a proper band. One of them was Mikey, his own brother. Mikey was working in a bookstore when he was moved by the title of a book called “Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance” by Irvine Welsh.
And so, the band was named My Chemical Romance.
The band went on to carve a unique place in music, owing to their ambitious concepts and storytelling, as well as their dark and confessional lyrics.
For Gerard, he regarded songwriting as his therapy. My Chemical Romance was his place to vent out about his frustrations and his mental health struggles. It was his place of offering hope to himself and his listeners in triumphing over life’s difficulties.
“The triumph of the human spirit over darkness was something that was kind of built into the DNA of the band from the beginning,” he explained. “The self-actualisation, the triumph of the spirit and things like that, getting through really hard things…And I think overcoming that darkness, that darkness externally and internally, is a beautiful thing.”
For Gerard, songwriting has never been about making radio hits or people-pleasing. It has always been more important for him to write songs that had weight, that was important enough to be communicated.
He said, “We would get excited about certain things in terms of what we thought was going to be something that communicated very successfully or at the very least something people liked,” he says. “We never really thought in terms of radio hits or anything like that.”
My Chemical Romance went on to create three groundbreaking albums, culminating in their magnum opus, “The Black Parade”. If their debut album “I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love” had landed them on the national stage, and their second album “Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge” had brought them superstardom, “The Black Parade” had cemented them as one of the most legendary acts of the decade.
Yet, in Gerard’s vision, he had never imagined the band continuing past “The Black Parade”. He had started the band with far-reaching ideas on what each record would sound like, and “The Black Parade” was supposed to be “a nice ending point for me — it was an extremely high note, I had said all I’d wanted to say. There was nothing more for me to say under that umbrella of My Chemical Romance.”
Meanwhile, the machine of the music industry hungered for the next big hit. There was enormous pressure for them to keep the conveyor belt moving: to write, to record, to tour, and to do it all over again.
“When things start to succeed and go really well, that’s when a lot of people start to have an opinion and that’s when you run into struggle,” Gerard said in an interview. “After ‘The Black Parade’ everybody had a fucking opinion about what MCR should be. So it made it difficult to figure out what direction to take next. You get caught up in this trap of ‘Is it ever gonna be good enough?'”
It was a troubling time — the band was deeply depressed, and Gerard in particular was drinking heavily again and could barely step outside. Still, they kept the machine running anyway.
Despite feeling checked out, they worked out on their next album, “Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys” — an attack on capitalism, and a bold, albeit divisive attempt in reinventing themselves. Gone were the gloom in their previous records, replaced by garish colors and more upbeat tunes. Reflecting on the album, Gerard remarked, “I like playing with expectations. I thought, ‘Whatever we do next, everyone’s going to hate it – there’s just no way we can top (The Black Parade).”
Not long after the tour ended, My Chemical Romance announced their split.
Gerard used the opportunity to adopt a relatively quiet lifestyle. He had quit smoking, and his routine consisted of meditating, sipping six cups of coffee a day, and caring for the local wildlife in Eagle Rock, California, where he lived with his family. He would retreat into his home office and write comics — a beloved vocation that he was able to focus exclusively on. To date, his most notable work has been the highly popular comic book series “The Umbrella Academy”, which he had started publishing while he was still in My Chemical Romance. The series was in fact, inspired by the dysfunctional family-like dynamic in the band.
“The good thing about the Umbrella Academy period was that I was a lot younger and had lots of energy,” says Gerard. “And when you’re touring with a band, when you’re on the road, the downtime is insane. I like touring but one of the things I didn’t like was that it felt there was so much wasted time, so I used that time to write comic books.”
Then, the unimaginable happened. Just as My Chemical Romance’s announcement to split was seemingly sudden, so was their recent reunion.
Breaking the silence on their split in the first place, Gerard remarked that “I probably just needed to take a break.” He also claimed that fame was “extremely traumatic”, that the band grew far bigger than what he had intended it to be. He said, “I needed the last seven or eight years to process that experience.”
Fans were more than pleasantly surprised when the band dropped their first song in eight years, “The Foundations of Decay”.
It seemed that Gerard was finally able to get himself to a better place before committing to My Chemical Romance again. “There’s three things that are the focus of my life besides family as being the most important thing,” he said. “One, writing these two comics I write — Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol. Two, making music once a week and releasing new songs — I was trying to do it every month but it’s now going to turn into longer gaps of releasing songs. And then my well-being is the other thing, like my physical fitness and my diet, making big life changes and quitting smoking — things like that. I’m starting to really take care of myself again.”
Looking back at their first reunion show in 2019, Gerard reflected that “that was the most fun I’ve ever had playing with My Chemical Romance.”
Gerard Way’s story reminds that at the end of the day, life is too short for us to not do what we really want to do, or to be doing things that we don’t enjoy, that aren’t fun — or in his case, things that stopped being fun.
In a sense, he was fortunate to have that realization at a fairly young age. But for some of us, that desperate call to action might arrive when we’re too old to heed it, or it might never arrive at all. Even worse, we might have heard the call already, but have kept on ignoring it, in favor of what feels safe or realistic.
Having a vocation that you’re genuinely enjoying is crucial in order for you to create great work. Because only then can you have something that is authentic, that feels natural coming from your own experiences, emotions and struggles. And of course, having fun shows in your work. There’s no way you can fool your audience — they can sense when you’re giving a half-assed effort or when you have one foot out the door.
Also, understand that the point here isn’t to quit every time something gets difficult, but to quit the right thing. It’s worth examining if that something is best aligned with your own strengths, if the rewards are worth pushing through for, and if it’s on par with your long-term interests — is it something you don’t mind doing every day for the rest of your life?
Quitting the right things opens the doors for other things for you to excel in.
As Seth Godin wrote in his book “The Dip”, “Quitting is a lot like dying. We stick out things too long because it feels unsafe to walk away from them. We lionize people who through persistence make it to the other side, but what we don’t talk about or write about is how before they did this they used to do something else, something that they had to quit before they did this big thing.”
The famous physicist Michio Kaku, whose line of work undoubtedly involves a painstaking level of perseverance, once advised that “If it’s not fun, don’t do it”. What he meant is that if you don’t think a problem is worth solving, and if you can’t enjoy solving it, you’re better off finding something else to do.
And perhaps it doesn’t have to mean leaving that something for good. It could just as well mean taking a break, even if an indefinite one. In Gerard Way’s case, he left his full-time comic book writing career to pursue music, only to pick it up again when My Chemical Romance disbanded. And now that he has been in a healthier position to manage the stresses that come with being in a globally-renowned band, he has since reunited with My Chemical Romance.
With that being said, it’s okay to quit jobs, hobbies, or projects that you don’t enjoy — as long as it gets you closer to finding the things that you genuinely love.
Just as Steve Jobs shared in his commencement speech at Stanford, “When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.