"Tears in the Rain" monologue captures it all

When all is said and done, we are the sum of our experiences. Our thoughts and feelings - who we are and what we believe - are the result of the memories that we carry forward of a life lived. Our minds are a vast storehouse of the millions of minutes that we have been alive.

This is why the loss of someone like my mother was so tragic. Every question that I failed to ask my mother will remain forever unanswered. Every memory that I failed to pry from her mind will never be spoken again.  

My children were born after my mother had passed away, so as I experienced fatherhood for the first time and began to wonder if the things I see in my children were also present in me as a boy, I must resign myself to the fact that I will never know. The person who carried this information is gone.

When a person dies, it's like the wiping of a precious hard drive. The loss of valuable data. Memories so strong and so true gone forever.

It's awful. 

Even worse, so many of us plod through life, careless with our memories. We experience a moment of beauty or grace. Someone says something that causes our heart to soar. We experience a moment with our spouse or child or parent that we never want to forget. But instead of seeing the priceless nature of these moments and holding onto them with all our might, we discard them like trash. A brilliant, beautiful moment that feels as important as anything that has ever happened to us is forgotten three weeks later as life continues to pile up and we fail to reflect, record, and preserve. 

Our minds of filled with memories, but the number of memories that we have allowed to fade away is astronomical. We forget so much more than we remember, even when these forgotten moments are profoundly beautiful or incredibly moving.  

This is why I do Homework for Life. It's the most important thing I do. This is why the collection of storyworthy moments from my life that I have amassed over the past five years is the most valuable thing I own. 

Seeing, recognizing, capturing, and preserving the most meaningful moments from my life takes less than five minutes a day, yet it is the most important thing I do every day. 

If you're not familiar with Homework for Life, you want watch my TED Talk on the subject here: https://bit.ly/2f9ZPne

A reader who also does Homework for Life recently pointed me to the final scene from Blade Runner, known as the "Tears in the Rain" monologue. In the scene, the dying replicant Roy Batty delivers the speech to Rick Deckard moments after Batty saved his life despite Deckard being sent to terminate him. 

In five simple sentences, the replicant makes it clear that he also understands how life is but the sum of our experiences. He understands the value of a lifetime of memories. And he certainly understands the inherent tragedy of death, not only in the loss of the person, but also in the loss of the sum of their experiences. The deletion of their memories forever.  

It's s devastating scene. Terrible and tragic. You need not watch the film or even understand the nature of the memories that the replicant lists to understand the sadness and tragedy of the moment.

A replicant is engineered to remember everything. It has a super-human mind. It is a Homework for Life machine.

For the rest of us? We need to stop discarding our moments of beauty, poignance, heartbreak, and discovery like trash. We need to see, recognize, capture, and preserve. 

We are the sum of our experiences. Make that sum as large as humanly possible, and you will be a more thoughtful, more complete, and a happier human being.

Speak Up Storytelling #3: Mansoor Basha

Episode #3 of Speak Up Storytelling is now ready for your listening pleasure. 

On this week's episode, we talk about finding and crafting stories in your everyday life using my strategy "Homework for Life." 

Elysha gets a little annoyed with the moment that I share. 

Next, we listen to the incredible story by Mansoor Basha about the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and it's echoes years later. Then Elysha and I discuss the strengths of his fantastic story as well as suggestions for improvement.

Finally, we answer listener questions about telling a story at The Moth and humor in storytelling, and we each make a recommendation.  

If you haven't subscribed to the podcast in Apple podcasts (or wherever you receive your podcasts), please do. And if you're not one of the 17 people to rate the podcast and 5 to review it in Apple Podcasts (who are the best people ever), we would love it if you did.

Ratings and reviews help listeners find our podcast easier, and it makes us feel better about ourselves and our work. 

Our first review, by the way, came from a woman named Kate who is my former third grade student, Elysha's former fifth grade student, our former babysitter, and now a teacher beginning her career in the same school where Elysha began her career. 

Remarkable how your former students can sometimes remain a part of your life long after they have left your classroom. 

Speak Up logo.png

How I delivered an inspirational talk at a human trafficking conference (while knowing nothing about human trafficking)

I was speaking to some of my former storytelling students - children of Holocaust survivors who had gone through a workshop series with me  that culminated in a storytelling performance.

One of them told me, "Now I see stories everywhere. Everything is a story."

While I don't agree that everything is a story, I knew exactly what she meant. Our lives are filled with storyworthy moments. More than you would ever imagine. Those who mine their lives for these moments and develop them into a treasure-trove of stories constantly add depth and breadth to our lives and their own. 

We are the ones who remember our lives best. We remember our lives through story. 

But possessing so many stories has an added value. When you have a lot of stories, you have the potential to inspire, amuse, entertain, or change minds, regardless of circumstances. No matter the context or need, you'll always have something to say. 

A couple years ago, I was in Indiana, speaking and performing at a variety of events at college campuses in and around Purdue University. I spoke about storytelling, writing, and personal productivity, and I produced and hosted a story slam for students.

A large conference on human trafficking was also underway on campus. I was asked if I'd be willing to close the conference with a speech to the attendees. 

I agreed.

Two weeks before the speech, one of the organizers called and asked about my expertise in human trafficking.

"I have none," I said,

I'll never forget what he said:

"I guess that's what Google is for?" he said nervously. "Right?"

Wrong. 

It turns out that when you have a treasure-trove of stories, you can speak to almost any audience regardless of the topic, purpose, or need. 

Besides, after three days of speeches, breakout groups, and seminars on the topic of human trafficking, did his audience really want one more speech on human trafficking from a guy who had to conduct a Google search on the subject?

Instead, I told a funny story about how I helped a shy student emerge from her shell after years of withdrawal, and in doing so, I came to realize that although I had "saved" this one girl, there were many other shy, silent children who I had not, primarily because I had stopped trying. I had given up on them. I had presumed that someone else would come along and fix their problem. 

Once the story was finished, I explained that when engaged in important work like teaching or seeking to end human trafficking - people work - we can never give up. We can never quit. We cannot assume that someone else will solve the problems.

More importantly, we can't afford to act slowly. We are not making widgets or selling keepsakes. The quality of a human being's life is in our hands. The very last thing we can do is allow bureaucrats, politicians, and ineffective administrators tell us that meaningful change takes time. Institutional transition can't happen overnight. We can't allow ineffective leaders to tell us that large ships don't change their direction overnight. 

This might be fine if you're selling real estate, building furniture, or coding an app, but when you're dealing with the lives of human beings, these passive, placating statements cannot be allowed to stand. 

As a teacher, I cannot be slow to action when a child's future is at stake. I cannot stop trying to save a child simply because every tool in my belt has failed.

Like me, the people who work to end human trafficking cannot afford to move slowly. Cannot waste a moment of time. The people of the world who choose to make a career out of saving lives must be the fastest, hardest, most dedicated people possible. They must be red tape destroyers. Bureaucratic assassin. Fast moving missiles of good.

I knew nothing about human trafficking except that it was too important to not work like hell to bring it to an end. Happily, I had a story that applied similarly and was filled with stakes, humor, and heart. 

It went over very well. The organizer called me the following week to tell me that it was the only time all week that anyone laughed and that my message was heard loud and clear by conference attendees:

We are human saving warriors. We must move at lightning speed. We cannot allow anyone to stand in our way or even slow us down. Human lives are at stake.   

If you are a person with a treasure trove of stories, you can speak anywhere about just about anything. It's hard for me to imagine someone calling tomorrow and asking me to speak on a topic that I couldn't find an entertaining, enlightening story and associated message that would work.    

Want to become a person full of stories? I recommend Homework for Life:

How can you possibly have so many stories?

It's a question I get a lot. Whether it's stories that I'm sharing on the golf course or at the dinner table or on the stage, I always have a new story to tell.

A small part of this is the unusual life that I've led, filled with chaos, bad luck, and at times, disaster. My friend and the Artistic Director of The Moth Catherine Burns has said to me, "You either have a good time or you have a good story."

A much larger part of it is the system that I use to find stories in my life called Homework for Life. People who use my system with fidelity and rigor find themselves awash in stories about their lives. It works.

But having many stories to tell also has a lot to do with the understanding that a story is not always a series of fantastic events or shocking developments. You need not move mountains to have a great story to tell. A story can be small. Infinitesimal, really, if it speaks to something about your heart, reflects your experience as a human being, or offers some fundamental truth about who you are.

That's why I love Bill Bernat's story "Oreo Relapse," which was featured on The Moth Radio Hour last week. Bill's entire story - more than five minutes long - takes place in a grocery aisle as he tries to decide if he will purchase a bag of Oreo cookies and thus fall off his dietary wagon.

Bill-Bernat.jpg

That's it. If I were to summarize the story, I would say, "Man battles his inner cookie demons as he tries to decide if he should purchase a bag of Oreos."

And yet the story is filled with humor and heart. It speaks to something universal in all of us:

The power of temptation. The fragility of will power. Our constant inner battle of right vs. wrong. The shame of not having full control over our desires.

Bernat's story is brilliant in its simplicity. Very little happens in the story, yet when he is finished, I feel like I have been offered an honest, unflinching look at the man's soul. I feel connected to the man. I love the guy.

I don't know Bill Bernat, but I bet he has lots and lots of stories to tell.

"Nothing interesting ever happens to me."
"My life is boring."
"Nothing too terrible has ever happened to me."

Refrains I hear all the time to would-be storytellers who worry that unless you've died on the side of the road or been arrested for a crime you didn't commit or lived on the streets, you won't have any good stories to tell.

Not even close to true.

If you are willing to speak honestly, embrace vulnerability, think introspectively, and share a part of you that most would not normally share, you will have more stories than you could ever imagine.

Do your Homework for Life.

Listen to Bill Bernat's story.

Become the person who always has a new story to tell.

Perhaps a near-death experience is a good thing. At least one therapist seems to think so.

A mental health therapist recently said this in a comment to a post on the blog:

"I frequently try to bring on an existential crisis in a client to help them find what is most important to them."

I thought this comment was fascinating. 

I've often said that my alarmingly frequent near-brushes with death drive me (at least in part) to succeed, and that without my death by bee sting, death by car accident, and near-death by robbery, I may have never accomplished the things I have. 

I've spoken about this many times, including a TEDx Talk last year:

Perhaps I needed those near-death experiences. Starting out as a kid who had to leave home at 18 and ending up in jail, homeless, and facing trial for a crime didn't commit didn't make things easy. Maybe I needed as much help as I could get, even if it came in the form of several close calls. I'm not sure if I would wish these experiences on anyone, but maybe a head-on collision with a Mercedes, an undetected allergy to a bee sting, and a violent assault and robbery were just what I needed in order to keep me focused and working hard.

I've often wondered about this. As a life coach, I've once worked with a person who knew another near-death survivor, and he said that the two of us were remarkably alike. In fact, he told me that he often wished that he would suffer a near-death experience, too, because he said that we were the two most driven people he had ever met.

I explained to him that these brushes with death came with a cost, including a lifetime of post traumatic stress disorder, but he seemed to believe that this was a small price to pay for a lifetime of productivity, tenacity, and success. 

Maybe he's right. 

It's impossible to determine exactly why one person succeeds in life while another does not, but I know that when I was a boy, I wanted to be a teacher and a writer, and for a long time, both of those dreams seemed impossible to me and to everyone around me. The idea that I might find my way to college, graduate, become a teacher, and publish novels was something most people would've considered a fantasy. 

Today they are a reality.  

Perhaps this therapist is doing something brilliant. By bringing her clients to an existential crisis, she is helping them understand how short and fragile life can be and perhaps instilling in them the same fear of lost opportunities and regret that I have.

And I suspect that she's not holding a gun to their head and pulling the trigger or sending them through a windshield in order to do so. 

Up until now, the best I could do is tell my story and implore people to heed my advice:

Say Yes.
Live Life Like You Are 100 Years Old.
Complete your Homework for Life.

Maybe there's a better way. Maybe you, too, could experience the kind of existential crisis that I have, and like me, maybe it will change your life. 

I'd love to know how she brings about these existential crises in her clients, and I suspect that my former life coaching student would as well. 

Go to The Moth and tell a story. And not "someday." Go soon.

Just this past week I heard from listeners who heard one or more of my stories on The Moth's podcast, The Moth Radio Hour, and/or The Moth's website in:

Cape Town, South Africa
London, UK
Columbus, OH
Hartford, CT
Western Australia
Hong Kong
New Hampshire
New York City
Sao Paulo, Brazil
Blackstone, Massachusetts

The idea that people across the globe are listening to me tell stories about my life is incredible. The power and reach of The Moth cannot be overstated. 

And you could do this, too. If you're in the vicinity of a Moth StorySLAM (and there are many throughout the country and the world), you should go and tell a story. Drop your name in the tote bag and wait for your name to be called. Perform well, and your story might travel the world someday, too.

And everyone has a story. If you don't believe me, start doing my Homework for Life and you'll soon discover that you have more stories than you could have ever imagined. 

So choose a true story from your life, take the stage at a Moth StorySLAM, and speak into the microphone. Tell your story. It need not be funny or sad and suspenseful or perfect. It simply needs to be a story. The Moth actually offers some tips and tricks to help your performance. And there is no better place in the world to tell a story than at The Moth. The men and women who host and produce these shows are remarkably supportive and exceptionally professional. The sound equipment is second to none. And best of all, the audiences are warm, kind, and more accepting than you could ever imagine.  

And who knows? It could change your life. 

It changed mine. 

July 11, 2016 will mark my five year anniversary in storytelling. On that day in 2011, I took a stage at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and competed in my first Moth StorySLAM. I told a story about pole vaulting in high school and managed to win the slam. 

 

That story eventually made its way onto The Moth Radio Hour and podcast. 

My original plan was to tell one story on a Moth stage and never return. Do it once and put it behind me. Check off the box marked "The Moth" and move on. 

Instead, I fell in love with storytelling. I worked hard and got better. Today storytelling is an enormous part of my life.

In the past five years, I've competed in 43 Moth StorySLAMs, winning 23 of them. I've also competed in 17 Moth GrandSLAM championships, winning four of them. I've performed on stages small and large throughout the country and around the world for The Moth and many other storytelling organizations.

In 2013 Elysha and I launched Speak Up, a Connecticut-based storytelling organization with the goal of bringing the art of storytelling to the Hartford area. By the end of 2016 we will have produced more than 40 sell-out or near sell-out shows throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts. We've partnered with theaters, museums, art spaces, and more, performing for audiences ranging from 150-500 people.

I've also taught storytelling to thousands of people, both in workshops that I run and in my role of storytelling expert on Slate's The Gist. Recently, I've begun performing solo shows at places like The Pound Ridge Storytelling Festival, The Lebanon Opera House, and Kripalu, and I've begun delivering keynote and inspirational addresses for a variety of organizations.   

My wife has been able to stay home with our children for the past seven years in part because of storytelling.

All I wanted to do when I began this journey was tell one story for The Moth.

And I am not special. I did not grow up in a family of storytellers. I didn't learn to tell stories from some master storyteller. I didn't spend nights in coffee bars and at open mics honing my craft. I just went to The Moth and told a story. Then I did it again and again and again. 

So if you're in the vicinity of a Moth StorySLAM, you should go and tell a story, too. As frightening or daunting or nerve wracking or impossible as that might sound, you should go. Since I began telling stories for The Moth, about half a dozen of my closest friends (including one former elementary school student) have gone to The Moth to tell a story. Many of my former storytelling students have taken the stage at a Moth StorySLAM and performed.

Dozens more have told a story for us at Speak Up.

If you live near a city that host a Moth StorySLAM, go and tell a story. I can't imagine what my life might be like today had I not conquered my fear and told my first story. 

And if you live in the vicinity of me, I'd be happy to take you to one. Climb into my car and we'll drive together to New York or Boston and listen to ten strangers (and perhaps me) tell a true story from their lives. The stories will be honest, funny, heart-wrenching, surprising, suspenseful, and more. Some will be told exceptionally well. Some less so. 

It won't matter. You will have a fantastic evening of entertainment and human connection.

Maybe you'll even tell a story yourself. You should. You never know what may happen.

TEDx Berkshires: Homework for Life

Watch my most recent TEDx Talk, "Homework for Life," below. 

In this talk, I discuss a simple strategy - stumbled upon accidentally - that you can use to slow down time, find greater meaning in your life, and give your future self one of the best gifts imaginable. And if you're a storyteller - on the stage or at the dinner table - there is an immeasurable bonus.  

All I ask is for five minutes a day.