Rome, Italy (yeah, I’m on vacation)
“Wither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car at night?” (Jack Kerouac)
I’ve been asking people, lately, what I consider a great question: “Is there anyone in your life who could write your biography?”
Most folks never think about their legacy.
The writers I know all do, of course, though few take the time to work up an autobiography (beyond the blurbs we use for promotion). You gotta be really full of yourself to think you’re worthy of a book.
Still, it’s a question to ponder. Who in your life knows you well enough to tell the tale?
I have no one. Because I’ve moved around a lot, and had radically different sub-plots in my life many times that brought in new batches of friends and cohorts, leaving prior ones in the dust.
There are folks who could tell you intimate things about me, within a limited “chapter” of time… but never the whole story, as an overview. Childhood, youth, the middle years, geezerdom. Each of these eras are like separate John’s, completely different people.
Guys like Keith Richards and Mick Jagger have been close their entire lives, from late childhood on, because of the band. They may not know all the details of each other’s tale, but they could hold forth with pretty decent accuracy on the main themes.
I have a cousin who married his high school sweetheart, and they have that kind of relationship — total lifetime knowledge of each other. Maybe, at one time, that wasn’t so rare. Now, it seems almost quaint (at least among the circles I run in).
I guess you can count yourself lucky if you have someone who could pen a relatively factual obituary for you, today.
The flip side: On the other hand, I could write the biography of MANY friends…
… because I’ve practiced the simple tactics from Dale Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends And Influence People” for most of my life.
I ask questions, and then follow up with more questions. I’m interested in how people live, how they make decisions and how they handle the consequences. What their happiest memories are, what their darkest days were like, how they got here from there.
It’s not magic. It’s empathy, combined with a genuine interest in other people. It’s easy to get someone to tell their life story, when you simply ask them.
It’s not done all at one shot, either. You need to spend some time together, share some history, earn the trust required to divulge the juicy secrets.
And, because you don’t betray confidence, you never share what you hear capriciously. You simply know more about certain folks than even their other trusted pals do. But your reputation as a person capable of keeping secrets is solid. It has to be.
As a writer who needs to understand how people operate, this is a main tool. Empathy, plus interviewing.
And here’s the Big Secret: So few people know my entire story… because they never ask.
They’ll wax prolific on their own tales, when asked. But they never ask bac. Most are just too overwhelmed with living their own lives to care about anyone else’s, and it’s understandable. Others are genuinely uninterested in how others live.
But most just don’t know how to ask. They confuse respect for privacy with refusing to go deep.
Back in college, I had a great prof who forced us to go into the community and get an old person to tell their tale. It was an anthropology class, and we would have flunked without doing it.
It was freaking great. These oldsters — ignored, forgotten, in the way — lit up when asked about their lives.
No one had ever asked before.
And the tales told were fascinating, like the best novels you’ve ever encountered. War, loss, love, discovery, travel, horror, insight…
… all the rough and tumble intricacies of a long life were there.
It opened my eyes, tell you what. I was young, full of myself, obsessed with the now-relics of a Boomer existence (sex, drugs and rock and roll, mostly).
Yet, these folks who came before me went through similar periods (swing, prohibited booze, flappers, illicit sex)…
… and then entered new chapters, usually family, job and generational upheaval. It all made sense.
It was like glimpsing my own future, told from the past.
Just saying. We get so deep into ourselves, we forget to pop our heads out of our ass ever so often to see what’s going on with everyone else.
Life is a gorgeous, horror-filled wonderland, relentlessly bombarding us with incoming drama, tragedy and comedy.
Those who get to enjoy/endure it for many years are the lucky ones.
And the tales told are never boring, when you know how to translate them.
For a marketer looking to succeed, this is the key to the kingdom.
P.S. If you’ve followed me for any length of time (here on the blog, in my books, or on social media) you know I frame my advice on being successful within stories.
I do it, because that’s how ideas stick. We’re hard-wired to listen to stories, and remember the good ones.
If you’re interested in the lessons I’ve learned about success and living large (from a very long career at the roiling edge of life and biz)…
… then you’ll be interested in this.
You can thank me later.