“Failures of kindness” George Saunders @Syracuse

In this week of blooming jacarandas, empty white folding chairs await the procession of the graduates, and an elevated podium echoes with the voice of a valedictorian at sound check, rehearsing for the big day.

On the majority of campuses an eminent personage will join the assembly, offering wit and wisdom. This week we will revisit some of the best advice delivered @commencement, beginning with George Saunders at Syracuse University in 2013.

In January of 2013,  Joel Lovell profiled the writer/professor for the New York Times Magazine, ‘George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year’.

“Tobias Wolff, who taught Saunders when he was in the graduate writing program at Syracuse in the mid-’80s, said, “He’s been one of the luminous spots of our literature for the past 20 years,” and then added what may be the most elegant compliment I’ve ever heard paid to another person: “He’s such a generous spirit, you’d be embarrassed to behave in a small way around him.”

I think the best speeches create an aspirational bridge between the experience of our undergraduate years and executing our life plan.

The memorable ones communicate with the soul and the easiest way to connect is with a common experience… like the time in grammar school when we missed an opportunity to notice, to include…

This is where Saunders’ speech begins, the ‘generous spirit’ sharing his regret.

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”

Could a narrative be more welcome amidst the lack of civility in our national conversation?

“How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition — recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

…kindness, it turns out, is hard — it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include . . . well, everything.

When young, we’re anxious — understandably — to find out if we’ve got what it takes. Can we succeed? Can we build a viable life for ourselves? Can we build a viable life for ourselves? But you — in particular you, of this generation — may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition. You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can . . .

And this is actually O.K. If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously — as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes… but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been.”

 

 

 

Holiday Homework: Write your story

It’s the holiday season and you have one assignment to complete before the New Year begins – write your story.

During the Thanksgiving holiday I encouraged readers to participate in the Story Corps ‘Great Thanksgiving Listen’, conducting interviews  with relatives to capture the oral history narrative of America.

This week’s challenge is about you; to think about your life as it has evolved to this point, highs and lows, and write a short story, your story.

Before you craft your resume, schedule a meeting with a networking contact or head to an interview, you need a story; the narrative of how you arrived at this point in your life and career.

The end goal is to collect as much information about your past before you open your laptop and begin to browse resume formats. Most folks make the mistake of finding a template and relating their story via someone else’s outline. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t acceptable resume formats. It does mean that it’s premature to begin with the resume before you have considered the narrative you wish to convey.

Storytelling has become the latest marketing approach adopted by entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 CEOs. Google ‘storytelling’ and the initial search results will reflect current business practice vs. writers working on the great American novel or the hottest new screenplay.

Here’s the thing. If the folks you hope to work with are employing storytelling to advance their business goals, it may be time for you to practice your skill.

Buried in the list of google results is a link to an Atlantic.com video, ‘George Saunders Explains How To Tell A Good Story’. It’s one of the most viewed videos of the year, which may provide another hint to why you should take seven minutes out of your life this week and watch.

Let’s pause a minute to address all of you who have gotten to this point and are stressed because all you wanted was a few words on how to write a resume in ten seconds.

Nothing of quality results from ten seconds of effort. And this is your life, eight to ten hours of every five days of seven.

Back to George Saunders.

“A story is kind of a black box, you’re going to put the reader in there, she’s going to spend some time with this thing that you have made and when she comes out, what’s going to have happened to her in there is something kind of astonishing. It feels like the curtain’s been pulled back and she’s gotten a glimpse into a deeper truth…

As a story writer, that’s not as easy as it sounds..”

It’s not easy to tell your story. There’s a lot of stuff that in the end may have no relevance to your job search. But it’s important to conduct an annual rewrite to update and adapt your original script.

Let’s borrow a term from the screenwriters and suggest you are developing a draft ‘treatment’ before you write a resume, network and interview.

Micki Grover defines and describes how this summary of a story fits into the screenwriting process.

“All we’re talking about is a short document written in prose form and in the present tense that emphasizes, with vivid description, the major elements of a screenplay. Yes, treatments are actually written in prose! The essence of the story and the characters should be evoked through exhilarating language and imagery.

Treatments have a style of their own just as screenplays do, and they too take time to master. Writers who swear by using treatments find that it’s a fun outlet to write with a voice that screenplays and synopses sometimes constrain. The ultimate goal is simply to tell your story in an engaging way, as if you were passionately telling your best friend about a new script over coffee.”

That’s your holiday assignment. Develop a ‘treatment’ that tells your story in an engaging way, connecting the dots and inviting an audience who may be interested in promoting your talent.