When I was 18 years old, I was a research assistant to Robert Greene. My job was to find stories he could use in his writing. Nearly seventeen years later, I still use so much of what Robert taught me about finding great stories in researching for my own writing. But the gift has been less in how it has helped me professionally, and more in how it has helped me personally.
As I would learn much later, Robert was teaching me how to find what the ancient Greeks called a chreia: “an exemplary story about a famous person, often culminating in a memorable utterance,” as Gregory Hays has defined it. “Learning by precepts is the long way around,” Seneca wrote. “The quick and effective way is to learn by example.” In this article, I thought I would share a handful of my favorite stories I have found over the years—ones that have stuck with me and that I think will have a lasting impact on your life.
The writers Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five) and Joseph Heller (Catch-22) were at a glamorous party outside New York City. Standing in the palatial second home of the billionaire host, Vonnegut began to needle his friend. “Joe,” he said, “how does it feel that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel has earned in its entire history?”
“I’ve got something he can never have,” Heller replied.
“The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
How you do anything is how you do everything.
On the campaign trail, a heckler once tried to embarrass President Andrew Johnson by shouting about his working-class credentials. Johnson replied without breaking stride: “That does not disconcert me in the least; for when I used to be a tailor I had the reputation of being a good one, and making close fits, always punctual with my customers, and always did good work.”
Anything you do well is noble, no matter how humble.
The dancer Martha Graham tells a story about her vaudeville days, when she was followed by a bird act. When the music went on the white cockatoos, trained by years of reinforcement and ritual, would become almost hysterical with excitement, clawing and beating at the cage until they go on stage and perform. “Birds, damnit, birds!,” she would yell at students who didn’t give their full commitment. The birds can’t want it more than you can.
As they say in the Army, “You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it.”
Always stay a student.
Late in his reign, a friend stopped Marcus Aurelius as he was leaving the palace, carrying a stack of books. Finding this to be a surprising sight, the man asked where Marcus was going. He was off to attend a lecture on Stoicism, he said, for “learning is a good thing, even for one who is growing old. From Sextus the philosopher I shall learn what I do not yet know.”
That’s right, even as the most powerful man in the world, Marcus was still taking up his books and heading to class.
It’s harder to be kind than clever.
When he was a young boy, Jeff Bezos was with his grandparents, both of whom were smokers. Bezos had recently heard an anti-smoking PSA on the radio that explained how many minutes each cigarette takes off a person’s lifespan. And so, sitting there in the backseat, like a typical precocious kid, he put his math skills and this new knowledge to work and proudly explained to his grandmother, as she puffed away, “You’ve lost nine years of your life, Grandma!”
The typical response to this kind of innocent cheekiness is to pat the child on the head and tell them how smart they are. Bezos’ grandmother didn’t do that. Instead, she quite understandably burst into tears. It was after this exchange that Bezos’ grandfather took his grandson aside and taught him a lesson that he says has stuck with him for the rest of his life. “Jeff,” his grandfather said, “one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”
Your work is the only thing that matters.
A young comedian approached Jerry Seinfeld in a club one night and asked him for advice about marketing and getting exposure.
Exposure? Marketing? Seinfeld asks. Seinfeld, a pure stand-up, a comedian’s comedian, is appalled by the question. It’s offensive to his legendary heads-down work ethic. But to the kid, this was a surprise. Isn’t that the kind of question you’re supposed to ask? Isn’t that how you get ahead?
Just work on your act, Seinfeld said.
As a young woman, Amelia Earhart aspired to be a great aviator. But it was the 1920s, and people still thought women were frail and weak and didn’t have the stuff. Woman suffrage wasn’t even a decade old. She couldn’t make her living as a pilot, so she was working as a social worker.
Then one day the phone rang. A donor had been willing to fund the first female transatlantic flight. But there was a catch: Amelia wouldn’t get to actually fly the plane. She’d have to sit in the back like “a sack of potatoes,” as she put it. And not only that—the two male pilots were going to get paid, but she wouldn’t get paid anything.
Guess what she said to the offer? She said yes. Because that’s what people who defy the odds do. That’s how people who become great at things—whether it’s flying or blowing through gender stereotypes—do. They start. Anywhere. Anyhow. They don’t care if the conditions are perfect or if they’re being slighted. They swallow their pride. They do whatever it takes. Because they know that once they get started, if they can just get some momentum, they can make it work. And they can prove the people who doubted them wrong, as Earhart certainly did.
They still hide money in books.
As a young boy, the famed basketball coach George Raveling learned an invaluable lesson from his grandmother, who raised him. As they were preparing dinner in the kitchen one evening she began to tell him about how in the days of slavery, the plantation owners would hide their money in books on the shelves of their libraries. “Why did the slave masters hide their money in books, George?” she asked him.
“I don’t know Grandma,” George replied, “why did they do that?”
“Because they knew the slaves couldn’t read,” she said, “so they would never take the books down.”
There’s a reason it was illegal to teach slaves to read. There is a reason that every totalitarian regime has burned and banned books. Knowledge is power. It sounds like a cliche, but cliches only sound that way because of the generally accepted truth at their core.
How to create anything of consequence.
Plutarch tells the story of a rich Delian ship owner who was asked how he built his fortune. “The greater part came quite easily,” he said, “but the first, smaller part took time and effort.”
Creating anything of consequence or magnitude requires deliberate, incremental, and consistent work. “Well-being is realized by small steps,” Zeno would say, looking back on his life, “but is truly no small thing.”
Be the red.
In a famous exchange, the Stoic philosopher Agrippinus explained why he was spurning an invitation to attend some banquet being put on by Nero. Not only was he spurning it, he said, but he had not even considered associating with such a madman.
A fellow philosopher, the one who had felt inclined to attend, asked for an explanation. Agrippinus responded with an interesting analogy. He said that most people see themselves like threads in a garment—they see it as their job to match the other threads in color and style. They want to blend in, so the fabric will match. But Agrippinus did not want to blend in. “I want to be the red,” he said, “that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful…’Be like the majority of people?’ And if I do that, how shall I any longer be the red?”
Use it all as fuel.
At age sixty-seven, Thomas Edison was eating dinner with his family when a man came rushing into his house with urgent news: A fire had broken out at Edison’s research and production campus a few miles away. Fire engines from eight nearby towns rushed to the scene, but they could not contain the blaze. Fueled by the strange chemicals in the various buildings, green and yellow flames shot up six and seven stories, threatening to destroy the empire Edison had spent his life building.
Edison calmly but quickly made his way to the fire, through the now hundreds of onlookers and devastated employees. Finding his son standing shellshocked at the scene, Edison would utter these famous words: “Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.”
The Stoics loved the metaphor of fire. Marcus Aurelius would write that “a blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.” That’s what Edison did. He did not despair. He did not weep. He did not rage. Instead, he got to work. He told a reporter the next day that he wasn’t too old to make a fresh start, “I’ve been through a lot of things like this. It prevents a man from being afflicted with ennui.”
Do what you have to do.
Before the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant experienced a long chain of setbacks and financial difficulties. He washed up in St. Louis, selling firewood for a living—a hard fall for a graduate of West Point. An army buddy found him and was aghast. “Great God, Grant, what are you doing?” he asked. Grant’s answer was simple: “I am solving the problem of poverty.”
Never question another man’s courage.
After he became premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev was onstage, speaking to the Politburo, denouncing the crimes of Stalin’s regime. Anonymously, some unnamed member passed a note to the front of the room. “Yes,” it said, “but where were you at the time?”
Without a beat, Khrushchev, with an intimidating tone, shouted and asked who wrote the note. Silence. “I was where you are now,” Khrushchev. Meaning, in the audience. Anonymous. Intimidated. Doing nothing. Just like everyone else.
Alter your approach.
As a young working actor, George Clooney struggled with how to tackle his audition process. Clooney was always concerned about the problem that he faced: how to book an acting job and earn some much-needed income. How did he deal with this?
Clooney turned the situation around and had a realization: the audition was also an obstacle for the producers, who needed to find someone to fill the role and do an amazing job. Clooney began to approach his auditions from a different angle. Instead of going into his auditions as someone trying to get a job, he approached them as someone who could help the producers do theirs better. As a result, he began landing roles and would eventually become one of Hollywood’s most celebrated leading men.
You only control the effort, not the results.
John Kennedy Toole’s great book A Confederacy of Dunces was universally turned down by publishers, news that so broke his heart that he later committed suicide in his car on an empty road in Biloxi, Mississippi.
After his death, his mother discovered the book, advocated on its behalf until it was published, and it eventually won the Pulitzer Prize.
What changed between those submissions? Nothing. The book was the same. It was equally great when Toole had it in manuscript form and had fought with editors about it as it was when the book was published, sold copies, and won awards. If only he could have realized this, it would have saved him so much heartbreak. He couldn’t, but from his painful story we can at least see how arbitrary many of the breaks in life are.
Good things happen in bookstores.
On a merchant voyage in Athens in the 4th Century BC, a man named Zeno was shipwrecked. He lost everything. He washed up in Athens where he walked into a bookstore and listened to the bookseller reading dialogues from Socrates. After the reading, Zeno asked the question that would change his life: “Where can I find a man like that?” and in so doing, he began a philosophical journey that led to the founding of Stoicism and then, to the brilliant works of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — which, not lost to history, are beginning to find a new life on bookshelves today. From those heirs to Zeno’s bookshop conversion, there is a straight line to many of the world’s greatest thinkers, and even to the Founding Fathers of America.
All from a chance encounter in a bookshop. According to the ancient biographer Diogenes Laertius, Zeno joked, “Now that I’ve suffered shipwreck, I’m on a good journey,” or according to another account, “You’ve done well, Fortune, driving me thus to philosophy,” he reportedly said.
Big ones, small ones, corporate or independent ones. Where books are browsed, new ideas are introduced to older readers, while old ideas are introduced to newer readers. And perspectives shift just the same. Couples connect. Experiences are shared. Worlds are built—in the pages of the books being browsed, and in the lives of those doing the browsing.
Follow the process.
There’s a story of the great 19th-century pioneer of meteorology, James Pollard Espy, and a chance encounter as a young man. Unable to read and write until he was 18, Espy attended a rousing speech by the famous orator Henry Clay. After the talk, a spellbound Espy tried to make his way toward Clay, but he couldn’t form the words to speak to his idol. One of his friends shouted out for him: “He wants to be like you, even though he can’t read.”
Clay grabbed one of his posters, which had the word CLAY written in big letters. He looked at Espy and said, “You see that, boy?” pointing to a letter. “That’s an A. Now, you’ve only got 25 more letters to go.”
As Heraclitus observed, “under the comb, the tangle and the straight path are the same.” There is no task, however seemingly mammoth, that is not just a series of component parts.
Remember that you will die.
In late 1569, a French nobleman named Michel de Montaigne was given up as dead after being flung from a galloping horse. As his friends carried his limp and bloodied body home, Montaigne watched his own life slip away, like some dancing spirit on the “tip of his lips,” only to have it return at the last possible second. This sublime and unusual experience marked the moment Montaigne changed his life. Within a few years, he would be one of the most famous writers in Europe. After his accident, Montaigne went on to write volumes of popular essays, serve two terms as mayor, travel internationally as a dignitary, and serve as a confidante of the king.
It’s a story as old as time. Person nearly dies, takes stock, and emerges from the experience a completely different, and better, person. And this is the old philosophical idea of memento mori—”remember that you will die.” In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote, “you could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Never assume that you have a firm grasp on life because it could slip from your fingers at any moment.
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