Read an Excerpt
First published by Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2013
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Deutsch, Bob (Robert D.)
IN A SENSE I began writing this book at birth, even before I had language. It is my personal story reflected upon and then turned outward as a parable for everyone, to make of it whatever they will. Yes, my story—just like everyone’s story—is unique. But if you look at your own life’s narratives and the narratives that informed them, you can abstract certain universal principles. I have done that in hopes that others would be motivated to find their own story—what I call “self-story”—and use that to evoke their own ongoing self-expansion.
Many have helped me to consider and continue to create my own self-story. To all those unwitting coauthors I am indebted to you for my life—for what is a life other than the narratives that make up “I”?
The impetus for this book came as a result of a process I write about in these pages: directed serendipity. I have a plan, I start enacting that plan, then the plan meets up with the world, and I go careening off in this direction and that direction depending on my own mass and velocity, seeing what excites and attracts me or does not.
As a result of some writings I did, I once got a call to give a speech. Diane McArter, who was in that audience, later called and asked me to talk at an event she was organizing. It sounded interesting, so I agreed to participate. After that speech a man came over to me and introduced himself. His name is Peter Miller. Peter became my literary agent. He is good, in every sense of the word. He then introduced me to Lou Aronica, who helped me write this book. At Peter’s behest I met Lou for breakfast one morning in New York, and before our oatmeal was served I already felt he was like a brother. We were simpatico in so many ways, and complementary in many others. My brain works by symbolic association and metaphor. That has its benefits (I hope), and it has its downside. Lou, by his graceful intelligence and book-producing skills, found a way to take my deficits and help make them artful. Regardless of what comes of this book, meeting Peter and Lou has already made writing it a success for me. These now buddies of mine helped me give voice to what was already in me but was loosely formed. They helped me expand myself. Also in the process of writing this book, Sydney Olshan provided research support that always showed initiative and intelligence, regardless of the difficulty of the research request. Her persistence consistently encouraged the feeling of forward motion in the writing pace. That’s important.
Caroline Sutton, my editor, not only took on this project with enthusiasm, but after the first draft was completed, she made a recommendation that changed the structure of the book. I immediately knew her suggestion was right, and true, and necessary to make this book better than what was on the page at that moment. She pointed to the need to make the idea of self-story the fulcrum of The 5 Essentials. In doing so, Caroline Sutton became an everlasting part of my self-story.
Others, each by contributing in their unique way to my continuing search for my own way, prepared me for my eventual union with agent and cowriter.
Family first. After my father’s early death at age thirty-five, my mother sacrificed much to see that I had plenty. My father, I am told, even at thirty-five, had already given me all he had to give: He was a dreamer; so am I. His sister, Molly, was also of that kind. Just by her way of being, she added to my dreaming. My mother’s sister, Pearl, her husband, Milton, and their son, Martin, always looked out for me, especially when I most needed looking out for. I owe them so much. And as I suspect is not too uncommon in families, in addition to learning from our elders we gain from our youngers. My daughter (and only child), Phoebe, inspired me to do the opposite of what most new parents do: Because of her intrinsic joy, she made me less responsible. Her happiness, positive expectations, and playfulness made me discover the deeper dreamer in me. For that, she was “parent” to me. She remains a total joy. Kathy Drasher, my wife now of seven years, has stimulated a journey we have taken together that has been fun, especially in the midst of the hopscotch directions we have traveled to find a home in a place we both love. She has also taught me about beauty. She is it and she has an eye for it. Her artistry captures my attention on a daily basis.
Many colleagues and friends have also been crucial in my life. Albert Scheflen and Robert Plutchik, at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, first helped me thwack out a career path that excited and challenged me. Ada Reif Esser then taught me something about how to add depth to that path. She often read me the riot act, and I trusted her enough to take her admonitions to heart. She is still with me in my heart. Next I met Lionel Tiger, the Charles Darwin professor of anthropology and sociology at Rutgers. His brilliance, gentlemanly manner, and fierce commitment to truth and to mankind continue to influence me. Lionel indirectly guided me to all manner of things that eventually led me to the Max Planck Institute in Seewiesen, Germany, and to Dr. Iraneus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz, and Dr. Wulf Schiefenhovel. My years working with them and under the auspices of the institute were vital to my developing self-story. These three bighearted men gave me the gift of showing me that science and the artistry of science could be made one. They helped me find me.
George Scribner, first a colleague and very soon thereafter a friend, has it all, a softness that can be strong, and a feeling for the everyday life of people that is as genuine as it is insightful. I value him greatly. I was introduced to Tom McCaffery by someone who wanted to hire me as a consultant, but before she would, she said I would have to “get through” Tom. Well, I don’t know if I got through Tom, but he sure got to me. He got to me as someone who is doing justice to what is and what could be. He is someone to be reckoned with. And I reckon he is also now my friend. I take meeting Jeffrey Rayport as an example of how the seeming chaos of the cosmos can work directly for one’s betterment. A decade before I met Jeffrey, someone I was working with introduced me to someone else, who introduced me to Jeffrey. Jeffrey is singular: the best a friend can be and the best a brain can be. I adore him. I met Michael Spiessbach through a fleeting encounter I had with a mutual acquaintance. These many years later I still think of Michael the same way I did after our first meeting—he’s fun, knows about what comprises a life, is Mr. Curiosity, and stands as a living totem to personal integrity.
To all the people I interviewed for this book, some world renowned and some known only in their world, I owe a great deal. Each opened their hearts and minds to me, and in doing so, opened me. The audio recordings and printed transcripts I have of those sessions are to me nothing less than ritual incantations and sacred texts. To highlight just two I interviewed—Wynton Marsalis and Debra Byrd—their ways of being and their ways of expressing their being have no time tag. Their way is age-old and ageless, wise.
Two other people I quoted in this book had a similarly huge effect on me: Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen. Paul Simon speaks eloquently about collaboration when talking about the making of his award-winning album Graceland. His way of fusing impulses from different cultures into a singular vision that retains the authenticity of each contribution stands as a model for every person and every nation, if we ever are going to stop “tumbling into turmoil” and see more peaceful and brighter days. Bruce Springsteen . . . well, I now know why he’s “the Boss.” This man is living a totally conscious life, conscious of his own and others’ courage and frailties, and conscious of his responsibilities to himself and to his audience. He’s the benevolent leader humankind has always hoped and waited for.
All these people helped me dream. All these people are a lasting part of my self-story. They are essential.
WHO ARE YOUR favorite characters from novels? My guess is that even if you don’t read much fiction, you have a few. Maybe it’s Jane Eyre because she’s so strong. Or Huck Finn because he’s so crafty. Perhaps it’s Hermione Granger, from the Harry Potter novels, because she’s so smart and centered. Then again, it could be Sam-I-am, from Green Eggs and Ham, because he’s so damned persistent. All of these characters resonate with us because they feel larger than life. They seem iconic, representing outsize versions of us. They have great stories.
Maybe you’ve considered characters like these from time to time and wondered what it would be like to have that kind of substance, that kind of consequence, to have that kind of effect on the world. What would it be like to live a life that has the impact and color of a great literary character?
Maybe it’s time for you to find out. Because you have everything inside you necessary to have a great, meaningful, and constantly alive story—to be the Hermione or Huck in your world and in the worlds of the people around you. To contribute big- time and live big-time. As you follow me through these pages, you’ll see that all the resources you need are already at your disposal. I’ve been studying this my entire life, I know this to be true, and I’m ready now to share what I’ve discovered with you.
A life in search of story
My background is in cognitive neuroscience and anthropology, so studying human behavior is a regular gig for me. I’ve studied chimpanzees and preliterate tribes and investigated how they use tools and rituals to affect their world. I’ve done extensive worldwide research on us modern humans and how we access the conceptual resources at our disposal to define and redefine ourselves. I’m endlessly fascinated by the ways in which people use what’s in and around them to hold tight to—and sometimes expand—their own brand of meaning. I’ve been watching people create their stories for decades, and both the effort and the results are instructive.
We all have some natural abilities and some incapacities. I can easily attest to the latter myself. In spite of my fascination with the world’s cultures and peoples, I cannot learn a foreign language, no matter how hard I try or how much time I devote to it. However, I’ve always had a natural interest and a modicum of ability to observe and assess the true nature of people. I remember at the age of seven telling my mother that I thought her friends, a married couple I observed at a dinner party at our house, would soon get a divorce (this was in the fifties, when divorce was less common and young children knew little about it). I felt this way about them despite the fact that I could not even hear them speak to each other because they were across the room. Later that night my mother scolded me for being presumptuous and brash. Some months after that, though, she told me that the couple was splitting up.
A while later, when I had just begun graduate school, I went to a presentation by two behavioral scientists describing their assessment of the relations between the guests they had analyzed from the home movies made at one son’s birthday party. After that presentation I was manic for two days. These men were doing for a living what I thought I had it in me to do.
I went to one of them, Dr. Albert Scheflen, and after weeks of begging, I became one of his research assistants. That led to some breakthrough experiences for me. One thing his Project on Human Communication, at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, did was get permission from a number of New York City families to place cameras in their homes to film them in situ. I watched many of those films, often more than once. Real life, not being cinematically directed, is of course slow and messy. But for me what was so fascinating and captivating was that you could see in real time almost all human qualities and frailties: the daily routines and the power of love, the courage and the weakness, the hesitancy and the passion, the coalitions and the individuality, the expected events and the unpredictable ones. Watching those films, I not only heard the stories; I saw the stories. And I was transfixed by it all.
Studying human nature and the nature of the mind—how it creates beliefs and attachments—was a natural for me. I craved an understanding of people who lived by narrative and ritual, unencumbered by the accoutrements of modern, high-tech life. I wanted, needed to see and experience life lived under a minimum of outside influence. I felt this need because I am curious about human behavior. But I am also selfish. In attempting to understand others, I understand my life better. One of the reasons you will encounter so many stories in this book is that I believe the stories of others always teach us something about ourselves.
The universal message of high achievement
In the course of my studies, I’ve become especially fascinated with people who are following pursuits that fulfill them and feel natural to them. Two projects of mine were particularly defining here. One was studying people who were acknowledged as experts; the other was a study of small business owners. What has become clear to me is that people living truly fulfilled lives have something in common: They have the capacity to access, either consciously or unconsciously, a deeper well of internal resources than others do. They are using tools that most people don’t use. And for the most part they are having fun and are happy.
However, while their use of these resources is unique, the resources themselves are not unique to them in any way. These resources exist for all of us. They’re part of our makeup as human beings, and each of us has as much of a chance of using them effectively as anyone else has.
It’s natural to look at others who have made great achievements and think of them as outliers. The accomplished humanitarian, scientist, athlete, artisan, and so on must be built differently than the rest of us. How else could they achieve what they’ve achieved?
Certainly, there’s no arguing that some people have innate talents the rest of us simply don’t have. If I tried to leap like Michael Jordan, my feet would barely leave the ground, and I’d probably wind up in traction. However, in terms of constituent capabilities, none of us are any different from Jordan or anyone else who has accomplished a great deal. In our own lives and on our own scale, we can embody the same processes as the most successful and acclaimed among us. You will discover stories in this book about people who have achieved tremendous fame, such as Richard Feynman, Jane Goodall, Wynton Marsalis, and Stella McCartney. These people all possess traits and behaviors that you will easily recognize, perhaps even in yourself.
Consider the case of Chuck Jones, the legendary animator who created the Road Runner and Pepé Le Pew, among many other characters who have tickled our imaginations for decades. Jones had several things working against him on his path to success, including a complicated, sometimes brutal childhood. However, he turned an early injury into a fundamental aspect of his personal story by giving credit to his fall off a roof for making him, as he put it, “not logical.” Jones had a tremendous fascination with animals. He liked to draw, and would take any job that allowed him to do so. There’s nothing particularly unusual about being interested in animals or enjoying drawing. These are traits that I would guess many readers of this book share. However, as you will discover in detail a few chapters down the road, Jones turned these interests into a tremendously successful career by applying a set of internal resources to them and doing something remarkable as a result, and he wound up living a life that was true to who he was. By using his innate capacity in a maximal way, Chuck Jones lived big. What he did was who he was. His was one of those stories that take on literary dimensions.
Making your story smaller than it needs to be
Maybe you’re already living a life like the one Chuck Jones led. If so, congratulations. Maybe you can give your copy of this book to someone more needy. If not, you are hardly alone. In many if not most cases, the concept people have of their lives and how to live them—the stories they perceive about themselves—is too small. Many of us too soon succumb to external demands and internal “shoulds.” Economics, tradition, lack of energy, and time constraints all come into play here. And we all know how easy it is to fall into a routine that is less than satisfying.
I understand “small” personally, from multiple perspectives. I came into the world way too small. I was a premature newborn weighing in at about one kilo (I like to say “one kilo”; it sounds better than 2.2 pounds), and I was in a precarious position. In order to survive, I had to stay in the hospital, living in an incubator-like box for more than forty days and forty nights. I see this time in the incubator as something of a metaphor for how most of us deal with the opportunities available to us: We can see them, but we feel incapable of leaving our boxes to pursue them.
I also understand the “small world” from a more symbolic perspective. I came from a loving family, but most everyone in it seemed to have a too-restricted point of view. My father died when I was very young, and this amplified my mother’s fundamental hesitancy about life. She was vitally independent and a tough lady even in her elderly years, but her attitude toward the world is probably best captured by her oft-repeated phrase, “Don’t go into the ocean because you might drown.”
My father, on the other hand, was a dreamer. His untimely death served as a counterweight to my mother’s cautiousness. After mourning his loss, I resolved to try to live life to the fullest, to make the most of whatever time I might have. To me this meant understanding who I truly am and how I fit into—and don’t fit into—the world around me.
Meanwhile, I was conscious at a very early age that others in my family didn’t really like what they did for a living, even though some of them were quite successful. They were good at their jobs; they just didn’t find joy in them. I rejected this instinctively. I was interested in feeling alive—thriving, not just surviving. My response to my familiar surroundings was to become a kind of explorer, and I benefited from having two aunts, Pearl and Molly, who encouraged my exploratory nature. In some ways, my father’s death liberated me, because it gave me an unusual level of freedom, since my mother had to go back to work. I used this freedom to learn as much about the world as I could. Even when I was very young, I spent a huge amount of time reading the encyclopedia, because I wanted to gather endless amounts of knowledge. This set me on a path to becoming a cognitive anthropologist, and to the observations that led to this book.
During my professional consulting practice in strategic marketing, I have been involved in projects for many corporations and agencies worldwide. I have seen people who are working in many different kinds of companies in various industries. Too many times along the way, employees have come to me, an outsider they trust, bemoaning their busy workdays that leave little room for them to express their own thoughts and points of view, their true inner being. A recent such circumstance was one factor that compelled me to start writing this book. I was consulting for the Office of Strategy Development of a high-powered company headquartered in Europe. As I was walking to lunch one day with the head of this office, she asked me a question unrelated to my current engagement.
“Bob, we have just completed an internal survey by the HR department on job satisfaction in our workforce. The results are startling: high engagement and involvement, but low satisfaction. Could you explain this to me?”
I could have, but it would have taken a book to do so. For now, let’s just say that I wasn’t surprised to hear this. In fact, given how long I’ve been observing the workplace, I would have been surprised to hear anything else. The simple fact is that most people are like these employees and the people in my family. They’re competent, maybe even financially successful (maybe even very successful financially), but they set the bar much too low in their lives with respect to expressing their true essence—to leading lives worthy of the great literary figures. There’s a clear reason for this. Fortunately, there’s also a clear solution.
Tapping your essential resources
What my studies and observations have taught me is that we believe our capacities are limited because we don’t realize that we have access to a remarkable set of resources that are as easy to use as they are profound in their ability to enhance the way we live. Once you start getting these resources to work for you, you begin to erect the story for yourself that you were meant to have.
I call these tools Essentials, because they are resident in all of us, because they are central to our being, and because they go a long way toward providing us clues to who we really are—to our essences. There are five of them, but I want to talk first about four:
• CURIOSITY. Curious people simply get more out of life because they make the effort to “look under the hood” and discover how the world operates. It is remarkable what you can uncover about any pursuit, passion, or even passing interest if you’re curious about it. It is equally remarkable, though, that most people engage in the world with a minimum of curiosity. Choosing not to be curious is a bit like choosing not to pick up a hundred-dollar bill that you find on the sidewalk—except in this case, the sidewalk is littered with hundred-dollar bills. Myriad opportunities await anyone who uses the Essential of curiosity, paramount among which is the opportunity to discover something you never anticipated, and to have this become a fundamental part of the life you lead.
• OPENNESS. One of the greatest ways to live a richer life is to go into any pursuit unburdened by the need to know the ending at the beginning. I regularly consult with people at corporations who claim they are interested in learning more about consumer behavior. However, many of my clients try to skew the nature of the engagement to confirm a predetermined vision of the market. It sometimes takes the full use of my negotiating skills to get them to approach the project with openness. That’s where all the magic is, though. When you set about your goals with an air of openness, you have an outcome in mind, but you are willing to embrace a different and better outcome. I call this phenomenon “directed serendipity.” You allow the possibility of the extraordinary happening because you eschew preconceived notions of the result. When you employ this Essential, the rewards can be dizzying.
• SENSUALITY. I define sensuality as feeling your own experience of your own experience. In other words, it’s about allowing yourself to make full use of your senses as you go through your life. As with the active employment of all Essentials, there’s a certain amount of risk involved. Feeling more means that you will inevitably feel more unpleasantness. Understandably, there’s strong motivation to avoid this. After all, while most of us feel less fulfilled than we’d like, few of us are in a constant state of misery. Why, then, take the chance of experiencing misery when you can skate across the top of your life instead, even if you’re skating joylessly? The answer is that when you allow all of your senses to come online, when you dive deep into your life rather than skimming the surface, you let yourself interact with the world at the richest possible level.
• PARADOX. The world is never one thing or another, yet far too often we compartmentalize our experiences and our roles in just such a way. Something extraordinary happens when you start playing with ambiguities and contradictions, though: You start to see possibilities you never could have imagined. It’s within those possibilities that most of us discover our most rewarding, meaningful, and authentic enterprises. What you will discover here is that and is one of the most liberating words in our language.
Each of these four Essentials works in the service of a fifth inner resource. This is the queen of all Essentials, the thing that allows you to fully believe that Jane Eyre and Sam-I-am have nothing on you.
Authoring your self-story
Self-story is the one thing a person needs—more than money, background, or IQ—to live a life of fulfillment, excitement, and personal innovation . . . to be happy.
We’re going to get into this in depth later, but let’s talk about self-story at a top-line level now. Self-story is the recurrent pattern of your being. It is the force driving your authentic self—all of it: its beauty and its warts, its brightness and its darkness. Self-story isn’t your ideal or your hoped-for self. And your self-story is definitely not an autobiography or a chronological list of your life events. Self-story is the underlying design of you as an idea that stands above the press of the moment. It is, very simply put, what you are about. It is the you that exists beyond the day-to-day. It is the you that is consistently you, even though it is also evolving. You alone are the author of your self-story, and you alone have the power to change it, and if you are truly conscious of it—and this book will offer you a number of processes to help you gain that consciousness—then you can employ it to live the truest and most fulfilling version of the life you should be leading.
We’ll go into the hows and whys of self-story later in the book. For now, let’s just say that understanding your self-story is a hugely powerful resource. It helps you better understand where you’re going. It allows you to decide what fits and doesn’t fit in your life. And it allows you to make choices about your future in the context of the story you’re already living, therefore allowing you to make changes that will genuinely improve your life and help you to accomplish what you truly want to accomplish.
Aspects of one’s self-story are not all sunny or glamorous. I think the task we each have is at least to manage our darker side or, better yet, to shape a negative tendency into one that can be deployed in a productive way. My own self-story has aspects of fear and cynicism. As a result, there are times in my life when I have been gruff, short tempered, or negative. But I have also learned to put my fear to good use. To a great extent, my fear stems from the early loss I experienced when my father died. Even though I had my mother and a loving extended family, I felt abandoned and alone. So I overcompensated by trying to convince myself that my father’s death didn’t matter, that I would just do everything for myself. Out of this erroneous point of view, though, I eventually developed a healthy sense of personal responsibility. My father’s death also left me quite the cynic. But people can change; they can evolve their self-stories. The birth of my daughter, a healthy child and an innately joyful human being who assumes that all interactions will be positive, changed me instantly and utterly, even though I was in my late thirties when she was born.
In my life, I have been very lucky to see many places on this planet of ours, from backwaters to luxury beaches, from rain forests to concrete jungles. I have met and studied heads of state, generals, farmers, scientists, grocery store clerks, business owners and employees, modern-day hip-hop stars, and tribespeople.
If there is one thing I have learned from the whole of my life and career, it is that the greatest joy comes from making your life into a search narrative, a search for the inward thing that you are and are becoming, a search for your own depths, excavating the unfathomable aspects—both beautiful and not so beautiful—of your true being.
Happily, in this search for one’s self-story, there are no have-nots. All people, by virtue of being human beings, having experiences, and having the four other Essentials, can author self-stories that will anchor them and set them free to expand. The key is gaining vivid awareness of your developing self-story, because if you have that—if you truly know what you are about—a world of possibility emerges for you.
Today is a very good day to start
These five Essentials are the ones—and the only ones—that in the whole of my career and life experience I have found to consistently emerge across widely varying contexts of person and place. They therefore seem virtually universal. In the coming chapters I will explain each Essential in detail and personify them with interviews I did with women and men, some famous and some unknown, some younger, some older.
There couldn’t be a better time than now to begin using your Essentials and especially to uncover your self-story. In addition to the general fact that many people live a life smaller than is necessary and therefore sell themselves and the world short, globalization and automation have produced a dangerously high unemployment rate, shaky economies, and unprecedented levels of uncertainty and change. A large number of people are now feeling painfully vulnerable and disenfranchised.
Likewise, corporate fear in a downturned economy has caused two opposite reactions: (1) many companies have become ever more hunkered down in their daily routines, and that has put human expressiveness on the firing line; and (2) other, more creative companies are thriving in this fast-changing world by hiring only people who can add value and constantly innovate. In the former case, thousands of people will seek career retraining or repositioning. In the latter case, creativity will be the primary talent necessary for upward mobility. Either way, satisfaction will come from personal innovation. To be innovative, people will need access to their own authenticity—and your Essentials, in the service of helping you create your self-story, will help make this possible.
Innovation, I have found, does not come from what you know. Innovation comes from passing what you know through the sieve of who you are. So you had better know who you are. The inner resources you will learn to master in this book will help you figure that out.
The primary way we gain insight into who we are is by using our other Essentials to feed our developing self-story. When we use our Essentials, we come face-to-face (occasionally many times in one day) with the recurrent themes in our lives and our overreactions. These seemingly fleeting moments contain clues to who we are and what we can do with who we are. If you aren’t aware of your self-story, you can easily let these opportunities for growth pass you by. If you are aware, though, profound things can happen.
For example, when I was in my early twenties I saw the documentary film Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones. When the film ended, I remained in my seat for a minute, overwhelmed. Without consciously knowing it, I had always been seeking the kind of energy and vigor that Mick Jagger exuded onstage. I walked out of the Ziegfeld Theatre on Fifty-fourth Street in Manhattan totally juiced. I was a just-uncaged animal. My reaction—my overreaction—was telling me something. I listened. That state of high arousal that comes from doing who you are was the feeling I wanted to live in. I always have that Ziegfeld moment at least in my peripheral vision.
Similarly, more than two decades later, I read a verbatim rendering in the New York Times of the speech Vaclav Havel, the then newly elected president of Czechoslovakia, gave to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. He was comparing explanation and understanding, saying that what the world needed most after the fall of the Soviet Union was understanding. Explanation, Havel said, saw the world’s problems as resolvable through an objective procedure of successive approximations. Understanding, in sharp contrast, called for a more subjective stance, looking at life as lived in its enfolding, seeing life from the inside out. I have this speech framed and hanging on my office wall, and I read it often. It reminds me how much politics and business are devoid of the human scale. In politics and business there’s little respect for and recognition of life as lived by everyday people. I fight constantly to make sure human understanding is injected in the veins of each businessperson in each business meeting I attend. It does no one any good to skim over the top of experience. You have to get into the guts of experience to understand yourself and life around you.