Homework for Life
I was leaving the gym the other day, feeling good, occupying that unique moral high ground between having just exercised and not yet eaten a cheeseburger. Theoretically, I could still eat kale for dinner and maintain my elevated moral status over the non-exercisers of the world. This will never happen, of course. Kale is disgusting and cheeseburgers are heaven, but I am not opposed to feeling theoretically happy and morally superior to enormous numbers of people for short periods of time.
As I made my way past the smoothie bar, already thinking about cheeseburgers, my keys slipped from my fingers and dropped to the floor, landing squarely on my foot. Before I could bend over to retrieve them, a woman walking into the gym bent down, picked up my keys, plopped them into my hand, and continued moving past me, so fast that I didn’t even have a chance to see her face. As I turned to proffer a thank you, she entered that medieval torture chamber where unfortunate souls ride stationary bicycles to nowhere while authoritarians in spandex shout at them for not going nowhere fast enough.
I was stunned. Never in my life would I even think to pick up keys for another person, particularly off their foot. This simple act of kindness was astounding. As I stood there, marveling at the generosity of this angel in sweatpants, all the petty acts of selfishness that I had committed in just the last hour flashed before my eyes:
The Boy Scouts selling candy bars outside the grocery store that I ignored by pretending to be on the phone, even though I was once a Boy Scout and a Scoutmaster.
The woman who was approaching the doors to the gym slightly behind me but still close enough to warrant me holding the door for 3-5 seconds while she caught up. Rather than waiting this interminable period of time, I increased my speed to avoid the necessity of being polite.
And my hatred for wiping the treadmill after use, rationalizing that if I don’t care if the treadmill is ever wiped down, I shouldn’t wipe down the treadmill for others.
The Golden Rule: Do onto other as you would have them do onto you.
All this happened in an instant. My astonishment. The flashes of selfishness. The realization that this woman has just touched my soul. In that moment, I saw myself as who I am and who I could be.
It happened because I’m a storyteller and because I’ve been doing my homework for the past six years.
Homework for Life, a process I developed that allows me to recognize these simple moments for what they really are:
1. Storytelling material
2. Life altering moments
3. A means by which your lens on the world is permanently changed
I’ve already told this story at a Moth StorySLAM and won. The audience roared with laughter. Nodded vigorously. Connected to my admissions of selfishness and silent cruelty and the possibility of being something better.
We all have stories like this. They are dander in the wind. All around us. Simple moments that can come to define us. Represent us. Become the material from which the best stories are carved.
I saw this moment, and hundreds of others before it, because for the last six years, I have been asking myself at the end of each day a simple but life changing question:
If I had to tell a story from today, no matter how benign or ordinary it may seem, what would that most storyworthy moment be?
Then I write it down, not in story form because that would require too much time and effort. Instead, I open an Excel spreadsheet. The first column contains the date. The second column is stretched across the rest of the page. In that column, I write enough to remember the moment later on:
I dropped my keys onto my foot at the gym and a woman picked them up and handed to me. She might have been an angel. I am definitely not but maybe I could be better.
That’s it. Two or three sentences at most. That’s all I do. Every day without fail. I hope to find one or two new stories a month through this process. Instead, something miraculous happens.
I discover that our lives are filled with stories. Meaningful, momentous moments that we so often fail to see, and even if we do, we fail to grab onto them, hold them, and make a record of them. Instead, they are lost to the ether forever.
Once you develop that lens for seeing stories, other remarkable things happen. You start to see moments from your life in a new light. The small becomes big. The annoying becomes magical. Patterns emerge that illuminate something about you that you’d never seen before. An ordinary day becomes something filled with moments worth remember. Perhaps even worth telling.
I don’t see that moment with my car keys if I’m not doing Homework for Life. I don’t see moments with my children that fill my heart with joy even now as I reflect back upon them. I don’t see my life nearly as vibrant and full. By seeking out stories in a regimented way, developing that lens for storytelling, and creating a system for recording these moments, I have a list of potential stories that is hundreds of items long.
Far more importantly, I see my life differently today. I am a happier person. I have more to say.
I’ve written a book on how to tell great stories, but I believe the most important part of that process is finding the right stories to tell. I have often said that I would much prefer to hear the right story told poorly than the wrong story told well.
Homework for Life (and other strategies in the book) finds those stories in our lives. It teaches us to see them by developing our own personal lens for storytelling. It makes us storytellers.
The next day, as I pulled into the gym, the spot in the parking lot beside the front door was open. It was raining and icy, so this was fantastic. Then I saw the headlights of a car behind me, also looking for a parking spot.
I thought about the angel in sweatpants. Her act of kindness entered my mind. I drove on, parking far away from the door, giving up the best spot in the lot to the anonymous person behind me. I did not become a more selfish person, but on that day, I was a little less selfish.
Just enough to make a good story.
Matthew Dicks is a bestselling novelist, thirty-six-time Moth StorySLAM champion, and five-time GrandSLAM champion. In addition to his widespread teaching, writing, and performing, he cofounded (with his wife) Speak Up, which produces sold-out storytelling performances throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York at least once a month. He lives in Newington, Connecticut. His website is www.MatthewDicks.com.