Is This the Question God Will Ask You When You Die?

The great novelist J.D. Salinger got a lot of things right. Among them, he wrote that one of the only questions that will be asked of us when we die is this:

Were most of your stars out?

Now, obviously, no one can know God’s plans for us. And I am sure I have readers who doubt the existence of God. But I think Salinger was on to something.

I think our journey in life, as human beings, may well be to get “most of our stars out.”

What does this mean? I believe it means that we each have a destiny—including the use of our talents and the expression of love (which may be the same thing)—and that we have to attempt to achieve that destiny. We have to get our stars out.

In order to know whether we have shone through to the greatest possible extent, we have to determine who we are, in our deepest essence. Are we, at the core of our existences, healers, businesspeople, writers, engineers, teachers, painters, or police officers? And how are we shining through as parents, friends, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives.

One might think that the process of finding oneself—truly and irrevocably—should be easy. The trouble is that knowing one’s destiny and then expressing it can be very frightening. We tend to accuse ourselves of being imposters in our own lives, especially when it comes to the gifts we quietly believe we may have.

How can a person find his or her true self? The best disciplines to participate in are:

1. Psychotherapy: Insight-oriented psychotherapy or counseling remains the gold standard.

2. Meditation: Meditation clears the mind, allowing for the focus necessary to identify one’s core talents, hopes and dreams.

3. Prayer, Faith-based Discussions, Religious Services or Pastoral Counseling: A central theme of Christianity, Judaism and other religions is the value of the individual, especially when that individual has stopped running from what his or her heart and mind really dictate.

Somehow, back in the sixties or seventies the phrase “finding myself” took on the connotation of avoiding work and being lazy. But it isn’t easy at all. It takes focus and devotion. And there can be no more worthwhile pursuit. Because none of us can offer the world around us our very best if we are as though strangers to ourselves.

A world with enough people in it who are expressing themselves would be a very loving world, indeed. Now, you can use a simple question to move in that direction.

Were most of your stars out?

Keith Ablow, MD
Founder, Keith Ablow Creative, Inc.

HOW TO TRULY MOVE PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE OR YOUR CREATIVE WORK

None of us has time or words to spare, when you really think about it. Our lives on the planet are brief, and our opportunities to impact others are not infinite. Given this, I want to share three ways I believe you can truly move people when you interact with them, whether in your personal life, professional life or creative work.

Share What You Initially Fear is Too Much to Share

Whether in discussions with friends, with romantic partners or in your public speaking, writing or any other art, you will arrive at moments when revealing painful pages of your life story seems like too much of a risk. Those are the very pages to share. They are gold. I’m talking about living through losses or trauma or living with self-doubt or guilt. Sharing these pages requires courage—the courage of self-revelation. But only through self-revelation (and more of it, frankly, than you think is wise) can true connections with others be forged.

People are not moved by your successes or your C.V. They are moved by your challenges, especially the ones that initially make the seductive case that they ought be hidden away—buried. Unearth them. Share them.

Ask the Next Question, and the Next One, Too

In discussing life or love or art (which may be all the same thing, by the way) with others, many of us have the tendency to stop a conversation when we are at the threshold of intimacy—but still shy of it. Someone may offer that she “didn’t much like” her parents when she was growing up, and we’re tempted to say, “That’s sad. I’m sure they did better later on.” Or, we might say, “I think a lot of people feel that way about their parents while they’re growing up.” Both replies are ways of shutting the other person down. There are lots of questions that will open up the other person, including, “Why did you dislike them?” Or, “How did they disappoint you?” Or, “What do you remember as the time they let you down the most?”

When reading someone’s poetry or looking at his paintings or watching her film or, for that matter, wondering what moved someone to start a particular business, listen for the deepest of emotions, then ask more about the topics that seem connected to them.

Don’t run from the pain of another person. Move toward it. The reward will be genuine human connection, at a core, spiritual level. And, in this life, there is no greater reward.

Say it Out Loud When You Feel the Connection Happen

When we connect at this core, spiritual level with one or more people, the power of the connection can itself lead us to turn away from its power. To counteract this tendency, I find it valuable to state was has happened. “It’s amazing we could sit down and go back decades in one another’s life,” you might say. Or, “I feel like I know more about you after this hour than I know about friends I’ve known for years.” Celebrate and honor the connection; don’t fear it.

Really, what I am talking about here is fueling human empathy—perhaps the most powerful force in the world, and a true gift from God. We all have it, but too few of us take the time to exercise it, in order to strengthen it.

Keith Ablow, MD
Keith Ablow is the Founder of The Ablow Center and Keith Ablow Creative

www.theablowcenter.com
www.keithablowcreative.com

Creative Crisis Management

A crisis is a disruption in one’s life story, whether the particular disruption is personal, professional or political. That’s why every crisis requires creative vision, in order to emerge with as little damage as possible—or, preferably, stronger than ever.

In the midst of the crisis, it can be difficult to see the possibility of surviving intact, let alone thriving. And that’s why having someone on board who can see that potential and move methodically toward it is so important.

First, let’s begin with the matter of mindset: I always tell anyone I work with who is faced with a crisis—however daunting it may seem—that the universe intends for the circumstances at hand to partly or substantially remake, not destroy, that individual. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be stress (maybe great stress) involved in the transformation. Life teaches tough lessons, at times. But the end result can always, always be a new beginning.

That mindset should be embraced like an amulet that can protect the person in crisis from becoming paralyzed by panic. The best questions to be asking oneself when crises arise are:

1) In what way am I being asked by the universe (or God, if you are a religious person) to become stronger?

2) How can I use everything that unfolds during this crisis to educate and enlighten people to positive lessons about what I am learning about myself, my company or the world around me?

3) After this storm passes (which it will), what new horizons will I see laid out before me?

Next, start “writing.” I put that word in quotes because narrative isn’t always the written word. Getting to the next chapters of your life story, or your political campaign’s, or your company’s may involve shoring up your connections with key stakeholders, getting your messaging about the crisis in order, putting that message out, thinking about a next galvanizing project and beginning that project. Precisely what that messaging should be, and that project should be, is the heart of the strategic craft of crisis management. Every element of the plan should be authentic to the individual executing it.

There is a real way forward. The creative crisis manager helps define what that path is and then walks it alongside the person or the people who find themselves in a storm.

If this sounds like leaning into the wind, it is. And anyone who has been in a storm knows it is the only way to make progress.

I like the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.”

Keith Ablow, MD

“No One Walks in and Gets a Talk Show, Greg” Why you should take every shot you get.

I still remember about 12 years ago, sitting with my television agent Greg Lipstone at a sandwich shop in Los Angeles. Greg was one of the heads of television for the mega-entertainment agency William Morris. We had a few meetings scheduled with television show runners to talk about a drama series I had thought up, but there was a 90-minute gap between those meetings. We finished our sandwiches in about 15 minutes, then Greg looked at me and said, “You know, I’ve always thought you would be great as a talk show host. Warner Brothers is right across the street. We’ve got some time to kill. Let’s walk over and see if anyone will take a meeting.”

I was fresh off what had felt like a big disappointment to me. Expert Witness, a television pilot I had sold to CBS and executive produced (with Matthew Modine in the leading role), hadn’t been ordered as a series by the network (even though they spent $5 million on the pilot). I wasn’t up for pie-in-the-sky ideas. “Greg,” I said. “I want to stick with projects that might actually get produced. No one walks in and gets a talk show. No one gets a talk show, period, pretty much. It’s one in a million.”

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s true.” He finished his bag of chips, while we talked about my kids and his kids. Then he looked up at me, again, and said, “We might as well just go over there, right? We have too much time to just sit here.”

I decided to humor him. I mean, I figured the whole thing might make for a few laughs on the way back down to the Warner Brothers lobby, after a very quick don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you discussion, with an executive assistant, upstairs.

Greg and I took the elevator up to the Telepictures offices (the television syndication arm of Warner Brothers). He walked up to the receptionist in the lobby. “I wondered if Lisa Hackner might be around,” he said. I didn’t know it, but Lisa Hackner had worked with Tyra Banks and other talk show hosts.

“What can I tell her this is about?” the receptionist asked.

“Please tell her Greg Lipstone is here, and I just want five minutes to introduce her to a psychiatrist who I think would be great on television,” Greg said.

The assistant picked up the phone and delivered the message. I was ready for a semi-polite dismissal. Instead, she looked at us and said, “Lisa’s eating lunch, but if that doesn’t bother you, she said I could show you to her office.”

Well, that hadn’t gone at all the way I’d thought it would.

Two hours later, after telling Lisa what I loved about working with patients and why I thought moments of searing insight could be achieved, even on a talk show, she asked me if I could stay an extra two days in Los Angeles, if she could pretty much promise me a contract for a talk show by the end of the two days.

I decided to humor her, just like I had Greg. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll stay. But if you talk about contracts with, say, 20 percent the people who come by for lunch, when only 1 in 1,000 really happen, then I could go home before the weekend, which would be okay, too.”

“I don’t talk about contracts after one meeting, basically, ever,” she said.

Two days later, much to my surprise, I signed a contract for the pilot of The Dr. Keith Ablow Show, which was taped at Rockefeller Center and ran for a full year—180 episodes, as I recall—in over 90 percent of the nation.

Lesson learned: Do not assume that lightning cannot strike. Do not be afraid to ask for exactly what you want, as a creator. In artistic endeavors, take every shot you get.

What would you love to do? Who are the gatekeepers and stakeholders you need to reach to make it happen? Don’t assume you can’t connect with them or that your ideas won’t move them. And if you want to team up with someone to make that happen, I’m right here. Just let me know. Because I’m convinced now that the universe brings people together, often at just the right times, for just the right reasons.

Keith Ablow, MD
Founder, Keith Ablow Creative, Inc.

Is This the Best Advice to Fiction Writers, Ever Given?

There’s plenty of good advice there for fiction writers. Some of it, by the way, is contained in the work of the late Gary Provost (www.garyprovost.com), who created the Video Novel Workshop. The workshop is now available as a free download, but I bought that series of DVDs from Gary for about $60 when he was still alive. I used it to write 15 pages of my first published novel, Denial, and sold that book and its sequel to Random House, over lunch with the legendary publisher and editor Sonny Mehta (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonny_Mehta).

The Best $60 I Ever Spent

I know that sounds easy—like, add water and stir—but it only happened after I had written 3 complete manuscripts that had gathered about 100 rejection letters. So, in a very real way, Gary’s advice was the key to my beginning my fiction writing career, in earnest. The $60 I handed him was the best money I ever spent.

Still, Gary’s isn’t my choice for the best advice to fiction writers, ever given. I believe that advice came from J.D. Salinger, in his book Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenter & Seymour: An Introduction.

The Iconic Advice
Salinger’s pearl of wisdom is delivered as part of a letter written by Seymour Glass to his younger brother Buddy Glass. Seymour is watching his brother sleep and wants to pen something that can propel his brother’s writing forward.

The advice he gives him is this:

If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won’t even underline that. It’s too important to be underlined.

Can You Really Write What You Dream of Reading?

Of course, you can. If you can imagine it, you can create it. And what better way to proceed than to use Salinger’s creative device to step out of the role of writer into that of reader, to really step out of the present moment, and imagine reading the work that would move you more than any other.
Why not take 30 minutes today (and tomorrow, if necessary) to really think deeply about what story would speak to your soul and might have the power to change you, profoundly? Because that’s the story to write. That very one.

For Fiction Writers Only?
Is Salinger’s advice applicable only to fiction writers? No. I think architects, public speakers, painters, sculptors, teachers and a host of other professionals can use it, too.

Just imagine what building, what speech, what painting, what sculpture, what assignment would you most like to see or hear or be asked to complete, of all possible ones. Then, just create that very thing yourself.

I have to agree with Salinger: That step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it.

Keith Ablow, MD
Founder, Keith Ablow Creative
www.KeithAblowCreative.com
[email protected]

Five Keys to Giving the Best Speech of Your Life

There are plenty of resources that provide advice on delivering a speech and which focus on organizing the material, providing visuals, selecting a topic and being a commanding presence.

My advice is more ambitious: What keys make a speech something that changes people, in meaningful ways, within the scope of 20 or 30 or 60 minutes?

Provided you can choose the topic of your speech, I think there are five such keys. If you create a speech that embraces them, there’s a real chance people will leave the room and not forget what they heard—and not forget that you were the messenger. That’s a tall order, in an age of sound bites, Tweets and Instagram posts, but powerful ideas, powerfully presented will always have a place.

So, here are my five keys to giving the best speech of your life:

Choose a topic that can change lives: The topic doesn’t have to revolutionize the entire philosophical, spiritual or professional underpinnings of a listener’s life, but it should have the potential to fundamentally impact some aspect of the listener’s life. You might refine the topic, for instance, from “Forging Relationships that Work,” to “One Message that People You Connect with Deserve to Hear.” In other words, get right down to a core deliverable that can reach the core of an audience member.

Choose a topic that has meaning in your own life: Human beings have radar for messages “from the heart.” They can tell when you’re speaking about something you care deeply about and when you’re at a distance from your topic (and, then, inevitably, from them). For example, if you were speaking about “Why People Keep Cars for Decades,” don’t forget to share memories of a car that you still think about (and regret having sold) or one that your grandfather kept, long after it made financial sense to keep repairing it (and how you recall the pride he took in maintaining it).

Go the extra mile in being self-revelatory: Too many people believe that there is a risk in self-revelation—that they will be making themselves too vulnerable. In fact, the opposite is true; revealing parts of oneself that seem quite personal is a powerful way to connect with others. For example, if you were to share the story about your grandfather keeping his car longer than it made economic sense, why not dig a little deeper and share a story of when he stood in the rain to watch you play Little League baseball, too?

Help your listeners access deeper parts of themselves: Feel free to ask/instruct audience members to connect with the messages you are delivering. You can literally facilitate them personalizing and internalizing what you are sharing, if you develop the confidence to guide them. Here’s an example: “So, I want you to close your eyes, just for fifteen seconds. Don’t worry, I’ll watch the clock. And I want you to imagine one possession someone you loved kept close at hand, that they treasured. Okay, now close your eyes.” After 15 seconds, you could ask a few members of the audience to share their memories.

Conclude by reminding the audience what has just happened, because (with a little planning and follow-through), it really should have. Highlighting the magic that unfolded will reinforce its power, over time. You might say, “Okay, we’ve spent thirty minutes together. That doesn’t seem like a very long time, right? But I would say we’re no longer strangers. We reached a different level, together, if only for half an hour. Think about that during some other times you spend with co-workers or friends or family. And make the most of as many half-hours of your life as you can.”

That last point could really be seen as summarizing my message here. When you have the good fortune to have the attention of a group and the opportunity to speak from the heart, directly to their hearts, command that attention and take that opportunity—all the way to real connection. Your audience might well never forget having heard from you.

Keith Ablow, MD

Keith Ablow is the Founder of Keith Ablow Creative and The Ablow Center.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO LOOK AWAY FROM THE CAMERA (AND THREE OTHER TIPS FOR TV INTERVIEWS)

For executives, authors, attorneys or anyone who is not a veteran of on-camera work, it can be daunting when a news event or a publicity tour means going in front of the camera. Sitting in a small room for a satellite interview, with an earpiece in your ear and a video camera lens pointed at you, isn’t anything like having a normal discussion. Neither is a sit-down interview with a journalist who has question after question for you. Either situation can end up making you look or sound ill-at-ease.

Helping people get comfortable in front of television cameras is part of the consulting work I do. Providing comprehensive coaching to reach your goals. But I’ll share with you four bits of free advice right now on how to triumph over television as a medium.


1 – Look Away

Don’t be afraid to briefly look away from the camera or from the interviewer when you’re talking, as you would if you were in a regular discussion. Too many people who are interviewed on-camera stare straight into the lens or ceaselessly at their interviewers. You will look much more experienced and far more natural if you glance away from time-to-time, as if gathering your thoughts. Then you can look back into the lens of the camera or back into the eyes of your interviewer.


2 – Energy

Be about 50 percent more energized than you think you should be. Television dramatically reduces the energy level that viewers perceive in guests. In order to appear engaged and engaging, you’ll need to get comfortable using far more emotion in your voice and facial expressions than usual. Hand gestures help, too. The executive producer of my talk show once told me to feel free to occasionally stand up—literally get up, out of my seat—when I felt surprised by something a guest on the show said. “When you’re on camera,” she said, “you’ll need to be more animated than you would ever think to be off-camera. Otherwise, you’ll seem dull.”


3 – Sound Bites

Talk in sound bites, so that your comments are easy to use on television broadcasts. This means making sure that your answers are self-contained (with a beginning, middle and end) and relatively short – say, 15-30 seconds, if possible. It’s even better if the self-contained answers you give include an element of drama that makes them headline-worthy. An example: Ted Smith calls Apple rotten fruit. That kind of thing.


4 – Take a Pause

Pause for effect. You can pause, or pause and nod, gathering your thoughts, especially when you want viewers to sit closer to the edge of their seats. Television reduces energy levels, but it increases the dramatic impact of silence. So, use it.


Use these four tips, and you’ll be 75 percent better than most people are on camera.

What’s the rest of the recipe for success? Coaching. Appearing on television is no different from any other skill. You build it with feedback and fine-tuning. Whether you reach out to me, or to another coach, don’t hesitate to invest the time. Being a pro on-camera doesn’t take many practice sessions and can pay huge dividends, down the road.

Keith Ablow, MD

The All Important “Deck” to Secure Start-up Funding

Starting a business has an inevitable element of storytelling to it. First of all, it all starts with an idea, just like a novel does. The idea is an answer to this question: “What if?”

Here are three examples:

• What if people could . . . ?

• What if cell phones could . . .?

• What if an app could . . . ?

The difference between a new business and a novel, of course, is that the new business has to be completely non-fiction. Any element of the idea or the plan that is wishful thinking is a threat to the venture. That’s why the “deck” you’ll send out to potential investors needs to be as airtight as possible. Because anything that requires too big of a “leap of faith” to believe runs the risk of making investors far less likely to invest.

That’s why I spend some of my time consulting to people creating these decks—because as both a novelist and former bestselling NY Times non-fiction writer and Newsweek Fellow, I resonate at a very deep level with any image or language that suggests the writer or creator has veered toward fiction from fact. And those are the places where entrepreneurs need to lean into their decks to explain more about how (exactly) milestones in product development will be accomplished, why (exactly) the proposed marketing of the product or service will work and when (as exactly as possible) revenues will begin and begin to grow.

Entrepreneurs need to be careful to stay with non-fiction, because they are, inherently, artists. They are creating something that did not exist before. So the temptation to be expansive, to the point of unreality, is a real risk. A prediction based on data is A okay. A dream based on creativity and hope, without data, invites cynicism. And it’s often tough for the “author” of the dream (the entrepreneur) to tell the difference.

Yes, a lot of this sounds psychological. As someone who practiced psychiatry for more than 25 years, I’m sure I tend to focus on matters of mind a lot more than others might. But that is also because I have learned that people unconsciously assess ideas at multiple levels.

Here are just five:

1. Is the idea inherently powerful?
2. Is the idea unique?
3. Is the idea presented with confidence?
4. Is the idea presented with candor?
5. Is the path to profit very credible?

If you need help making sure you address all five questions, don’t hesitate to involve someone outside the circle of innovators and creators who came up with the idea or who stand to gain from it. A well-intentioned cynic, on your side, can be invaluable.

Keith Ablow