Posts Tagged ‘Ted Talk’

The best laid schemes
o‘ mice and men
often go astray
—Robert Burns (1759-1796)

When I hit a period of transition almost 20 years ago, one of the books that was recommended to me was Who Moved My Cheese?: An A-Mazing Way to Deal with Changes in Your Work and in Your Life by Spencer Johnson, M.D.  At this moment, we are in a time of change due to a global pandemic —so it seems like a good time to mention that best selling book which first came out in 1998

It’s the simple parable of two sets of mice who run out of cheese. Two of the mice (named Hem and Haw) basically sit around moan about the lack of cheese and speculate when someone is going to bring more. The other two mice (Sniff and Scurry) are proactive, and they put on their little mice running shoes and head out on an adventure to find a new stash of cheese.

I won’t spoil the ending for you—but let me just say that three of the mice end up in a good place. It’s a simple story, but one that resonates many people going through difficult situations. Which explains why the 94-page book has sold 26 million copies, and been translated into 37 languages.

Here’s the writing on the wall that one of the mice wrote to encourage future travelers who’d also run out of cheese:

Change Happens
They Keep Moving The Cheese
Anticipate Change
Get Ready For The Cheese To Move
Monitor Change
Smell The Cheese Often So You Know When It Is Getting Old
Adapt To Change Quickly
The Quicker You Let Go Of Old Cheese, The Sooner You Can Enjoy New Cheese
Move With The Cheese
Enjoy Change!
Savor The Adventure And Enjoy The Taste Of New Cheese!
Be Ready To Change Quickly And Enjoy It Again
They Keep Moving The Cheese.

This world has been through wars, famines, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, plagues, hurricanes, volcano  exploding, stock market crashes, faulty governments, and you can fill in a zillion other calamities and changes. But the human race seems resilient. And I believe in time this too will pass. May we all get through this transition with grace.

The second part of this post involves the timely launch of Brené Brown‘s podcast Unlocking Us.  Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston and two of her five New York Times best selling books are The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly.She may be most widely known for her TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, which has been viewed 47 million views on the TED  website and another 12 million on TED’s YouTube channel.

“I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.”
—Brené Brown

May you dare greatly today, don’t miss the writing on the wall, and keep your running (or walking) shoes nearby.

Scott W. Smith

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“Can success change the human mechanism so completely between one dawn and another? Can it make one feel taller, more alive, handsomer, uncommonly gifted and indomitably secure with the certainty that this is the way life will be? It can and does.”
Moss Hart

My favorite scene in playwright/screenwriter Moss Hart’s autobiography Act One is the day after he knew he had co-written a Broadway hit. It centered around what happened the next morning when he returned home to his family.

The day before had started with Hart not knowing what his future would be if the play failed. When the final curtain closed that night it appeared the play was going to be a hit. He stayed up all night with a friend and waited for the reviews to be printed before dawn. The reviews of three papers were read to him.

“The notices of Once in a Lifetime as I listened to them were a blaze of glory—each word incrusted with a special luster of its own. . . . When the last notice had been read, I took that second drink, for I knew now that my life was indeed changed forever—and I drank a silent toast to the new one.”
Moss Hart

If Hart’s life were a movie you could end with that scene. A close-up of Hart’s face totally content knowing that he’d achieved his goal of being a successful Broadway playwright. (There was actually a movie done in 1963 based on Act One, but I don’t know how it ended.)

But I wouldn’t end it there. There is a more satisfying ending. After having the reviews read to him Hart decided as the sun began to rise to take his”first ride to Brooklyn above ground”—meaning he had money now for a taxi to go from Manhattan to Brooklyn rather than taking the subway.

He arrived at the one bedroom apartment in the slums where he lived with his mother, father, and brother. They were all still asleep when he arrive so he made himself a cup of coffee, looked at the frayed carpet, and came up with a plan. He woke up his family and as they read the reviews he declared, “We’re moving into New York [meaning Manhattan] today—as soon as you have a cup of coffee—and we’re not taking anything with us . . . not even a toothbrush, a bathrobe, pajamas or nightgown. We buy it all in New York. We’re walking out of here and starting fresh.”

He was greeted with stunned silence. When they asked how that was possible, he told them that he was going to be making a percentage of the box office that he estimated at $1,000 a week. And astronomical amount in 1930. They loaded family photos and some mementos into one suitcase in less than half an hour later they left poverty behind.

And here’s how I’d end the movie (WordPress won’t let me use screenwriting format).  .  .


All four members of the Hart family are crammed Tom Joad-style into the back of a yellow cab. Moss looks out the window as his brother Bernie reads a newspaper review.

…judging from the audience response last night, it looks
like veteran playwright George S. Kaufman and newcomer
Moss Hart have this year’s hardest ticket to buy. They might as
well call the Music Box Theatre the Cash Box Theatre.

As the taxicab begins crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, the early morning sun hits the dazzling skyline of Manhattan. For a moment this talkative Jewish family is speechless.  The only movement is Moss Hart’s mother fumbling for a handkerchief and wiping her eyes.

They were not, I suspect, tears of joy for my success. They were
not tears for the beginning of something, but for the end of
something none of us could name.


Aerial shot of the Hart taxicab in the distance as it blends in with the other westbound cars and completes the transition from Brooklyn to Manhattan.


Sure those last two lines of VO are a little maudlin, but those are actually Hart’s words in the book–and I think he’s earned that ending.

I don’t know if producer (and former president of United Artists) Lindsay Doran ever met screenwriter/playwright Moss Hart—she was only a child when he died in 1961. But there’s a chance that her father D.A. Doran crossed paths with Hart when he was producing plays on Broadway in the 1930s at the same time Hart had plays on Broadway. Or later when they both worked in Hollywood.

But Lindsay did a TED Talk in 2012 where she talked about some of the top inspirational films (Rocky, The King’s Speech, Dirty Dancing, The Karate Kid) and how they really aren’t about the goal the protagonists are chasing (a goal they often fall short of achieving), but how those movies end with the main characters sharing their experience with ones they love.

“Positive relationships trump positive accomplishments.”
Lindsay Doran

“If there’s no positive accomplishments at the end of those movies, and no victory to be celebrated afterwards, then what makes these movies so inspirational? Why are people still jumping up and down on the Rocky steps 36 years later if Rocky lost the fight? And I think the answer is what’s being celebrated at the ends of those movies is something else. And it’s not as enormous as saving the world, and it’s not quite as simple as kissing the girl. What’s being celebrated at the ends of those movies is each other. It’s the tenderness and the kindness and the comfort of each other.”
Producer (and former president of United Artists) Lindsay Doran
2012 TED Talk, Saving the World Vs. Kissing the Girl 

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Here’s her entire talk for you to enjoy and contemplate.

Scott W. Smith



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“Mastery is in the reaching, not the arriving. It’s in constantly wanting to close that gap between where you are and where you want to be. Mastery is about sacrificing for your craft and not for the sake of crafting your career.”
Sarah Lewis 

“What gets us to convert success into mastery? This is a question I’ve long asked myself. I think it comes when we start to value the gift of a near win.”
Sarah Lewis

There’s been a resurgence in archery in the last few years. In pop culture archery has even figured prominently in some of the biggest box office movies of this century;  Lord of the Rings, Brave, The Hunger Games.

In 10-zone target archery competitions the targets consist of ten rings and points are scored on a one to 10 basis depending on what circle your arrow lands on. (Of course, if you miss the target altogether that is called a miss and zero points are awarded.) The 10 ring in the center of the target is the smallest ring and most difficult to hit.


“So success is hitting that ten ring, but mastery is knowing that it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again. Mastery is not just the same as excellence, though. It’s not the same as success, which I see as an event, a moment in time, and a label that the world confers upon you. Mastery is not a commitment to a goal but to a constant pursuit. What gets us to do this, what get us to forward thrust more is to value the near win. How many times have we designated something a classic, a masterpiece even, while its creator considers it hopelessly unfinished, riddled with difficulties and flaws, in other words, a near win? Painter Paul Cézanne so often thought his works were incomplete that he would deliberately leave them aside with the intention of picking them back up again, but at the end of his life, the result was that he had only signed 10 percent of his paintings. His favorite novel was The [Unknown] Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac, and he felt the protagonist was the painter himself.”
Sarah Lewis TED talk Embrace the near win
Author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery

Tomorrow we’ll look at how, according to Lewis, the near win has inspired others.

P.S. “The aim of art is not to copy nature, but to express it. You are not a servile copyist, but a poet!”—Master painter in The Unknown Masterpiece

Related posts:
Failure is an option.’
Aaron Sorkin on Failure
Commitment in the Face of Failure
J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure

Scott W. Smith



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David Mamet 

“Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It’s the most inclusive approach you can take. It confirmed something I really had a hunch on, is that the audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. That’s your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you’re making them work for their meal. We’re born problem solvers. We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct,because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in. There’s a reason that we’re all attracted to an infant or a puppy. It’s not just that they’re damn cute; it’s because they can’t completely express what they’re thinking and what their intentions are. And it’s like a magnet. We can’t stop ourselves from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in.

I first started really understanding this storytelling device when I was writing with Bob Peterson on Finding Nemo. And we would call this the unifying theory of two plus two.Make the audience put things together. Don’t give them four, give them two plus two. The elements you provide and the order you place them in is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience. Editors and screenwriters have known this all along. It’s the invisible application that holds our attention to story. I don’t mean to make it sound like this is an actual exact science, it’s not. That’s what’s so special about stories, they’re not a widget, they aren’t exact. Stories are inevitable, if they’re good, but they’re not predictable.”
Two time Oscar-winning writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E)
TED talk The Clues to a Great Story

P.S. I think I first read that 2+2 story concept in an interview with Billy Wilder or Ernst Lubitsch. (I’ll try to track it down.)

Related Posts:
Mr. Silent Films
Emotionally Silent Dialogue
Writing “The Artist” (Part 1) “I thought making a silent film would be a magnificent challenge.”
Show, Don’t Tell (Tip #46) “One of the cardinal sins for a scriptwriter, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say ‘We can cover that by a line of dialogue.”—Hitchcock
Garry Marshall’s Directing Tips (Part 7) “The reaction to the action is critical.”—Blake Edwards via Marshall
Directing Tips from Peter Bogdanovich  “Silent looks between people—to me, that’s what movies are about.”—Peter Bogdanovich
Ken Burns on 1+1=3

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“Storytelling is joke telling. It’s knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings. We all love stories. We’re born for them. Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories. It can cross the barriers of time, past, present and future,and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined.

The children’s television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, ‘Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.’ And the way I like to interpret that is probably the greatest story commandment, which is ‘Make me care’ — please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care.  We all know what it’s like to not care. You’ve gone through hundreds of TV channels, just switching channel after channel, and then suddenly you actually stop on one. It’s already halfway over, but something’s caught you and you’re drawn in and you care. That’s not by chance, that’s by design.”
Two time Oscar-winning writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E)
TED talk The Clues to a Great Story

P.S. I just realized if you took Stanton’s Make me care” and added UCLA professor Richard Walter’s one unbreakable rule “Don’t be boring” you’d have a total of just six words that may be all you really need to focus on. If you need more toss in Limitless screenwriter Leslie Dixon’s one-sentence screenwriting manual, “Do they want to turn the page?” and David Mamet’s “INVIOLABLE RULE:THE SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC.”  All the screenwriting books, blogs, magazines, podcasts, seminars, workshops, and college classes piggyback on these four simple concepts:

1) Don’t be boring (conflict-conflict-conflict)
2) Make me care
3) Do they want to turn the page?

Still want one more helpful tip to make it a handful? On the road to being a better writer? Okay, here it is;

5) “Writing and reading. That’s all that there is. There’s nothing else.”
David Mamet (The Verdict, Glengarry Glen Ross)

Related Posts:
Writing “Finding Nemo”
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 1)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)
Everything I Learn in Film School (Tip #1)
 The single best way to address numbers 1-4.

Scott W. Smith

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“In 1998, I had finished writing ‘Toy Story’ and ‘A Bug’s Life’ and I was completely hooked on screenwriting. So I wanted to become much better at it and learn anything I could. So I researched everything I possibly could. And I finally came across this fantastic quote by a British playwright, William Archer: ‘Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.’ It’s an incredibly insightful definition.

When you’re telling a story, have you constructed anticipation? In the short-term, have you made me want to know what will happen next? But more importantly, have you made me want to know how it will all conclude in the long-term? Have you constructed honest conflicts with truth that creates doubt in what the outcome might be? An example would be in ‘Finding Nemo,’ in the short tension, you were always worried, would Dory’s short-term memory make her forget whatever she was being told by Marlin. But under that was this global tension of will we ever find Nemo in this huge, vast ocean?”
Two-time Oscar winner Andrew Stanton  (Wall-E, Toy Story)
TED talk: The Clues to a Great Story
(Also has interactive link of Stanton’s talk.)

H/T to Scott Myers at Go Into The Story for pointing the way to Stanton’s TED talk.

Related links:

Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 1)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 3)
The Dark Side of Pixar & Disney
Writing “Finding Nemo”

Scott W. Smith

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