A few months ago, I got the chance to give a speech at Savannah Early College High School. It started with me sweating profusely. Then, it approached a dramatic climax with me tripping over the mic cord. Fortunately, it ended with an incredible conversation with some really inspiring high-school students.
Here’s the talk in its entirety:
My name is Mark, and I geek out over stories.
I wanna talk to you today about your stories—the stories that you live now—and how that affects what you get to do later.
I actually teach storytelling online at holisticstoryteller.com. (It’s a great site. I created it. You should subscribe and keep the conversation going on there.)
I truly believe that stories have value, and so I want to encourage you to consciously value the stories happening around you—especially your own.
Understanding stories is a vital part of success. It’s incredibly important for climbing any ladder in the entertainment industry, and it sure helps life make a whole lot more sense.
Stories are the basic cause-and-effect way we all understand each other. They go back to those pre-language gestures around campfires, which eventually led to cave paintings, which eventually led to spoken language and, finally, resulted in the stories being archived in print.
Stories are now archived through written words, through paintings, through music, through still images, video and more. They span from the game-changing myths and stage plays of the ancient Greeks, to the latest single by Drake or Adele.
Stories have been with us since the beginning, and they circle our lives wherever we look.
Stories are how we as a species communicate. Even those essays about living in the woods or those confusing plays by Shakespeare they make you read in high school—those stories are vital building blocks to eventual success.
We can understand stories better, because of a guy named Aristotle.
How many of you have heard of him? What do you remember about him?
Aristotle was an important philosopher and scientist, but he also helped us to better understand how stories are told. His Poetics is probably the most important resource out there for storytellers. If you write, study Poetics.
According to Aristotle, every good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. This is a vital starting point to understanding story.
Everything you read, everything you watch and everything you do has a clear beginning, middle and end. It’s how your brain equates significance to otherwise unrelated events.
By this age, I hope you’ve begun setting some huge, impossible-sounding goals for yourselves. I hope those crazy, imaginative plans you had when you were younger and didn’t know any better are still intact. If you’re anything like I was, though, your goals—whether career goals, or relational goals or those dealing with your life’s purpose—may not be clear at all.
To understand your goals, you need to determine a BEGINNING point of each goal’s story.
Say you want to become an actor. What’s the beginning part of that story? What’s the dynamic point in your life where you realized you wanted to be an actor?
Anyone in here want to be an actor? How did that interest begin?
A few weeks ago, I had an interesting experience. I was acting in a scene with Captain America and an Oscar winner here in Savannah, and I was being directed by the guy who did Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2.
The whole experience was surreal, and I continue to have a love/hate relationship with acting.
I can date my first interest in acting to when I was four. I lived in Sierra Leone, West Africa then, and—since we didn’t have a T.V.—we’d act out books for fun. My particular favorite was Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, and I made my acting debut in front of my parents as… the tree. (It had the widest emotional range of the two roles.)
Not soon after that, I was asked to perform with about 30 other kids for a conference. Our characters were supposed to be dancing in a club while the main characters delivered their lines. During rehearsal, though, I realized something I hadn’t noticed before—I really stood out as the pasty-white kid in Africa, and my subculture had not yet taught me the dance moves that the other kids knew. They were amazing!
I begged my mom not to make me go out there, and so I hid in the shadows instead. As a result of my decision, my interest in acting was significantly hindered.
I still battle serious stage fright as a result of my early-life decision to run from my fear. It takes opportunities like these for me to chip away at that fear.
Your life’s goal may’ve started when you did the opposite of what you wanted to do.
During my high-school summers, I made $25 a day baling hay down in Ludowici, Georgia. I’m pretty sure that was below minimum wage, and I just realized last night I wasn’t old enough to legally work. It was itchy and exhausting, and I’ll probably die of skin ancer thanks to all the sunburn I got.
But those sunburns were another important part of my story. That pain made real the circumstances surrounding a possible job route—a route several of my friends ended up taking. I knew I didn’t want to do that, and so that pain helped me clarify my goal.
That realization was an important part of my story’s beginning.
In the beginning of any story, we’re introduced to the main character, what her ordinary world looks like, and of the relationships and daily tasks that have become a regular part of her identity.
The character we see at the beginning of any story is very different than the empowered hero who does the impossible in the end. But the foundation you build at the beginning of your story is important. Otherwise you won’t notice you’re on an adventure when you move further toward your goal.
Most of you are at the beginning of your adventure now—at least the part that includes you becoming independent, navigating the adult world and doing the kind of things your parents or grandparents couldn’t imagine for themselves.
There’s nothing wrong with being at the beginning. Just be sure to make the most of the tools you’re given now, because you’ll absolutely need them later for your goal.
I’m sure you’ve read some mythology in school—how the wise old man gives the hero some magical sword or gizmo that he later needs to slay the monster. It’s in Lord of the Rings, it’s in Star Wars—It’s in most of the movies you’ve watched if you look.
The tools you’re given now in school—as cliché as it sounds—give you a leg-up on the rest of your classmates who memorize and drop those tools after the test.
Nobody really told me this, and they probably won’t tell you, either. So Please listen:
Don’t expect your teachers to teach you everything you need to know.
This is not a jab against teachers—I happen to be one of them. By day, I teach students your age with autism.
But I’ll say it again: Don’t expect your teachers to teach you everything you need to know.
Education, in any setting, only gives you a foundation for the story you’ll live. Your teachers can give you the exposition and context for a variety of stories, but it’s up to you—the protagonist—to take the story where you want it to go.
If you really want to succeed—if you want to make school more than a 13-year prison sentence—you have got to make it your story.
Go beyond all that vital content your teachers are working hard to provide, and personalize it.
Don’t expect your teachers to make everything relate to you. You make it relate. They don’t really know you. If you’re anything like I was in high school… you don’t even know you. That’s normal.
Make education your own unique adventure. Go beyond the common core, and ask questions about the topics that relate to your specific goals. If you feel the urge to geek out—even if it doesn’t relate to what you wanna do—geek out!
So many of my own successes have come about because I had that extra edge over the competition—whether it was the teacher-slash-actor background the film was looking for in October, or my Special Olympics volunteerism in high school that landed me my first job in special education. All those extra things you do to the best of your ability—they can help you achieve your goals when you least expect it.
The important thing to remember is that the best heroes take active roles in their stories. Sure, they’re usually reluctant at first. What a boring movie it would be if your hero decided to save the world, and so she saved the world.
Where’s the suspense there?
True heroes go head-to-head with their fears. They see a need that’s greater than those fears and they fumble toward meeting that need.
If you stink at math, avoiding your math homework isn’t doing you any good. Identify the goal at-hand, and overcome it, whatever it takes.
What seems significant now may be totally forgettable in the whole scheme of things. The little annoyances right now may very well make… or break you. Tackle the things you know you have to do now—especially the annoying or uninteresting things. How you tackle them will define you along your adventure.
By establishing the patterns of success on the small things—when the stakes are lower than money and survival—you’re flexing those vital muscles you’ll need to tackle the big challenges, like winning that Oscar, or building that business that brings jobs to Savannah, or bringing the cure to AIDS to kids who need it around the world.
Those are the challenges you can hit head-on when you establish successful patterns.
Don’t know how to do it? Good! Of course you don’t. You’re at the beginning of your story. Just wanting to do the right thing is what makes you the hero. Stepping out to do that thing you know is right—that’s what sets you off on your journey.
Real heroes take conscious action. That’s the very thing that takes them out of the beginning of their stories.
The thing about your story, and my story, and all the great stories we remember as a culture—is that most of each story takes place in the middle.
I’m kinda reluctant to tell you, but what most defines the middle of a story is conflict. Lots of conflict.
Before your story ends—before you can reach the specific goal you’re trying to reach—you’ve got to hit some obstacles. Probably lots of obstacles. Painful, agonizing obstacles when you least expect them.
If that job, or that car, or that relationship you really want didn’t have obstacles, you’d already have it by now. But the rest of us would have it, too. And none of us would care that we had it, because that thing we get without really trying usually goes unnoticed.
How much attention did you give to the oxygen in the room today? Were any of you thinking of that?
How much gratitude did you show to your mental synapses for helping you comprehend the words that I’m saying right now?
Few of us have been thinking about the subtle pumps of our heartbeats today… but if you’ve had heart problems, maybe you are.
That teacher or classmate who’s had heart surgery, might actually be thinking about what his heart’s doing at this moment. His near-death experience in the past makes the steady rhythm of a heartbeat a beautiful part of his overall story.
Conflict makes powerful stories. Obstacles make that thing we’re striving for that much more fantastic.
Set clear goals now in the beginning, and the obstacles on your way to the end can simply be exciting new challenges for our inner heroes to overcome.
Your story is not just something you figure out by sitting down with pencil and paper. For all you plan—and you should plan—there will be many unexpected obstacles that block the straight path to your goal. It’s how stories work.
Conflict, obstacles and challenges will make your plans change, but your goal doesn’t have to.
Ever since I was four, I’ve wanted to tell great stories that inspire others to be better humans. At that time, I thought I needed to draw “Scooby-Doo” cartoons. As I got older, I thought my goal would need me to become a magician. And then a circus clown. And then a stunt man in movies.
Though the jobs I wanted kept changing—and continue to change as I allow them—the overall goal of inspiring others through story remains the same.
I didn’t even know that was my goal at the time, but when given the safe space of public school and supportive parents, I began to notice patterns in my interests, and these interests helped clarify where I was headed.
It’s because of being true to that goal—not always, but always when it counts—that I’m able to meet some of the most influential people on the planet and encouraging some of the next great leaders of tomorrow.
It’s because of that goal that I’ve worked with Snape and Ron Weasley of Harry Potter fame. I’ve worked with Miley Cyrus and stared down Antonio Banderas as the stand-in for everyone’s favorite pink starfish.
If you look at my résumé, you’d be pretty confused by the story I’m creating: I’ve walked away from a professor job to do minimum-wage temp work instead. I’ve cleaned fish to pay the bills with two Master’s degrees under my belt. When my goals demanded it, I sold my most prized positions and did without perks or sleep.
I’ve learned to tweak the middle of my story to include an amazing family that provides its own set of obstacles, and its own set of benefits.
If you’ve ever seen movie stars on a film set—they’re actually struggling, too. These glorified millionaires are usually sweaty, hungry and agonizing over self-doubt like the rest of us.
It’s their individual goals that often determine the length of their careers. There’s a reason you won’t see half of them onscreen in another five years. Staying true to one’s goals in the midst of unexpected conflict is hard work. When the whole world is scrutinizing you, it’s incredibly hard. …But not impossible.
As humans, we’re designed to thrive and overcome. The alternative to our design—just floundering and letting our fears take precedent over passions—is far more agonizing than most obstacles.
So learn more about story while you’re still in school. More than you realize, it’s a road map to your success. Apply those principles to your own life, and continue to clarify your goals.
Once you reach your goals, make new ones, start over, and continue to build your own meaningful adventure, no matter the cost.
Okay, that’s a lot of me talking. Do you have any questions for me?[At this point point, I crossed the stage, tripped over my mic cord and devolved into some really clownish improvised dance moves.]
It did get better once the students and I started interacting together. I was reminded how absolutely vital that interaction could be to the whole educational experience.
You can have that same experience by typing your question in the comments section below! Of course, if you want the same kind of experience (plus or minus the amount of times I trip), you can book me for your organization or event!
SWAMP LIFE – Day Four: The Ominous Stench of Death
How to Spot an Acting Scam
How to Spot a Filmmaking Scam
Blessed are the Lightbringers
SWAMP LIFE – Day Five: Resonance
SWAMP LIFE – Day Three: My Wilderness Healthcare Plan
SWAMP LIFE – Day Two: The Power of Vision
SWAMP LIFE – Day One: Trying Out Superhumanity