We often ask what people do instead of why they do it. Why is that? There’s a story behind the fact that someone is an artist, or a musician, or a math teacher. The more interesting and truthful story is not about what people do, but why they do it — something that Compass always tries to get to the heart of when working with clients. Guest blogger Tyler Murphy shares some thoughts on the truth that can be found in meaningful stories — thoughts he had while waiting for a flight at an airport.
I’m sitting in an airport terminal in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s 5:56 a.m. on Wednesday, October 5. Hurricane Matthew is looming off the coast and is alreading wreaking havoc in the lives of so many people in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, St. Vincent, and the Grenadines. Sadly, it’s certain to bring more destruction and heartache to many more people in the days and weeks to come. My friends and fellow artists Daniel Keys, Josh Clare, TJ Cunningham and I were advised to reschedule our flights a day earlier than we had planned. Last night, Charleston’s residents experienced long lines at gas pumps and grocery stores as they anticipate evacuation orders which are set to come later today. Worried that traffic might present a challenge this morning, I caught an early ride to the airport with TJ and the wonderful Marryanne Innes. I have five hours to kill before my flight.
10 minutes ago, Mr. Cunningham, an incredible artist from Vermont, and standby flyer of the year, vanished into a corridor on his quest to get home to his wife and son. He was the last person to board a flight to Chicago. The fact that I’m suddenly alone in an airport at this time of day with little to do sinks in.
I think to myself: “Well, thanks to that midnight run to IHOP with Daniel and Josh, you’re running on two hours of sleep. I don’t think you could nap well here, and there’s five hours before your flight. Perhaps writing will be a profitable use of your time.”
And so, in the midst of a looming hurricane, I attempt to write about something more than the weather.
Right now, I am enjoying creating and sharing content through a podcast medium. However, I’ve found that interviewing a person well is an art in and of itself, and telling a good story is no easy task. I’ve come away from interviews thinking, “dang, too bad we didn’t get to the good stuff.”
My first attempts have been filled with many awkward lulls in the conversation, lots of ummms, uhhhhhs, and poor questions that lead to boring answers. And when I think about it, my day-to-day life and interactions with people are — sadly — mostly filled with shallow conversations. Other times, it’s easier to just not engage, to just put on headphones and ignore the creatures around me that inhabit the same time and space here on this Earth. It’s hard to suddenly decide to talk about meaningful things.
As I look around the airport at the sheer mass of humanity, I wish life wasn’t this way… I wish we’d put aside the fake things we’ve bought into. The lies that tell us, “buy this, listen to this, read this, post this, comment here, this will make you happy.” I wish instead we would just sit next to someone, and force out an awkward and abrupt, “Where are you from!?” Then perhaps, the person will turn to you, half-shocked — but obliged to answer — and will say, “I’m from Connecticut.” And if you keep pulling enough threads you might find that the twenty minutes you each had before your flight were filled with meaningful engagement.
“There’s a story behind the fact that someone is an artist, or a musician, or a math teacher. It’s not so much what they do, but why they do it.”
Here are my thoughts on entertaining yourself when you’ve exhausted everything other than an actual real human being.
First, know that everyone is walking around with a handful of good stories. People are the way they are because something happened. And if you’re patient enough, and show enough interest, they’ll tell you. Some people tell you without you even asking, and perhaps too many annoying experiences like that have trained us to not ask for people’s stories at all.
But the next time your iPod dies, ask the person next to you to tell you the story of their first kiss, or to tell you the story of the first time they met their idol. Get them to talk about a disaster in their life, or even some minor inconvenience, like cutting an important trip a day short because of the unexpected or the story of a painting that arrived damaged at a client’s house. Here’s one: ask them to tell you about their kids and you might get a bright-eyed German lady, that smiles, holds up her fingers, and says, “I had three sons and my husband. That’s four males, always in my house. But then, on Monday, each boy goes to school and brings back another boy. So now, seven to one! On Tuesday, they each bring two! You do the math! This was my life.”
And, if you ever meet Josh Clare, ask to hear the story involving a soccer ball and what it did to his life in a single day in sunny Paradise, Utah.
Yep, you’ll get a good answer because you’ll be diving into something deep, and with enough practice you can forever leave behind the shallow end of the pool.
The key is to notice the obvious, like the outfit someone decides to wear. You can comment on their colourful leggings, and they’ll tell you why they love wearing them. You just have to let your curiosity be at the helm. You see, there’s a story behind a woman in a wheelchair, and another about the ring on her finger and the man that loves her, and helps her, and joins her on adventures around the world. There’s a story behind the fact that someone is an artist, or a musician, or a math teacher. It’s not so much what they do, but why they do it. And the why can always be traced back to pivotal moments in their lives. Moments when someone or something changed the path they were on. They know how to tell that story. But sometimes it just takes the right questions to draw it out of them. And, as you do, you’ll find that there are always little bits of wisdom in the stories that unfold.
And wisdom will always hold your interest.
Whether in a cave, tipi, hut, lodge, or around a fire under the night sky’s constellations, stories have always been of great importance to us humans. Make sure that you’re joining in this ancient ritual. Be the first to smile, the first to make eye contact and say “good morning, how are you today?” Be the first to make amends, the first to notice the peculiar — the first to reach out a helping hand. Pull on whatever threads you can from those around you, especially from those you love. Listen to the stories they weave and share with them what wisdom you have, because one day an inevitable storm is coming, one that will usher each of us from this life into the next. In that moment we’ll need to recall the beauty we experienced here, so that we can with a glad and honest heart say, “I’m ready for the next adventure.”
On the flight I boarded from Charleston to my layover in New York, the plane experienced some turbulence. I couldn’t help but think, as I’m sure most people do, “what if this plane were to crash?” My next thought was, “Well I hope it doesn’t. Life is really fun right now.”
I then wrote in my journal the prayer I’d send up if that were to happen. I wrote, “Lord, if you’ll spare me, I’ll dedicate my life to becoming better at drawing out and listening to the stories of others, and I’ll pass along my stories that may be of use to those around me that share this same short moment of life.”
Tyler Murphy is a Montana-based outdoor oil painter who runs Montana Gallery, an art gallery in Billings, Montana. He likes to meet new people and hear their stories, find new ideas that fill him with wonder, and share those ideas with others.