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Barry EISLER, Author, on ‘talking to your future self’

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APPLAUSE Thank you. Thank you. Can you all hear me okay? I'm so excited to be at TED! Isn't this a fantastic conference? It's amazing! So many people at TED talk about passion. Today, and if you have ever seen some of the taped TED Talks that are available online, passion gets talked about a lot. Well as Patrick was mentioning, I've got a ten-year-old daughter who's in fourth grade and she is passionate about Japan. So my wife and I told her, "look we really think that we should go live in Japan." Now, my wife and I have lived here before and we love it. And we said that if you are really interested in it we think that it is important to indulge your passions. And my little girl, because she has got a big imagination and a lot of courage, she said yeah let's do it. It's a little scary to think that we are living here because that's what our then-nine-year-old daughter wanted to do, but I think it was the right decision. And I'd like to tell you a little bit more about why. I'm really big on what I think of as indulging your passions. I've written seven novels, I used to be a lawyer, I've spent some time in the CIA, I've done a variety of interesting jobs. But nothing even compares, for me, to writing full-time. I just love it. And, I didn't know at the time where my ideas and inspirations were coming from when I started out writing. But looking back, I think I have some ideas and that is what I would like to share with you today. Where does the inspiration come from and as Thomas Edison said, it's 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. So, how do get that mix of inspiration and perspiration to make your ideas into something big? Well, I've always been pretty good about indulging my passions. I've had a lot of eclectic interests throughout my life some of them are a little bit weird. I got into martial arts when I was in high-school, and, in fact my interest in Japanese martial arts is what led to a larger interest in Japan. Martial arts, always been passionate about politics and government. What I like to think of is forbidden knowledge is something that has always interested me. Forbidden knowledge is something that governments don't want the general population to know, they want only a few select people to know about this stuff. "Kinjirareta chishiki" is maybe the right Japanese for it. So, I've amassed a strange collection of books my whole life with weird titles like "The Death Investigators Handbook" and "21 Techniques of Silent Killing" and "Contingency Cannibalism". Really weird books! You wouldn't think that these books would have any practical use, and hopefully they wouldn't, but these are subjects that have always interested me. So I just always read a lot. Weird stuff, political stuff, everything. Spent three years in the CIA where I got to learn some of that forbidden knowledge. That was an interesting experience. Also, I got a look at the way the government functions or misfunctions from the inside. That was also a really interesting and useful experience. And for anyone here who is thinking that the CIA is a kind of exotic, really squared away place, I don't want to disabuse you too much but maybe the best way to think of the CIA is it is the government so it is like the post office but with spies. But still a very interesting and useful experience. And my wife and I moved to Tokyo in 1993 because I really wanted to train in Judo at the Kodokan. This was a dream of mine. I told her I wanted to work at a Japanese law firm and that it would be really useful for my career and I wouldn't say that was exactly an untruth, but what I really wanted to do was train at the Kodokan. And that's what I did, so six days a week my poor wife was a "Judo widow". We were living in Sengoku, we were the only Gaijin in Sengoku. And my wife didn't speak Japanese at the time. So, and, I was doing Judo two hours a night, but I was just so into it. Every night I was surrounded by these passionate people who came to the Kodokan from all over the world because they loved Judo, they didn't care, they found a way to make it work. They worked in bowling alleys, in gas stations, people from Malaysia and South Africa and Iran, everywhere! So you get this really passionate culture and I got swept up in that. One morning on the way to work, on the subway on the way to work, I was actually at Otemachi station on the Chioda-line, an image came into my mind, a very clear vivid image of two men following another man down Dogenzaka in Shibuya. And I still really don't know exactly where the image came from but it was a vivid and powerful and it stayed with me throughout the day. So I started asking myself questions. Well who are these guys? Why are they following this other man down the street? And then answers started to come. I realized they are assassins. They are going to kill that guy. And my wife likes to give me a hard time about this because she says that is a completely abnormal answer. It like normal people would have a variety of answers. Maybe they want to help that guy, maybe he dropped his wallet, something like that. I'm the only one who says of course they are going to kill him. But that's the way my mind works and that's the way I envisioned that scene. So, the answer is they are assassins, they want to kill him. But that only led to more questions: Why do they want to kill him? Who hired them? What did he do? And I started just instinctively asking more questions and every time I came up with an answer the answer would lead only to more questions. I started writing these things down and it started to feel like a story. So I kept up with it and went on to compress the whole thing, eight years later I sold the rights to what was then my first book "Rainfall", a two book deal. Well it turned into a fairly big deal, we sold the rights in ten countries and I got to quit my day job and I have been writing full-time ever since, which is an absolute joy for me. So looking back I realized, I think where did that idea, that image come from? And I realize it came because there are things that interest me, things that might not seem to have that much practical value, like contingency cannibalism for example, but they interested me so I'd always read about these things and think about them. And make them part of everyday, just about every day of my life. And somehow living in Tokyo provided a kind of spark, and I think all those preexisting interests, those passions, were building up in my mind like kindling. Tokyo provided a spark and my unconscious served up an image. And I think that's where inspiration comes from. Or certainly where inspiration can come from. If you indulge those passions everyday, if there are things that you love and care about, do those things, make them part of your life. And good things will come from that. Now how do you go from there because we all have good ideas but unfortunately sometimes it just stops at the good idea phase, like David was saying, sometimes you get a good idea in the shower. By the way a little practical bit of advise you might find useful, it has been my experience that I do get these good ideas, good novel ideas all the time, at weird times. Working out, in the shower, in the grocery store, whenever my mind is relaxed and wandering something comes to me. But if I don't write the idea down right away, I almost always forget it. So know I write it them down all the time. The reason I think is this: I think when your mind, when your unconscious is serving up good stuff, your mind at that time is in a similar state to the state you are in when you're dreaming. We all know that when you wake up from a dream, you can remember the dream at that moment, right? Right when you wake up from it, it's vivid in your mind, but if you don't write it down within a minute or five minutes at the most the dream will be gone as your regular consciousness takes hold. But if you write the dream down you can remember it, so whenever I have those good ideas now I either use a dictaphone or write them down. That has helped me a lot. That instinctive process that I followed, asking questions about who are these guys, who are they, why are they going to kill this guy, what did he do? Who, what, where, when, why, and how? I find these questions are incredibly useful guides. These questions are how stories get written, and they useful not only for stories but for anything you want to do. Any way you want to live your life, any endeavor, any idea or inspiration you are trying to turn into a reality, these questions provide a roadmap. I know this sounds a little bit obvious. One of the guys I lived with in college had a habit of saying things that were hilariously funny but then when you paused to consider you realized they were profound. And one day, my roommate, Danny, said, "God man, the other night, I got so drunk, I woke the next morning and I was so hungover that I didn't even know what questions to ask!" And we all laughed. But then I though about it, and I thought you know, that is when you are really in trouble. When you don't even know what questions to ask. You could wake up face-down on the sidewalk here in Odaiba tomorrow morning but if you know to ask how did I get here? What happened? Even if you have to ask who am I, that's a pretty basic question! But if you at least are asking who am I, you have a shot that it might turn out okay. But if you don't even know to ask those questions this story does not have a happy ending. So those are the most important questions. But for any idea to make it a reality, any inspiration, to apply the perspiration to that inspiration so that it can become something real, it does take a lot of discipline. And this is another one that I look back and realize where did I get the discipline to keep working on that manuscript for eight long years. I didn't have a contract, I had a busy day job. No one really believed in me except, I would like to think I certainly believed in myself, and my wife was encouraging although she did also encourage me not to quit my day-job. So somewhere you have to find a way to keep going and again it doesn't have to be a manuscript. It can be anything, I mean if you want to start any venture. If you want to learn a skill, it can be a martial art or a musical instrument, or you want to open a new business, you want to start a restaurant, you want to change something in your life, it is not something that can happen overnight, you have to stick with it. So how do you stick with it? Where does it come from? For me, it came from fear. I realized at some point that the thing that was motivating me to work on that manuscript whenever I had down time, whenever I was on an airplane, whether it was late at night and I wanted to go to bed, or I was temped to watch television, or whatever, something gave me the impetus to instead work on the manuscript over the course of quite a few years. So what was it? It was this: I was afraid that if I didn't get published that it would be my fault. I was never afraid that I wouldn't get published. I was only afraid that if I didn't get published it would be my fault. That I was afraid that I might look back at my life from some point in the future and say, "God, what would've happened if you had finished that manuscript?" "I wonder what would've happened?" and that thought even know when I say it really gives me the creeps because it would've been horrible to not have been published and have it be my fault. So I was determined to do the things that I could do to maximize my chances of getting published. I conceived of that as my job. My job wasn't to get published, my job was to do all the things that made it as likely as possible that I would get published. I'll tell you a really quick anecdote. I get to take some really cool courses to make sure that things are right and exciting and realistic in my books, and one of them was a combat shooting course. And one of the things I learned on this course was that it is a very common experience among law enforcement personnel when they get in a gunfight, they are not expecting it and suddenly there is a bad guy in the liquor store, or whatever, and he's got a gun out, and what the cops will do, initially, is they get their gun out and what they are thinking is things like "die, die" or "hit him, shoot him" and the bullets are going everywhere but nobody is getting shot. And, then the training kicks in, and instead of focusing on that ultimate objective, which in this case is shoot the bad guy, their minds break it down into components that they can control. Which are in this case I'm thinking aggressive stance, gorilla grip, front sight on the target, roll the trigger... And when they start thinking about those components that they can control suddenly the bad guy falls down, it is like magic. So I try to approach everything that way. And novel writing certainly lends itself to this kind of thing, but not just novel writing, everything. One last little anecdote, and it is about my daughter again. It is part of the way we made the decision to come to Tokyo, and again the way I try to approach things in life generally. When I say I was afraid that I would look back in the future and regret that I didn't finish the manuscript. My daughter and I were talking and she said she was a little nervous, I'm going to have to leave my friends, it is really bad, I have never lived abroad, that sort of thing. And I said, we started talking about time-travel, and she asked me once if I think that time-travel is possible. And I said I do. I don't think it is possible in the way we usually conceive it in science fiction where people travel to the past, but I do think that we can receive messages from the future. Through the power of our imagination. And that is what my daughter and I talked about. I said, I'm not trying to pressure you, this is a big decision, and it is going to be good no matter what we do but how do you think you'll feel in a year if we haven't gone to Japan? How do you think you will feel later in life if we don't do it? And she said, well I don't think I'll feel good about that, I think I'll feel bad. And I said that is a kind of message you are getting from your future self, who is much older and wiser than you are. Who has given you very good advise. And if you kind of make yourself quiet and listen hard and imagine that future self, could be like tomorrow or ten years from now or at the very end of your life, and ask what is that future self, what is he or she trying to tell me about the decisions I have to make today? Well it is a kind of time-travel and I think that future self, who is older and wiser by definition than any of us, is giving you really good advise we just have to listen. Thank you very much. APPLAUSE

Video Details

Duration: 13 minutes and 44 seconds
Country: Japan
Language: English
License: Dotsub - Standard License
Genre: None
Producer: Virgin Earth & Ansur Pictures
Director: Andrew Malana
Views: 1,503
Posted by: tedxvideo on Dec 17, 2009

A talk given in Session 2 "What Does It Mean To Be A Learner Today?" of TEDxTokyo 2009, held on May 22 at National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.

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