do you know the “one sentence” of your life?
Daniel Pink, in his bestseller DRIVE, tells a story about Clare Booth Luce, who was a writer and a badass. In 1962 she had a meeting with JFK. At the time, JFK was doing a thousand things at home and abroad, and Luce wondered about the consequences of such scattered focus.
She told him: “A great man is one sentence.”
Like President Lincoln: “He preserved the union and freed the slaves.”
Like FDR: “He lifted us out of a great depression and helped us win a world war.”
So the question she posed to JFK was this: What was to be his sentence?
On his blog, Pink put the question to his readers:
“The exercise asks you to distill your life — what it’s about, why you’re here — into a single sentence. It’s tough, but it’s powerful.”
It’s not a slogan or a mission statement. It’s about defining the ideas that you stand for and the impact that you have. It’s about what you want to leave behind in your wake. Your legacy.
The exercise demands clarity and simplicity. It is not dissimilar to a writer’s attempt to distill her novel into one or two crystalline sentences that explain what it’s about. Many writers will complain about any request or demand to do this. They’ll say that their work is too nuanced, too complex, too multi-dimensional; that that kind of exercise is best left to those stupid high-concept Hollywood movie pitches.
But the truth is that it’s just hard.
Simplicity takes work. It takes focus and commitment. It takes knowledge, and something that goes beyond knowledge — insight — to bring different ideas together and transfuse them with new understanding. It takes skill, and a measure of soul, to turn three lines of information into a haiku.
“You have to work hard to get your thinking clean,” Steve Jobs has been quoted, “to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
“Simplicity,” says John Maeda, “is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”
What is to be your meaning?
In order to know what you’re about, you also have to know who you are.
That’s the tricky part.
It helps to know what you won’t give up. For anyone. When you find that point, that limit, that boundary, that marks off some essence of who you are. You know when someone has crossed that boundary because of how it makes you feel: violated, invaded, hurt, angry, frustrated, perhaps even endangered, like a portion of your soul is at stake. That’s when you have to get very clear and simple and tell this person, whom you might love and who loves you: This is not acceptable to me. You cannot be in a relationship with me if you continue to [fill in the blank].
An extreme case would be an emotionally or physically abusive relationship with a toxic personality. What many people don’t understand, and what some people understand all too well, is that toxic people are called that for a reason. It is not a metaphor. It is a literal term. Prolonged, intimate exposure to these people will sicken you and break you down.
As Cheryl Strayed puts it in her wonderful book TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS:
“You mustn’t live with people who wish to annihilate you. Even if you love them. Even if they are your mom and dad.”
(You wouldn’t hang around a nuclear reactor, soaking up the toxins while hoping that things might get better. You would get the hell away.)
Which makes me think that before we can unearth our true One Sentence, there’s another sentence that we must learn to rise up and say.
Cheryl Strayed puts it thusly:
This is who I am even if you’ll crucify me for it.
When you do this, you choose to speak the truth about who you are instead of living inside some small box of a lie. A lie can seem safe, but it is not. It will violate and annihilate you. It will cut you off from other people who could love or help or save you – except that box makes it impossible for them to even see you.
Some of us learn this harder than others.
The lucky ones – and I suspect they are few — never have to learn it at all.
To speak that sentence is to start living, as they say, your truth. Which is when a one-sentence life becomes possible. It won’t be easy – it’s not supposed to be – but it could be great, epic, elegant like a haiku.
Do you have your one sentence? Share it below.