do you know the “one sentence” of your life?

 

 

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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.

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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?

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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.

Jul 15, 2012
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52 comments · Add Yours

She taught her son, by example, that happiness is worth all the pain it takes to achieve.

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I stand fast, and hold to my truth – the truth of who I am.

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Holy IDEAS.. ““You mustn’t live with people who wish to annihilate you. Even if you love them. Even if they are your mom and dad.” This quote decidedly punched me in the gut..without restraint. I also found that the sentence in the brackets was powerful because of the example of a ‘nuclear reactor’, not because of it’s obvious danger but because it had the word ‘nuclear’ in it..which made me think of ‘nuclear family’ which reinforced the intensity of that quote..

I don’t have a one sentence yet..and to be honest, I’m still learning to say “This is who I am even if you’ll crucify me for it.”

I loved this post. This post is beyond epic.

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She empowered them to surround themselves with material expressions in full and conscious alignment of the immaterial mind, body and spirit.

As it is right now.

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“She didn’t wear hats, glasses or yellow well.”

OK, it needs a bit of work, but when I’m uncomfortable, I make bad jokes. It’s uncomfortable to examine your life and boil it down to one true sentence. At the same time, I like it. I’ll give it some thought.

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From the wrong/strong side of the tracks: we had so many black sheep, we hid the white ones.

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She used everything God gave her.

Okay, now I’m feeling the pressure :)

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She enabled everyone around her to become his/her best and never gave up on those who dreamed for a brighter and happier future.

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This may be the best blog I’ve ever read. I have been working on requerying for my novel, “Special” and even though the book’s priority rates up there with breathing I am struggling to find time. The struggle comes from finding time for the steps I need to take to exist and coexist responsibly among my family of fellow earthbound travelers. The question contained in my novel’s query is similar, if not the same, as the one to express my my Dharma. The struggle is in my anxiousness to define the question.

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I am still here and I am happy about that, so I will keep on going!

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She tried and never quit.

About the best I have at the moment, but I kind of like the simplicity. Thanks for a great, thought-provoking post. I’m sure I’ll be thinking about this for a while.

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On an endless adventure.
or
Fearless explorer of her worlds.

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“When her heart was moved, nothing could stop her.”

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“Are you going to eat that?”

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She stopped to help and she was raped.

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Leaving this place better than found, enhancing others lives and pointing towards truth.

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I had the pleasure of hearing Dan Pink speak in person last year. My sentence: She touched people of all ages through music, story, humor and heart.

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She helped people and businesses achieve their best.

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He tried to change the world but succeeded in changing himself instead.

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He was charming and paid attention to the little things to make every experience with him special.

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Cosmic Fool of a Trickster Elf who encodes Love into Secret Story Maps

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She helped people discover their true value.

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Do for-profit philanthropy forever.

What’s your one sentence?

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@Tamar That is not the end of the story; if you ever need to talk.

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She survived and, with grace and therapy, guided her children to happiness, kindness and success.

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I’d have to give this some thought. Does your sentence ever change?

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@Tamar I can’t help but believe that your sentence is yet to be complete.

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Life starts in the dream – it is not the other way around.

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She loved, she laughed, she spoke the truth.

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Gorgeous sentences, all. I love love reading them. (I’ve been traveling, so getting to these comments a bit late…)

Still working on mine, will share when I have it…

@Tamar. My dear. I am sending you an email.

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I move people to deeper levels of power and self-expression.

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Saw art everywhere.

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I try to serve God and man … and occasionally make them laugh.

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BTW Justine, have you ever tried to define your life in one word? A friend took me through an exercise 10 years ago to do just that. It’s now a guiding principle. Amazingly useful.

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It’s others that will define us we can’t control what that’ll be but we can try to guide their sentence about us by consistently being the person we are, true to ourselves rather than what we think we should be.

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“Could be worse.”

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She invites you to the very edge of your self-defined smallness and she won’t give up until you step into the future you really want. See serves your potential, unconditionally.

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I am a teller of stories: when teaching, when parenting, when drawing and writing.

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We’ll at least he tried.

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Notice that it wasn’t Lincoln or FDR that provided the one sentence, but a journalist after the fact. Would Lincoln have said it or said it in 1862 before he freed the slaves; if not, what would he have said then. Or FDR in 1937 before the US was out the Depression or in 1942 before the war was won.

My response is that I will live my life and practice my profession as best as I can in the moment. Someone wants to write one sentence after I am gone, feel free. At that point, I have no say in it. Chances are that it won’t be that he wrote one sentence to describe his life.

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He learned to speak by giving other people voices.
Adam B @revhappiness

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An artist with the soul of a teacher, I live Right Now in Gratitude.

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Yes, I have my one sentence. It is one word. Truth. I have stood up for it in the face of a big bully and been beaten by him for it. Better my body than my soul.

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She helped people write and ………………… that part is too personal. Bummer.

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I pour sunshine and paint rainbows. In other words, I bring joy to life and add colour and beauty to it with a brush of fun, creativity, and inspiration.

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I make anti-gravity machines—out of language….

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Refuses to settle for one-sentence solutions that pretend to be wisdom.

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These aren’t intended as solutions. Read more carefully.

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I’m young enough to be a fool, wise enough to know that I am, dumb enough to try damned near anything, and smart enough to know that fools are the ones who do great things.

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