Bob Harris is an American radio commentator, writer, comedian, actor and producer, known for Jeopardy! (1984), Who Rules? The Game (2005) and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000). Author of four books, including The International Bank of Bob (Bloomsbury, 2013), Who Hates Whom (Crown, 2007), a pocket guide to global conflict; Beyond Caprica (DK, 2010), a mock travel guide to the 12 colonies of the Caprica/Battlestar Galactica universe; and Prisoner of Trebekistan (Crown, 2006), a memoir of 13 Jeopardy! games over 10 years. He’s a freelance travel writer, Travel+Leisure (2010), Forbes Traveler (2008-09) and has circled the globe three times (2004-present). He has a Bachelor of Science cum laude, electrical engineering and applied physics from Case Western Reserve University.
My Definition Of Success | I’ve had two very contrary ideas in my head about success from an early age. I think this is true of a lot of people. Sorting it out is really helpful. I’m not a religious person today. But when I was a child, my grandfather was a Baptist minister. So I was raised in a home where we went to church on Sundays and it was thumped into my head that the greatest guy who ever lived gave his whole life for the benefit of others. That’s what heroism was. That’s what being a good person was. That’s a very potent idea to pound into a growing skull, and it stuck. It’s still a very high value for me, even if I’ve sort of moved on to a more agnostic, ecumenical view of religion itself.
I was also an American kid from the working class, which means I was raised without the sort of social safety net that one might have in European countries—in America, things like public education, health care, and support for the unemployed are pretty bare-bones. So from the start, you know deep down that you’re mostly on your own. This can be depressing and stressful for a lot of young people, because most don’t have any real clear path toward a “successful” life, by any measure. And that breeds more selfish materialism in a lot of people than might be there otherwise—myself included, when I was younger. I never wanted fancy clothes or cars, but I was motivated by real fright that I’d someday not have enough food on the table.
So I had two very different and conflicting goals in my head, unexamined, for many years: serve others! And make a lot of money! It’s hard to do both at the same time. This is a large part of why I was eventually attracted to social business, which tries to serve both objectives at once.
As I grew into my 30s and 40s, I started to understand all of this better, which made it easier for me to make life choices. If there’s a takeaway here, it’s this: I think the more you understand about your own cultures—both the one you grow up in, and the one you grow inside of you (which aren’t necessarily the same, and often conflict)—the happier and more successful you’ll be.
The Difference Between Good And Great | In a word: passion. You can be good at something you don’t really love, but you’re not going to be great at it. Real mastery of any skill requires so much time and attention and focus that if you’re not deeply invested in it, you’re just not going to become great.
As a postscript, you have to be willing to be bad at something before you can ever be good at it. Nobody picks up a violin and just starts playing at a world-class level. You’re going to stink for a while at almost anything. Then you’ll be okay. Then you’ll be pretty good. You’ll stay pretty good for a while until you’re very good. Then you stay very good for longer while, before you’re excellent. And excellence may be all you ever achieve, but if you bang away long enough, true greatness may happen. Achieving greatness is an endurance sport, whatever you’re trying—singing, surgery, football, writing, anything.
Passion is what keeps you running toward greatness the whole time.
So you have to choose something you need to do so badly that you can’t imagine not doing it. And then be willing to stink at it to begin. 🙂
A Key Talent | If I have any particular talent, it’s not-giving-up-itude. I grew up working class, in a culture where you either work or you don’t survive very long. So I’ve always taken a working class approach to writing books or performing or anything I’ve done. I don’t have any illusions about myself as some sort of artist who needs to bloom like a fragile orchid. It’s work, plain and simple. As a creative person, you don’t wait around for ideas to come. That’s not how it works. If your butt isn’t in the chair writing for a large chunk of most days, you’re just not writing.
The Characteristics Of Success | Some of what I call “butt-in-the-chair time” — the hours you just have to put in to accomplish your goals — should be spent on studying things that make you better at what you do, even if you’re already great at it. I’m sure this applies in the sciences, in engineering, in music, in most fields—you have to stay current and continue to improve your skills. So I probably also spend an average of an hour every day studying something I need to get better at—dramatic structure, perhaps, or storytelling styles different from my own instinctive voice, to develop a broader palette, maybe—just as a basic part of the workday.
And as for ideas, inspiration doesn’t come to you by itself. You get ideas by actively deciding to find them. Maybe it’s going for a walk and saying to yourself, I’m not going to stop walking until I’ve got three great ideas for the next chapter. It’s amazing how if you just truly focus and work, bad ideas come, and you can turn some of them into good ones, and one or two of those into very good ones.
Principles I Live By | Two things:
The Golden Rule is a no-brainer: do unto others, etc. Play nice. As much as you possibly can, try to see everyone as equals, even if they’re wildly richer or poorer or halfway around the world from you. That’s just fundamental.
As a second thing, and this may seem counter-intuitive, but give this a listen: the most dangerous thing in the world is certainty.
I was surprised to arrive at that conclusion, but nearly ten years ago I wrote a book called Who Hates Whom, basically a guide to about 30 of the world’s major conflict zones. When I started, I imagined that there would be different types of war—wars over religion, borders, ethnicities, resources, etc. I was surprised to find that this was rarely clear. Even when a conflict have clearly stated original causes, as it progressed, it would take on a life of its own, with the rationalizations changing as needed.
What I found instead—and have continued to find, everywhere in history I’ve looked, and everywhere in our modern world as you read this—is this: what people who start wars and the people who follow them share most of all is the deadly mind-virus of certainty. Whatever the specifics may be—our nation, our god, our traditions, our birthright, our this, our that—the people with this mind-virus have convinced themselves that they are the sole monopolists of truth and worthiness. Pretty much anytime that happens, people die, sometimes in great number.
Democracy — in those rare places where it actually exists, which is not a long list— works because people are compelled to actually listen to each other before they make a decision. It works because of doubt, because of the ability to question ourselves. If that’s absent, democracy weakens and turns into factional conflict. (The US is sadly on its way to becoming a fine example.) The whole notion of freedom of speech is based on doubt—without it, people would be unable to question their beliefs, and there would hardly be any point. The scientific method is an organized system of doubt, and it’s by far the most powerful engine for creation ever developed.
Doubt is good. Testing beliefs against data is good. Certainty kills.
Dealing With Doubt | You mean, like in the last ten minutes? 🙂
Self-doubt and fear live here every day of the week. They roam my house like two big not-particularly-nice dogs that I don’t want to own, but who came with the mortgage and now I have to take care of them. I leave the door open and ask them to leave. But they won’t! They live here as much as I do.
But sometimes they also point out what you need to do. We’re often most afraid of failing when it’s something that we care about. So fear sometimes tells us what we want to do most. Sometimes fear and doubt are great hunting dogs, telling you what you’re supposed to be looking for.
Maybe you’re afraid to sing, because you think people will judge you—but it’s only scary because singing is something you value so much. At a time like that, the fear means you should sing. You have to sing. The outcome of choosing not to sing is exactly the same as going up and failing. It’s choosing to fail. So sing, dammit. Sing because you’re afraid.
If you fail, you’re still stronger. And if you succeed… well, congratulations. You just changed your life.
When I was in my early 20s, I wanted to try stand-up comedy. I was so nervous the first time I tried it that I was in the basement of the nightclub, vomiting in the men’s room, when I heard my name called to go up on stage. It was horrifying. So I cleaned up, ran upstairs… and stank. It was so embarrassing. But I was also secretly proud of myself for not letting fear stop me. And after that, I was never that frightened of going onstage again in my life. Last week I spoke at a college in Virginia for 90 minutes in front of 650 people and got a standing ovation at the end from much of the crowd. I’m pretty sure that if I’d stayed in that basement many years ago, letting the fear win, that the night last week never happens.
Don’t misunderstand—I’m not saying fear should always be ignored. Sometimes it’s just telling us to run away from the scary clown waving a fishing knife. In that case, run. But I mean creatively—fear is often something to follow Knowing that helps.
I doubt myself ten times a day and always have. I just refuse to let the dogs run the house.
The Meaning Of Life | This is really the answer, I’m convinced, and it’s very simple:
Life takes on meaning to the extent that our efforts and our love overlap.
That’s valid for raising kids, doing surgery, winning the big game—anything, any walk of life.
I write about how I came to that in The International Bank of Bob. The short version is that I was working as a luxury travel writer, reviewing billion-dollar hotels, which sounds like the most amazing job ever on the surface: free food, five-star accommodation, exotic travel, all that. But I was feeling more purposeless than I’d ever felt in my life. It came to a head while I was in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, staying in these ridiculously swank resorts that were being built by near-slave labor from South Asia, and I felt sick to my soul. I don’t have a problem with wealth; it’s wealth without purpose that seems empty, and it was everywhere. Meanwhile, on the construction sites, those guys had usually taken these horrible jobs just to send a few dollars home to their families. But they had purpose, at least, and was enough keeps them working these 12-hour days in brutal heat. I’m not trying to glorify poverty or anything—quite the opposite—but just pointing out that when we have genuine goals that we care about deeply, and we’re working to achieve them from a place of love and devotion, our lives take on great personal meaning, regardless of our economic standing or background or where we are in the world.
Life takes on meaning to the extent that our efforts and our love overlap. If you ever feel like your life doesn’t mean anything, check it against this sentence. What you care about and what you do probably don’t overlap enough. It’s really simple.
The Best Advice I’ve Received | Two words: “yes, and.”
In improvisational theatre, those are sort of a philosophy to guide you and your fellow players in building a scene. You agree with whatever is suggested on stage and amplify it, building the world.
I was lucky enough to study with a great improv comedy guru named Del Close, and he thought it was also a fun philosophy to introduce into real life. When someone suggests something outlandish or surprising, make agreement your default response. Doors open. You stretch yourself and grow. You have more fun.
So I “yes, and”-ed his “yes, and” suggestion and have generally been doing it ever since. You have to exercise a little bit of common sense – if someone asks for your wallet, for example, it’s okay to “no, but” instead — but the effects of “yes, and” can be astonishing. Somebody asks you to write a song and you’ve never tried? Say yes. And then write it and see what happens. Somebody asks you to teach a class or babysit a kid or something else you’ve never done before, and you’re not quite sure what will happen, and your inclination is to say no, just out of habit? Say yes, and see what happens. Once you’re in the habit, if a life-changing opportunity comes up, you won’t miss it.
I Am Inspired By | Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King—not the pop culture versions, where they’ve been sort of Disney-fied into idealized pacifist saints, but the real men, who were imperfect and made mistakes and were often motivated by a burning fury at the horrible injustices around them. These guys faced down overwhelming state violence—the British Raj had often demonstrated virtually no regard for Indian life, and King spoke not just against racism, but against the Pentagon at the height of the Vietnam war—and they yet remained true to their commitment to peace.
Sometimes when I was writing The International Bank of Bob and I was traveling to countries that had recently endured genocide or other great violence, and I was a little frightened by a place or a person or a group of people, I would think of one or the other, and it helped.
I wish I did more in my life to live up to choosing those two as inspirations. Everything I write is about peace in one way or another, but as I sit here I’d like to be more active somehow.