I read Alan Alda’s first autobiography, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed and knew that he had come out with a sequel but hadn’t gotten around to it. Then I found the unabridged audio version at a book sale and snapped it up. I haven’t been disappointed.
The first book ended with Alda’s near death on a mountaintop in Chile due to an life-threatening medical crisis. The second book, Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, picks up where it left off and chronicles his search for meaning after surviving the crisis and recognizing he had gotten a second chance. He did this, in part, by going through some of his older writings, including the commencement addresses he’d written to deliver at his daughters’ college graduations and remembering the insights he “didn’t know he knew”. This was something that resonated with me because of the small amount of writing I’ve done over the years and my own efforts to put some of my insights and lessons into words.
In this book, Alda again takes episodes from throughout his life including his childhood, his activism from the 60s onward and his work on M*A*S*H and other projects to talk about the lessons he’s learned. He weaves these insights and meditations into the narrative in a way that’s very enjoyable for the reader, especially when listening to it as he reads the audiobook version.
A few of my favorite quotes …
“Love getting better at it, not getting praised for it – I learned that from my father who began his career in burlesque. The comics would say of a performer who was always looking for praise that he was always “looking for bows”. I learned from my father that if you’re just looking to take bows, you’re almost always going to be disappointed because the applause is never loud enough. The bow is really just a gracious ritual. If it becomes your goal, it’s a drug. The performance itself offers an ecstasy far greater than the drug of the bow after the performance is done. Look instead to love the connection you can have with the other actor, with the moment itself. That moment can happen when you perform an art, any art. It’s a moment like no other and the better you get at it, the better it feels.”
This is an important lesson. In the era of narcissism fueled by the likes and upvotes of social media, it can be easy to forget that excellence does not result from being told your wonderful or being popular but from constant practice, learning from the examples of those ahead of you and self-critique. The best performers in any arena are never really satisfied with their own performance and understand that there is always room for improvement.
I almost cried at how well this next one sums up the idea of personal integrity.
“When you sell a product that you know will fall apart in a few months, when you sell the sizzle when you know there’s no steak, when you take the money and run, when you write an article or a political speech or a television show that excites and titillates but doesn’t lead to understanding and insight, when you’re all style and no substance, then you might as well be tossing poison into the reservoir we all drink from … What would you take to throw just a little poison in the reservoir? $50? $100? $10,000? How about a half million with stock options and a Christmas bonus? It may be just a little but if everyone’s little bit of poison combines with everyone else’s, then together we’re tampering dangerously with the moral ecology.”
Emerson College Commencement Address 1980
Just a couple more ….
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in awhile or the light won’t come in. If you challenge your own, you won’t be so quick to accept the unchallenged assumptions of others.”
– 1980 Commencement Address
“Steer clear of ideology. Like jargon, it can be a substitute for thought. The lure of the simple solution can lead to handing over your life to people who make the trains run on time but will take away your freedom to go where you want on those trains.”
Commencement Address to Kenyon College, 1982
I’ve shared some of the quotes that touched me especially deeply and mirrored some of my own thoughts over the years but that doesn’t really do justice to this book. Alan Alda has done more than tell his life story here; he has delivered some profound lessons and wisdom in an easy, entertaining style and does his best to plant a few good seeds in the ‘moral ecology’.