Interview: Larry Smith
Larry Smith is an author and editor, founder of the best-selling book series Six-Word Memoirs, and its newest program, Six In Schools, a way for any teacher to make their own six-word classroom book. Since 2006, Larry has been asking a simple but brilliant question: Can you describe your life in six words?
Now he has a new book in the series: A Terrible, Horrible, No Good Year: Hundreds of Six-Word Stories on the Pandemic by Teachers, Students, and Parents:
The tenth book in the Six-Word Memoir series tells the story of a world we never expected to be in and can't stop talking about. Told through the lens of students, teachers, and parents around the world, A Terrible, Horrible, No Good Year offers hundreds of inspirational, playful, and profound takes on life during the pandemic.
I couldn't wait to talk to Larry about happiness, habits, and creativity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Larry: If I’m in a funk—mental, physical, or some combination of the two—my ideal funk-breaker is to go outside and throw a football to my son (age 10), often as he’s jumping on the trampoline and likely chattering away on about video games or The Simpsons as I sort of slide into a happy and meditative space. If the child and the trampoline aren’t available, I watch this video (and trust me—wait for it—it’s worth it).
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I learned after many years that happiness and contentment are different states and that you need to work at both with the realization that there is no finish line.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
I’m not a researcher nor do I have a graduate degree in anything. But after reading more than a million Six-Word Memoirs on my site and hearing them from people at live events, conferences, and school workshops, I’ve learned these three things:
- Teens tell the most stories as their inner lives seem to change by the hour. They’re also a generation that’s comfortable wearing their hopes and dreams, successes and struggles, and just about everything else on their sleeves.
- The 55+ community tends to share stories of lesson learned, keys to happiness (family and chocolate run neck and neck), and the occasional grumpy old gripe.
- GenXers, of which I am one, are trying to balance their own kids growing up (or moving back in), aging or missed parents, while pondering their bucket lists with still wide but often very tired eyes.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
After years of doing yoga in fits and starts in the Bay Area and Brooklyn, it took moving to Columbus, Ohio to really make a yoga practice stick. I moved to this midwestern city in the dead of winter and knew about two people there and suddenly had more time. I starting going to a yoga studio near my house and experienced a sense of community there (among many other yoga studio, cafes, and public spaces in Columbus) and that community pulled me in. Yoga, powered by connection and community, became a joyful habit for my mind and body.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
A Questioner, and the quiz agreed.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?
My favorite social situation—the small, rowdy dinner party—tends to be one that doesn’t end in a healthy habit. Picture eight to ten people who don’t want to be anywhere else and can’t stop talking and laughing. What happens to me is that I forget to drink water between the drinks and (hopefully) ice cream; so that’s just a lot of bad sugar in the body before going to bed. Now when I find myself enjoying one of those nights I set an alert to go off every hour that pops up to remind me that what I need is “seltzer not sugar.” It sort of works.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
I’ve experienced a lot of flashes of lightning and at least one bolt. I was at a holiday party and one of the hosts was among my first friends to have a kid. I shared how much I had been enjoying my son, then ten months old, honestly more than I had expected during these first few Twilight Zone months of parenthood. "It's a great time in their life and yours,” he said. “But as they get older and discover iPads and malls and everything else it gets harder and harder to get their attention.” Then he locked in on me, reminded me to truly savor these years since—in said six words I’ll never forget—“All they want is your time.”
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
“Trust the process”—a phrase that any Philadelphia sports fans knows all too well and one that I come back to often. Especially as I get older I have learned to trust myself, as well as other who have lead the way in different lanes, both personally and professionally.
One meaningful example: Working with a young Palestinian-Syrian-American woman named Sara Abou Rashed, together we created a one-woman play about her life. She had never acted. I had never directed anything longer than fifteen minutes. But we were lucky to find theater mentors who guided through the process. There were many moments when we felt like imposters; but we trusted the process and it worked.
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
The Odyssey (Amazon, Bookshop), and the Latin teacher who taught it so magically, was an eye-opening, soul-expanding experience for me. A couple decades later, I read The 4-Hour Work Week (Amazon, Bookshop) just to find out what the fuss was all about. Key takeaway, especially for my work: I don’t need to be in NYC to do it, and in fact by living and working in other parts of the world, my lens on the world of storytelling widened.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
Here’s what I hear a lot: Short-form platforms like Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and Six-Word Memoirs are the death of storytelling. Of course, there’s lot of short-attention span theater in the world we live in now. But what I see is a golden age of new tools that make it easier for anyone to share a story, define their identity, and engage in the cultural narrative of their time. A great Six-Word Memoir isn’t “ADD” but in fact ADDeep. A good Six-Word Memoir such as “Son’s Autism broke and rebuilt me,” “My life made my therapist laugh,” or “Married by Elvis, divorced by Friday” leads to three more wonderful words for conversation and connection: Tell me more.
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