Lessons From Fiction

“What a man thinks is his own business. What matters is what he does.” -from The Honourable Schoolboy, by John le Carre

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

In a recent post, I referenced Robert Caro’s diligent research process. If you haven’t read any of Caro’s books, either The Years of Lyndon Johnson series or the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Power Broker, you’re missing some truly great non-fiction works. The New York Times Magazine recently published an interview with Caro to promote the release of his latest book, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing. Caro is a fascinating individual and the entire interview is worth reading, but one line in particular stood out for me. Caro isn’t afraid to remain silent for long periods during interviews (and he conducts a great many interviews) to entice his subjects to divulge more information. And he learned that technique from fictional French police detective Jules Maigret and from fictional British spy George Smiley. (Another reason this intrigued me: I’m in the process of reading all of John le Carre‘s George Smiley novels.)

Copies of John le Carre's George Smiley novels stacked horizontally, with the exception of The Secret Pilgrim
The George Smiley novels – I’m still missing The Secret Pilgrim

This got me thinking about all of the great lessons to be learned from fiction. Surely this is one of fiction’s great benefits, giving us the opportunity to participate in what amount to simulations. This puts me in good company. A 2015 article from Forbes recommends timeless works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the hubris of man) and George Eliot’s Middlemarch (how we treat our fellow citizens). And management consulting legend Tom Peters suggests in this 2016 interview that business leaders should devote 40% of their reading time to fiction.

I became a lover of novels (and comic books) at a young age, and have enjoyed movies almost as long. So I’m no stranger to the wisdom of fiction. There are classic and oft-quoted examples like “With great power comes great responsibility.” (from Spider-Man) and “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” (from The Empire Strikes Back).

Those examples are so ubiquitous that they are easily ignored (and I’m not sure how well “There is no try” holds up to scrutiny), but it’s not hard to find more substantial life lessons. I grew up watching Star Trek, and I believe a lot of my social and political views originated from watching a multiracial cast work together in a post-capitalist society where understanding the world, and our responsibility to it, took priority over money or class status. Advertising executive David Marinaccio shared many more Star Trek lessons in his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Watching Star Trek. (One of my favorites: “Whatever you are doing, answer a distress call. The most important time to help someone is when they need it.”)

Sometimes the lessons from fiction even become self-referential. One of my favorite movies is 1991’s Grand Canyon, directed by Lawrence Kasdan. The film has an ensemble cast, including Steve Martin as a producer of B-movies, who, late in the film, reminds us that “All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.” I took that as inspiration and a started a project of collecting bits of wisdom from nearly every movie I see. I have over 1,000 of these movie quotes and sometimes post them on Twitter.

Cinderella's Castle at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida
The lesson from Disney: “One day we’ll own everything.” (Cinderella’s Castle in Orlando, Florida)

As consumers of media, this should remind us that while fiction entertains us, it sometimes offers a great deal more. We just need to keep our minds open.

As creatives, this is a good opportunity to recall the “Show don’t tell” maxim. We know George Smiley is a good listener not because anyone tells us, but because of the mild-mannered way he questions almost everyone he meets. No one on Star Trek hit us over the head with the fact that black, Asian, alien (literally), and white officers were collaborating; they just did it, week after week.

This aspect of fiction is also the conscience that we always need: If you believe you have something important to say, stretch yourself and say it. You don’t need to preach, just work with your characters and settings to provide the example. We should create our work as if it has the potential to change lives, because it does.

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