In 1979, like many before and after him, 38-year-old Robert McKee moved to Los Angeles with hopes of becoming a player in the entertainment business. For McKee, the signs were good. He’d already built an impressive resume for himself. He’d been a scholarship-winning undergraduate at the University of Michigan, an accomplished stage actor and director, an artist-in-residence at the National Theater in the United Kingdom, a graduate of cinema school and the director of two prize-winning short films. And success found McKee quickly after his arrival in Los Angeles. He sold two screenplays, the second of which won a national screenwriting contest. His career trajectory seem to all but assure him of success in Hollywood. In the next couple of years, McKee sold more screenplays but…no movies from those scripts materialized. It was the proverbial “development hell.”
In an interview with The New Yorker in October 2022, McKee describes a dawning realization at the time that he was “a good writer, but not a great writer” and, with a young family to support and a dwindling hope of any of his scripts making it to screen, McKee began to look around for other opportunities. One arrived shortly, in the form of an invitation to deliver a Saturday-morning series of lectures on “story structure” at a small experimental college in Los Angeles. Despite not having a film credit to his name, his first lecture was well-attended. Indeed, word quickly spread and pretty soon McKee needed to rent an auditorium to accommodate the growing number of students desperate to attend his weekly seminar.
Since 1984, McKee’s course has been given in cities all around the world and his students have won scores of Academy Awards and hundreds of Emmys. The book of his lectures, “Story,” published in 2000, was a bestseller and is on the syllabus of most film schools in the world. If becoming a player in the entertainment business is assessed by the influence and impact one has on the industry, McKee comfortable exceeded his own ambition. And perhaps even that is understating it, because he’s left an imprint on the industry by codifying the principles of storytelling itself, which is nothing less than the engine that drives Hollywood. From time to time critics still grouch about his lack of film credits, but McKee’s answer to them is simple: “The world is full of people who teach things they themselves cannot do.”
In his book “Story,” McKee talks about a core concept in drama: the gap. The gap is what McKee describes as the distance between a character’s expectation and the result of his actions. For McKee, there is absolutely no story in a scene if it opens with a character wanting something and concludes with the character getting exactly what he wanted. In art, as in life, what is interesting arises in the gap between what we want to happen and what actually does happen. McKee’s own life story, as with so many of our own, is a perfect reflection of the gap between expectation and result. Success was indeed waiting for him in Los Angeles, but not in a way he ever expected.
I want to come back to McKee, but for the moment, let’s go back to the Stoics. They were, as we know, pioneers in contemplating their own mortality. They used Memento Mori as a tool to never forget how limited was their time on earth, how fragile was the present moment, and how to avoid taking anything of value for granted. The Stoics believed it was a mistake to hide from a powerful experience like death. Distraction is tempting, whether in wine or other pleasures, the ‘tranquilizing behavior’ (to borrow a phrase from anthropologist Ernest Becker) of Stoic times, but they argued in the long term it was better to face that fear. For Stoics, that fear of death is to be overcome not by promises of an afterlife but by understanding that it’s the quality, not the duration, of life that makes it valuable. And in Memento Mori, the Stoics gave us a device that could change the knowledge of our inevitable deaths from being a cause for fear to being an agent for change.
My interest in writing this blog is to explore how Memento Mori can bring about dynamic change in our lives. That change has two parts. The first is using Memento Mori to help us be grateful every day for what we already have but might, in the anaesthetising routine of everyday living, undervalue: our family, our friends, our health. The Stoics would counsel us not to wait until we face losing these precious things before we place the highest value on them. The second part of Memento Mori is more complex, however: it’s how Memento Mori can help us achieve cherished life-goals.
For the Stoics, philosophy was not simply the theoretical subject it has become in modern-day academic study. For Zeno, Epicurus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and their followers, philosophy was a nothing less than an art for living. As such it needed to involve practical strategy, otherwise it was worthless. In furtherance of the second part of Memento Mori, the traditional Stoic texts identified six steps to help us achieve cherished life-goals.
These six steps were a route map designed to help us get to our desired destination:
- Desperate to travel but lacking the funds?
- Stuck in a dead-end job and seeing your dream of becoming a professional musician slip away?
- On the ropes with dating and losing hope of meeting your life-partner?
For the Stoics, philosophy was the answer to all these dilemmas and more.
So, what are the six steps?
First, we need to embrace the metaphysics of Memento Mori. And this involves switching off what I’ve referred to as the safety switch and keeping the knowledge in the forefront of our minds that our lives can end at any time, that we cannot count on ‘life on tap.’ “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do,” wrote Marcus Aurelius. We will know when the switch is properly switched off because we’ll be humming with a sense of urgency that will loosen the bonds of procrastination and distraction that can often hold us in place.
Second, we need to ensure that the life-projects we have identified are in line with our values. When we have chosen a life-goal – whether it is to climb the career ladder, find a life partner, achieve wealth and fame, or travel the world – the Stoics would first ask us to examine our intent. What do we hope to achieve in pursuing this goal? Is it to improve our life or others’ lives? If so, then pursuing it will be in line with virtue, which is a “rational” aim. Or is our intent to win the respect of others or accumulate desirable possessions or serve our pride or vanity? If so, the Stoics would caution us about pursuing such an aim. The respect of others can be elusive and, once achieved, easily lost. So too with material possessions. Epictetus cautions us against pursuing inherent value in ‘externals’ like wealth or public opinion. The only path to tranquillity will be through virtue, and a virtuous intent is one which seeks to improve our own or others’ lives.
Third, we must train ourselves to avoid distractions. For Marcus Aurelius, focus was more important than intelligence or talent, and distraction was a poison to focus. This is a major hurdle, because our minds are endlessly self-distracting and distractions burn time and erode determination. We see this in our digital lives, alcohol and food consumption, spending habits and increasingly 7-day/24-hour work lives. The ability to curb distractions is nothing less than the power to create time.
Fourth, the Stoics were masters of achieving goals through habitual behavior, and took active daily steps towards their goal(s). We can see the accepted importance of effective habits just by looking at how many contemporary self-help and business books are dedicated to the subject of effective habits (over 60,000 on the Amazon store).
Fifth, we shouldn’t expect immediate progress. This is perhaps the most important concept, because its imperfect understanding is the most likely cause of someone giving up on the pursuit of a life-project. When we take active steps towards a goal, what will most likely happen is not progress but the identification of any shortcomings we might have to achieving that dream. If an office worker decides she has to climb Everest before she dies, she might start training in the gym and initially find her fitness is terrible. Should she be discouraged? The Stoics would say no. She should be happy, because she has identified something she needs to work on to achieve her goal. We can juxtapose this crucial rule with the concept “magical thinking:” the idea that “one day things will turn around/my ship will come in/I’ll meet my partner/I’ll hit it big.” Magical thinking is like refined sugar for the mind and is the reverse of Memento Mori; it discounts the present in favor of a brighter future and undercuts the essential role of effective and progressive failure in achieving goals. As playwright Samuel Beckett wrote in his 1983 story “Westward Ho:” “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail better.”
Sixth, Stoics used the principle of “Premeditatio Malorum,” the premeditation of evils, to immunize their confidence by visualizing all the possible negative outcomes of their actions. Contemporary business management courses have a similar exercise they call a “pre-mortem.” By imagining the worst that can happen, we will be less likely to be devastated by setbacks.
Through these six steps, the Stoics equipped themselves with an active strategy for realizing cherished life-projects. And we can see the success of their strategies in the lives of the famous Stoics. As Emperor, Marcus Aurelius’ rule brought peace and stability to the Empire. Seneca and Zeno amassed huge wealth. The Stoic steps remain, millennia later, a powerful recipe for bringing about change in our lives.
And this brings us back to Robert McKee, because at the risk of blaspheming the Stoic canon, I’d like to suggest a seventh step.
In the early 1980s, as McKee waited for his phone to ring, he could well have revisited the six Stoic principles and persevered. He could have observed the fourth rule and cultivated habits that would have allowed him to write more scripts, giving him more opportunities and a wider portfolio of projects. And he could have followed the fifth rule, listening to the feedback of the studios and other participants in the Hollywood ecosystem for why his scripts weren’t getting greenlit and taking steps to improve their quality or subject-matter. But he found his calling by doing something completely different and pursued it without regret (as he put it in The New Yorker article: “I went from unfulfilled to fulfilled.”)
This seventh step is about recognizing the power of obliquity. Because sometimes we can be so focused on a particular result that we won’t recognize success when it arrives in another form. And this is particularly because the dialectic of the fifth step – thesis/antithesis/synthesis, attempt/failure/evolution – can easily create tunnel-vision. We can forget that the cherished life-project we are pursuing was identified by a prior person, the person we were before we started working on manifesting it.
Countless examples of obliquity exist, perhaps the most famous being the Panama Canal, one of the busiest waterways in the world, which was created by failure; the explorers who created it were looking for treasure and the Canal was the unintended result. Here is Goethe with a well-known description of the process:
“Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth the ignorance which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: the moment that one definitely commits one’s self, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no one could have dreamt would have come your way.”
The paradox of the seventh step is that, like McKee, being aware of the gap between expectation and result might help us remain the author of our own story.