Wild Things

The first story I vividly remember hearing was, “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak.

I don’t remember how old I was when I heard it. Maybe seven. But I absolutely remember the teacher who read it to me.

She was tall. Thin. Long, flowing brown hair taken straight from a Pantene Pro V commercial.

I remember thinking she was the prettiest woman I’d ever met. I even told her that once.

One day during class…
My teacher asked us to gather on the floor around her chair. Then she showed us the cover of the book and read the title in a gentle voice that now reminds me of Sarah Koenig from Serial & S-Town.

But then something incredible happened. That sweet, calm, endearing elementary school teacher slowly transformed into a one-person theatrical spectacle. As she began reading the story aloud, her voice would rise and soften. And her face would scrunch and stretch.

As the main character, Max, sailed away, she was part of that journey. All of us were.
When Max made mischief, she made mischief.
When the wild things romped. She romped.
When he felt alone. All of us felt alone.
And when the story ended with a warm meal, everyone in the room was relieved.

It wasn’t just the magic of a good story…it was was the wonder of storytelling.

Ever since, I’ve fallen in love with stories — how they’re constructed, written, and shared. And over the years, I’ve become friends and teammates with some of the best storytellers I know. In fact, it’s part of Experience Institute’s curriculum for both our college and corporate programs, which means I get to help other people write and tell compelling stories. Our team has formulas and processes that we’ve shared with literally thousands of people. It’s been a dream.

Recently, I was asked to perform a story at a small private event.
I had one month to write and prepare. But to my surprise, I was stuck. Completely and totally stuck.

Eventually, I decided to break most of my own rules and try something out of the ordinary.

The story recently went live on the podcast that hosted the event. You can listen to the short 5-minute piece here or read the script below.

In any case, it was a good reminder, that stories don’t happen, they are told. And it’s up to us to tell them well.




Read the story here:

Title: Apple Skin

But, on this one Friday night in March, I was working late. It had been a tough week. One of those weeks where nothing seemed to go right.

So for this Friday, I was home. Alone. And occasionally doing my routine phone check.

Then, I see an email from Tanner Woodford. I think the world of Tanner. I look up to him as a person and respect his work greatly. And his email photo is so cool. Seriously. He looks like one those legendary designers who’s been dead for …like…50 years. How can you NOT want to check his email. I’m being emailed by a cool design legend who seems dead but is really alive.

OK, the email….

Hey there!

Chicago Design Museum opens its next exhibition on April 28th: Dan Friedman: Radical Modernist.

Leading up, I’m planning a series of events and a small installation at the SOHO House the weekend before it opens. More specifically, on Friday, April 21st at 6:00p, we’re bringing in the Nerdologues for a live storytelling show-turned-podcast. Your Stories will be recorded in front of a small audience in the theater, and features 10 five-minute stories. The theme is “Be Radical.” I can’t imagine the event without you.

Could you let me know by Tuesday if you’re interested in participating?

Thanks so much, and enjoy the weekend!


I re-read the email. Clicked on the links he shared. And realized, this could be cool. So I replied quickly,

Yep! I’m in!

I’ll block out the evening of the 21st.

Keep me posted on details.

I didn’t realize my mistake until a few days later.

Shit! I have to write a story. A good story. For interesting people. And it’s going to be recorded.

I felt like I’d said yes to going to homecoming with a girl I barely knew and my older brother was chaperoning.

But I couldn’t back out. Because it was for Tanner. Tanner Woodford. I gotta do this.

Now you should know, I write a lot. I love writing.

Writing is to me like running, or yoga, or posting insta-selfies with too much makeup is to the next person. I write nearly every night of the week and I try to publish something every Wednesday morning. It’s my thing.

So I should be good, right?

But every once in awhile, a project turns into that piece of apple skin lodged in the back of your teeth. You keep trying to use your tongue to wiggle it loose, but you really need floss….but you don’t have floss…so you just keep contorting your tongue in weird ways hoping that shitty piece of apple skin will magically be gone and you’ll feel that great victory of not having to go to the store to buy floss.

That’s what this writing project had become.

My first thought was: I have lots of stories to share. I’ve lived this spectacular life where I’ve traveled the world and started a school and worked with big institutions and companies.

But writing about my work felt too…predictable.

So, I sat at my desk and wrote other stories…things like…

Being licked by a lion
Getting stuck in Cairo with 20 teenagers
working as a valet parker and having a stranger offer me $100/hr to smell my feet,

I wrote some of those stories. But, they didn’t quite fit with the theme.

So, I wrote the story of my dad being diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer, 1 year ago, almost to the day. I wrote about getting the call while having dinner not too far from this spot. I wrote about my mother being handed a stack of papers and a crate of pills and a calendar full of appointments…and handling all of it with such amazing strength… I wrote about my older brothers’ wisdom, and how he’d never hugged me so hard like he did on the day of the funeral, and my younger brother’s hospitality and tenderness with everyone who he visited with. I wrote about how sweet my dad had become during the first few months following the diagnosis. And then how sad and even angry he’d become in his final days. And…I tried to add humorous moments so it wouldn’t be so heavy for you to hear.

But when I was finished, I couldn’t read the story… I just couldn’t.

And… for some reason, writing about cancer for this event seemed like “cheating.” Don’t ask me why. It just did.

I had to move on. … But now the event was only a few days away.

Then, another email. This time, from Eric….the organizer. He introduces himself, shares some house rules about the event, and then…the order of speakers:

1. Nerdologues member
2. Andrew Huff
3. Victor Saad
4. Christen Carter
5. Lloyd King


6. Alex Cox
7. Sam Rosen
8. Roman Titus
9. Joey Stevenson
10. Constance Volk

Shit, I think. I know a lot of those people. I think all nine of them also had cool email photos. I’m doomed.

I made one last ditch effort:

I went on long bike rides and listened to the Moth stories and past nerdologue episodes.
I tried writing from beautiful places.
I reorganized my bookshelf.
I strategized with friends.

At this point, Tanner is sitting on my shoulder talking to me — (really it’s just his photo…with a moving mouth), telling me this has to be extra funny, cool, inspiring…all without coming across as not trying too hard.

But I realize, I don’t have it in me. That piece of apple skin is still lodged back there somewhere.

So, here I am. Standing in a room full of people I really respect.
At a storytelling event.
Being recorded.
And no story to share…

Except…for this one.



Founder & CEO of expinstitute.com. Lecturer in Design at Stanford.

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