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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: TEDxMIA - Brad Meltzer - How To Write Your Own Obituary

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Translator: Tanya Cushman Reviewer: Rhonda Jacobs

Most people never get to read their own obituary.

It's hard to read when you're dead, right?

But I got to read mine, and here's what it said:

It said, "Brad Meltzer,

a versatile Brooklyn-born novelist

who spun a childhood passion for comic books

and a prosecutor's zeal for research

into a string of bestselling thrillers,

died yesterday at his home.

He was 40 years old."

Right? So how did I get to read my own obituary?

A few years ago,

I was working with a group that helped save the house where Superman,

the character Superman, was created.

When a reporter for the Wall Street Journal

asked me about it, he said,

"You know, Brad, this is going to be in your obituary."

My first thought was, "Thank you for so clearly contemplating my death."

But it was a crazy question.

What would be in my obituary?

It haunted me.

It haunted me so much

that I called back the reporter a year later, and I said to him,

"I want to hire you for a project.

I want you to write my obituary."

And he did.

You saw what it said,

that I write thrillers, that I like research.

What it also said -

and I missed it at first because it was in the body of the email -

it said he got called onto another story,

and as a result, he didn't have time to actually finish my entire obituary.

So as I scrolled down to the bottom of my own obituary,

which is really all I care about,

it ends with this sentence, and I'm not making this up,

just three words:

"He was a ..."

Right? That's it.

He was a ...

Cut off mid-sentence. It's a perfect metaphor, right?

He was a ...

What was I?

Was I good? Was I bad? Did I matter?

Did I achieve greatness?

What was I?

And I know so many of you are now doing what I did in that moment.

You're wondering what would be in your obituary.

When you die,

how will you be remembered?

And that's what we're going to do here tonight - answer that question.

How are you going to be remembered?

But to answer it,

you first have to figure out who's going to remember you.

If you figure out who'll remember you,

you'll know how you'll be remembered.

But before we do that, let me challenge you.

I want you to separate all the things that you do for yourself

from the things you do for other people.

First is what you do for yourself:

where you went to school, the degrees you got, your job title -

those are all for you,

and they will be in your obituary.

But ironically, they'll be the first things forgotten;

your resume fades with you,

your job title, gone.

And when you die,

it'll be one of the last times that your resume is ever mentioned.

But those things you do for other people?

That's your legacy, right?

And sometimes it's not even in your obituary,

but it is what lasts.

Because that's what legacy is, right? It's what endures.

It's what your impact on other people is, it's what your effect is,

it's what people remember about you.

As I thought about it,

I realized there were four types of categories of legacies that we all have.

The first is your personal legacy.

That's the category - your personal legacy.

It's the impact you have on people in your personal life, like your friends.

As I thought about it, the person who had the biggest impact on me of that group

was without question

my ninth-grade English teacher, Miss Spicer.

Miss Spicer, when I was in ninth grade,

she came to me, she said,

"You know what? You can write."

I said, "What are you talking about?"

"You're in the wrong class; you need to be in the honors class."

I didn't know what she meant.

She tried to change my schedule; there was a conflict,

She said "You're going to sit in this corner all year.

You're going to ignore everything I do.

You'll sit here and do honors work.

Ignore every assignment I give, ignore everything I say."

And what she really was saying to me was "You're going to thank me later."

And sure enough, when my first novel came out,

I went back to Miss Spicer's classroom, and I knocked on the door.

She's like, "Can I help you?" She didn't know who I was.

Last time she saw me, I had a full head of hair, right?

God bless junior high.

And when I walked in, I said, "My name is Brad Meltzer,

and this novel I wrote, it's for you."

And she starts crying.

I said to her, "Why are you crying?"

She said, "You know, I was going to retire this year.

I thought I wasn't having an impact anymore."

I said, "Are you kidding me?

You have 30 students; we have one teacher."

As I thought about this woman,

the first person who ever told me I can write,

she had no idea of her impact,

no concept of her legacy.

Right? Even with something so important,

sometimes we don't even know what our legacy is.

We have no clue whatsoever,

and it just shook me.

As I thought about it, I was like, "How does Miss Spicer do that?"

Because God knows what we leave behind if you don't know your own legacy.

A few years ago, I was at my high school reunion.

This woman who I remember as this nice, sweet woman comes up to me,

she says, "Brad Meltzer, you know what I remember about you?

When we were playing ball once,

I dropped the ball and you yelled at me."

And I had no memory of this story.

I didn't doubt the story's truthfulness,

and I just felt about two inches tall,

as the next 15 minutes I sat there apologizing and apologizing to this woman.

And as I thought about those legacies right there -

the impact my teacher had on me,

my impact on this woman -

I realized the next category of legacy that we all have,

and it's your family legacy.

It's a legacy you have on your family members.

For me, without a question,

the number one person who has impacted my life

was my mother, Teri Meltzer.

My mom died a few years ago from breast cancer.

But before she died,

I was up at Borders headquarters - when it was still around -

headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan,

and the head of sales for Borders said to me,

"Brad, guess where your books sell more than anywhere else -

straight sales, not even per capita."

"I don't know. New York City - 8 million New Yorkers in one place."


Washington D.C. - I write thrillers about the White House.


The number one place where my book sold

was the Boca Raton, Florida, Borders,

one mile from the furniture store where my mother used to work.

That means my mother single-handedly beat 8 million New Yorkers.


God bless her, right? That's awesome.


Here's the crazy part:

the crazy part is her legacy is that insane love she has for me.

It is the foundation of all my confidence in everything I am.

And when I think about it, that's really -

now you know the first two categories of legacy:

there's your family legacy and your personal legacy.

But also about mom, that story?

It's not about selling books, right?

It's about her love for me.

And that story, it isn't even in her obituary,

and I know

because I wrote her obituary, and I didn't put it in there.

But again, what a legacy.

Which brings me to the third category of legacy

that you're all going to have,

and that's the legacy you have on your community.

Right now, in a New York City subway,

there's a big poster up on some of the cars

by a teaching organization,

and the poster says,

"Who will remember your name?"

It's a potent question, right?

When you die,

who will remember your name?

We talked about family, we talked about friends,

and who else?

Who will remember your name?

Right now, in inner city Miami,

there's a soul food restaurant

named Jumbo's.

And Jumbo's, in the early 1960s,

like almost every other restaurant down here,

wouldn't hire black people.

If you were black and wanted to eat there,

you couldn't go in the front door; you had to be served around the side.

But when my father-in-law, Bobby Flam, who's here tonight,

when he took over the restaurant in early 1968,

he despised that rule.

He said rules like that were for uncivilized times,

and he quickly hired three black employees.


I appreciate it; trust me, he appreciates it a lot.


So Jumbo's, they hire very quickly three black employees,

and right after that, 30 of his white employees quit,

walk out the door.

He didn't care.

He became one of the first restaurants in Miami to integrate.

Jumbo's became a Civil Rights landmark, as it's been honored here for.

That's an unbelievable story. You know the best part?

It's still growing strong, still open now. For 55 years, it's been going.

But here's my favorite part of it.

Years later,

when there were race riots in Liberty City

and so many storefronts were burned

and the stores were devastated and destroyed,

nobody touched Jumbo's.

And you want to know why?

Because everyone knew Jumbo's name.

For all those years,

Jumbo's looked out for its community,

and as a result,

the community looked out for it.

And sometimes, make no mistake, it can take you a lifetime,

a whole lifetime,

to impact a whole community,

but if you are lucky enough to impact your entire community,

that appreciation will always come back - always.

And again, it's a story almost no one knows,

but also again, what a legacy.

Which brings me to the final place that will fuel your legacy.

It's the legacy you have on complete strangers.

A few years ago,

I found out about a police officer, named Officer Frank Shankwitz,

who found out about a boy with leukemia who also wanted to be a police officer.

So Shankwitz had a little motorcycle riding course made for the boy,

got him a toy motorcycle.

They had this beautiful day together,

and the boy goes into a coma.

So Police Officer Shankwitz goes to the boy's hospital room

to pin little motorcycle wings on the boy,

and as he pins the wings on the boy -

this is a true story -

the boy wakes up out of his coma and smiles.

He then goes back into his coma; the boy later dies.

But on the way back from the funeral,

Police Officer Shankwitz looks at his buddy and he says,

"You know, we made that kid really happy for just one day -

we should do that for other kids."

And that's how the Make-A-Wish Foundation was born.

Right? By one person sharing their good idea with another.

You know what the best part of that story is?

We all have some Frank Shankwitz in us - we do.

For some of you, it happens when you donate money to a charity,

for others it's when you do some community service,

like with one of my favorite organizations here - City Year.

Or maybe it happens when you bring canned goods or toys to your church,

or when you do a charity run.

We will all have legacies

where we have no idea who we're helping, but you are helping them.

That's your legacy.

And so now you know the four categories of legacy, right?

There's the effect you have on your friends, on your family,

on your community

and on complete strangers.

That's the first answer I promised you tonight:

that's who will remember you.

But now let's tackle the more vital question:

How are you going to be remembered?

And that's the tricky thing about legacies: we will all have them.

Good or bad, you will have a legacy.

The only question is, What kind of legacy do you want?

It's like when you're little, people say, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

But the far more important question is,

What do you want to be forever?

And with that in mind, I want you to think about your own obituary.

Think right now: What's going to be in your obituary?

And more important,

What do you want in your obituary?

That's the key question, right?

We all want these so-called great obituaries,

but how do we get there?

And here's the number one most important thing

I'm going to say to you tonight:

it is all within your power.

Think of that story I told you about my ninth-grade English teacher.

Think of Miss Spicer.

Or better yet, think of your own Miss Spicer,

of the first person who told you you were good at something

and the role they played in your life.

You are now that person.

Your teacher, a camp counselor, a mentor -

those people were giants in your life, right?

That is you now.

And your words, encouraging words,

it puts you on the mountain top.

You're on the mountain top every single day,

and your words to a family member, a friend, a complete stranger,

those words are your power:

"Good job."

"I like what you did here."

"You have a real talent for that."

Those words are power, and they're your power.

If you don't use them,

time fades and your power fades with them.

But here's the best part of it:

all of us can use that power.

You don't have to start the Make-A-Wish Foundation

to change the world;

all you have to do is help one person.

Be kind to one person.

That's the answer.

It is my core belief,

it is in every story I told you here tonight,

I believe ordinary people change the world.

I don't care where you went to school or how much money you make.

That is nonsense to me.

I believe in regular people

and their ability to effect change in this world.

I believe in my mother and my English teacher

and a soul-food restaurant named Jumbo's

and a cop with a toy motorcycle.

And it's why I believe

in the very first hero that we talked about tonight.

You know why I worked to save the house where Superman was created?

Because to me, the most important part of the story isn't Superman;

the most important part of the story

is Clark Kent.

And you want to know why?

Because we're all Clark Kent.

We all know what it's like to be boring and ordinary

and wish we could do something incredibly beyond ourselves.

But here's the real news:

we all can do something incredibly beyond ourselves,

and I'm going to tell you how

because I'm not just here to tell you nice stories

and save the world with a smile.

I want you to think right now

of, again, the person who told you you were good at something.

Think of that teacher, that mentor,

think of the person who gave you your first real job.

Think of someone who helped you.

And I want you to thank them.

That's it. That's all I ask.

When I stop talking, when you leave here,

call them, email them, find them on Facebook -

I don't care how, but find them and say "Thank you."

Last summer,

I found out that my ninth-grade English teacher, Miss Spicer,

was finally retiring.

She lasted and kept teaching over 12 years since I first went back to visit her.

You better believe I was at that retirement party.

That woman changed my life.

She deserved my thank you.

And that woman was a giant in my life,

and by going and saying thank you to her, I became a giant in hers.

You are on the mountain top every single day.

Use your power, go say thank you.

I promise you will never believe what will grow from it.

And with that said,

I want to tell you about my favorite obituary of all time.

It's my favorite

because it doesn't just tell you the factoids of someone's life;

it tells you his legacy.

It's the obituary of a man named Tsutomu Yamaguchi.

Mr. Yamaguchi was a Japanese businessman.

He was on a business trip in Japan,

and it was August 6th, 1945,

and he was on a business trip to, of all places, Hiroshima.

And the first atomic bomb falls from the sky.

It goes off and he survives.

He's burned across his body.

He looks around, he sees the devastation.

He knows the city can't handle it,

so he goes to his hometown,

to a place called Nagasaki.

And the second atomic bomb hits, and he survives that too.

To this day, he's the only person

the Japanese government officially recognizes

as surviving both the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

You know what he spends the rest of his life doing? Think a moment.

I live here in Miami, the bitching and moaning capital of the world, right?

If it happened here, we'd be like,

"I'm sitting in Hiroshima and all of a sudden the bomb hits.

I go to Nagasaki - my neck, my back."

We'd be bitching and moaning about it forever, right?

Don't clap for that - that's awful, that's the bad part of Miami, right?

But it's true, that's what we do.

But you know what Mr. Yamaguchi spends the rest of his life doing?

Think about it.

He spends the rest of his life talking about peace

and the dangers of nuclear armaments.

He says the good part of what happened to him

is that he gets to tell his story.

He says his life is like a baton,

and every time the story is passed,

all those batons come together and they form a raft for others,

a raft to help and carry other people.

That's a life.

But that's a legacy.

As for my obituary? He was a ...

You know what? That's perfect.

Because no matter what anyone writes about me or any of you,

no one will ever capture the most important parts of who we are.

So our obituaries will say whatever they will say,

and that's the answer.

You don't get to write your own obituary.

What you get to do is live your life,

and that's okay because in there is your power,

and you do good, you help others,

you go say thank you,

you will not just live a better life,

you will live forever.

Thank you very much.


The Description of TEDxMIA - Brad Meltzer - How To Write Your Own Obituary