Top Five Books of the Year… Number One

Don Miller's Best Work to Date

My selection of Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time with me this year.

I love Miller. I think he’s a tremendous speaker and a gifted writer, something I think few of his contemporaries enjoy. For those unfamiliar with this book in particular, the premise is essentially this: Don Miller pulls a Christian Bachelor version of the Fat Jim Morrison. Instead of lounging around in leather pants and growing a gnarly beard in permanent inebriation, he eats too much ice cream and watches too much TV and rests on the laurels of being a one-hit wonder. In his early 30’s, he had arrived… and at the same time, had nothing to really say for his own story other than he had a condo in Portland and some nice royalty checks.

When two filmmakers call him and say that they want to make a movie of his story, he’s confused because really, his story is not that interesting.

This is the tale of living a better story; not how to make your life interesting. There are plenty of awful social media blogs to do that, or you can watch Youtube videos of Mr. Four Hour Work Week Tim Ferriss shooting a Kalashnikov in Slovakia to see what “interesting” looks like. But shooting a gun doesn’t make your story better. Living is not just a sequence of events, either random or planned. A Million Miles is the story of a man that on the surface is grown up and mature, leaning into life and taking risks and exposing himself to real pain for the first time in his life, so that he might actually breathe and live among the living.

Okay, that’s nice you’re probably saying. So what?

What makes the story so amazingly compelling is Miller’s self-deprecating humor mixed with his ability to sneak up on you with your own ugly truth, an ugly way of looking at yourself or the world that he shares and exposes it. Case in point, this exchange between Don and the filmmakers as they get rolling on the screenplay (we’re around page 24 and 25 here):

“What could we do to get people to like Don?” he asked.

It felt odd hearing my name but having it refer to somebody else who was also me. Ben sat for a second; then he pulled the pipe from his mouth and said Don could work in a factory, a blue-collar job. “Everybody likes the underdog,” Ben said. He said this in such a way I wasn’t sure if he was talking about me or the guy in the movie.

“Are you talking about me?” I asked.

Ben motioned the stem of his pipe toward the empty whiteboard. “The other Don. The fake you,” he said, widening his eyes.

“I never worked in a factory,” I said, mostly to myself.

“Right, Don,” Steve said. “We are going to take the essence of you and find the story.”

I made a noise as if I understood, but I didn’t understand. I know Steve had explained it before but now that we were actually making things up, it felt particular. I understood we had to come up with something interesting, but it’s not as if we were adapting a novel. Essentially, we were adapting my life. I kept quiet for as long as I could, but when ideas surfaced about me being an expert cat juggler, I had to say something.

“I mean no disrespect,” I said. “But what is wrong with the Don in the book?” The question came out of my mouth more personally that I wanted.

Steve sat thoughtfully and collected his ideas. He scratched his chin and collected some sympathy. “In a pure story,” he said like a professor, “there is a purpose in every scene, in every line of dialogue. A movie is going somewhere.”

That last line rang in my ear like an accusation.

It’s gentle. It’s subversive. It’s humorous. It’s true. The vast majority of our lives we are coveting whatever is advertised, a “Volvo with 47 airbags,” or in Don’s case, a Roomba vacuum cleaner (that one was getting personal for me).

My friends Mary Ellen Chamberlin-Owen and Kent Miller introduced me to the idea of “story” as an essential way to understand life four years ago. I was pretty miserable managing agents, totally sleep-deprived from the twins, getting fat, and in the process, getting more entrenched in my arrogance and my tiny little sphere of influence. In other words, as I consumed rather than participated, the consumption was basically consuming me. When our group exercise was asked to share stories, some part of me wised up and didn’t go first like I usually would, the usual way being me name-dropping and detail-expanding my way to wowing everyone. My story was easy to tell, as long as I could remember all the specific details. Details made the story. So I thought.

I sat and listened to people talk about a sister’s death. About divorce. About kid’s pregnancies. About the struggles of marriage. About redemption in perseverance. No one mentioned vacations. No one mentioned meeting someone. These stories were told with laughter. And tears. And trembling lips.

Miller was living a lousy story. The essence of him was good and pure. But the actions of his making that essence actually alive was absent.

In the everyday world, I’ve noticed the power of story. It’s not just important to me. At a COPPeR event three weeks ago, Brett shared a killer statement to the group of artists looking to develop their audience: “participate is the new consume.” Think about that for a second. In this consumer-everything, over media’ed world, what is increasingly relevant is the spiritual action of participation. It’s not observation. It’s participation.

The power of story is becoming frighteningly obvious in real estate circles. My client Sam wisely surmised last year “the house buys the buyer, Ben.” It’s true. Buyer’s make 30 second snap decisions, online, at the curb, and inside the entry. Homes that don’t work in these 30 second worlds are removed from contention. Immediately. The buyer can’t connect. What are they connecting with exactly? The story. Can they see themselves there? Can they imagine their world taking flight here? Or not? A trite statement I used to say in real estate training classes should actually have been aimed at my reflection: people don’t buy features, they buy benefits. I am giving you a lot of opinion, but I’m haunted by some data that supports this: the average buyer last year (47% of all buyers) was a first-time buyer, and that buyer’s average age was only 30.

They planned to live in their 2009-purchased home until 2019. How many 30 year old’s really know where they will be at 40? They plan to know. Their plan is as important (if not more) than their reality. (Incidentally, the average move-up buyer was 47 and planned to live in their home 15 years. These are long-term, non-disposable associations).

There is zero how-to in this book. This is not a series of bucket-lists. There is zero suggestion, strategic idea, or goal in mind presented by Miller. It’s the story of a man realizing that his life isn’t really a very good story. The movie makers’ goal is to convert the reflective come-to-faith memoir of Blue Like Jazz into a movie, but on it’s own, it’s just a series of events. There is no appropriation of the message, just a place of arrival. A bunch of non-connected, random events is a series of brags. A story that is happening and going somewhere (as musician Daniel Lanois says, “here is what is“), that is something worth living.

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