First, I want to recommend to everyone Norman Lear's great new autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience, which is not just about one extremely successful life, but is about so much more in addition - family, childhood, choices, struggles, the rise of modern television, Hollywood, movies, politics, and what it means to be an American, in a time when most have forgotten.
I met Norman when I was 39 and he was 69. I was still a professor at Notre Dame, focusing on philosophy of religion, and he was doing a new TV comedy that would broach religious issues, a show called Sunday Dinner. I watched the first episode and dialed the Los Angeles Operator and asked for Act III Communications, the name of the production company I'd seen in the credits at the end of the show. She said, "There are about 16 numbers." I said, "Can you give me the first 3?" She did, and I left 3 voice mail messages about that first show.
A few days later, I came to my office after teaching Philosophy 101, and there were some voice mail messages on my phone. A student wanted to get into my class. My wife asked me to pick up milk and bread on my way home, and a voice said, "Tom! This is Norman Lear! Here's my home phone number. Call me!" And then he left the number.
This was the man who had created and produced All in the Family - the TV show that my family watched every week and argued about when I was growing up. Then he created Sanford and Sons, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, Good Times, Maude, Mary Hartman Mary Hartman, and Fernwood2night. The string of hits in the 1970s was unprecedented in television history. Then he brought such movies to the world as This Is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride and Fried Green Tomatoes. I called him, and we had a great time talking. Soon, we were sending each other books and videos and I was at his vacation house in Vermont, a farm once owned by Robert Frost, and then the abstract artist Kenneth Noland, before Lear bought it. Then he came to see me speak in Las Vegas and Montecito, and I visited his home in LA. Over the days and months and years, we talked about possible TV shows and books and talks and ideas for making the world a better place.
And, even though he told me lots of stories about his life, I never knew how many failures he had on his way to success, and even after his biggest achievements. He had many. He lived through daunting struggles, nearly overwhelming challenges, and the disappointments we all face. And they never stopped him, or even really slowed him down.
But the thing about this new book that surprised me the most is how often in his life serendipity, or amazing good luck, seemed to smile on him. Astounding coincidences of timing would lead to many of the most wonderful things in his life. I've written all through the book's margins expressions like "Kismet! Timing!" And I asked myself: How could one man be so lucky?
And when I thought about it more, I realized that it was always his decisions to keep moving, to try things, to meet people, to be open to something new, to visit someone, to make a call, and to always do whatever task was in front of his with total passion and excellence that put him in the position for extraordinary luck to strike. Nothing was too small for him to approach it inventively. Nothing was too big for him to decide to give it a try. It was his day to day decisions that put him in the path of serendipity.
Our ordinary decisions position us for the extraordinary to occur. Or they make it impossible for luck to find us at all.
What are you doing to invite serendipity into your life? I called Norman Lear's production company out of the blue one day, many years ago, and now I'm 62 and he's 92 and we still talk now and then, and I get inspired by his continued energy and intellect. Go read his book and experience your own inspiration! Amazing things await.