John Stepper

At first we kept saying: “We’re going to beat it.”

I cried three times as this story unfolded.

It started with a typical Facebook post by Brandon Stanton in Humans of NY. It was on January 26, 2014. There was a photo of an older man on a subway platform. He had a big gray beard and red glasses, and he was wearing a heavy black coat and scarf. He was looking away from the camera.

We're going to beat it

Beneath the photo, as always, there was a caption:

At first we kept saying: “We’re going to beat it. We’re going to beat it.” Then after a while we began to realize that we might not beat it. Then toward the end, it became clear that we definitely weren’t going to beat it. That’s when she started telling me that she wanted me to move on and find happiness with somebody else. But I’m not quite there yet. Not long ago a noise woke me up in the middle of the night, and I rolled over to ask if she needed anything.

Four days later

Four days later, Brandon posted the same photo with an update. “Wanted to share with you guys a letter I got today, because I think it’s a testament to the community of people who follow this blog.”

Hi Brandon,

I’m Ted. We met getting off the Six at Grand Central. When I got home Sunday evening, I had an e-mail from friends in Chicago. One of their daughters reads your blog (is that what it is called?) and recognized me even though she has never seen me with a beard. I am astounded! I’ve read about 1000 of the comments; words cannot express how touched I am by what I have read. It’s actually more than touched; it has been very emotional to read the wonderful things people have said. A couple people appear confused about what happened, for the record she had acute myelogenous leukemia, we were diagnosed July 2008, we lost our battle February 20, 2013, not quite a year ago. Thanks for doing this; it has really touched my life. The most wonderful people in the world read your material and comment on it.

The community responds

Over 120,000 people liked the post on Facebook. Thousands left comments. Here are three of them:

What I love about this man is that he always uses “we,” never “my wife.” They both had cancer; they both lost the battle.

I think the best part of the blog is the comments made by people. Their reaction to the posts is just as important in the experience of this blog as the post itself.

Brandon, do you ever have to pinch yourself to make sure you aren’t sleeping? Look at what has become of what you started. An amazing community, brought together by such simple things…pictures and words. Finding a new post by you is like a little present.

These kinds of stories, these kinds of connections, are what make Brandon a role model for me. Authentic gifts. Talking to the audience. Sharing their stories. Letting us feel like we’re part of a community, a place where we celebrate real people who exemplify the everyday human condition – both what we are and what we can be.

 

My role model for a better career and life

He grew up in a suburb of Atlanta, studied history at the University of Georgia, and took his first job as a bond trader in Chicago in 2006. A few years later, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, he was laid off.

Without much money and with few prospects of getting another financial job at the time, he decided to try something different.

His name is Brandon Stanton, and what he did next is an example of how I’d like to approach work and life.

Brandon Stanton

A goal of getting better at something

Before he lost his job, he had purchased a nice camera and enjoyed taking photos while walking around Chicago, so he decided his goal would be to practice his hobby as he traveled around the United States. Like many thousands of people interested in photography, Brandon’s first idea was to create a photo blog based on his travels in different cities:

My first stop was New Orleans, then Pittsburgh, then Philadelphia. Each time I arrived in a new city, I’d get lost in the streets and photograph everything that looked interesting, taking nearly a thousand photographs every day. After each day of shooting, I’d select thirty or forty of my favorite photographs and post them on Facebook. I named the albums after my first impression of each city. Pittsburgh was Yellow Steel Bridges. Philadelphia was Bricks and Flags. I had no big ambitions at the time. All I had was some vague, naive idea of making a living by selling prints of my best photos. In the meantime, I was just posting them for my family and friends to enjoy.

He had other ideas too, including plotting ten thousand street portraits on an interactive map to create a photographic census of the city. But it was only through actually doing the work, posting it publicly on Facebook, and getting feedback that he started to try other things. Along with the usual city scenes, he started taking candid street portraits. When those portraits received a favorable response, he started asking his subjects questions and including snippets of the interview with each photo.

By the time he arrived in New York in August 2010, almost all of his photographs were of people. He created a new album on Facebook and then another one. He decided to call these albums “Humans of New York.” He never intended to stay in New York, but by the end of the summer, after a short trip to Chicago to collect his things, he moved back to New York for good.

Purposeful discovery

Brandon’s goal kept evolving. Without any formal training in photography, he gradually kept learning to take better photos while also learning how to approach people. (“At first, the rejections sting,” he said.) By early 2012, what started as simple online photo albums had attracted thirty thousand likes. By April of that year, it was sixty thousand, and other people started to copy his work, creating Humans of Copenhagen, Humans of Tel Aviv, and more. Such groups helped to further spread the word about Brandon and his work. By the fall of 2013, the number of Facebook fans had skyrocketed to over a million people.

Brandon was still shooting photos, but now other things became possible, including the launch of a book, an “inspiring collection of photographs and stories capturing the spirit of a city,” that became a number-one New York Times bestseller. He was named to Time magazine’s “30 Under 30,” attracting yet more attention and opening up more possibilities. Brandon reflected on how he was able to change his life in a way that was not possible before:

Humans of New York is an amazing story, and it’s a story that could not have happened ten years ago. Without social media, I’d probably just be a quirky amateur photographer with a hard drive full of photos. I’d be cold-calling respected publications, begging for a feature. I may have even quit by now. Instead, I’ve discovered a daily audience of nearly a million people. Or should I say they discovered me.

Doing well and doing good

With the success he was experiencing, Brandon’s goal shifted again. He was starting to make money and decided early on to give some of it away, to try to do more with his photos than he had considered possible before. He described it in an online interview in 2013:

I don’t want to “cash out” or “monetize” HONY [Humans of New York]. I like to say it publicly because I want my audience to keep me on mission. HONY print sales have raised nearly $500,000 for charity in the past six months. I want to further monetize the site for nonprofit ventures. I honestly want to “give” HONY to New York in some way.

Brandon recently turned thirty-one. His Facebook page has more than thirteen million followers, and there are millions of followers on other platforms too. His third book is coming out later this year. In the summer of 2014, he went on a fifty-day world tour of twelve countries sponsored by the United Nations that included Iran, Iraq, Ukraine, Kenya, and South Sudan. Why go to these places? “The work has a very humanizing effect in places that are misunderstood or feared.” His purpose had shifted yet again, and his fans noticed it, as expressed in a comment on a photo of four women in Iraq: “You are changing the world one interview at a time. I am very grateful.”

A path to a good life

I am unlike Brandon in many ways. I’m much older, have five kids, and work in a large global corporation. But I can follow a similar path to discovering meaning and fulfillment.

Brandon made his work visible, and the feedback on it helped him get better while also helping him develop his network. He was generous with his work, posting it freely, and also generous with the eventual proceeds from that work. Importantly, he used his initial goal as a step toward exploring a range of possibilities that might be more meaningful and fulfilling. As a result of that exploration, in just over three years, he fundamentally changed his career and life—from out-of-work bond trader to beloved photographer, author, and philanthropist.

That’s the kind of path I aspire to take. We’ll see where it goes.

“I will listen”

My brother killed himself when he was 26.

It was almost thirty years ago. He had recently graduated with top honors and an MBA from Fordham University, was enrolled in a training program at a large firm, and his latest project had him living in beautiful Tampa, Florida.

Then, one morning, he started his car, ran a hose from the exhaust, and slowly went to sleep forever. The police tracked down who he was and called my family in New York later than night.

I almost never tell this story. But at work I heard about a campaign called #IWILLLISTEN sponsored by NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It made me understand that talking about it could help others.

My brother, me, and my sister

My brother, me, and my sister

 

Why did he do it?

“He had so much going for him,” everyone would say. “Why would he do such a thing?” The truth was I didn’t know why he did it. How can you really understand what would drive someone to take their own life? Over time, though, I developed a pat answer that would keep the conversation short. “He was always angry,” I would say. “He just had trouble being happy.” As if those answers could sum up a life.

It’s true he seemed like an unhappy child. I remember his temper and being afraid of his outbursts. But he was also funny, smart, handsome, and athletic. He was the kid who built the only igloo in our Bronx neighborhood, complete with a light and comfortably fitting 6 of us. He was the kid who flooded our backyard to turn it into an ice skating rink. The kid who used a blanket as a sail and had us whooshing across Pelham Bay when it froze over until the police came and told us to get the hell back on shore.

As the younger brother, I strove to get even the slightest praise from him. He was a profound influence on me and had so much potential.

“What a waste,” we all said.

A silent killer

Growing up, we thought of mental illness almost like an infectious disease. You stayed away from people who might have it. Worse than any flu, you were ashamed to be linked to it in any way. So we didn’t talk about it or talk about people who might be suffering from it.

There were whispers that one of my aunts or uncles might have suffered from depression. Perhaps my mother struggled with it. I don’t know. I just know my brother was suffering inside and found it easier to snuff out his life than to talk about his struggles or ask for help.

What can you do?

This was a difficult post to write. Just typing the words, almost 30 years after the event, makes me emotional and makes it clear I still haven’t fully processed what happened. But this post isn’t about me or about my brother. It’s about what all of us can do to help others who are suffering silently.

Silence about mental illness is an epidemic, as described in this NY Times article about the “I will listen” campaign:

”Only 61 percent of Americans think it appropriate to tell family members about a mental illness diagnosis…Just 43 percent approve of telling friends about a diagnosis, and just 13 percent of telling co-workers.”

That silence can kill. So please go to iwilllisten.org and learn more more about how to have a conversation about mental illness. Each time you talk openly about it, you can lessen the shame someone may feel. Each time, you can make it easier for someone to share their suffering or ask for help.

Please let your friends and family know: “I will listen.”

7 short stories I’ll never forget

7 short stories I'll never forgetRecently, I went through a box of books that I had read long ago and had been collecting dust. Many were like passing acquaintances, and I only vaguely remembered their stories. A few were complete strangers except for the month and year scrawled in my handwriting on the first page.

But some stories stick with me. They grip me and won’t let go, like the 7 short stories I’ve selected here.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. If you’ve read a short story you’ll never forget, please share it in the comments.

“Last Night”

I started reading the work of James Salter only recently, including a collection of short stories. “Last Night” was so intense and disturbing I couldn’t sleep. When Marit, the wife, says “I thought you were going to help me,” I could feel the different kinds of shock and horror that each of the characters was experiencing at that moment.

“Starving”

The stories in Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout are connected, each one a glimpse into different lives that intersect in both small and significant ways. The characters are like beautifully detailed paintings, and “Starving” focuses on Harmon who, though he’s getting older and his family is settled, is still hungry for a full life.

Something happened the year Derrick went off to college. While their bedroom life had slowed considerably, Harmon had accepted this, had sensed for some time that Bonnie was “accommodating” him. But one night her turned to her in bed, and she pulled away. After a long moment, she said quietly, “Harmon, I think I’m just done with that stuff.”

They lay there in the dark; what gripped him from his bowels on up was the horrible, blank knowledge that she meant this. Still, nobody can accept losses right away.

“Done?” he asked. She could have piled twenty bricks onto his stomach, that was the pain he felt.

“I’m sorry. But I’m just done. There’s no point in my pretending. That isn’t pretty for either of us.”

“House of the Sleeping Beauties”

This story won’t appeal to everyone. Written by Yasunari Kawabata, it’s so bizarre and macabre – so other – that it’s seared into my memory.

“He was not to do anything in bad taste, the woman of the house warned old Eguchi. He was not to put his finger into the mouth of the sleeping girl, or try anything else of that sort.”

The house is a secret club for elderly gentlemen who have lost their sexual powers. Eguchi, with his promise to abide by the rules, begins his life as a member there.

“Rashomon” & “In a Bamboo Grove”

These two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, were written six years apart, in 1915 and 1921. Together, they served as the basis for the film “Rashomon” which introduced the world to Japanese film.

Re-reading the stories, they seem like small fragments from another time and place. “In a Bamboo Grove” is a treatment of memory, how truth is so relative, memory so subjective. As a small example of that, I don’t know myself whether it’s the stories or the movie that have made such an impression on me.

“The Babylon Lottery”

Borges’ stories stretch the imagination to absurd limits. Yet as incredible as his plots and characters may be, we can still relate to them in some small way.

The lottery of Babylon reduces people’s lives to pure chance, a series of drawings by The Company. It makes you consider just how much control we truly have.

“Like all men in Babylon I have been a proconsul; like all, a slave; I have also known omnipotence, opprobrium, jail. Look: the index finger of my right hand is missing…An adverse drawing might mean mutilation, a varied infamy, death.”

“A Good Man is Hard to Find”

I remember my shock when I first read this classic story by Flannery O’Connor. I remember how, based on the title, I was expecting something entirely different, perhaps a story about seeking and finding love.

I could not have been more wrong.

“Big Two-Hearted River”

Looking through the 650 pages of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway reminds me of how I felt reading them. Through these stories I got a glimpse into experiences I would never have known otherwise.

I could have picked “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” or “The Killers” or “My Old Man.” I chose instead a simple story about a young man, back home from the war, fishing and camping along the river where he spent time as a boy.

It’s beautifully written. Like all great short stories, it transported me to another time and place, and made me feel something I hadn’t quite felt before.

What happened to my brain after 30 days without alcohol

WineI used to think of small sacrifices as trivial or worse. After all, what could possibly be the point of giving up chocolate or wine or Facebook for some period of time?

Then I met someone who introduced me to Stoic philosophy, and I tried giving up alcohol for 30 days. That experiment turned out to be more meaningful than I could have imagined.

Stoics

In A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, I learned that Stoics weren’t the emotionless, dry philosophers I had imagined. For example, Marcus Aurelius, one of the greatest  emperors of Rome, was a Stoic. I learned they also shared quite a bit of philosophy with Buddhists. They embraced the impermanence of life and sought to be mindful and grateful for what life had to offer. Part of this was practicing self-denial.

“What Stoics discover[ed] is that willpower is like muscle power: The more they exercise their muscles, the stronger they get, and the more they exercise their will, the stronger it gets. Indeed, by practicing Stoic self-denial techniques over a long period, Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control. They will be able to do things that others dread doing, and they will be able to refrain from doing things that others cannot resist doing. They will, as a result, be thoroughly in control of themselves. This self-control makes it far more likely that they will attain the goals of their philosophy of life, and that in turn dramatically increases their chances of living a good life.”

What didn’t happen in 30 days

When I mentioned to someone that I wasn’t drinking, the typical reaction was one of surprise. “Why not? Are you sick?” After I meekly explained the experiment I was trying, they’d ask “Do you feel any different?”

My answer was usually a simple “No.” I didn’t lose weight or lose my desire for a nice glass of red wine. Perhaps I ate more dessert.

The reason I tried this experiment with alcohol was that my drinking had become unthinking. I didn’t feel it was excessive. Perhaps a glass or two of wine 4-5 times a week, sometimes more. But it was a habit, and I was uncomfortable with that.

Perhaps I could change it.

The things that changed

30 days without alcoholDuring this time I was also reading The Brain That Changes Itself, a review of the science of neuroplasticity – how our brains are capable of being rewired in ways we thought were impossible just a few decades ago.

By giving up alcohol for 30 days, I was actively rewiring my relationship with alcohol. I was more mindful about drinking. More precisely, I became aware of the environmental cues that made me drink and so I was more conscious – literally, by engaging my prefrontal cortex – of when and why I wanted a drink.

Also, when I had a glass of wine on the 31st day, I was more grateful for the smell, taste, and after-effects of a glass of wine.

The wisdom of the Stoics can now be found in more modern scientific works like The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control and The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Work, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

It isn’t the particular sacrifice that’s important. It’s the act of exercising your willpower. I’m looking forward to my next 30-day experiment.