Author Q&A

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR PETER BENNETT

Peter is a former writer for the Los Angeles Times and managing editor of American Bungalow magazine. He is also the producer of the highly acclaimed Baseball Endurance and Survival Training (BEST) video. Today, he publishes an online community newspaper serving the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California and is the creator and purveyor of the Crane Cookie Company. He and his wife Colleen have successfully put the principles of Life Lessons to the test with their three sons, Ryan, Roger and Brett.

Peter graduated from Stanford University in 1977, harboring no regrets that he is a Harvard Reject. Indeed, the (dis) honor (able) roll of Harvard rejectees is quite illustrious: Investor Warren Buffet, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner, CNN founder Ted Turner, former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, rock legend Art Garfunkel, and The Simpsons creator Matt Groening. Anyone can be added to the list; you just have to apply!

  1. Who’s your favorite character in the book?
  2. What’s your favorite story from the book?
  3. You call it Life Lessons. Do you have a favorite lesson from the book?
  4. Do you have a favorite quote from the book?
  5. What about a favorite acronym?
  6. What about a favorite anecdote?
  7. What is your favorite chapter in the book?
  8. What wonders never cease for me?
  9. Of all the figures, alive or dead, whom you encountered in your work and research, is there one that stands head and shoulders above the rest?
  10. What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?
  11. What was your inspiration for writing the book? Why did you invest years researching and writing?
  12. How did you come up with the title?
  13. How should one use the book?
  14. What qualifies you to write this book?
  15. Who is your specific audience?
  16. What did you get out of writing the book?

Who’s your favorite character in the book?

There are so many. Larry, “Lawn Chair” Walters ranks high literally. Several have told his story because the tale is just so incredible. On July 2, 1982, after attaching 45 helium balloons to an ordinary lawn chair, he set sail from his San Pedro backyard, soaring 16,000 feet into Los Angeles International Airport airspace. Can you imagine what it was like for those pilots to look out their cockpit windows and see this guy drifting by? I can only imagine what they radioed into their air traffic controllers. He finally got tangled up in some telephone wires in Long Beach, but for 45 minutes he was the king
of the world. That 45-minute journey was the culmination of his 20-year-long dream to fly. After he was arrested, he said, “It was something I had to do.”

What’s your favorite story from the book?

Again, there are hundreds, and I love each one because of what they say about the human experience and the human struggle to overcome and make an imprint on the world. A few years ago, when Dolly Parton was at the height of her fame, she was with her hairdresser in Santa Monica on Halloween night. Just down the street, someone was holding a Dolly Parton look-alike contest, so for a hoot she decided to enter. And she didn’t even place — not even a red ribbon for third place. It’s just one more lesson in the book underscoring the fact that many of us don’t even know the real thing when we’re looking at it or have it in our hands.

You call it Life Lessons. Do you have a favorite lesson from the book?

One lesson is, it’s never over until it’s over. And it’s never really ever over. I remember hearing the news about Lakers great Magic Johnson contracting the HIV virus in 1991. I actually pulled over on the freeway because the news was that devastating. But Johnson said he cried only twice – once when he told his wife Cookie and once when he told his teammates. Then the tears dried up. Magic said, “I was too busy to cry, I had a life to lead.” Now he owns a share of the Los Angeles Dodgers. That’s living, man. Nobody knows God’s plan. You just have to live your life, and you can make that decision to start living at any time or at any age. George Eliot said it best: “It’s never too late to be what you might have become.”

Do you have a favorite quote from the book?

There are probably a thousand or more in there, but one I especially like is from Anita Roddick who founded the Body Shop, an environmental activist company. “If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.” I also love Oscar Wilde, who said, “Be yourself, everybody else is taken.”

What about a favorite acronym?

Well, I’m against CAVE people, which stands for Citizens Against Virtually Everything.” My attitude is there is always a way. Instead of discouragement, find encouragement in your heart. Anybody can be a naysayer.

What about a favorite anecdote?

I weave many through each chapter. And each chapter usually ends with one. Most everyone has heard of Frank Capra, the great director of It’s A Wonderful Life. Well, it wasn’t such a wonderful life for Capra at the 1933 Oscars. He had been nominated for Best Director and his good friend Will Rogers was emcee. As he was announcing the winner, Rogers gushed, “Well, well, well, what do you know? I’ve watched this young man for a long time. Saw him come up from the bottom — and I mean the bottom. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Come up and get it, Frank!”

Capra’s table was ecstatic as the jubilant director bounded out of his chair and toward the stage, the spotlight frantically searching for Hollywood’s new De Mille. “Over here,” Capra waved. Then the spotlight just as quickly deserted him for another Frank — Frank Lloyd, director of Cavalcade. When Lloyd reached the stage, Rogers greeted him heartily. Meanwhile, an audience member shouted, “Down in front!” to the stunned Capra, who slinked back to his table. “I felt like a worm,” he said later.

As much as that embarrassing and humiliating moment wounded Capra’s pride, he went on that same decade to win Oscars for It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can’t Take It With You (1938).

What is your favorite chapter in the book?

There are 59 of them, and they all speak to me differently. I roll them out in alphabetical order, because you want readers to find the information fast. One reader might want to read about leadership qualities, another about success, and another about innovation and inspiration. The last chapter is called “Wonder.” I think all 6,275 words in Wonder are the perfect capstone for the book.

Each time I read “Wonder,” it fires me up and renews my faith in this mysterious wonderful universe of ours.

What wonders never cease for me?

Every time I’m in Pasadena, I look up at Mt. Wilson, and remind myself that this is the place where Edwin Hubble in 1929 discovered the universe is expanding.

I marvel at the rarity of our solar system, too, in the sense that about two-thirds of the universe’s solar systems are binary (with two suns). Many scientists say we would have had two as well, if only Jupiter had been about 100 times larger than it is (not that Jupiter is a runt, given it would take 1.3 million planets the size of the Earth to fill it up). But can you imagine if we had two suns? The sunburns would be incredible.

I marvel at the fact that a day on the planet Mercury is longer than its year.

I marvel at the living surface of our own earth. The discovery of plate tectonics, one of the great revelations of the 20th century, has shown that the continents’ crust on which we walk – far from being immovable and permanent – is more like scum floating in a bowl of hot soup or the foam in a glass of beer. We Californians, who have experienced an earthquake or two, especially know this.

I marvel at the fact that Mt. Everest was once under the sea.

I marvel at the evidence suggesting that the Atlantic Ocean has closed and opened three times.

I marvel that just 1/400th of 1 percent of all the water on the planet is fit for human consumption. Literally, every drop of life is precious.

But man remains the greatest cause for wonder!

In our own Civil War, about 620,000 people died in about 1,500 days, an appalling annihilation of humanity equivalent to about 6 million dead in terms of today’s U.S. population. Yet, you also have someone like Lorenzo Medici (1449-1492), the patron of Michelangelo and Da Vinci, who spent half his state budget on books, earning the sobriquet Lorenzo the Magnificent. Who would be the 21st century equivalent of Lorenzo today? Today, we close libraries!

I marvel at the productivity of Johannes Bach (1685-1750). He produced more than 1,100 musical compositions. After his death, many of these written masterpieces were used as fish wrap, and, thus lost forever to future generations. He was also prolific in the bedroom, producing 20 offspring.

I marvel at golfer Bobby Jones who won 13 majors from 1923 to 1930, and then suddenly retired as an amateur at age 28 to practice law. Can you imagine! Age 28! Explaining his decision, Jones said, “It (championship golf) is something like a cage. First you are expected to get into it and then you are expected to stay there. But of course, nobody can stay there.” Can you imagine that happening today? Jones is most famous for his unique “Grand Slam,” consisting of victories in all four major tournaments of his era (the open and amateur championships in both the United States and Britain in 1930).

So, I choose to revel and rejoice in life’s diversity, no matter how bizarre or unbelievable. We live in a universe where Beethoven wrote his Ninth Symphony while completely deaf and where Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who headed the Soviet Union, the “evil empire” supposedly bent on destroying us, filmed a Pizza Hut commercial.

You see, in this wonderful world of ours, things are never quite what they seem. You can never be certain what to expect. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787 in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin, who had never been a regular churchgoer and had always kept his religious beliefs to himself, surprised his colleagues when he called for a prayer, hoping God might grace the delegates with His wisdom and help them reach an historic compromise. “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice,” the humanist Franklin asked, “is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”

But Franklin’s hopes and prayers for his fellow man didn’t stop at our shores. His wonderment and perspective extended much, much farther. The man who helped illuminate man’s understanding of the universe with his discoveries about electricity — the man who helped slay “thunderbolts and tyrants,” who had a deft hand in editing our Declaration of Independence — was always seeking knowledge in the darkness just beyond the flame. In one of his last letters, looking back on a life well lived, he wrote, “God grant that not only the love of liberty but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all the nations of the earth so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say, ‘This is my country.’”

I wonder every day about this miracle called life.

Of all the figures, alive or dead, whom you encountered in your work and research, is there one that stands head and shoulders above the rest?

That’s another unfair question. But even if half of what has been written about Abraham Lincoln is true … you would do well to pick Lincoln. It’s no accident that more books have been written about our 16th president than about any other person, at least here in the United States. One friend said of him, “I never saw a sadder face. He was a long, gawky, ugly, shapeless man.” That may be true, but what a man!

On the futility of holding a grudge he said, “You have more of a feeling of personal resentment than I have. Perhaps, I have too little of it, but I never thought it paid.”

On the futility of holding onto bitterness, he said, “Die when I may, I want it said of me by those who knew me best that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.” He was a healer, not a dealer of division and discord.

Upon hearing that a man had been sentenced to death for desertion, Lincoln reviewed his case. The soldier’s one-page file showed he didn’t have one friend in the world and his entire family had been killed in the war. Lincoln slept on the request for a pardon and announced the next morning that the testimony of a friend had sealed his decision.

When an officer reminded the president that the request had come with no letter of reference, Lincoln said, “I will be his friend,” and pardoned the man.

What house of worship did Lincoln regularly attend? “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion,” Lincoln said.

So, Lincoln sets the bar pretty high for me.

What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?

When you’re as thrilled by the record of human achievement as much I am, you have a lot of ground to cover. It’s like our oceans. They cover three-quarter of our planet’s surface, and my container to capture this incredible story is no bigger than a thimble.

What was your inspiration for writing the book? Why did you invest years researching and writing?

As you age, you wonder, what have I left behind, what lessons have I learned that are worth sharing with my own children and others. I would never want to preach. Rather, I would like to teach. So, I put some words down in hope that they might one day be discovered by anyone who picks up the book. You can lead a horse to water, but can’t force the horse to take a drink. Well, I did my job. I built the trough and filled it, at least, partly. Second, my wife Colleen challenged me to write the book. She introduced me to the self-help genre years ago, and she frequently heard me mutter, “I could write a better book, if only I had the time.” She and my entire family gave me the time and showed me the saintly patience I needed.

How did you come up with the title?

The working title was “The Clarence Chronicles,” named after Clarence, the angel in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life – and I love that movie! We all need angels guiding us at some point. But as I began getting deeper into the project, I felt Life Lessons of a Harvard Reject, more aptly described what the book was about. Life Lessons will certainly help you overcome rejection and many other challenges. Also, I was a Harvard Reject. I was proud that I applied and aimed for what I perceived to be the pinnacle at the time. Moreover, there are a couple of apropos anecdotes that tied in with the title, which I think readers will find provocative, even amazing.

How should one use the book?

That will be for each person to decide. But I believe it can serve as a guide and as a source of strength any time you have big decisions to make. It’s not dogmatic, but it does share a lot of examples of how famous people reacted in similar situations to what the reader might be facing. Personally, I’ll keep it close by my side to help me better face fear, rejection, and hardship and to be a more passionate, purposeful and generous human being.

What qualifies you to write this book?

First, I think one of the messages of the book is that you can do anything if you set your mind to something and pour your passion into your project. For me, it’s not about who you are, but what you have to say. I may not have started on the top shelf, where readers might first look for motivational and inspirational authors, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get there. I’ve been writing since I was five. I have a degree in English literature from Stanford and have been published over the years in magazines and newspapers like the Los Angeles Times. Indeed, I run a hometown online newspaper called LaVerneOnline, which enjoys a strong following. But I would not have undertaken the challenge if I didn’t think I could enhance and advance the discussion. It was time for me to get off the sidelines and put up or shut up.

Who is your specific audience?

That’s an easy one. Anyone who wants to be a little better tomorrow than they are today! Anyone who is seeking a little help, motivation and inspiration in tearing down the walls holding them back from they want to achieve and experience in life. Anyone who has enjoyed such great books as The Bible, The Secret, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Awaken The Giant Within, Think and Grow Rich, The Road Not Taken, The Success Principles and other classics will absolutely love Life Lessons of a Harvard Reject!

What did you get out of writing the book?

Ongoing motivation and inspiration. It has become a personal code of conduct for me to follow. Not a day passes that I don’t reach for it or refer to it for something. I learned a lot writing it, and it continues to teach me something new every day. I got a special book out of it, and it didn’t come easy. Rarely anything good ever does.

That’s one more LIFE LESSON!