While taxes are discussed and debated freely, what about death? Can we talk about death? Shouldn't we talk about death? How should we talk about death? In this episode of Rule Breaker Investing, David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool, talks with author Michael Hebb...about death.
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This video was recorded on April 13, 2022.
David Gardner: Some weeks back I had Dan Pink on this podcast. Dan was advising all of us on looking backward and embracing our regrets and analyzing them to live better forward. In a lot of ways, this week's guest, Michael Hebb is doing the same but from another angle. Michael, author of the Tour de Force book, Let's Talk About Death Over Dinner is advising all of us to look at and acknowledge our mortality because in so doing, we can live better forward. Have you thought about death lately? Well, for many different reasons across many listeners, subcultures, cultures, the answer is probably for many of us, yes. But have you talked about death lately? Or even more to the point ever? If not, what costs maybe mounting including perhaps most compellingly to me the opportunity cost of not living our best life? Let's talk about death over dinner only on this week's Rule Breaker Investing.
FEMALE_1: It's the Rule Breaker Investing podcast with Motley Fool Co-Founder, David Gardner.
David Gardner: Welcome back to Rule Breaker Investing and investing is a word that I've invested with much meaning over the years. I've often said, while investing if you look at the Latin, is actually about putting on the clothes off. A lot of people think of it as something I came to transacting in and out with stock market trades but as I've often said, if you're doing that you're probably trading, not necessarily investing. Those of us of a more patient bent who tried to buy, buy, and buy again and maybe not sell too often if at all, that's what feels most of all like investing to me. But we also invest so much in ourselves. We invest so much of ourselves into others and into life at large but one-third of this podcast will always be about investing. I've often said one-third is about business and succeeding professionally. Then the last third is about Life. Sometimes if you're going to talk about life, it's probably a good idea to talk about death. I was having a conversation with my friend Nancy Waymack talking about doing this topic, this podcast. She said, "April is the month of taxes, but what are the two human certainties?" I thought about and I realized and said, "Yeah, she means death and taxes." I think there's already been enough tax talk in my life this month. Let's talk about death and I realize for some of you that's a little bit uncomfortable. This is an uncomfortable conversation like when we've had once or twice before on this podcast and I'm sure we will do in future as well; but when you confront the most important things, sometimes you will face a little bit of discomfort. Death is not exactly a topic many of us want to spend too much time on or dwell on but indeed, as I think this week's author will persuade I hope you, certainly as persuaded me. It's very valuable to have this conversation. One of the things I tried to do on this podcast is exemplified good behavior and get to acquaint you with some of the best people I know across some of the most important subjects and I think Michael Hebb is one example this week.
I want to pay a quick debt of gratitude, the way I first read and ended up loving the book, Let's Talk About Death Over Dinner came from a listener suggestions, longtime Fool, active correspondent on Twitter and other places, Jason Moore in British Columbia @JimminyJilickrz on Twitter. A year or two ago he put up a list of five books he'd really enjoyed. Somebody asked for book recommendations and I saw one on that list that caught my eye. The title was Let's Talk About Death Over Dinner. Seem compelling to me and so I bought it, read it, loved it, and wanted to share it out with you ever since. Thank you again, Jason Moore for being the reason in some senses that this podcast is even happening. Sometimes I think about the math of what we're doing together each week. I think about you my dear listener wherever you are and I'm multiply you times the number of insights that a given podcast might harbor. Then I think about the depth or importance of those insights. It's one thing to come up with the new stock pick. I've done that a lot in the past, I've enjoyed doing that certainly. I think it's an entirely different. I'm even say more important thing; to focus on some of life's most important topics. I really think the math of this podcast means that a lot of us worldwide are going to have our lives ever so slightly, maybe more than that, improved as a consequence of this week's podcast. One of the things I've always taken most professional interest in are innovative breakthroughs. I love to find things or invent things that represent real innovation and somewhat ironically, the idea that you would discuss death is pretty innovative at this place in time in the United States of America in the year 2022. I think Michael will be helping us toward some breakthroughs this week, both within your own self, within your family, and conversations. This even touches into financial planning. I'm sure we'll go there briefly. Also, I want to mention there is a surprise at the end of this week's podcast. I think we have a special treat at the end but without further ado, let me welcome the author of Let's Talk About Death Over Dinner, Michael Hebb.
Michael Hebb: Thanks for having me here.
David Gardner: Well, before there was Michael Hebb the author, there was Michael Hebb, the little boy. Michael, could you provide some of the background to your childhood. Maybe connect that in with how one day you would wind up writing a book called, Let's Talk About Death Over Dinner.
Michael Hebb: The first one that comes to mind which I don't always share but it has been coming up more and more, I think because of COVID. People are having in many cases, their first real encounter with death. We're certainly having our first encounter with death at a collective level in this generation, there have been other generations, since other generations that are still alive but the majority of people alive have not had such a large collective experience of death and for many people, this is their first encounter. One of the questions that we ask in the work that I do is, when the first time you realize you were going to die? For a lot of people that's 20s, 30s, 40s, some people at 50s [laughs] quite frankly, I didn't think about it. For me it was actually, I was very young. I was four years old and it was an afternoon in autumn and fall. I remember the quality of the light because it had that long, crisp shadow, and there was a little chill in the air and I was in outside of Portland, Oregon. The leaves were changing and all the classic signs of fall. I was standing outside alone and then waning sunlight and I had this very clear realization. I exist, but at some point I won't. [laughs] The more I talked to people, the more I realize that that's pretty unique realization for a 40-year old.
David Gardner: Yeah, it's remarkable. Was there anything that triggered that or catalyzed that?
Michael Hebb: No. One could add and project onto like the fact that leaves were dying and things like that or some very poetic understanding. I actually don't know where the realization came from, but it did wash over me. It wasn't terror. It was almost a secondary part of me witnessing it and just being OK with it. It was, "That's how this works. I'm in this body, but at some point I won't be." I was a four-year-olds brain. There wasn't a lot to pull from to put it into context, but I was just this knowing. That was one of the origins of this work. I would say that that comes to somebody so early in their life as an indication of some of the work you might do with the rest of your life.
David Gardner: Thank you for sharing that, Michael. I'm not sure I do remember that from the book, but I sure do you remember an experience that you had as a boy with an older father and how that has to have only further played in quite a remarkable background to just your parents.
Michael Hebb: Yeah. My father was actually born in 1904 and since that your viewers can't see me, I'm not 85. [laughs] I'm 46. The quick math of that I'll reveal for you is that my father was 72 when I was born. He was born in 1904 in a gold mining shed in the Yukon territory, but we won't go down that long [laughs] but nonetheless, yes, I had a very old father that everybody assumed was my grandfather. He wasn't great health, and had a like Paul Newman quality about him. Just really vital extraordinary human being, but he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's when I was in second grade, and the signs clearly were happening before that. That was complete, and other disruption of everything that I knew, and he was shortly thereafter institutionalized after quite a bit of personal drama, and lot of anchor on his part, a lot of confusion. Then he died when I was 13, and what I saw happen or what I really experienced happening, and is really set the groundwork for Death Over Dinner was how you shouldn't do it. My mother was doing her best, she had two young kids, but was under-resourced, and didn't know how to talk about my father's terminal diagnosis, his declining cognitive abilities, just the grieve of a loss of a father while he was still alive, and the grieve after he died. We didn't talk about it, and so it ended up being almost like a secret at the center of our lives. That secret really, I would say, had the impact of fracturing and exploding our family structure in a very real way.
David Gardner: When you say we didn't talk about it, for how long did you not talk about it?
Michael Hebb: Well, I would say that the efforts to conversation were always very adjacent. It wasn't a less come together and talk about our feelings. Let's come together and talk about the facts, or let's come together and create an open and safe space to just have an emotional exchange or to even talk about what's next. All of it happened in a blur and without a lot of deep connection. There is such a tremendous opportunity for connection when somebody has a terminal diagnosis, when they have a life limiting diagnosis. There is a tremendous opportunity for connection when someone dies, it is one of the things that brings us together. Now if we're not having open conversations and feeling emotionally safe, that bringing together that death naturally does or diagnosis naturally creates, doesn't feel good, it becomes traumatic as opposed to an opportunity for further growth, further connection, deepening relationships. It's on a continuum, but on the bad side of lack of communication and lack of connection. It took me about seven years to host my father's death for me to even start grieving him in my early 20s, and that's why I think a fairly common experience for men is not having the, say promotional space to grieve properly, and for all of us really in this culture that is death denying.
David Gardner: Michael, how much do you connect that background and the avoidance of talking about something so important? How much do you connect those experiences with the idea that you would one day write a book entitled, Let's Talk About Death Over Dinner?
Michael Hebb: Well, I had to put it on the shelf for a while. [laughs] You don't really want to talk to a 20-year-old about death. [laughs] A 20-year-old wants to focus on living, and a 25-year-old, and a 30-year-old. You're building up your identity, not thinking about what it might be like to dissolve it a little bit. [laughs] I went about living for a long time, and that experience sadden me and growing me, and I got very interested in difficult conversations at a very young age because I think when I was 13, I realized that people weren't talking about the important stuff. I wanted to talk about the hard stuff, and then I started hosting dinner parties all over the world to talk about the hardest things we face as human. There was a long gestation period, and then it really came back to me all in an instance that death is where I wanted to focus.
David Gardner: The finance guy in me connected hugely early in the book with your assertions that in not discussing death, we're imposing and huge cost on ourselves and our society. Would you explain more?
Michael Hebb: I like to call it the costliest conversation we're not having. There are strong statistics, and I won't go through them here, but they're in the book and they are widely available. But the impact of end-of-life expense the last two years of our lives and the lives of our loved ones is almost a measurable financially, it's hard to factor in all of the externalities, and it's hard to put a price tag on the difference between not talking about it and talking about it. But there is an extreme growth, and end-of-life healthcare expenses are related to the number 1 cause of bankruptcy being healthcare expense. The largest amount of those expenses being during the last two years of life. There is very convincing research that has been that open conversations about how we want to be treated, how we want to be cared for, the type of treatments we want. Not overtreating because manically wanting to save somebody or heroically wanting to save somebody, and if we haven't had the conversation with our loved ones who is like, "No, I don't want CPR at the end. I want a DNR," and maybe not all people do, but a lot of people haven't identified some of those basic wishes with their loved ones.
A health proxy hasn't been identified in order to make those decisions, and the default is always an extreme amount of care, and an extreme amount of expensive and costly care. That's on the last two years of life. The reality and you're in the financial space planning is always smart when it comes to money. If we plan for what we want our last chapter and what we want to have happened to our assets, and to our things, and our legacy after we die. There's huge financial upside for a variety of reasons, but if we're focusing on the more tragic side of this is when people don't have wills or when they haven't communicated those wills and their wishes to their families so that they set the stage for infighting, and that's expensive. We think about like Aretha Franklin didn't have a will or had various unfinished wills in different places. Prince didn't have a will. Like there's just these tragic things that happened for high-net individuals, but absolutely for people all the way along the spectrum. If we haven't made the decisions, put it in writing, and then communicate it, and the communication is clear, part of it. That's often it's not just signing a document, it essentially preparing your family and letting them know so that there is a less likelihood of a legal fight or just division. Those are the financial side, there's obviously human emotional costs when it comes to not having these conversations.
David Gardner: It all accounts, and you did a great job just reminding many of us listening to you right now of the importance, not just a financial planning, but whole life planning, and legacy planning. I recognize the financial costs, the implications, even something as simple as well, grabs never somebody wanted, so we decided to get him the best casket, and the best this, and that and just the costs right there, but there is beyond financial costs, the human costs. In particular Michael, and I'm not of this industry, so I needed the empathy through your eyes as the author here. But healthcare professionals, the pressure that we put on them as a consequence, as you cogently convey, we are putting a huge responsibility and burden on doctors to give us the big, sometimes bad news, and in many cases they haven't been trained to do this.
Michael Hebb: Yeah. Well, in almost all cases they haven't been trained. I haven't looked at it in a couple of years, but it used to be that only eight percent of medical schools had any training whatsoever within their curriculum around end-of-life conversations. Now obviously, the rise of palliative care, the rise of hospice has certainly helped, and there's so many people doing great work in this space. But this is something you need to learn early, and that you need to readdress frequently if you're a doctor, if you're a nurse. There's still aren't great options, if you're a healthcare practitioner to pause mid practice and learn how to have these goals of care conversations. We've put a lot of euphemisms on them to palliative care, goals of care, advanced care. For me, that doesn't really do people the great honor of talking about what we're talking about.
We're talking about how you want to die or how you want your last chapter to be. Most people like straight talk. They want an opportunity to have straight talk with somebody who is an expert. If the expert's uncomfortable with the straight talk, you've created a situation where nobody wins. There's a lot of moral injury that happens all the way around, and the idea or the instance which is all too common that you bring up about grandfather's casket. Now, we will overcompensate if we don't have information in an emotional state like this or at a funeral home, where we're making these types of decisions. That's the financial cost. There is a huge mental well-being cost and an emotional cost when the person that we love has died hasn't told us how to honor them. Now, if they tell us how to honor them, we now have something meaningful to do. They've given us a place to occupy, a thing to do that we can feel certain about, and it actually having that information and then honoring a person, even knowing what song to play at their funeral, or what kind of gathering they'd want, or what kind of charities they want to give to. These seemed logistical, financial, or just like detail-oriented things. They're actually deeply psycho-spiritual. We get to do something meaningful during the overwhelming environment that we're in, called grief. That is priceless to be able to say like, this is what they wanted and I'm going to do it, and we know when people know those things from our loved ones, they grieve less intensely and further less extended period of time, and we're just starting to understand the profound impact of grief on productivity, on mental well-being, on so many things. There is a real incentive [laughs] to have these conversations in so many ways.
David Gardner: It takes us outside of ourselves that connects us. I'm going to quote you because I enjoy quoting authors back to themselves. Page 11, Michael, you wrote this, I loved it. That's why I'm quoting you back. "From where I sit, the writing is on the wall. It's time to face the inevitable. We need a grassroots movement. We need to face our mortality as a village, not as isolated individuals. Funerals, law offices, and hospitals shouldn't be the only places we confront the passing of loved ones. The proper depth of this conversation can happen when you feel intimidated, overwhelmed, and sad. It happens when you feel comfortable and are not staring down a crisis." There are number of things I could point to in that. For example, that concept of this is a movement and that's interesting on its own. If you want to speak to that, please feel free to do so but I was especially caught up thinking about how, yeah, depth tends to live in funerals, law offices, and hospitals. But if in the non-pressure situation, let's say over dinner, which we'll talk about a little bit later, if we have an opportunity to process and connect more than anything, I just love how it takes us out of our sample size of one at our own selves and helps, in a human way, connect us with others, especially loved ones, and your point, Michael, the importance of knowing, if possible, for mom or dad, what she or he does want. What a gift that is to us and how empowering it is. Anyway, I love the it takes a village feeling.
Michael Hebb: Death is not a medical act. It has nothing to do with medicine. It's the end of medicine. It's when we stop treating because there's nothing left to treat but we've medicalized that we think of it as a medical event. The reality is death is a community event. It always has been. It's almost like in some ways, and I know we'll talk about this a little bit, the dinner table. It brings us together, like a magnet. Think of somebody's deathbed or a funeral. These are things, these are forces that are much greater than us, that bring us all together as a community. We bring all of our dysfunction [laughs] and trauma and love and depth to these things. They're scary and they are confronting. I have compassion for it. We get a technology, we made the wrong decision, but we get a technology like medical intervention and we suddenly see the opportunity to apply it everywhere. There's certain ways and certain places where you don't want to apply the incredible technology of medicine. In the realm of death is that it's almost, I think of it the same way I think of what we've done with our food system. We industrialized our foods system. We separated ourselves from it. We destroyed our soil. We took the nutrition out of the food itself. We created a clean, mass-produced, "sterile food system." That was an economy, not a human experience.
That's the same thing we try to do with death. When you do, when you medicalize it, professionalize it, and you isolate people, and you make them talk about these things in rarefied, isolated places like the ones you mentioned, then you're taking the nutritious quality of the experience, the nutrients that we need from the experience to be able to make sense of the experience and our lives. Industrialization and medicalization has had a huge impact. Now when you look at all of the grassroots work being done around hospice and chaplains and palliative care and death doulas and death cafes and death dinners, that's a reclaiming, that's a back to the land movement in a very Stewart Brand's way of saying we over industrialize our lives, we need the whole earth catalog of death and dying because we need to reclaim it as what it is in a human experience, it's not a medical experience.
David Gardner: What a felicitous metaphor. I love that. Thank you, and thank you for making that connection. I hear you. Let's talk about the book. We're going to talk more about the dinner part later but Michael, you structured the book, not so much into traditional chapters, but instead around what you call prompts. These are questions that you used to open up conversations. There's a wide variety of them. I found every single one of them compelling in your book, but a couple of examples for those not familiar. Here's one, if you had only 30 days left to live, how would you spend them? Your last day? Your last hour? That's one. Another. If you could extend your life, how many years would you add? Twenty? Fifty? One hundred? Forever? When did it come to you, Michael, had the structure around prompts instead of chapters?
Michael Hebb: I've been very suspicious of books, [laughs] for a long time. I wanted to be a writer because I felt so much when I was 13, 14, 15, 16. I read so much and literature and my foray into Eastern mysticism and Eastern spirituality at young age, really fueled this deep passion for what books could accomplish. They used to accomplish really amazing things. A single book could change the culture. Then I started to realize that books don't have as much impact as they used to. They're just not read as widely. There's not a big enough public for a book for it to really shifts the whole consciousness and the same way that it used to. I was like, well, I'm not going to spend my time on a book if something can have a bigger impact. I turned to the table and I turned to this scalable model of dinners that we're going to talk about. Because is deeply participatory. The idea that people having engaged interactive experiences can enact more change than just reading a static book. There's a skepticism that I went writing this book with, because I really value where I put my energy and time. I was like, I want to make sure that whoever picks up this book can be impacted by it. However, if that's five people, if that's a million people, whatever it is, how can I make sure that it causes a deep or even not deep, but just some level of inquiry into their own thoughts, beliefs, fears, hopes, their own relationship to death, to their own mortality. How can that jump off the page into your life? That's really Death Over Dinner.
This movement, this platform that we're going to discuss was about that provocation. The first title for it and the long title of Death Over Dinner is let's have dinner and talk about death. That's an invitation. When you hear that, you start thinking about it. [laughs] It's in you. If you've almost already ingested the seed that is going to flower into something. I was thinking about chapters and I learned so many stories. There are so many stories on the cutting room floor after the thousands and thousands of conversations I had. I was like, how can this book give people the tools, start a type of self inquiry immediately and really start to change dynamics in their lives? Because if you asked the questions that are in this book to the people that matter most to you, you are going to profitably shift the dynamic of how you relate to each other about death for sure and mortality. But possibly even in a bigger sense, you might start relating to that person with more vulnerability, with more open expression, with more compassion and empathy. They are really powerful questions and they're not my questions. They're questions that came from IRA by ARC, and Ramp Dase, and Elizabeth Kugler Ross. We certainly crafted some of them at Death over Dinner. But these are the questions that have been asked at the thousands and thousands well actually now millions of tables. I know they work because I've watched them to the work of really unlocking what's most beautiful and most human and sacred in people and people that weren't even signing up for like a secret experience.
David Gardner: Did you have an aha moment or you're like, you know what, since I am going to do a book, I'm not going to do chapters, I'm going to do prompts because this is how I organize my software. I'm looking more into the book crafting with this question, Michael.
Michael Hebb: Yeah, sure. I had an incredible co-writer which can mean a lot of things in the world these days. There's a lot of core writers or ghostwriters out there. In many cases, the co-writer or the ghostwriter just writes the book for the known busy person. That was not the case with this book. My co-writer I hired to help me right there proposal because my agent was like, you're spending too long and it's not going anywhere. The world needs this book. I need a book proposal so I can sell it. I am going to give you or if Jennafrey works with me and you need to pay her and she's going to write your proposal. Jenna took a lot of clay and she formed it into a really crisp beautiful proposal. The process was so good working with her that I said, "Hey Jenna, why don't we write this whole book together, and if it sells, I want you to come in as a partner in this project. If it sells, I'm going to give you a 50 percent" and I was like, I want you to give me my money back for the proposal if it sells. [laughs] Jenna, said yes. She said, OK, we'll go into business together. The book sold for a significant amount of money, which was a very good day for both me and Jenna. [laughs].
David Gardner: Awesome.
Michael Hebb: We started, we had only five months to write the book. They've really wanted it in the world. We went at it and she made it her fulltime job and I made it my part-time job. Somewhere, I want to give you the exact moment of when we said the prompts or chapters, and quite frankly might've been Jenna but it made so much sense when we thought of it that way. The editor from Hachette got it immediately. People talked about writing books being so difficult. This was an absolute joy to write. Every moment spent on it was pure joy until the launch of the thing and you're dealing with the marketing department. [laughs]
David Gardner: Well, and if I'm seeing it right, the copyright on this book right upfront is 2018. I know so much work in a sense, went in to prepare this book for years and years ahead of time, thousands of dinners now, millions of dinners, as you're mentioning, triggering movement, how do you score the success of this book? 0-10 where zero is outer disaster while 10 is bloomy away on all accounts. I'm curious as you think about a movement here and you're saying a lot of what you said earlier about how you're suspicious of books. I mean, there's so many books today, so is that really the most effective platform? How do you score your efforts on dinners face-to-face, which sounds amazing, but how well does that scale versus the book that at least for somebody like me, that's how I got hooked in versus the other efforts you are making? I am just curious, looking over the platform as is. What are your impressions of what you've done?
Michael Hebb: Yeah. The beauty of working with my publisher and editor is they didn't care whether it was going to be in New York Times Best Seller or not. They knew that this is a book that needs to be in the world. Then it would be a perennial seller that we always will need guidance when it comes to conversations about death. There's really hardly any other book like it.
David Gardner: Isn't that amazing? It's true. I think it's true. I mean, I admit not to having read much into this area of the literature. I studied Elizabeth Kugler Ross, in fifth grade. We were taught the stages of dying, but I mean, I do agree and that's part of why I'm so excited to have you here in April because I feel as if this is incredibly important, run so deep and its so under-treated. I'm glad to hear that confirmation from you. I'm wondering Michael. I mean, did you get pushed back because it it seems to me it sounds like you had a supportive team all the way through, but let us say there's some stigma around the popularity or lack thereof a popular culture embracing this topic. Did you encounter that in your own desire to get this work moving? Any reflections on others faced movie directors or book publishers trying to convince them that this topic can sell.
Michael Hebb: Yeah. I stand on the shoulders of giants who paves the way and made it much easier for me to do this work. Quite literally not in some poetic allusion toward the people that have come before me and I will tell you a story that illustrates this. The Boston globe wanted to cover Death over Dinner, and so I was invited to come do a dinner.
David Gardner: What year is this roughly?
Michael Hebb: It's probably 2016, I would say.
David Gardner: Okay. Yes.
Michael Hebb: Death over Dinner for those, If we're still trying to catch up is a dinner platform that invites people to host their own dinners, to talk about death. It's almost like AA [laughs] people do their own thing, organize it themselves, follow our guidelines. In the sense it's not like AA from an experiential perspective but in the sense we used very much that model that people can create their own experiences using our model and that we weren't going to control the brand of the how of it and that's how it scales. People have been having these for 10 years, they've been having these dinners.
David Gardner: Actually, just to jump in for a quick sec, Michael, I think again to your credit, you didn't try to copyright this or make this your intellectual property where people have to go through you very broadly minded from the beginning you made at about what we all want to make of it, right?
Michael Hebb: No, Death over Dinner was always designed as a gift. I think transactionalizing things that are inherently sacred like death is very, very tricky. It's not, it can be done and it has to be done. There has to be some business, some shackles have to change hands when it comes to end-of-life, but it has to be done very thoughtfully. The conversations about it, I always wanted it to be a pure gift. I wanted it to be never trademarked. I wanted it to be abusable at a sense that people are like death over donuts and death over tea and over deli and can I use your logo? It's always like yes, can I change it? Sure. The idea is the more people have this conversation. I don't know the best way. I have a pretty informed perspective but nonetheless, getting back to push back. Boston Globus told me to come in and do it at dinner. Richard Harris is the writer. Richard Harris and I have this really powerful dinner at a friend's house with a few amazing folks and he ends up writing this incredible piece, for the Boston Globe and then another piece for the Atlantic, I believe. Richard used to be a producer for Nightline, for Ted Koppel. It was actually Richard who found the Maury short story for Ted Koppel.
David Gardner: Tuesdays with Maury.
Michael Hebb: Exactly, but there's a bit of a back story there and I'll try to keep it brief. Ted Koppel's said to his producers, go read your local papers and find me interesting stories. Richard Harris brought Ted this idea of a professor from Rinvoq. Well-known professor Morris Short is dying and from his deathbed, he wants to still teach his lectures to his students. He really wants to share his end-of-life experience with the students. Ted Koppel loves this story, takes it to his producers at Nightline and they say, absolutely not, can't do it, won't do it. Ted says," I'm going to do this story." Morris, says Ted, you can do the story, but I need you to come to Boston and we need to spend an afternoon together first. I need to vet you, which has never happened to Ted Koppel [laughs] Princess Di was probably like, yes, sir. [laughs] For short, it's like, "I think I need to make sure that you have the right intentions." So they go and do this interview. It becomes the most-watched interview of Ted Koppel's career, most successful show.
David Gardner: Wow.
Michael Hebb: Most successful show of the year. Then there's sports writer, Mitch Albom, watches Nightline, is like, "That's my professor." He's like, "I need to get back in touch with him." Hadn't talk to him in years. He goes and visits Morrie and wants to write down Morrie's wisdom just to share with the family. It wasn't for a book. It was just a share with the family. Ended up being this extraordinary compilation, obviously of wisdom and stories. Then, he went to try to get it published. He got like 85 no's or some absurd [laughs] thing like that. So everybody said no to Mitch. He spent years trying to get it published. Got it published. It is the most printed biography of all-time. You find it with When Breath Becomes Air, you find it with The Fault in Our Stars. Like there's so many instances where the people that are trying to control the content or decide what content we should see are so terrified like middle managers, that people can't actually take the real honesty.
David Gardner: So ironic.
Michael Hebb: Needless to say we wrote the proposal ultimately in two months, sent it out, started a bidding war two-weeks later, had an incredible deal with Hachette within three days after that, finished the book in five-months, came out a year after I sold it. Has been republished in something like 12 languages. It's in Russia, it's in China, has been Romania, it's in Poland, [laughs] became huge in Poland. The cover of Newsweek in Poland, it's my only magazine cover. [laughs]
David Gardner: Any idea why, specifically Poland?
Michael Hebb: I think the people of Poland have been through an incredible amount of hardship and they don't need to sugarcoat the world. So when someone's coming to them and say, "Let's have a straight conversation about the thing that's common to all of us." There's a big yes, please.
David Gardner: Wow. Yeah. Let's shift to dinner because that's a really important part of the platform of the movie and the book. But Michael, before we do, 0-10 on your feelings about the book and its success at this point.
Michael Hebb: Let's give it a eight, and the two that are remaining on the table, the fact that I'm terrible in self-promotion. [laughs]
David Gardner: I'm sorry to hear that. [laughs] Tragic flaw?
Michael Hebb: No, no. The reality is, the majority of the things that I build don't benefit from having a charismatic leader at the front of it. If you go to Death Over Dinner you'll be hard-pressed to find information about me on that site. It's there buried in there somewhere and you find it here and there. There isn't an Instagram you can follow. There isn't a Twitter, Michael Hebb, you can follow. The reality is that actually really helps a project like Death Over Dinner, it's not authored.
David Gardner: Shared.
Michael Hebb: It is shared and that people feel like it's theirs. That's way more interesting to me as a way of building things in the world. It's not because I'm shy. It's not because I have low self-esteem or something like that. I'm quite confident [laughs] but it's about what serves the projects. I've never built projects that are, well, maybe in my early twenties, but all about me. Then all of a sudden a book comes along and there is an author. It is all about you. They're like, "Hey, ask your fancy friends to promote it for you. Like play the game and get it out there." I didn't and I couldn't. I have an allergic reaction to it. I think that we probably could have 3x star sales and I could've been in a very good position to sell the next book for more money. The reality is I'll probably get less money for the next book and that's OK. It's sold very well, but it'll be a long time before they pay off [laughs] that initial chuck.
David Gardner: Well that means you have a good agent and I know that you do but I will say, to me, this is an evergreen. This is going to sell every year and I wouldn't be surprised if it sells more copies in future than it does in these years. That's all entirely to your credit, Michael. So thank you for sharing those reflections on the book and just the book as part of a movement or something greater. A platform, if you will. I think a lot of us are probably, I hope nodding our heads right now, convinced. I hope of the value of these conversations and this work. So now, we hit the dinner part.
Michael Hebb: Sure.
David Gardner: First, why dinner?
Michael Hebb: Dinners have always shaped history. The dinner table like this, it could almost feel like a Da Vinci code book about it. It's the secret engine of culture. It's the smoky back room, if you want to look at it from a trickle-down model, it's the seder, or maybe even the Tea Party gatherings depending upon your politics. [laughs] The idea of small groups of people coming together to share ideas is how the world works. The media is trying to catch up with what happens at these small tables. Mass culture is trying to put their finger on what happens in the intimate small experience is that humans have. We can look through the history of the table and the Greek symposiums being the proto-table, the most impactful tables. These were dinner parties where through the exchange of ideas, we got things like democracy, our judicial system, theater, [laughs] just a few cornerstones of Western civilization. Those weren't things that came from the Senate floor of Athens.
They came from the intimate experiences over the table. There's a long lineage, The Bloomsbarry Group. You have Keynesian economics being formed at the same time as Virginia Woolf. Really exploring her voice and her craft. They roasted a chicken once a month and had these conversations. The Lunar Men came together once a month. Gertrude Stein kick started modernism and Cubism at her tables. I can literally spend 12 hours telling you about the secret history of the table and how it shaped culture but I've been very, very fascinated by it since I started as a class assess, moved into architecture and started creating experiences for people and community gathering places and saw the deep yearning need the people have together meaningfully. There are so many instances of how the table and coming together to share ideas have shaped who we are.
David Gardner: Just and thinking of at least our family table growing up, just that time with the kids, that precious time. How many families, in all ways, shapes, form, sizes have made so much of just, that's a big part of family culture? Not just in the US, but many places around the world. Okay, I get I am 100 percent persuaded. Now in retrospect, what a naive question I asked when I said first why dinner? [laughs]
Michael Hebb: No. Makes perfect sense. We're not table literate as a culture. We're also not desk literate. We don't look at the table and see, oh, look at this magnificent place of human connection and potentiality. We see a kind of chore. [laughs]
David Gardner: Well put. I'm going to change my second question then, that was the why, let's go with the how. Next, how Death over Dinner, how does this actually work?
Michael Hebb: [laughs] Well, I spend a lot of time bringing people together around the table. First and foremost, there's about 15 years of experiences before creating Death over Dinner, and these are pretty intense experiences. These are bringing together presidents, and they bringing together President Kagame and President Mary Robinson, Kagame from Rwanda, Mary Robinson from Ireland to talk about ending genocide as just one example, or hosting the first night of Obama's first Obama Foundation Summit dinner for 500 people with President Obama and Michelle Obama and Prince Harry as my cohost. [laughs] We're talking about high-stakes.
David Gardner: Gatherings.
Michael Hebb: How do you make it work for a very difficult audience? Sometimes a very jaded but a very powerful audience, and that's where I cut my teeth and learned how to make sure that the table for every person would actually be a place of safety, a place of vulnerability, a place to talk about the things that matter most. Well, these are fancy dinners that I get to too, but how do I democratize this? How do I create a toolkit where people are inspired to have their own dinners? The way that it works when somebody is hosting a Death Dinner, they go to the website, say, this is why I want to host a dinner.
David Gardner: I know you're not good in self-promotion, let me make it really clear deathoverdinner.org. I probably should have mentioned that earlier, but of course people will google it and find it anyway but that is the website you're talking about.
Michael Hebb: It's a very simple, easy to use, pretty website. The idea is you identify why you want to have one of these dinners.
David Gardner: Big?
Michael Hebb: Yeah. Maybe that someone you love or you yourself as receive the terminal diagnosis, and maybe that you're grieving, and maybe that you're just human and you want to talk about it, or a young family. There's a lot of different what we call intentions for having these conversations. Once you select that, the website generates a script for you. You put in your email and it emails you the script. The script gives you everything. It's almost like a board game. You now don't have to worry about how am I going to have this conversation? It leads you through a couple of exercises. The first one, which every dinner starts with is lighting a candle for somebody who's died that had a positive, powerful impact on your life. This is a very old ritual. It's honoring your ancestors.
It is really creating a space that is safe and larger than just you. It actually turns off your ego a little bit when you start thinking about people that can be for you and you stop rehearsing your answers. It's a very tricky, thoughtful little ritual that is part of a lot of sacred rituals throughout time and a lot of secular rituals as well. It starts there and that really opens people up and it becomes a beautiful experience at that moment, because people get very short beautiful eulogies. Then you go through a few prompts based upon your intention, and the prompts are different based upon why you decided to have the dinner. They start the shallow end of the pool and they go closer to the deep end and they ask questions like the ones that you mentioned before. It may start with, what would you want as your last meal? A question you've heard before. What's on your bucket list still, and why? Then into something like, you've just found out you only have an hour to live. Who are you going to call? What are you going to tell them? That's a question we use when we really want to open people up emotionally. Then it closes after you've done some of this exploration. Let me just say that there's usually a question that's a little bit more practical, what happens to your body when you die? Or what do you want your legacy to be? How do you want to be remembered? Those are bits that are really important for your family, friends, and even strangers to hear because what you're doing is practicing, talking about it, even if you'll never see those people again.
David Gardner: Well said.
Michael Hebb: Then it closes with gratitude. It's got an appreciation in the round and we have everyone say something that they appreciate or admire about the person on their left. This is closing up that space. It's giving you a flush of positive brain chemicals like oxytocin, et cetera. You are being appreciated. It's almost like stepping out of that death talking area into the rest of the world is not talking about death. The desert is an appreciation, and that's it. I often feel like we're selling water, and the thing is we're not selling it, so it's OK but it's a very simple architecture and the reality is it always yields due to for results. This is the Yelp culture. When somebody doesn't like what you're offering free or otherwise, they tell you about it. [laughs]
David Gardner: We need more of that straight talk and that's what you're contributing to, and I appreciate that. I think I'd be remiss Michael, if with the author of Let's Talk about Death over Dinner, the co-author if I had him and I didn't ask because I'm looking at the site right now and the site is very helpful, I can see how it talks me through whoever I am, what my purpose is for the gathering, reminds me of Priya Parker who wrote a wonderful book The Art of Gathering, which I hope you've seen.
Michael Hebb: I know Priya.
David Gardner: I would think so. That was certainly one of my favorite interviews a few years ago, realizing just the importance of human gathering. There's a lot of crossover between this podcast and our talk with you and that talk with Priya. See that, but I would be remiss if I didn't ask you for some of the do's and don't-s, just a couple of pointers. In fact, it's always more fun let's start with the death.
Michael Hebb: Of course. Well, you don't surprise people with this conversation. I think I've said before, but it's not like pizza night surprise, we're actually talking about death tips. [laughs] There's some people who evangelize, are new to this topic or terrain. They get so excited, they think that everybody wants to talk about this topic in every situation and that's not the case. You really want to opt in. You want people to opt in. It's not a good thing to do at thanksgiving. Like I'm going to make this or thanksgiving dinner. I'm like don't do that. Talk about football or talk about what?
David Gardner: Politics. [laughs]
Michael Hebb: I mean, make thanksgiving as good as it possibly can be. Don't add extra stress to it. It's already hard to be among our family for some of us. That's a big tone. You really want to invite people and have them say, yeah, I'm prepared for that and then it's totally OK if they're not. There's lots of different ways to come to this topic, to build a deeper comfort, to make some decisions. Having a dinner party and talking about it is certainly not the only or maybe even the best way, is just an effective way. That's a don't give advice. This is an experience made for people to make I statements, statements about themselves. Not to reach over and therapize or give unsolicited advice to a family member or friend about what they should or shouldn't do. There are no experts. There are no experts. It's really about your own personal experience. I think those are some of the big don't-s. Also don't cook an attempted Michelin in one-star dinner. [laughs] Don't decide this is the moment that you become Thomas Keller. [laughs] Ridiculous. You're already stressed out. Come on, be honest. You already talking about a topic you're uncomfortable with. Take the dish that makes you or order something in or just do it on Zoom and have a glass of wine. It doesn't actually require a full dinner, but definitely don't stress yourself over the preparations of the meal. Make sure that you're as little, you're exhibiting and experiencing as little stress as a host as possible because the thing is stress is super contagious. If you are the host, people are looking to you. They're looking to you just how are we doing this? What does this experience like?
David Gardner: True.
Michael Hebb: Yeah. I mean, those are a few don't-s. The dos.
David Gardner: I love the don't-s, and I'm sure we could go longer because it's such a compelling first of all, experience in the first place and we don't want to do it wrong. I especially takeaway from your book, never force anybody into it. Don't say we all have to do this as a family. Truly, it's opt in but yes. How about a couple of dos?
Michael Hebb: Well, I mean, to that point of opt-in, I think of it like courtship or looking for a job. When somebody says no, hear them but also realized that maybe change your mechanism. If you're according somebody you get creative. You want them to know, you're thinking about them, not just thinking about yourself. You think about what would be a good access point for this person that I love? Are they interested in sports? Well, let's look at a sports hero who died well or a sports hero who didn't die well, and let's talk about it or music, et cetera. Really think about your audience and who you're cording, who you're in fighting, who you're enticing to dinner, and be thoughtful and respectful.
The most important thing I can say as I do, as somebody who's hosted thousands of dinners and you might think they become route or they might become the same or borrowing or I've heard it all before. There's a trick that I use that I think is important trick for anybody hosting. That's, I always take a inventory and find out something I'm afraid to say within these questions, because within these questions touch every part of human experience. You will find something that you have some resistance to that you don't want to share because it might be too vulnerable, it might make you look bad, it might cause judgment, et cetera. Now, if I do that quick indexing and say, I don't want to talk about that today but do it anyway, move through my own resistance and talk about something that makes me feel a bit raw and vulnerable and step over my resistance. What will happen is magic. Quite literally, you will see other people do the same thing and you will go places you've never gone in conversation with them or you maybe have never gone in conversation with other human beings in a good way. You have given permission to people to be vulnerable and to step over the several other things they're resisting and people don't. This word vulnerability is one of those squishy words like community. What does it actually mean? That's what it means. It means that you acknowledge that you're afraid to say something and then you say it anyway. You stepped over that block.
David Gardner: It is easy to say as you're saying, and I know it's hard to do it. It's so admirable to do and I think to feel pulled through it by that prospect of magic. That's the draw that we need to be reminded of and to remember. Truly, this is such a human endeavor. We live and we die as humans. We share tables together as humans, we share our minds. We share love and empathy, I hope as humans. I hope that emboldens our dear listeners listening to us right now to think that it is worth doing. I do think vulnerability is one of those words that we can all agree on is important, but it means that thousand different things and it's not that easy and sometimes it can be threadbare. But truly what you've described is authentically vulnerable and obviously powerful.
Michael Hebb: Well, here's the other thing that's harder enticement for doing this because I'm asking you to do something that is uncomfortable. The more shiny enticement for having these conversations is that you are going to feel more alive. There is an immediate hit of authentic vitality that happens when you have these conversations. There is an immediate clarification or reclarification about what matters most to you and what you should prioritize. There is absolute access to more connection with the people you care about most. You will see your family and friends in a whole new way and in a beautiful light, quite frankly, like so. That's the only reason that over now a million people have taken part, not because of our big splashy advertising campaign or because Richard Branson is talking about death over dinner, any of those things. We have none of that. We only have the fact that it is such a powerful experience for so many people that they share about it. They invite more people to the table and they have the experience again, in some cases. That has been the only reason that has reached the numbers it has.
David Gardner: Its reminded me of another beautiful quote from your book. This is much closer toward the end. But lastly, Hazleton, who I was not previously familiar with, but a number of our listeners will be and you certainly are because she is an incredibly eloquent, straight talking proponent of this work and of recognizing our mortality, which defines us. Anyway, here's the quote later in your book from lastly, she says we need endings because the most basic ending of all is built into us. My mortality does not negate meaning, it creates meaning. It's not how long I live that matters, It's how I live. I intend to do it well to the end. Leslie concludes, we are finite beings within infinity.
Michael Hebb: She does live well, let me tell you. [laughs]
David Gardner: I definitely need to google her and read more about her because I can already see I'd be a fan. At the top of the show this week, Michael, I said some weeks back I had Dan Pancon this podcast, Dan was devising all of us on looking backward and embracing our regrets and analyzing them to live better forward, in a lot of ways, I feel like you're doing the same but from the opposite direction. Michael, you are advising all of us to look forward and acknowledge our mortality because in so doing, we can live better forward. I'll just talk about regrets and death and yet I feel like you guys are helping kept in the live better forward movement.
Michael Hebb: Yeah and also it's about being present. That's one of those other elusive words. Being more present. How do I do that? Does that mean that I download headspace? Try to meditate. Sure, that's a way but thinking about your impairments, like, really reflecting on the fact that this is finite, that'll get you precedent. [laughs] I don't even know if that's forward thinking. That's just the forever truth of the now. If you want to feel embodied, clear eyed in your person, feeling what you're feeling, it's a pretty solid, very ancient, always been there in every wisdom tradition way of doing it. It's in every religion, it's in every philosophy. Thinking about our mortality, the fact that we don't do it might be one of the reasons why we're so depressed, might be one of the reasons why we buy things we don't need and we have such a consumer society. There's a lot of mites. [laughs] I'm not going to its the cure-all, cure-all for everything but it has some benefits.
David Gardner: It sure does and I've so enjoyed this conversation together, Michael. As we move toward close here, I was asking myself the question, who does it, right? The Jews have some long running experience with this. I'm wondering if you could explain their approach with Shiva.
Michael Hebb: Shiva is one of several different rituals as part of a traditional Jewish end-of-life. One is that there's always somebody with the body. Is a very human experience of being with somebody after is died, as opposed to somebody who cares about that person. It's called a shomer. There's the fact that at the burial, the family is invited to throw the first dirt onto the casket. That is also a very strong encounter with the fact that the person is no longer here. It's very visceral, it's very human. The carrying of the casket. There's a lot of things that are part of Jewish traditions and other traditions that are about us waking up to the reality that something very major has happened, that a person has gone, or a person is dead. Gone is another question. Shiva, where people spend seven days, traditionally. There's a modern version of Shiva that's much shorter [laughs] but traditionally, Shiva is the seven days where the family whose lost a loved one is in their home, food is brought to them by their community, and the family is not supposed to do anything other than be in conversation with friends and family to reflect on, remember that person. It's like a very long Irish wake with less whiskey.
David Gardner: [laughs] But it's delightful. Again, I don't have personal experience with this, but I always love learning from as many different cultures and traditions as possible. I certainly have heard about it from my Jewish friends, but you broke it down. One way you characterize it, Michael, is in this way and I'm quoting you, Shiva, gives an answer to that most unhelpful of questions. What can I do to help? Which is a very natural human question a lot of us feel, but you wrote Shiva tells you. You show up, you bring food, you wait for them to speak, and then you follow their lead, end of quote.
Michael Hebb: Yes. In a traditional Shiva, and this is again, done unless often these days, but I think it's a really important part. The [inaudible] will often take the family on a walk around the neighborhood and back to their house, sometimes making a lot of noise and banging things, etc., almost like the second-line of new Orleans funeral per session. You're bringing them back to the living. You're bringing the family back from a period where they were just focused on the depth of a loved one. It's not to say they won't be mourning. Of course, they'll be mourning but they are mourning as the living. We talked a lot about smart design, and human focused design, an IDO.
David Gardner: You bet, I love that stuff.
Michael Hebb: Design thinking. It's like, well rituals are examples of the best design thinking ever created and much better than you're going to get in your boardroom. Take them seriously, they're very wise,.
David Gardner: Truly Human-centered design. In conclusion, Michael, you have now, by your own count, done thousands of these conversations personally million plus have happened that you've touched off. Special question for you to conclude. Would you do one more next week on [laughs] this podcast? Would it be OK if I convened a few friends, and in order to help my listeners understand what this sounds like, I'm sure a lot of us are curious if we haven't done before and what it feels like and maybe to be inspired to try it on their own? Michael Hebb, would you kindly consent to a death over dinner dinner podcast on Rule Breaker Investing next week?
Michael Hebb: I can't think of anything better, so that's a yes. [laughs]
David Gardner: That is awesome, and I'm really looking forward to that. One of the things I love about this podcast is about a quarter of our listeners are outside the United States of America. While it's natural in our Western World with our western minds to be thinking about all the things we do poorly around this and some of the things we do well, I'm also reminded the math of how many people we have just reached and how many different cultures. If we all just do it a little bit better tomorrow in whatever context that makes sense, maybe we just save some money, maybe we have an extra conversation or maybe like next week, we get inspired to have one of these ourselves. I am feeling Michael, I think what you have done in numerable times, I'm a small part of something I hope that is contributing to a greater good. I want to thank you, first of all, for your book. Let's talk about death over dinner. I want to thank you for your time this week. I want to thank you for all that you've done for many of our fellow humans at all. I think that you're going to continue to going forward, including on next week's podcast. Michael, [MUSIC] full-on my friend and have a great week.
Michael Hebb: Thanks for having me.
FEMALE_1: As always, people on this program may have interest in the stocks they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don't buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. Learn more about Rule Breaker Investing at rbi.fool.com.