In 1996, Mike O’Krent became a volunteer interviewer for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, the largest oral history project captured on video in the world. The experience of interviewing Holocaust survivors rocked Mike’s world and led him to found Life Stories Alive, which records the life stories of individuals, couples and siblings for their families before it’s too late. Mike’s own father and grandfather died before he could capture their stories, so he vowed not to make the same mistake with his mother. Mike talks about getting hooked on the process of storytelling, why it’s important for us to know our elders’ histories and about his mission of helping others unearth stories of their loved ones that in many cases they’ve never told anyone before.
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“Being Humble Is Nothing to Brag About” by Mike O’Krent (8/27/2018)
Mike’s list of 15 Powerful Lifestory Questions to Ask Your Loved One
JANA – What do we really know about the elders in our lives? Well, I know that in her late teens my mother’s mother traveled from the Greek island of Lesbos to Toronto, Canada, all on her own by ship to meet her future husband in an arranged marriage. That piece of my grandmother’s history was passed down verbally, along with other tidbits from her life. The only written link I have to my Yia-Yia are her Greek recipes, which I put to paper since they only existed in her head, and someone in our family had to know how to make her kourambiethes. But I wish I’d written down my grandmother’s life story, or better yet recorded it on video. Today’s guest has been doing that for over a decade. Mike O’Krent is a storyteller, speaker and entrepreneur, who’s also the CEO and Founder of Life Stories Alive. He founded Life Stories Alive to record the life stories of individuals, couples and siblings for their families before it’s too late. Mike joins us from Austin, Texas, to tell us about the elders in his family, and about his journey to recording the life stories of elders. Mike O’Krent, welcome to The Agewyz Podcast.
MIKE – Well, thank you. I’m excited to be here and honored to be with you.
JANA – Great. So before we get into the founding of your company, I would love for you to share a bit about the elders in your family and your experience of growing up in San Antonio.
MIKE – I was one of those fortunate people who grew up in a middle-class family without a whole lot of problems. My father and grandfather were in a family business, and I grew up in the family business, went to high school, went to college – it was all a pretty “normal” – whatever that means – childhood. And it was all good. Regarding what you specialize in, in family caregiving – I again, was fortunate that neither one of my grandparents or parents went through long illnesses where I had to be a caregiver. But what I’m doing now opened my eyes to what caregivers go through and what stories are all about. But my background in San Antonio was – it’s weird – but it was normal. Again, whatever that means.
JANA – Right. So you grew up, what – in the 60s?
MIKE – Yeah, I grew up in a more hopeful time. I don’t mind sharing my age. Currently. I’m 61 years old. One of my earliest memories was watching on TV, the Kennedy funeral, when JFK was killed. So I grew up in the 60s. But in San Antonio, Texas, there wasn’t a whole lot going on with protests and things like that. But it was – `I told somebody in fact, yesterday, I grew up in a kind of a “Leave it to Beaver” type of a situation where you know, Mom and Dad were around, and it was all good. But that was the time.
JANA – You are one of three kids, I understand. You’re a middle child. Is that right
MIKE – Yeah.
JANA – Okay.
MIKE – Exactly.
JANA – We share that in common.
MIKE – Smack dab in the middle.
JANA – I’m a smack dab in the middle, too.
MIKE – We share that in common. Oh, we need therapy don’t we?
JANA – Yeah. Big time. But we’re the peacemakers.
MIKE – Exactly. [laughs] You got it right.
JANA – So let’s go back to 1996 and the interviews that got you hooked on the process of storytelling, and the importance of recording the life stories of our loved ones. I understand you did some work interviewing Holocaust survivors. Tell us about that.
MIKE – Yeah, I was very, very fortunate to be one of those people that volunteered to interview Holocaust survivors in what ended up being, it’s still the largest Oral History Project captured on video in the world. I interviewed Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, between 1996 and 2000. And I interviewed survivors in Austin and San Antonio and South Texas during that time.
JANA – And how did you get connected to that project?
MIKE – Oh, wow. I was volunteering with the Jewish Federation of San Antonio, they then and still do have a wonderful Holocaust education program, where we would go out to the schools and teach a unit on the Holocaust. And back then it was a three-day unit. They had a little film that they showed the first day, then the following day a teacher – and I was a teacher – would come in and, and lead a question and answer type information thing. And then back then the third day was, a survivor actually came by and talked to the kids.
MIKE – So I was involved with that. And that was about the same time when Spielberg was filming Schindler’s List. He had survivors coming up to him saying, I’ve got a story I want to tell you. So in his genius, he started this foundation to capture those stories before it was too late. Knowing that these people were going to be gone one day soon. And so as survivors from our area started to call in, to volunteer to be interviewed – we didn’t solicit any survivors – the foundation sent a letter to the Jewish Federation saying we need volunteers. And I, at my expense and time flew out to Los Angeles to be trained.
MIKE – And it’s one of those things that you really don’t know how it’s going to change your life. But it just rocked my world, it just rocked my world to be the catalyst. And your listeners will appreciate this, because they have the same opportunity to be the catalyst that will sit across from somebody and unearth those many wonderful stories, that in many cases they never told anybody before. And I’m just thrilled that it happened with me.
JANA – Well, going back to your teaching with the kids and having the Holocaust survivors come in, what was the kids’ reaction to meeting somebody like that, if you remember?
MIKE – Hmm… it’s a great question, because many of the kids, especially in the rural areas of San Antonio, I’ll never forget, one kid raised his hand after we were through with it toward the end of the class, and he says, You know, I asked my parents last night, what does a Jew look like? What color was a Jew? What were they like? And I thought, Oh, my God, these people have never, never not only met a Jewish person, but never seen – or that they had some questions around that.
MIKE – But the students were very inquisitive, and very, very interested. One of the things in my work that I do, and that I found out even back then, that history can come alive. History, if it’s presented in such a way that they can relate to. And the way we taught the Holocaust is, you know, the kids that were their age in Poland and Germany and Eastern Europe at that time, were much like them. And we taught it in such a way that the things that happened around that time could have happened to them. So they put themselves back in that situation. And they were very fascinated. They were very interested.
JANA – I’ll bet too as young folks meeting older people, maybe that kind of changed or influenced their views of just someone who was older, you know, in some way.
MIKE – Yeah.
JANA – I know that your father and your grandfather both died some time ago, two months apart. And your mom died fairly recently. And you had the opportunity to record your mother’s life story before she died. Did you make any new discoveries? And tell us about that process.
MIKE – Wow. On May the 16th of 1997, my grandfather died. And if you would have told me at his funeral that within two months my dad would be gone, I would have, I would have said you’re crazy. I would have said that that was just unheard of. And at the funeral of both of those men, I watched their stories be buried with them. And shame on me. I knew better. It was a year and a half before that, that I was trying to interview Holocaust – never thought to do it for my own family. And I want your listeners to really, really hear that because again, they have an opportunity to do this for themselves. You know, I don’t want them to feel the pain that I felt those particular two funerals, of those particular two days. So I knew I wasn’t going to make the same mistake with my mom. So shortly after I started my business in 2006, I asked my mom, let me do your life story. She said No, no, my stories aren’t important. Which is what most humble people think, right?
JANA – Classic.
MIKE – It’s classic. Yeah, but I was persistent in year after year, and finally when my mom turned 80 she said, Let’s do this. And to answer your question, not only did I learn some things about my mom that I knew, but I learned a lot that I never knew. Just because I set up a safe place. Just because I followed what was in the book that I wrote on the process to going through something that will on earth things that you’ve never heard before. And as I’ve heard from many of my clients, I’ve known this person all my life, but I’ve never heard those stories before. And Mom told things that I had never heard and there were just incredible discoveries for me, and that now I can pass on to my children. And now I have two little grandchildren as well.
JANA – What sort of discoveries did you make? Can you give me an example or two, of things you discovered about your mom that you didn’t know?
MIKE – I’d be happy to. And I don’t mind sharing this. I always knew that Mom’s father, my grandfather, may have had an alcohol problem. But I didn’t know how bad it was, and I didn’t know if Mom was ever the recipient of the anger and what kind of anger she received. And so I – that was the time to ask her. And what I learned from all of that was not just the situation of my grandfather, but what shaped my mom because of that experience.
MIKE – And for your listeners, as they ask these questions and they hear these stories, it’s not so much for the facts and the history. It’s for the feelings of, what did you learn from that? It’s for the lessons learned from that. And I remember I never saw my mom drink a drop of alcohol throughout her entire life. And it was largely because of this. She saw the negative things that alcohol can do for people. But what lessons did she learned from that? Well, everything in moderation is what she used to say. But some things just avoid, so you don’t have to worry about it.
MIKE – It was eye-opening. I never had the guts, if you will, before that to ask her about that situation of her life. And the other thing that came through that, you know, in a way I’ve heard before, but it came through in such a beautiful way. And that is how much she really loved her children. Now, my brothers and I have always known that mom loves me. But when it’s expressed in a certain way, it’s just magical. You know, it’ll bring a tear to your eye.
JANA – Yeah, that’s really cool. And it’s great that you had the opportunity to do that interview before she passed.
MIKE – Yeah. Yeah.
JANA – So when you started with families, how did you approach them? And what sort of reaction did you get?
MIKE – The reaction from many of my clients, and most of my clients are the children of the people I end up interviewing, their reaction is, number one, a fear of mom and dad won’t do this. And it’s so common. As we mentioned before their generation, our parents’ generation, were humble. They were taught in our socialization that if you talk about yourself, you’re bragging and that’s kind of a sin?
JANA – Right.
MIKE – I wrote an article that was published called, “Being Humble is Nothing to Brag About,” and our parents’ generation were humble. And one of the fears as children is they won’t talk about it. But there are times in their lives, and if we approach it correctly, they’ll be happy to talk about it. And once they start talking about their stories, they don’t seem to end. Because let’s face it, we all like talking about ourselves. It’s something that we know the most about, right? And if in that conversation it’s worded and caged, if you will, toward sincere interest and genuine curiosity, which is a chapter in my book, then many stories come out. They’re a lot of fun, quite frankly.
JANA – Why don’t you kind of share your approach with the folks that you interview? I know you do a lot of prep work, but maybe you could share your approach. And has anyone shared a story that caught you off guard?
MIKE – Always. [laughs] There’s always stories that catch me off guard. That’s why many of the questions that I ask in the actual interview are those that are not prepared. Because if you’re listening, if you have really, really good listening skills – and that’s the most important skill that I have – that I think your listeners should have if they interview somebody for their stories is listening. Because you can have a bunch of prepared questions, but when something comes up, or when they say something that, like you say catches you off guard, is very interesting, ask that clarifying question.
MIKE – And the best tool for listening that I was ever taught that I love teaching is the following. And your listeners can write this down because it’s worth writing down. In a conversation, the next thing you say, has to include at least one word from the last sentence that they say. I’ll repeat that. The next thing you say has to include at least one word from the last sentence that they say, which causes you to do a number of things. And one of those things is it causes you to pause longer than you usually pause after they’re finished, because you don’t know if it’s the last thing that they say. And because you have to use one word, you have to listen intently to everything. So if that person says something that kind of catches you off guard, all you need to do is say something like use one of those words, but you say what do you mean by X? Or what do you mean by that? Or you can ask that clarifying question. And some of the biggest pearls, if you will, of the treasures of their story, will come out at that time.
JANA – I watched the story of Aunt Sylvia, 103-years young, who’s profiled on your website. Can you share a little bit about her story?
MIKE – Oh, goodness. Wow. My wife Linda met somebody here in town, a woman who she did some work for, and she says we’ve got to go out with – she and her husband, Jeff. And so we went out and Jeff says What do you do? I told him what I did. And he says, We got to talk about interviewing my mom in Florida. So we talked about that. And something happened where… he followed through with it by asking his brothers and apparently his brothers weren’t interested and so they didn’t do it, right?
MIKE – Well, Jeff calls me a few months later, and his mom died. And the stories were buried with her. And he said, I’m not going to make the same mistake with Aunt Sylvia. So he asked me to go out, we fly out to Naples, Florida to interview this lady who at the time was 102 years old, she was just shy of 103. And it was fascinating because when somebody is over 100 years old, and I’ve interviewed six of them that are 100 years older and older, you can ask questions that you would never dreamt of asking anybody who’s much younger.
JANA – Such as?
MIKE – Such as the things that they’ve seen in their lifetime. Because they grew up in a time when – forget computers. You know, a telephone in their home was rare.
JANA – Yeah, right. The party line.
MIKE – The party line. Exactly. The first hundred plus year old was shortly after I started my business. So that was in 2006. So she was born in 1904, something like that. So one of the questions I asked her is, Tell me the first time you saw an automobile.
JANA – Wow. What did she say?
MIKE – And those stories – what did she say?
JANA – Yeah, what did she say?
MIKE – Oh, that’s a great story. She grew up in rural West Virginia. And she had eight siblings. So they were all playing outside and it was getting dusk, and she says, All of a sudden we heard from around the corner, this big rumble. And we didn’t know what it was. And her eyes got real — this is a 100 year old lady, right? And she says, We didn’t know what it was. So as it turned the corner, we saw these two big eyes coming after us. Which were the headlights.
JANA – Right, right.
MIKE – Then she paused, and she says, I don’t know if my siblings made it first. But I thought I was first to run in the house to jump under the bed because we thought it was a monster.
JANA – Oh my gosh.
MIKE – That was the first time she saw an automobile. It brings perspective to us that takes all these things for granted that we see on a daily basis. And that was fascinating.
JANA – Yeah, not only that, but it gives us a sense of perspective that is so easily lost. So what’s your take on how elders are viewed in the US? And how does that affect our interest in knowing their histories?
MIKE – I – great question – I think that elders in this country are not disrespected, but their respected in such a different way than you see it in other cultures. When you look at other cultures, it brings perspective of our culture and how much we need to pay more attention and learn about our older generation. The idea of parents and grandparents living in the same house as you is kind of a moot point here. It just doesn’t happen as much. But in other cultures, how could you think that you could do anything but that?
MIKE – And when other cultures bring their parents and grandparents and their elderly people in with them, they view their story differently. They learn from their story; the stories are shared all the time in other cultures. In this culture, we can learn so much from our elders, if we just sit and listen, if we just sit and ask the questions. And I encourage all of your listeners, as you’re doing this – most all of them I would think would have a smartphone with them – just turn on the voice memos function on that phone as you’re having that conversation. And then those conversations will be recorded, and you’ll have them forever – in their voice. Because one of the things that I miss with my father and grandfather, and literally I’ve forgotten the sound of their voice. If I heard it, I would immediately recognize them, of course. But what I wouldn’t give to hear that voice again. But now with my mom, whenever I’m missing my mom who died just – what, 18 months ago – all I have to do is pop in the video. And there she is. And I can feel it.
JANA – Yeah. That’s really great. I know exactly what you’re talking about because my dad died 10 years ago, and after that I’ve made it a point in small ways of capturing moments of my mom. I’ve interviewed her a few times on video and through audio, and I’ve actually incorporated some of her recordings into my podcast.
MIKE – That’s awesome.
JANA – You don’t want to be morbid about it, but at the same time, you have to be aware that there’s a limit to the amount of time you have with this person.
MIKE – Exactly. And as caregivers, you have the technology in your hand. And like you say, we don’t want to accept it. But people die, but their stories don’t have to. So with that technology in your hand – you’re having the conversations anyway – just turn on your phone, and you’ll have it forever.
JANA – Yeah. Mike over the course of creating Life Stories Alive, have you come to think differently about end of life issues?
MIKE – Oh, my goodness. Yeah. Yes, absolutely. Shortly after I started my business, I was trained and I became a Hospice Austin volunteer, because death scared me to death. I was really afraid of it and I want to learn more about it. And in the work that I do, and in the process of becoming a Hospice Austin volunteer, you learn that the end journey can be a beautiful thing.
MIKE – The end of life journey can be something that can be, in a way, cherished in a weird way. Again, we have a strange perspective of death in this country. But it can be something that can be treasured forever. And the most glaring thing that came to me is these people who are toward the end of their life’s journey, they know it. And they’re ready, willing and able to share those lessons of life that they’ve always wanted to teach because – and I’ve heard this – people aren’t afraid of dying [so much] as they are afraid of dying with insignificance. And your caregivers can bring significance to their lives, and let them feel good because they know that their life has meant something, because they’re recording their stories.
JANA – Yeah, it’s a challenge for caregivers to even find the time, but your point about using your smartphone is a really good one. Because that’s already at your side. Just turn it on. That’s a really good point.
MIKE – Right. And the smartphones that we have these days, literally the microphones with the technology in there, will pick up a whole lot of sound. So again, just turn it on. And if the conversation ends up being something you don’t want to keep, we’ll just delete it. That’s okay. But one of the things, one of the – one of the things that my work has taught me is you never know when that pearl, that treasure of what they say, is going to come out. So always be recording and you’ll capture it.
JANA – Yeah. The other question I’d like to ask is, during the course of your work, to the extent that you’ve come across end of life issues, has your experience changed the way that you live your life now?
MIKE – Yeah, absolutely. One of the final questions that I always ask at the end of these life stories – and the interviews will last a few hours long – is what’s the most important thing in life? It seems an obvious question, but they’ve just gone through hours of telling this story chronologically, and it’s toward the end of the interview. So I ask, What’s the most important thing in life? Never, ever, ever has it been about money or possessions. So has it changed my perspective? You betcha.
MIKE – Because I sit and look around – and sometimes I’m guilty of it, too – we worry so much about money and possessions and things like this and status. And when it’s all said and done, if that really doesn’t matter why are we focusing on it so much now? Since I started my business, I’m focusing so much more on the other things that people answer. And that is, it’s usually around one of four categories: love, health, spirituality, religion, or whatever, and generally, family. So if we focus our lives on those things, the rest will take care of itself.
JANA – So Mike, you did a TEDx talk in Wilmington, which is now on the main Ted.com website, which is awesome. Congratulations.
MIKE – Thank you very much.
JANA – Yeah, sure. What sort of feedback did you get from the audience when you did the talk in Wilmington?
MIKE – Oh, wow. Fortunately, good, positive feedback. It kind of opened my eyes because they said, You know, I never thought of doing that before. And in my talk, I say what I mentioned earlier in our conversation today: just ask simple questions. Just ask those questions and take your phones out and record it. In the talk I give five questions, but for your listeners, if they want, I have 15 of my favorite questions to ask when you’re interviewing somebody for a life story. I’d be happy to send that.
JANA – Okay, great. I know that you do teach people on how to do this on your own. And you referred to your book, which I should tell listeners about. Mike has a book called, “A Conversation You’ll Never Forget: A Guide to Capturing a Lifestory.” So you don’t have to be a professional to do this. What are some of the challenges that if you’ve helped people to do this, what are the resistant points?
MIKE – The biggest resistant point is fear of doing it to begin with. And then after that, it’s what do I do if they cry?
JANA – And what do you do?
MIKE – Spielberg’s organization taught us, because when you’re interviewing Holocaust survivors, there’s going to be tears, and here are the three rules. Rule number one: don’t interrupt. Don’t say anything. It’s going to seem like the pause will last forever, but keep your mouth shut. And don’t move and don’t do anything. But keep your eyes on them. That’s rule number one. Rule number two: don’t physically touch them, because that’s invading their space and that’s an interruption. Rule number three, is never ever, ever, ever say “I understand.” Because you don’t. You don’t. I don’t care. If they’re talking about a situation where you were there with them. You don’t understand what’s going through their mind at that time.
MIKE – And if you pause, and if you let that emotion happen, and don’t interrupt, at the end of that emotion, some of the best things that they’ll say will come out at that time. And that’s one of the biggest fears that they have. And if you get through that, you’ll find that the interviewee, the loved one or the people that you’re caring for, will appreciate you more than they’ve ever appreciated you before. Because you listened.
JANA -So who’s gonna capture your life story when the time comes, Mike?
MIKE – You are a good interviewer. You ask the tough question. To answer your question – it’s a good question – my son married a wonderful woman who is my daughter-in-law, the mother of my two grandchildren, and she has a cousin who wanted to get into this business, I think about four years ago. So Rich, this guy in Baltimore, he’s doing a great job with his business. And we each made a deal. I said, I’ll do your life story if you do my life story. So Rich is going to record my life story whenever we can get together in the same city for more than a week.
JANA – Yeah, but you have a few decades to get under your belt. You’re not ready for that, are you?
MIKE – If you would have told me at my grandfather’s funeral my dad would die within two months, I would have said You’re crazy. My dad died at age 62. I am 61. Do I have a few years to wait for that? God willing, but who knows? I want to get with Rich soon. Because you never know. And the great thing is, you know, people think that the work that I do – it should be timed right before they die.
JANA – Right.
MIKE – [laughs] Okay. Well I said, Great. But instead, why don’t we do it now, and then add to it 10 years from now? You know, what have you learned in the last decade that you didn’t tell me before?
JANA – There you go.
MIKE – And your listeners can do that with their loved ones as well.
JANA – That sounds like a great place to end. Mike, w here can people find out more about your work and get in touch with you?
MIKE – At Lifestoriesalive.com – is my website. Or you’re welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And one more thing, I want your listeners to put on their calendars. November 4, I am launching an online course, of the life stories method, where I’m going to teach people how to do this for themselves and teach it online. It’s a roughly a seven to eight week course that they can start on November 4th, which is a Monday, and they can finish before they Christmas holidays and Hanukkah holidays, and….
JANA – Just in time…!
MIKE – Just in time. So they’ll be able to interview their loved one.
JANA – We’ve been speaking with Mike O’Krent. He’s a storyteller, a speaker and CEO and founder of Life Stories Alive, which records the life stories of individuals, couples, siblings and their families before it’s too late. We will have links on the Agewyz website to Mike’s website and to the articles mentioned in this show. So be sure to check that out. Mike, thank you so much for this wonderful work that you’re doing and for sharing it with the audience. It’s been informative and a pleasure chatting with you.
MIKE – I enjoyed it as well. Thank you so much. It was an honor and a pleasure, and I wish you well.
JANA – Thanks, Mike.