The Learning Leader Show With Ryan Hawk

Episode 254: Robert Kurson – How To Be A Master Storyteller: Rocket Men, The Most Daring Mission In NASA History

Robert Kurson is an American author, best known for his 2004 bestselling book, Shadow Divers, the true story of two Americans who discovered a World War II German U-boat sunk 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey. Kurson began his career as an attorney, graduating from Harvard Law School, and practicing real estate law. Kurson’s professional writing career began at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a data entry clerk and soon gained a full-time features writing job. In 2000, Esquire published “My Favorite Teacher,” his first magazine story, which became a finalist for a National Magazine Award. He moved from the Sun-Times to Chicago Magazine, then to Esquire, where he won a National Magazine Award and was a contributing editor for years. His stories have appeared in Rolling StoneThe New York Times Magazine, and other publications.  His latest book is titled, Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon.

Show Notes:

  • How Rob quickly realized going to Harvard Law School was a mistake
    • “The people who liked being at Harvard Law School are the people I liked the least.”
  • Following that, he got a job at a large law firm in Chicago — “Made a lot of money, bought a BMW, a stereo, a bicycle… And I was miserable”
    • The big corporations/large law firms “punished creative thinking”
  • Writing… “It all started with a basic curiosity that would grow into love.” –> “You can’t hate what you do and be happy”
  • The theme of writing stories — “Freedom… Being unbound.  When I was writing stories, the time would go so fast.”
    • “Whatever it cost me, I was going to get out of practicing law, and be a writer.”
    • “I begged for any job.  I’m incredibly persistent.  I came in on the weekends and took high school football scores as my first job working for a newspaper as a writer”
  • How can others follow their love/passion? “Never give up, do it at night, weekends, refuse to take no for an answer.”
    • “I was unwilling to see my life go that way.  I would never stop trying, no matter what.  There was no choice, that’s what I was going to do.”
  • Key ingredients to being a great story teller?
    • Understand the structure, the arc, the format: inciting incident, challenge, the heroes journey, the battles –> The beginning, middle, and end
    • How the long car rides with his dad gave him a prime example for story telling — “My dad was a travelling salesman and he would often take me with him.  He’s the greatest story teller I’ve ever known”
  • Why write about the Apollo 8 mission? — “They are the first 3 men to leave earth and go to the moon.  The people at NASA say Apollo 8 was the most daring mission of all time.  They orbited the moon 10 times.  It was the most rushed mission in history.”  They needed to beat the Soviets and rushed it because of that and President JFK
  • George Lowe – The NASA manager had the idea to go without the lunar module
  • The 3 astronauts refused to give up.  No matter what happens, they wont’ give up.  Most of the astronauts were fighter pilots in the war.  They developed a psychology that “it won’t happen to me.”  They were fearless.  They had self-delusion and irrational confidence.  That fueled them.  They were not afraid to fail and had already failed many times in their lives
  • Neil Armstrong crashed on a test flight… Just an hour later, he was seen in his office doing paperwork as if nothing happened.  The best astronauts were not phased
  • What Rob enjoyed most — Meeting each of the 3 astronauts.  All 3 are alive and still married (rare in the astronaut program).  They are down to earth, humble leaders
  • Rob describes what it was like flying with Frank Borman
  • What it was like watching Apollo 13 with Jim Lovell (who was also on Apollo 8)
  • The power of constraints — “Deadlines can help us do incredible things.  Construct them for yourself.”
  • Rob’s routine — At desk by 6:00 am and work until 2:00.  “After that, my work isn’t very good.”
    • Structure it first, organize, and storyboard it
    • Take a lot of walks with a digital recorder and speak the story out
  • Rocket Men has been optioned by Netflix
  • “Deadlines can help us do incredible things.  Construct them for yourself.”

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