Career & Life Vision Conversation with T.A. Barron '74

"Make your life a truly great story."

T.A. Barron '74 is the highly acclaimed, internationally bestselling author of more than 30 books--including the Merlin Saga, currently being developed for film by Disney. Recently he was awarded the de Grummond Medallion for "lifetime contribution to the field of children's and young adult literature." He serves on a variety of environmental and educational NGO boards, and founded the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, a national award for outstanding young people. Barron left a successful business career to follow his longstanding dream of writing. He's often found on Colorado mountain trails with his wife and children.

Read and watch Mr. Barron describe his surprising transition to writing full-time after a decade in private equity, why he considers a pile of rejection letters to be serendipity, and the secret to living a meaningful life. 

1. How did you become a writer?

After Princeton I ended up writing a novel. It was out of a love story and a desire that maybe I could find myself as a writer. I sent it off to a number of publishers, about 32 of them, and I thought confidently, ‘This is the great way to be discovered.’ In pretty short order I guess you could say that novel had a terrific success rate-I got rejected by everybody. I was zero for thirty-two. It was hard. Rejection is always hard and that was particularly hard because it was a dream, a bubble that was just popped. I had to then think about Plan B.

I was lucky enough to be asked to join a group in New York, a private equity firm, that was willing to give me much more responsibility than I deserved. It was a great experience and I was surrounded by really smart people who knew a lot more than I did about the world. Yet even though I gained responsibility, I became President of this publicly traded firm that was part of this operation, I kept having this recurring dream of still trying to be a writer. I would get up at four o'clock in the morning and write for a couple of hours. I’d write in the back of meetings, long drawn-out meetings, people thought I was taking copious notes and actually I was doing character sketches on them. I then realized there was something wrong with this picture. When it was time to raise a second fund after now eight or nine years of this I realized I needed to really ask the tough question about whether this was a dream that I would never ever feel fulfilled if I did not try again or if it was just a passing fancy. I realized it was the former.

I realized I have to give this writing thing a try again and really know that I can’t do it. So I had the fun of shocking my partners and telling them I was going to leave. You can imagine the great support I got for that idea-not. All I can say is that moment was now twenty-four years ago and thirty books ago.

When I got all that raft of rejections and I was really down for six months. I thought it was just a pure negative experience, but in fact it was a very important positive experience for two big reasons. One was if I were actually going to become a writer I needed to know that I had a lot to learn. But even more important by far was that by getting knocked down and then somehow still even with a steady job and all these nice responsibilities and security and all that, I still was yearning to write, still getting up at 4, still writing poetry in the back the taxis. That was a very illuminating experience because it taught me, right there it was clear, ‘This stuff is really important to you, Tom Barron. You need to explore this.’ If I just shied away from that opportunity a part of me would wither up and die. A part of me that was important. That's why I actually look at that pile of rejection letters as serendipity.

2. You make this massive life change sound so simple and tidy.
I made it tidy to fit into the two minutes I’m allotted, but in fact life is not that way. And yet, I think if there's a guiding principle here, The guiding principle is really that you have to know your inside first before you can make wise decisions in what you're doing on the outside in the world. That goes for job, that goes for how are you gonna make a difference in life in the world. Where you have to start from is not, where are the expectations of my parents, or what am I trained to do, or what are the expectations of the institution where I went. Instead, you have to start inside. Leave all that other stuff on the shelf. What is the up-elevator job this week where I am? Instead you have to ask, what do I honestly really love? What do I really feel passionate about? What do I care about so much that at the end of my life, when I'm out of time, if I haven't honestly done that, or tried to do that, I will feel such a wave of regret wash over me. That would be the worst experience I can imagine.

3. How was it to make the shift from business to writing full-time?

People ask me, "Was it scary to change careers?" and I say, "Yeah, sure it's scary." It’s always scary to make any change in your life. But the scary part really isn't changing one job to another or changing one location to another. The scariest thing by far is to come to the end of your life, when the sand has run through your hourglass, you have a few grains left, and you realize in the cold light of dawn, I had that dream. I know I loved that. I know I loved it. And yet, I was in whatever way seduced by safety or my risk of averseness, other people's expectations, or whatever other factors to avoid that and now I’m out of time. That to me is by far, by a million times more scary.

4. What advice would you give to people who are unhappy with their current jobs?
Keeping track of one's incompleteness, ones suffering, ones anguish, and asking why, is a very important experience. When I was in my business job, there was a lot of it I really honestly loved, I was learning tons, but there was a level of suffering of which I was always aware. Because there was that incompletion, no excitement in the job, no amount of responsibility, no good paycheck, was big enough to hide from me the fact that I was feeling incomplete. The key is to be mindful of that suffering and then to ask why. There was a part of me that really needed to express itself and to give it a try- whatever happened. You orient, you have a chance to both mirror your inside self in the outside world, but also you have a chance to turn a little, too pivot enough that you can find something that's a better fit.

5. There is so much suffering outside in the world. Why is it so important for us to pay attention to the suffering inside ourselves?
I am very mindful the world outside, but I think, I really believe, our first responsibility has to be to grow into our best selves in order then to serve the world outside of ourselves. Now that requires going inside and finding first of all what do you love? That's the first level of questioning. Then the second level of question, building on the self-knowledge that comes from that, is okay these are my passions, these are my skills. How can I help the world using those? Because I promise you, if you combine that inner wisdom of ‘What do I love?’ with the outer sensibility of ‘What does the world honestly really need?’ You put those two together you are going to have a meaningful life. No matter what life throws at you it's going to be a meaningful, deeply rewarding, challenging life, because you’ve married your own inner truth, your authentic self, with something that the world truly needs in a way that you can you can help. That's what success honestly is in my view, is when someone can do that in an integrated way.

6. Do you have any tips for cultivating this internal awareness you describe?
Two qualities are essential in this kind of self understanding and then outreach we’re talking about. One of them is honesty. You really have to be truly honest. That's a way to break through those expectations, those alluring brass rings out there, whatever they are. No one gets into Princeton without being really good at completing other people's assignments and getting applause. But at a certain point we have to really own our lives and take full advantage of this gift of time. Break free of those shackles and set your own assignments. Decide. What do I want to do with this resource? Because really all in the end we have is a little bit of time and whatever our souls are. Truly. But you have to know your soul to at least have an inkling of where it leads you and who you are to then have a sense of how to optimize your very limited time. You know even if you live a century that is just such a little brief moment of time. It's a blink in geologic time. That’s part of what I really love about nature is it really puts things in perspective. When you’re walking by the sea shore or you’re up on a high rocky mountain ridge someplace where I love to go in Colorado, you’re not thinking about my assignment due tomorrow or the next quarterly earnings report, that’s just noise that fades away. What really matters is while we are alive being our fullest and best most authentic selves. That's where the second quality comes in, which is courage. It takes both honesty and courage. And in an odd unexpected way I think it takes more courage if you have been good at everything you've done, completing all those assignments than it does if you’ve not. A different kind of courage in any case.

7. What do you struggle with?
I’m struggling with a version of the same issue that has both plagued me and also empowered me through my whole life and that is there is not enough time. I really feel a very clear sense of mortality. That even a long life is just a brief moment. I've always felt that that really means, it puts the weight on using that moment to the fullest. And I do my best to do that, but I also feel there's a sadness in there. There's a genuine sadness that life is so brief. And I really wish, if I could do one thing, if I could be the wizard Merlin and do one thing, it would be to expand time. Wouldn't that be great.

8. You've had a very diverse career. Do you have a favorite job?

Being a dad! Look, I've had a lot of jobs, I’ll put it that way. I've been blessed with a wonderfully checkered career in my life. I've run a public company, I’ve been an investor, I’ve been a teacher in middle school, I’ve built a log cabin, I’ve written now thirty books, fiction and nonfiction, but by far my favorite job beyond measure has been being a dad. The opportunity to be that close to a young person whose growing and blossoming and with the serious responsibility of listening well to them so that they can tell you who they are. Then you have the opportunity to help them become the best self of whatever that is. They tell you, that's where the nature part comes in and then where the nurture part comes in is that you get to encourage those very best qualities. It's such a privilege. I mean it gives me goosebumps to think what a precious opportunity that is. If you are that lucky in life to have a child as a mother or father it's just the best.

9. Advice to young people?
We live in a society that's very consumer oriented. Groups of people are viewed not as people as much as target markets. And young people in particular. It really upsets me to see how much young people are viewed as a target market to sell into. Young people are bombarded with a commercial sensibility of themselves. They're told in all kinds of subtle compelling ways that they're worth comes not from who they are down inside, but from what t-shirt they wear or what car their parents drive or what drink they drink. It’s very much outward rather than inward. At a certain point in life young people can rise up and say you know I'm not just a consumer. What does that mean anyway? That I consume and use things?I’m much more than that. I want young people to know that they can be not just a consumer, but a creator. They can be a creator of their own life. Their own story. That's a much more empowered position, but it's also really true. That’s the way it is.

10. You are so positive. What do you say to naysayers?
Honestly, I don't hear the naysayers. I'm just so full of gratitude. I'm just so grateful I have this chance to be alive and to be myself and to have my moment to grow in whatever ways I can. If I have wings to spread them and fly. And at the same time if you can pair that up with the honest needs that the world has. Not thinking you have to make any earth-shattering difference by the way. If you’re a really good parent to one child, you can make such a life-time of difference. If you're a devoted teacher who stays after school to help one kid learn to speak English that's not his or her first language or learn how to do calculus or learn to think about questions of history or philosophy, that can make an ocean of difference. You know even if our lives are brief I think it’s very important to have that sense that we’ve used them well. To matter somehow. Even if it’s in a small scale no one else will never know about, that’s irrelevant. Honestly, I can not imagine not feeling that life is a gift and not feeling deeply grateful. And it's not like a moral compulsion. It’s just so clear. You have to rise to that and try to be your best fullest self and then engage in the world and hope to do what you can to make it a better place.

11. What's the best advice you've ever been given?
From a friend of mine who grew up in Maine and loves to fish so he’s given to fishing metaphors. He said, 'Cast a wide net.' Don't just throw a single line over your boat and catch one fish. You could cook it up and have it for dinner maybe or you’d have to throw it back maybe. Instead, cast a wide net. Bring in all the swimming beautiful creatures you can find and it's from that you'll you'll be able to choose what you really want for dinner. And I’ve never forgotten that idea. That's exactly the way to go into your twenties and more than that I think it's a great way to go into life. Life is big and diverse and beautiful and there’s so much to discover! So much to learn! So many ways to grow. So many ways to do things that matter. If you don't open yourself wide at the early stages of life, it’s all too easy to get narrow too soon. I applaud and I deeply agree with the idea that it's important to learn something or some things well. Learn a craft whether it's the writing craft. Or the craft of building companies. Or the craft of finding new stars. Or theoretical physics. Or dancing beautifully. Whatever it happens to be, but I also think that around that and before that, during that, it's really so important to be as big as you can be. Cast a wide net.

12. Any final words of advice?

I think you have to take care of the fact that life is a gift. It is a gift. Because I’m a writer I'm seeing it in capital letters, bold-faced, underlined, the word GIFT. And then the question is alright it’s a gift, but what is that gift? What does it really mean? Who am I and what am I gonna do with that gift? This is my chance to be all I can be, this brief thing we call life. So why not make the most of it?

This interview was conducted and condensed by Lisa Einstein '13