Rachel Lehmann-Haupt

Senior Editor, TED Books, TED Books


This conversation is closed.

Can you define your life in just six words?

This is the challenge Larry Smith presented to his online community, SMITH MAGAZINE, in 2006. His quest was inspired by the legend that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a novel in just six words. His heart-breaking result: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Giving the form a personal twist, Smith reimagined the six-word novel idea as the Six-Word Memoir, challenging contributors to create a half-dozen words of self-reflection. The constraint, it turned out, fueled rather than inhibited creativity: "Sometimes lonely in a crowded bed." Inspired by the form's popularity in schools, Smith recently called for submissions for illustrated Six-Word Memoirs, in which he asked students, whether in grade school or grad school, to create a piece of artwork that enhanced their memoirs. The voices in Things Don't Have to Be Complicated are younger than typical, but no less profound:

"Big Dream, Big Heart, Big Mouth"
"I'm a Muslim. not a terrorist."
"Life is better with headphones on."

At its core, the Six-Word Memoir offers a simple way for anyone of any age to try to answer the question that defines us all: Who am I?

Here's an excerpt of the book in the Washington Post:

You can buy it on:

Kindle: http://tinyurl.com/b35x88g

iOS: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/things-dont-have-to-be-complicated/id588129395?ls=1

Nook: http://tinyurl.com/cy8pdae

Author Larry Smith will be joining us for a one hour Q&A January 15th, at Noon Pacific / 3pm Eastern. Mark your calendars!

  • Jan 11 2013: Be like a tree, just be.
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    Jan 11 2013: So far, so good. What's next?
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    Jan 11 2013: Despite hardships, living by noble virtues.
  • Jan 11 2013: Turn Right Here; No Wait, Left
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    Jan 15 2013: Be the Hero of your story
  • Jan 11 2013: Surrounded with opportunity, striving with optimism.
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    Jan 11 2013: Head in stars, feet on Earth
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    Jan 11 2013: Unwritten stories speak volumes over time.
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      . .

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      Jan 15 2013: This reminds me of " Mute thing that speaks wisest words" by Neil MacGregor :-)
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    Jan 11 2013: looking to the future, with hope
  • Jan 11 2013: i feel slightly to young to leave a memoir yet. so today it might be:
    curiosly optimistic about this fast-changing world
  • Jan 15 2013: There is something, somehow positive about this exercise... I was struck by how a gravestone gives the details of the day we are born, and the day we die... but the rest of our live is relegated to a hyphen... 6 words at least fits on our stone and tells everyone something more personal about us.
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    Jan 15 2013: Gratitude is the best attitude, always
  • Jan 15 2013: Lots of comments on how life cannot be simplified into 6 words - whilst this is true and life is too big to sum up in 6 words - one commenter stated "How very American" - I can only surmise that this may be a reference to how fast life is becoming - fast food, fast love, fast friends (social networking), fast definition of life etc. - and whilst the intent of the question may have been to get a fast summary of life - there is something (even if unintentional) very good about this question. What I like about it, is that it drives us to simplify our life into 6 items - and that is very valuable. Because our lives are becoming too complex and noisy. We cram too much into our lives and we forget about the basics that make our lives worthwhile. Paraphrasing from the movie Dead Poet's Society - "Medicine, law, business, engineering - these are all noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love - these are what we sustain life for" This question is important in its capacity to drive us to think about simplifying our lives - to drive out the chatter and the noise and get back to what we sustain our lives for - why we exist. Is it to make more money than we need or can take with us, or to gain power that cannot save us from our last breath? Or is it to simplify our lives and learn once again to embrace that which we truly live for - and that is evidenced in the words of the contributors here - words like, "Goodness", "Laugh", "Learn", "Love", "Passion", "Inspire", "Give" - we can only remember to do these things when we simplify and go back to the basics of life.
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    . .

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    Jan 15 2013: Think Good. Speak Good. Do Good.
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      Jan 15 2013: Yours is a good piece of advice. It makes one live quieter and feeling Good. I like it.
  • Jan 14 2013: Not now. I'll do it later. :'(
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    Jan 12 2013: Life is a state of mind
    • Comment deleted

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        Gail .

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        Jan 12 2013: Kate, I disagree
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    Jan 11 2013: Love hugely, serve tirelessly, absorb, reflect.
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    Jan 11 2013: Looking for the fervor called living
  • Jan 11 2013: Born and dreaming myself awake since.
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    Jan 11 2013: What a wonderful life I have!
  • Jan 15 2013: Jokes apart,who am I really
  • Jan 15 2013: I'm using the six words to define each day, by the way. It's an efficient way to journal!
    • Jan 15 2013: Lots of people on SMITH, and ever moreso on SMITHteens.com really treat six-word memoirs as their daily journal. Some have done thousands of them. And it's pretty cool to then look back at where you mind/life was (in six words) when you scroll through your earlier mini-memoirs.
      • Jan 15 2013: It's a crazy mix of minutiae and spiritual development!
  • Jan 15 2013: With no beginning, there's no ending.
  • Jan 15 2013: Don't settle for less, continually improve.
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    Jan 15 2013: What? When? Where? Who? How? Why?
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    Jan 15 2013: i believe in humanity, Pursuing dreams
  • Jan 15 2013: Keep moving forward, Don't give up!!!
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    Jan 15 2013: Make a diffence where you can.
  • Jan 15 2013: I am only one of many.

    This is what I keep realizing over and over again in my life. Although we all have our unique tastes and talents, in the end, we are all human beings with the same basic needs and the same hunger for love and truth.
    (Very good question by the way!)
  • Jan 15 2013: Always looking for my next opportunity.
  • Jan 15 2013: Loving life in it's natural expression!
  • Jan 15 2013: Listen carefully. Speak kindly. Love passionately.
  • Jan 14 2013: Love fearlessly, fight relentlessly, feed joyously.
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    Jan 13 2013: Learning to listen to the people
  • Jan 13 2013: Want less than you can have.
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    Jan 13 2013: Enjoy giving your best each day
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    Jan 13 2013: Live now and appreciate the world.
  • Jan 13 2013: love the world in my mind.
  • Jan 12 2013: I Am that I Am I
    • Jan 13 2013: You are still here, so... not at " I " , not yet, but it's where you came from.

      I , I am that, I am

      You may not believe it, but i had exactly this ' story ' in my mind yesterday :)
      • Jan 13 2013: Hi "i"

        so no not surprised at all!! :-) That is a good working example of the Noetic level. ref'd in the material I sent to you.

        (PS yes still around a little... Harvey's "Is TED a cult thread caught my eye ...having a little fun with it)
        • Jan 14 2013: Hi, Ed !
          I mean , you are here on Earth, not on TED :)
          And obviously i am not ' I " , frankly , hope to be around in ' I am ' version for some more time.:)

          Re : the material I sent to you.
          I haven't received anything so far, but i would like to !
      • Jan 15 2013: Hi nn

        Not Received? .Hmmm

        ...I used your given e-address "nikolo4ka ...and I wont say the rest here ...is this much right ...if so your service might have a limiter on it size wise

        I will bookmark this place and watch for your response
  • Jan 12 2013: Always rapidly triumphing over exciting challenges.
  • Jan 12 2013: I am better describing in 6 words life I want to have:happiness,change in world,love,knowledge.
  • Jan 12 2013: Journey, Purpose, Knowledge, Peace, Harmony, Truth

    Journey for Purpose & Knowledge for Internal Peace , cosmic Harmony to seek truth
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    Jan 12 2013: Live ,love ,dream ,thank ,serve ,forgive.
  • Jan 11 2013: Life goes through me; i watch.
  • Jan 11 2013: For myself and for others
  • Jan 11 2013: Grateful cancer survivor, entrepreneur and mom
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    Jan 11 2013: Follow my path, live, laugh, love.
  • Jan 11 2013: Dreams are always proportional to hardwork
  • Jan 11 2013: Making the most of every opportunity.
  • Jan 11 2013: Left empty, with no appetite.
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    Jan 11 2013: In the womb of Knowledge, Reborn.
  • Jan 15 2013: I would love to have Friday's featured Six-Word Memoirs on SMITH all come from TED chatters. We feature 10 a day, and one is "memoir of the day" that goes out to twitter, facebook, tumblr). Come on over to smithmag.net/sixwords and you can share these same sixes or write new ones there.
  • Jan 15 2013: Finish college, be happy, find love.
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    Jan 15 2013: Unique perception and utterly evident confusion.
  • Jan 15 2013: In looking at the sample via the Washington Post, I was struck by how so many of the older students focused their tales on dreams and breaking free of rules and boundaries, pushing for themselves to be accepted for who they are, whereas the younger ones are very straightforward, dealing with life (afraid of bears, wanting to go to college). Is this typical of book?
    • Jan 15 2013: That's a great observation. I think the younger kids, especially ones who haven't hit puberty, are in their own way more rational (that's not exactly the right word). But they're very much in the moment. Broadly (very) speaking older kids have more angst but also more dreams. And this is not only typical of this book but very consistent with what we see on SMITHmag and SMITHTeens, and what I hear when I do workshops or go into classrooms.

      And I did a project with AARP Magazine a few years ago and the memoirs from older folks tended to be really positive ("Sixty. Single. Rich. Call me collect") and full of life lessons ("When cookies are passed, take one" "Sign the card, eat the cake").
      • Jan 15 2013: I suspect that part of the beauty of being a young kid is that you live in the moment. To a certain degree i guess the seniors do to some degree as well. In between we spend maybe too much of our time thinking of the consequences that our choices today might bring...
  • Jan 15 2013: I learned something new every day.
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    Jan 15 2013: Can't compress life into six words.
  • Jan 15 2013: Find my place in the sun
  • Jan 15 2013: Suffering makes me human to pain
  • Jan 15 2013: "I'm not sure what's happening next."
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    Jan 15 2013: I'm walking an exciting, troubled journey.
  • Jan 15 2013: Do what feels right, don't follow
  • Jan 15 2013: Don't dismiss everything , think about it
  • Jan 15 2013: Daughter, mum, lover, teacher, carer, mourner
  • Jan 15 2013: Be kind. It's all we've got.
  • Jan 15 2013: creator of images,sees miracles daily
  • Jan 15 2013: Here's one this crowd will like:

    Yes, you can edit my biography.
    – Jimmy Wales
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    Jan 15 2013: I share this book with my students each year (6th grade gifted students) and have them do this for characters in the novels we read. Such a great creative exercise!
    • Jan 15 2013: Thanks, Holly. Six Words are really popular in classrooms, and having your students do six-word memoirs for characters is really interesting. Would you share a few?
  • Jan 15 2013: Life is change. Watch me transform.
  • Jan 15 2013: Always in the pursuit of Happiness
  • Jan 15 2013: My fears are also my dreams
  • Jan 15 2013: Ran in darkness - walking in light.
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    Jan 15 2013: Lust for Wander. Kind to Man.
  • Jan 15 2013: listening to know you - and me.
  • Jan 15 2013: God's love is the greatest gift!
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    Jan 15 2013: i love this idea! will use it with my students and my fellow organizers!

    My contribution

    Memory: knowledge stored; beautifully fades away!
  • Jan 15 2013: Tomorrow is gonna be much brighter! ^^
  • Jan 15 2013: Love is all that really matters.
  • Jan 15 2013: I have always loved the Beatles!
  • Jan 15 2013: Busy like bees. Creative like Jobs.
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    Jan 15 2013: I will try to do better! ....In 3 words!

    "Living constructively dissatisfied"

    This isnt a life memoir in 6 words though but a mindset rather.
    If ones life could be defined in 6 words..it shall take a novel to live it. Hemingways effort was great for an imaginative mind to say the least. But a memoir in 6 words is not "life" enough.
  • Jan 15 2013: Hello both, I do not really think so about my life, but it is the summary of the whole humanity: You live in a world where no one cares about you.

    Some people love you; they are the only one who do so. But you can't expect everyone to care. You do form social relations, but the most you care about is you!
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    Jan 15 2013: give, travel, laugh, learn, experience, love
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    Jan 15 2013: Don't panic, persevere and play guitar.
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    Jan 14 2013: Inspire, love, listen, strive for perfection!
  • Jan 14 2013: Too tough to analyze, simply living!
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    Jan 13 2013: Understanding leadership is performance not position
  • Jan 13 2013: I never give up.
  • Jan 13 2013: Improved life of at least one.
  • Jan 12 2013: My opportunity to see it all!
  • Jan 12 2013: I think, I feel, I choose.
  • Jan 12 2013: People innovations boost my present future
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    R H

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    Jan 12 2013: Think Be Work Love Golf Rest
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    Jan 11 2013: Do your best
  • Jan 11 2013: Too Busy Too Worried Enjoyment Limited
  • Jan 11 2013: Love and hope
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    Jan 11 2013: Stories involve more than six words.
    . . . . . . . .
    Maybe more than eight syllables.
    . . . . . . . .
    No great need to be four lines long.
    . . . . . . . .
    Count with your hands, it's easier

  • Jan 11 2013: Optimistic, caring, skeptical, adventurous, social, healthy
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    Jan 11 2013: To know God and enjoy Him.
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    Jan 11 2013: No I don't think I can
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    Jan 11 2013: if you can, it is shallow
  • Jan 11 2013: A person on the truly great Earth.

    Thank you for this question, it made my day!
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    Jan 11 2013: scary adventure that will never end.
  • Jan 15 2013: One Last Question:

    Are you going to do more TED Talks?

    Thanks again for all that inspiration!

    I can't reply anymore.. so I do it that way :P
    I think all the 6 word memoirs and the things you found out are a great topic for a TED Talk! :)
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    Jan 15 2013: Can't wait!!
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    Jan 15 2013: Great idea Larry! Hope you all get to meet again on Smithmag.net!
  • Jan 15 2013: Passions, Search, Emotions, Talent, Hope, Future.
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    Jan 15 2013: Our time is sadly ending soon. Is that six?

    Any other questions for Larry out there?

    I have one before we part (ha! six!)

    What's next for you Larry Smith? (six!)

    Thanks for joining everyone!
    • Jan 15 2013: What's next?
      Six-Word App.
    • Jan 15 2013: And indeed a lot of conversations in schools and live events in which six-word memoirs are the beginning of longer storytelling. Six-Word Memoirs can be amazing ways to express yourself in a succinct and meaningful way, but also, quite beautifully are often the start of longer storytelling and conversations.
  • Jan 15 2013: Quiet desperation in reflection without discourse
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    Jan 15 2013: Larry, based on the number of memoirs here, I would say there is something addictive about playing with this form. Why do you think it has that quality?
    • Jan 15 2013: For many people, six-word memoirs are very addictive. For starters, once you start writing them you usually want to write more. And then you want to share them, and of course ask your friends and family: "What's your six-word memoir?" Six words are a big hit at dinner parties and weddings. And, not to get too commercial here, but we made a board game that people like as well.
  • Jan 15 2013: A Spanish from a global world
  • Jan 15 2013: My six word phrase for today:

    Personal Development: How To Say Goodbye
  • Jan 15 2013: Opening windows by slamming the doors
    • Jan 15 2013: That reminds me of one of my all-time favorites, which comes from a teen: "The exits were entrances in disguise."
      • Jan 15 2013: That is so much more poetic than one door closes, another opens!
      • Jan 15 2013: I love that. I feel like my life is a bit more aggressive. I'm purposefully slamming doors and watching the reverberations shatter the windows. Feels good.
        • Jan 15 2013: I read somewhere, one door closes, another opens, but the hallway in between can be a bitch! Trying to boil it down to 6 words...
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    Jan 15 2013: Sure thing!
    Here's one a student wrote about Hamlet: King's ghost: first dominoe to fall.
    Here's one about Polonius: I have too much to say to (the joke was that Polonius, being such a talker, couldn't contain himself to 6 words).

    I find this to be incredibly fun while it also challenges the students to distill their knowledge about a topic or character down to its most basic parts. They LOVE this assignment (and I love your book!).
  • Jan 15 2013: I am the devil societies fight
  • Jan 15 2013: @Larry:

    Have you also tried to put the 6 words into other phrases like
    "Describe your personal strength and weakness." or "Describe the most awesome moment in your life." or "Dedicate 6 words to the person you love most."
    and asked that other people?

    If so, with which did you try it and what were the results?
    • Jan 15 2013: Yes, we've done many prompts, on the site and also in workshop settings, and most work really well. What helps is when you can give a well-defined prompt and also a few examples to get people going,

      (And as an aside I edited an anthology about life-changing moments, but the essays weren't answered in six words, they were up to 2,000 words) as that is a great question to ask anyone. It's called THE MOMENT.

      We have an ongoing project with To Write Love on Her Arms, a nonprofit that believes self-expression can help with pain and lead one toward hope. You can check it out here: http://www.smithmag.net/twloha
      • Jan 15 2013: But by giving examples, don't you influence the people?
        If I tell someone describe your life in 6 words, e.g. "This and that, so and so" I steer them into the direction of my example.
        Should this be avoided or is that ok?

        Thank you for your inspiration!
        • Jan 15 2013: I can see how that might happen, but I think more than that examples open things up for people, let them know "oh, there are lots of ways to use this form." One thing I have learned is that if you just give examples of the most insanely great sixes it can be intimidating for people (i.e. "I'll never be that smart, witty, nuanced...") so it is important not only to remind people that the form is easy and accessible (and fun!) but that there are no wrong answers. Your six words are yours and carry meaning.
  • Jan 15 2013: Looked easy, resulted complex. And conversely!
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    Jan 15 2013: That's really cool. The thing that has really struck me about this book is that it kinda makes you see that age doesn't matter. ..A 7 year old can be very wise and in a way seem wiser than some adults! Don't you think?
    • Jan 15 2013: For sure, and you really see how "the wisdom of babes" really can be true. At my first "talk" I was at my nephew's third-grade classroom and heard six-word brilliance such as:

      “Tried surfing on a calm day."
      "Life is better in soft pajamas."
      "Nine years stacked within my soul."

      This kids are eight and nine -- amazing, right?
      • Jan 15 2013: Piece of work ! These are amazing sentences. Open for interpretation. It shows how simple and yet how complex our existance and decisions in life are! Great project Larry!
  • Jan 15 2013: Laugh and sorrow,light and dark
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    Jan 15 2013: my family and my friends defines my life
  • Jan 15 2013: Why can't I handle it all?
  • Jan 15 2013: enlightened heart: Alone but still not lonely
  • Jan 15 2013: .......Life is good. I dig everything !
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    Jan 15 2013: Also, since so many people are posting their six-word memoirs, why dont you give everyone some tips on how to write a good one....
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    Jan 15 2013: Larry, tell us about some of the celebrity six-word memoirs that you've received?
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    Jan 15 2013: I am small, that is all.
  • Jan 15 2013: Original conspiracy theory, falsifying Icarus's fall.
  • Jan 15 2013: Come on give it a go!
  • Jan 15 2013: Original conspiracy theory, falsifying Icarus's fall.
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    Jan 15 2013: Larry, what are some of the reactions you've been getting to illustrated six-word memoirs?
    Most of your other books don't have a visual element.....Would you say it enhances the form?
    • Jan 15 2013: In the other books we sprinkle in a few illustrated Six-Word Memoirs, but we've never done a book that's all illustrated. The reaction has been great. People are blown away by how these students -- most between the ages of 7 and 21 -- are so deep, smart, funny, amazing -- "and looks what is possible it six words."

      And I think having visuals often enhances, yes, but more than that it really re-imagines the form. We're still talking about a short, meaningful piece of self-expression but now there's another way to do it (while still keeping it to six words).
      • Jan 15 2013: I like how the visuals take the six words even deeper.
  • Jan 15 2013: Yes, My Life, Is My Life...
  • Jan 15 2013: Live like Ali die like Hussain
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    Jan 15 2013: Once upon a time it was ...

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    Jan 15 2013: Life is my path to paradise !
  • Jan 15 2013: The trivial pursuit of happiness
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    Jan 15 2013: We're so happy that people are jumping in to show off their six word memoirs, but it would also be great for anyone out there to ask Larry questions about his project and newest TED Book, Things Don't Have to be Complicated. Check out the excerpt in the Washington Post linked above.
  • Jan 15 2013: I came, I saw, I conquered.
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    Jan 15 2013: Hello all, and welcome to this live Q&A with author Larry Smith

    Larry, thank you for joining us!

    Your book, Things Don't Have to be Complicated: Illustrated Six-Word Memoirs by Students Making Sense of the World, I hear, was an enormous under taking. To start off, I want to ask you to tell us a little about how you came up with the idea and how the process of creating the book happened?
    • Jan 15 2013: Thanks, Rachel.
    • Jan 15 2013: There’s a legend that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in only six words. He wrote: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” I was inspired by that. Others had played with the idea of the six-word story form before, but I and my storytelling community, SMITH Magazine, re-imagined it. The idea is as simple as it sounds: tell the story of your life in exactly six words. When you and TED Books asked me what sort of book I would like to do next the idea of doing an all-student book really appealed to me. And especially given that it would be an ebook having the works all be illustrated by each memoirist seemed like a wonderful new approach to the form.
  • Jan 15 2013: I was just reading the NYT Magazine profile of George Saunders on the subway today (I'm always a week behind) and in it Tobias Wolff says about Saunders: "He’s such a generous spirit, you’d be embarrassed to behave in a small way around him.”

    As I read that I thought about how a few years ago I cold-caled Saunders asking him to contribute my first Six-Word Memoir book. He graciously wrote:

    Started small,
    —George Saunders

    And later wrote this for a book of Six-Word Memoirs on love & heartbreak:

    "What once were two, are one.
    —George Saunders
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    Jan 15 2013: writing this on behalf of my significant other.

    Never Settle. Always ask for more.
  • Jan 15 2013: Always try to do better
  • Comment deleted

  • Jan 15 2013: how very american! take something that that is complex, in a state of constant change and flow, and force it into something too simple to convey anything accurate or meaning, ready to be consumed and misconstrued.

    i could have a go at defining this particular point in my life in 6 words:

    trying to make you all think more deeply?

    there see that's 8 and if i cut any out the meaning is different and it's worthless.
    • Jan 15 2013: think more deeply; write more concisely ;-)
    • Jan 15 2013: We can all think deeply Ben :)
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      Jan 15 2013: Well, we sure wouldn't want to post anything worthless.
  • Jan 13 2013: A life no one cares about.
    • Jan 14 2013: As humans I believe we connect on a spiritual level. I know my spirit refused to just let me read your post and move on without reaching out to you. I pray for you, that you find the caring you seek, but more importantly, that you find someone for whom you can care. Peace.
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      Jan 15 2013: Hi Parth,
      I am also saddened about how you see your life. I have found in times when I feel alone and that no one cares, that if I reach out and show someone care, it comes back to me threefold. I do this by volunteering and giving and through this I have met people who have come to care about me and who I care about. Sometimes we have to put ourselves out there, and if there is no one in our lives, then find ways to add people to your life. By posting to Ted, you have people from all over the world who are reading your posts, and care what you have to say.
    • Jan 15 2013: The question is, do YOU care?

      (yay! 6 words!)
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    Jan 12 2013: Keep my and humans' DNA alive.

    (For LIFE GOAL, see the 1st article, points 1-3, 14, at https://skydrive.live.com/?cid=D24D89AE8B1E2E0D&id=D24D89AE8B1E2E0D%21283&sc=documents)
  • Jan 11 2013: No.
  • Jan 11 2013: Self professed tyro, enjoy continuous learning
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    Gail .

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    Jan 11 2013: Really, really, really, really, really, interesting.
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    Jan 11 2013: hack anticipating that which never comes
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    Jan 11 2013: Ruler of the world, I want.