Your Back-Pocket Story

Because sometimes we all have to meet the moment.

Posted Jul 17, 2020

 Elliot Sloman/Unsplash
Source: Elliot Sloman/Unsplash

At a corner grocer in Brooklyn last month, a guy who had just come from a protest was cooling off in the store when a charged moment unfolded. A couple of NYPD police officers, also coming from the Black Lives Matter protest, walked in.

An NPR crew happened to be in the grocery store, making a radio show. They captured what happened next.

When one of the officers stepped up to the counter, the protester, “Josh,” fell back, as if the cop were radioactive.

The George Floyd killing was just one week old. The tension was heavy in the air. The reporter was trying to get a balanced picture by talking to both sides. The officer was frustrated. People like Josh, he said, hate cops until they need a cop. “The minute he’s robbed, he’s going to expect us to protect him,” the officer told the reporter.

Josh had something to say about that.

“I don’t call the cops—I’ve never called them," he said. "Everything can be handled within a community. Everything.”

“But can you see why he’d say that?” the reporter said.

“Yes, I can,” Josh said. “Because he’s been acculturated to a system that believes we will always need policing no matter what—even if it’s an artifact of the 18th century.”

Whoa. Not your usual soundbite.

The reporter paused for a moment. Then she said: “Are you saying a rehearsed speech?”

This wrong-footed Josh. He replied that he thinks about these issues every day; this is his life; he speaks from the heart. “No” was the implication. Because “yes” was clearly the wrong answer. It would have made him sound like he was robotically parroting the activist line. 

But here's a question: Why should Josh get docked for having a polished-up answer ready to go? What's wrong with a "rehearsed speech"? 

Josh had found himself in a position where he had 10 seconds to articulate his views. Why shouldn’t he have had his best shot "in his back pocket," ready to go?

It made me think of the time Betty Krawcyzk, a great grandmother from British Columbia, was arrested and charged for standing in front of logging equipment on Vancouver Island. She’d been trying to help save an old-growth forest.

The judge asked Krawcyzk if she had anything to say in her defense.

She did. 

“If a private person took the most valuable items out of a public holding and then trashed what was left behind, they would be thrown in jail,” she said. “And yet a lumber company is afforded all of the rights and privileges of a private person but with none of the responsibilities.”

***

I have a theory that life depends a lot on our readiness to meet a moment. (I can’t marshal a body of social science research to prove this—apart from data that feeling prepared helps reduce stress; maybe an ambitious Ph.D. student can take this on.)

We can’t anticipate every curveball that’s coming—as the last six months have made abundantly clear. All we know is that at some point, we will find ourselves on the spot—like Josh, like Betty. And what we say next, for the record, is really going to count. So it pays to prep. And, as with bear spray, we may only get one try.

A friend of mine, a retired political science professor, had a Bangladeshi student who was full of big ideas and restless ambition. One idea in particular, he felt, was so hot it might just bend the universe.

This student managed to finagle his way onto my friend’s annual class trip to the Mock UN in New York City. “I want to meet Ghali,” he announced. As in Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the secretary-general of the United Nations at the time. The student figured he’d run into Ghali in New York.

Impossibly, he did. The secretary-general was stepping into an elevator in the UN building. The student followed him in. He had 20 seconds. He gave his pitch. It involved a conference to bring together young entrepreneurs from around the world. By the time the elevator reached the lobby, Ghali was sold. He pledged a million dollars.

Many people have some "Big Idea" they’re quietly harboring. Maybe it’s the great Western novel, or an ingenious app, or a better mousetrap, or the TED talk the world needs to hear. What if you found yourself sitting on an airplane next to a wheezy billionaire looking for a good cause to support? Would you, right then and there, be able to pluck the heartstrings of your potential benefactor?

Or what if at a retirement lunch you were suddenly called on to give a toast to a beloved colleague?

Or if at a dinner party you mentioned you attend a place of worship, and someone asked you to sum up your belief system?

Here is the nitty-gritty of my theory of preparedness. I think everyone should have each of the following ready to go:

  • A back-pocket pitch
  • A back-pocket story
  • A back-pocket toast
  • A back-pocket blessing
  • A back-pocket credo
  • A back-pocket joke

Very likely, there will come a time—once lockdown is relaxed, and social situations become a thing again—when you’re going to need each one of these.

Maybe it’ll be to break the ice on a date.

Or to rescue a dying dinner party.

Or to help someone in crisis reframe their problem.

Or to rise to the occasion when someone really deserves to be honored.

Or, like Josh, to justify your position when a microphone is shoved in your face.

Even if you don’t deploy your back-pocket stories, just the practice of writing them out will clarify your values.

And that’s never a bad thing.