Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

What objects would you share to tell your story?

OK, now limit yourself to five and see what emerges.

Recently while waiting out a long connecting flight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, I settled into the nonfiction section at Barbara’s Bookstore.

I think the book saw me before I saw it because as I was about to walk toward fiction, I heard a whisper, “Look here.” I turned back to “History — Current Events — Biography” one more time.

And there it was.

I came of age during the 1960’s “Space Race” — the Cold War battle between the United States and the Soviet Union to be the first to land astronauts on the Moon and return them safely to Earth.

The stakes could hardly have been higher. Whichever political and economic system “won” the race could claim technological bragging rights and space supremacy. In essence, what was it to be, world: Democracy or Communism? Freedom or totalitarianism?

As a teenager, I religiously followed every launch of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. And like millions of others around the world, I sat in front of a grainy, black and white image a half-century ago as astronaut Neil Armstrong descended the steps of the “Eagle” Lunar Module and announced, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

So, yes, I had to have the book.

Eliminate rather than dilute.

But as I slid my credit card into the machine, I realized it was equal parts nostalgia and extreme curiosity that drove my purchase.

In college, I was trained in the historical method.

My first job out of college was teaching high school U.S. history.

Then later, in a related career, I helped write U.S. history textbooks.

Putting the myriad pieces of a historical puzzle together to tell a cogent and engaging story was in my blood. “How,” I mused, “could the author adequately describe what is arguably the most complex endeavor ever undertaken in history in only 50 objects!?”

That said, innovation science tells us that too many options can water down our creative thinking. Constraints, somewhat counterintuitively, actually accelerate innovation because they force us to hone our thinking and make choices.

So, I settled in at 35,000 feet on the next leg of my journey, and was quickly engaged in the author’s selective and imaginative reveal. What emerged was a rich and dynamic canvas.

There were, of course, the fascinating discussions of technology and hardware:

  • The massive rockets engines that powered the Apollo astronauts out of Earth’s gravity and toward the Moon. Collectively the five engines of the first stage burned 30,000 pounds a fuel a second.
  • The advanced simulator that replicated almost every conceivable situation the astronauts might experience in space. Better to encounter “disaster” on the ground than, well, you know.
  • And of course, the “lunar rover” — a battery-powered, four-wheel vehicle that enabled the astronauts to travel great distances once on the Moon. Don’t leave home without it.

But the narrative also highlighted objects that were customarily less heralded, but nonetheless, critically important to understand the whole Apollo story.

  • The survival kit should the astronauts land a great distance away from recovery ships. Machete, rescue beacons, and water purification tablets will travel.
  • The white lab coat that one of the 400,000 engineers and scientists involved in the Apollo program wore, symbolic of the massive human undertaking. One can’t ignore that this was a huge Federally funded jobs program.
  • And, a tin cup that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group dedicated to combating inequality, used to collect money for the war against poverty. Understandably, many Americans felt that the huge expenditure behind Apollo could have been better spent elsewhere.

As I continued to read, I found the fifty objects to be so incredibly varied, they collectively served to underscore the enormous complexity of the times and the undertaking itself.

President John F. Kennedy alluded to this complexity when he challenged the nation to reach for the Moon. “We choose to go to the Moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

Making it personal.

I looked out the cabin window. Maybe it was watching the Earth slowly pass underneath the plane that began to spark the memories and questions.

When I was a young boy, I used one of my dad’s cigar boxes as my personal curio “cabinet.” Inside I stored wonderful artifacts — pieces of a childhood history that told notable parts of my story at that moment. A sampling:

Chicago Cub baseball cards and used ticket stubs to Wrigley Field. (Many years later and after many hours of therapy, I am a contented Boston Red Sox fan.)

An unusual marble or two.

A well-worn Matchbox tow truck.

Various toys culled from boxes of Cracker Jacks.

Green army men. (Yes, those green army men.)

A Swiss Army knife that I used for all sorts of things, including unintentionally cutting myself. I have the scar on one knee to prove it.

If the box had survived, it would have been my personal time capsule to open periodically later in life. I might have held the objects up to the light and smiled knowingly.

Closing the book for the moment, I wondered: What if I had that cigar box today? What artifacts would I symbolically place in there to tell my adult story?

Over the next few days, a number of ideas came into focus:

Feeling - To save copper for ammunition casings destined for the battlefields of World War II, the government minted pennies made of steel and zinc. My mother, a mere teenager when the U.S. entered the war in 1941, shared these with me when I was a teenager. It was my first experience feeling history — not just reading about it. This artifact led me to collect all manner of patriotic pins, posters, and ephemera created during what we now call the U.S. Home Front. And collectively those artifacts led to an appreciation of how we as a nation can pull together during times of adversity.

That said, our experience from 1941–1945 was not perfect. The nation experienced labor strikes, racial segregation in the military, and the internment of Japanese Americans — all serving to highlight the oft-repeated contradiction between our expressed values and some of our behaviors.

No sitting allowed

Exploring - A stool like this one stood in the corner of the large lecture hall where my high school World History teacher, Mr. Timothy Little, shared his passion for the past — not through a numbing recitation of names and dates, but rather through the themes that have cheered and dogged human behavior for centuries.

I can’t ever remember seeing him sit on the stool. His passion for the past as a beacon wouldn’t have allowed it. No, there he was, the sleeves of his rumpled white shirt rolled up, pounding a fist into an open palm to make a point, his voice rising and falling as he told a story. Why, I don’t think the man could even spell “monotone.” Not surprisingly, he is the only teacher I remember from high school by name.

Shifting - I loved math in high school. And I was good at it. Its formulas, rules and structure fit with my A-type personality. So why not major in it in college, I thought. Okay, maybe I had no idea what I would actually do with a degree in it; I just knew I liked working out problems that had a right answer.

Let’s see… Math or History?

But it was not to be. The classroom experience leading up to my first semester report card (at left) — where Mandarin Chinese would have been easier for me to understand than whatever math class I was enrolled in — inspired a quick visit the registrar’s office.

“Switching majors,” I pleaded.

“To what?” she asked, tapping an impatient pencil on the counter.

“Uh. . .,” I said looking at my the report card.

Maturing - One night long ago, I had the pleasure of having a drink with the eminent historian, David McCullough. I was meeting with him in my role as a publishing executive with a large textbook company in an attempt to secure him as an author on a proposed U.S. History book.

We met at what was billed as the oldest continually operating inn in the U.S., the Wayside Inn, located in Sudbury, Mass. (Yes, of Longfellow fame.) Sitting there in front of a crackling fire, I was asking him to author a U.S. History textbook that could significantly impact student learning across the country. How could he refuse, right?

“I can’t,” he offered, sipping his drink. Other commitments.

But nevertheless, I was rewarded by the ideas he shared on how to educate today’s youth—the kind of ideas you immediately know are right because they quicken your pulse.

“Give kids a photo, one without a caption,” he suggested. Have them research the photo using only the clues in the photograph. “Any number of history lessons will emerge organically.”


So I tried it. I had this photograph of a World War II bomber I’d saved because of my fascination with World War II aviation. There was no caption, but I knew the type of plane and the plane had a name: “Bomerang.”

Over the course of a year, I wrote letters upon letters, made an endless number of phone calls, visited veterans, and did my due diligence with various veteran groups. I devoured books about the air war over Europe, which were filled with the tragic stories of individual airmen—many in their late teens and early twenties. In the end, I uncovered the plane’s storied history and the stories of many of the men standing in front of it.

McCullough was right. The stories emerged organically. But so, too did a different side of me. I went from being enamored with the romance of aircraft in war and the white- silk-scarf wearing men who flew them to understanding about as much of the air war’s terror and horror as I could without being a veteran myself.

And I haven’t been able to read about the air war ever since. Once again, I felt history. And it started with a caption-less photograph.

Finding The word “Quetico” [KWHE-te-co] is a Native American term meaning “benevolent spirit that resides in a place of great beauty.” It’s a perfect description of the wilderness park by that name in southwestern Ontario, which I used to explore with my brother and some fellow social studies teachers during our summers away from the classroom.

Quetico became our place for restorative self-examination. The haunting song of the loon against the backdrop of the Northern Lights, the water lapping against the sides of our canoes, the hypnotic spirit of our evening campfire, and the wind rustling through the trees were all part of nature’s symphony.

Quetico was also a place of great personal challenge. Outboard motors are not allowed, so we were the power behind our canoes. Creature comforts were limited to what we could carry in on our backs.

Storms could come up on a moment’s notice, and many times all we could do was paddle hard until we reached the safety of a cove or an island.

Getting from one lake to the next often required us to portage for a mile or more over muddy and mosquito- and black fly-infested trails.

“Sounds like so much fun,” my wife once observed, dabbing at the cynicism at the corner of her mouth.

Well, not always, but Quetico had those twin rewards of reflection and challenge that I carried with me there and now for decades. They impacted me, so how could I not name my coaching company “Quetico” in the hope that my coaching might impact clients in a similar way?

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
— Henry David Thoreau.

Quetico Provincial Park

Finding those portages required a map. My well-worn friend saved me and our group more than once.

Most of the time, though, life doesn’t offer us a map. But it does offer us signposts if we’re open to them. We often miss them, though, because we’re so used to seeing with our eyes and not our heart.

They were there for me, and I saw them if only intuitively.

Many thanks to Susan Rooks, the Grammar Goddess, for her support. She saw the signs of her life early on.

I am a certified executive coach and principal at Quetico Leadership & Career Coaching. I partner with individuals to remove the obstacles that stand in their way of being truly engaged in their work and of achieving their desired results. We work too many hours not to be.

Check out “Getting Unstuck,” the podcast I co-host with my buddy Kirsten Richert at and now on iTunes



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