8 powerful life lessons from 92-year-old TV legend Norman Lear

Norman lear
Norman Lear. Angela Weiss/Getty

It’s hard to overstate Norman Lear’s impact on the world of television.

He’s the creator of shows like “All in the Family,” “Good Times,” and “The Jeffersons,” programs that not only brought in 120 million viewers a week, but challenged Americans’ views on topics like racism, poverty, and abortion.

He worked with comedy icons like Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks and influenced generations of television writers, including “South Park” co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

He’s one of the first group of inductees to the Television Hall of Fame and has four Emmys and a Peabody Award, among many other honours.

Lear’s outspoken, controversial views earned him a spot on President Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List” and decades later the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton.

Today, Lear is 92 years old and as sharp as ever. He recently published his memoir, “Even This I Get to Experience,” a brutally honest yet funny and sentimental look back on his life.

Business Insider spoke with Lear to discuss some of the most important lessons he’s learned.

Appreciate the absurdity of it all.

Lear called his maternal grandmother Bubbe, and he considers her the first person in his life to truly express her love to him. A favourite saying of hers was “Go know,” which in Yiddish is geh vays, and is akin to the English phrase “Go figure.”

But when his Bubbe said it to him, she didn’t mean it as a put-down, but rather a means of “expressing her gratitude for the bounty of the universe, for yet another gift she could not have imagined,” Lear writes.

Whether she was responding with “go know” to the news that the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series (she didn’t follow baseball) or that Lear’s career had taken off, she was expressing her belief that she wasn’t going to understand it all, but that was perfectly fine.

All in the family norman lear
Norman, center, celebrates the 1978 Emmy wins for ‘All in the Family’ with, clockwise from right, Mort Lachman, Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton, and Rob Reiner. AP Photo

“As life has teased and surprised me over the years, I have taken my grandmother’s ‘go know’ with me everywhere,” Lear writes. “When I’ve been recognised in restaurants and at airline counters, I have often thought, ‘Go know.'”

You can sink or you can swim.

When Lear was 9 years old, he saw his father arrested and brought to jail for selling fake government bonds.

His mother sent him to live with her brother and then her parents in New Haven, Connecticut, while she lived with his sister in Hartford. He remained there for the three years his dad was in prison and says he barely saw his mum and sister.

Lear says that being confronted with this situation forced him to adopt a level of independence well beyond his years.

He’s reminded of a pulp action story he read as a boy with a title that, despite being a cliché, really connected with him during this time. It was called “Sink or Swim.”

“And that was my option: sink or swim,” he says. “I was going to swim. I wasn’t going to sink.”

Lear says that this difficult period shaped his worldview for the rest of his life.

Recognise that you have influence over people’s lives.

Lear’s celebrity helped him appreciate the power that everyone has over the people they interact with, and it has nothing to do with fame. Lear shares a story that illustrates the point.

In 1969 in Greenfield, Iowa, he filmed “Cold Turkey,” a comedy he considers among his best work. He returned to the town for its 30th anniversary with a few of its stars, including Dick Van Dyke, and he met a woman who had a bit part in the film when she was 6 years old. She told him how important his selection of her for the part was to her, and he found it sweet.

Lear visited Greenfield once again last year in his book tour and again encountered the woman, now 51, who mentioned her bit part. Lear explains:

She’s standing with me, and there are tears in her eyes as she starts to say, “You know, I told you years ago what that meant to me, your picking me out of all those other kids to do this. You heard me and you were kind, but you didn’t get it. And I read your book, and I’m going to tell you now and you’re going to get it.” I couldn’t get over it. I had no idea what she was going to say.

She said, “Your father was away… you were with your family who paid no attention to you… You had a grey and blue sweatshirt and when you put that on in the late afternoon or early evening, you felt the comfort and the warmth. You felt taller and you felt thinner and you felt better looking… and you felt like you belonged. What that sweatshirt meant to you is what your selecting me to do the film meant to me.” And I got it. I got it.

When Lear was making the film, his casting of a little girl for a montage was a relatively minor decision he didn’t dwell on. But it changed that girl’s life in a profound way. His chat with her 45 years later proved to him that even our smallest actions — what we say to a stranger in an elevator or the cashier at a café — have an effect on people, and that we should therefore be mindful of our influence.

“The Jeffersons” was a spin-off of “All in the Family.” Lear was inspired to focus a show around a black family’s rise in society after some members of the Black Panthers told him they were angry that shows like Lear’s “Good Times” were propagating a stereotype of African-Americans relegated solely to poverty. Here are the opening credits to the first season of “The Jeffersons”:

You can’t predict how things will turn out.

Lear wasn’t the type who envisioned himself as a star. After serving in World War II, he was inspired by his uncle Jack to become a publicist, so that he could work in the entertainment industry he loved without becoming a celebrity himself.

When asked when he realised he wanted to be a television writer, he replies plainly, “I was a young guy with a family, and I wanted to make a living. That’s what it was all about at the beginning — just making a living.”

“It was the dawn of television,” he says. After a single writing credit he and his partners officially became television comedy writers, “and suddenly we were wanted in all directions.”

Be true to yourself.

Lear is remembered for making black sitcoms part of American life in the 1970s with “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons,” and “Good Times,” as well as using these and other shows as vehicles for edgy comedy on topics like sexuality and crime. But Lear scoffs at the idea that he was trying to push boundaries. He was just writing what he knew, and people responded to it.

“I saw the comedy in life and the foolishness of the human condition, and I was just dealing with what I saw around me,” he says. “I wasn’t making up anything to break a barrier. What I saw around this culture were the race problems and economic problems and health problems, and so forth.”

He adds that the interpersonal issues he gave his characters came from his own life — Archie Bunker is a cartoon version of his dad, for example. “I dealt with that because it’s what I knew.”

And when President Richard Nixon publicly criticised what he perceived as culture-damaging vulgarity in Lear’s programs, Lear took it as “a badge of honour.”

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President Bill Clinton awards Lear with the National Medal of the Arts alongside First Lady Hillary Clinton in 1999. Reuters

It’s worth putting in effort to balance family with work.

As Lear considers his first two marriages and how he raised his children during the height of his fame, he sees himself as a “dissociated father.” Between his sitcoms and his wife and kids, he had “five families on the air and one on Mooncrest Drive” in Los Angeles.

“On Mooncrest Drive they woke up, they got dressed themselves, I helped them with breakfast, and they went off to school,” he says. He says that unfortunately, he was concentrated on his work, not his family — and he doesn’t see it as a necessary sacrifice.

“Had I known more at the time, and had I been able to stand off and view it — had I not been dissociated, as I put it — I would have given less time to the shows, and they would have been just fine,” he says. And he would have been more present with his family, which he considers entirely different from just being there physically.

Live in the present.

This lesson is one Lear learned late in life but one he wishes he had known when he was younger. He considers achieving this state to be the highlight of his career, because it’s allowed him to be happy. It’s why he chose the book title “Even This I Get to Experience,” a phrase he says he had running through his head when he was in a rough patch financially.

He’s learned to savour everything he can from life’s ups and downs.

Norman lear
Lear next to a bust of himself at the 2014 premiere of the hip hop documentary ‘The Tanning of America.’ Jesse Grant/Getty

“Success is a moment by moment thing,” he says. “So you wake up in the morning, and before the kids go to school, you connect with them. They leave the house feeling they have connected with the parents, and you feel good about having connected with your kids… What we have to remember in such cases is to pat ourselves on the back figuratively for having had a great moment, and move onto the next moment.

“A successful day is a day in which you’re feeling good about yourself and your life.”

Never stop learning about who you are.

When asked how he’s managed to stay so sharp, Lear replies, “I haven’t stopped learning about myself and my life. I think the vertical journey into oneself never ends.”

He sees life as a simultaneous horizontal and vertical journey. Horizontal in the sense of learning more about the world, about others, and about a craft; vertical in the sense of learning more about who you really are.

Lear says that the vertical journey “might end at death — and we don’t even know that — but it’s the deeper and more satisfying journey than the horizontal one.” The latter “gets you more information about a lot of things, but the vertical one into oneself is the kicker.”

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