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unPACKed podcast: The Ordinary IS Extraordinary

NY Times best-selling author & History channel TV Host Brad Meltzer explains that there is nothing ordinary about packaging or processing.

As a television host on the History Channel and a New York Times, best-selling author of dozens of fiction and non-fiction books, unPACKed with PMMI guest Brad Meltzer has crafted a career telling stories. He has learned that everyday interactions with people can and are often extraordinary and a noteworthy part of each person’s history. Packaging and processing include creating and ensuring the receipt of what most would consider everyday things. However, many of these items are impactful, letting people live their daily lives and allowing them to have hopes and dreams and achieve the things they never thought possible.

To subscribe, rate, review, and find more unPACKED podcast episodes, visit pmmi.org/podcast or find us on Apple podcasts, Spotify or iHeart Radio.

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Read the full transcript below


Sean Riley:

And with all the fancy introductions out of the way, we are pleased to welcome Brad Meltzer to the podcast. Welcome to the podcast, Brad.

Brad Meltzer:

Thank you for having me.

Sean Riley:

The pleasure is obviously all ours. Now, you have just come off the stage from speaking at the ELC, and I'm familiar with you and I'm sure most of the people there were familiar with you as an author. And I know that you've been involved in a bunch of other media projects, and I guess the question that I have to kind of lead with, because it's top of mind since I saw that we were going to be talking to you is, how did that evolve into you giving these inspirational type talks?

Brad Meltzer:

Yeah, no, I appreciate that. You're basically asking, "Why is anyone listening to you?" And the truth is I started obviously writing thrillers, and that's where people know my name from. Writing thrillers that President Clinton and president Bush have written me letters and said, "Hey, you want to come to the white house? We love your research." And to have at least one US president, I should say, saying that they love my research and to come to the white house is like, I thought, "Oh, that's all I need to do." And I would give talks at libraries and in things where you would see fiction writers, but what happened was is somewhere along the way I gave a Ted talk.

Sean Riley:

Ah.

Brad Meltzer:

And once I gave a Ted talk, people were like, "Oh, you're not just writing chapter 23 and telling me about what's happening in your book, but you actually have something to say about history, and our legacy and where we are, and what we leave behind." And the truth is, that's what really broke things open. And once people saw that talk, it kind of gave me a whole new kind of... And I think of it as just a different kind of story to tell, which was the most authentic story I could ever tell, which is my own story.

Sean Riley:

And that's kind of... When I was sort of setting you up there to, and asking that question, I was thinking that as you are obviously a storyteller at heart and like you said, it just kind of aligned with telling your own story. And I know one of your, I guess, kind of core beliefs is that ordinary people kind of are the people that are changing the world, "ordinary people." And it's kind of this belief that you have that kind of runs through all of your projects. Is that something you could speak to?

Brad Meltzer:

Yeah, no. Listen, I write thrillers that are fictional. I write non-fiction books for adults about George Washington and the secret plot to kill him at the start of the revolutionary war, and about the secret plot to kill Abraham Lincoln. I do shows on the History Channel with decoded and lost history. I do kids books that entertain. We have some like 5 million books that are in print now, entertaining millions of kids all across the country.

Brad Meltzer:

And they all seem like disparate things. They even write comic books, Superman and Batman and Spiderman. But the one thing they all have in common is my core belief. I believe ordinary people changed the world. I don't care where you went to school. I don't care how much money you make. That's nonsense to me. I believe in regular people and their ability to affect change in this world. And those are the things that, whether it's the thrillers, whether it's the kids' books, whether it's the TV shows, you will see throughout my work, and everything else is just picking genres, but the story stays the same.

Sean Riley:

Very interesting. So I guess, again, you just came off of speaking at PMMI's executive leadership conference, and we don't have that amount of time. So I was wondering if you would kind of give us the 30,000 foot view of what it is that you are providing the audience with these types of speeches and presentations.

Brad Meltzer:

Yeah. I start by telling my own story. And a few years ago I got to read my own obituary.

Sean Riley:

Oof.

Brad Meltzer:

And it's usually pretty hard to read your own obituary, right? It's hard to read when you're dead, but I got to read mine because a few years ago I worked to save the house where the character Superman was created. And everyone knows Superman, but I worked to save the house where Superman was created in Cleveland, Ohio. And when a report of the Wall Street Journal was asking me about it, he said to me, "Brad, this thing you did with the Superman house is going to be in your obituary."

Brad Meltzer:

And I was like, "Well, thanks for so clearly contemplating my death." But what it made me realize is, I started wondering what is going to be in my obituary? What are people going to say about me? And what do I leave behind? And I hired this report to write my obituary. And he wrote the obituary for me, but I was such a crazy narcissist at the moment, I just wanted to read my obituary. I didn't read the body of his email. I just read the attachment.

Brad Meltzer:

The body of the email said, "Hey, attached is your obituary, but I want you to know I got called on to another story, Brad, I couldn't finish it." So my obituary ended with these three words, "He was a," that's it. And I was like, "Wait, what was I? What was I good? Was I bad? Did I matter? Did I achieve greatness? What was I?" And I know that anyone listening right now, you're starting to think to yourself, what are you?

Brad Meltzer:

And that's what I talked about at the leadership conference is not, what's going to be in our obituary, because that's just depressing, but what's our legacy going to be? What do we leave behind that we don't realize we leave behind? And there are four types of legacy we all have. There's your family, there's your friends and your coworkers.

Brad Meltzer:

But we forget that we also have your third category is your community. And if you're really lucky, which everyone at PMMI is, is the impact you have on completing other strangers. And when you realize that, you realize the full potential of your power, and then you find out that what your full history really is, is far bigger than you ever contemplated.

Sean Riley:

That's very interesting. And I understand what you are saying, and I can see it, again, from a story teller's perspective, but how am I convincing myself as an ordinary person that what I'm doing is as meritus, as writing novels and meeting presidents and stuff like that?

Brad Meltzer:

See, that's the mistake. See, you think that the thing that the achievement is, is the big thing. So I'll tell you this. When I was in ninth grade, my high school, ninth grade English teacher, a woman named Sheila Spisher who changed my life with three words. She said to me, "You can write." And I was like, "Well, everyone can write." And she said, "No, no. You know what you're doing." She tried to put me in the honors class. I had some sort of conflict.

Brad Meltzer:

She said, "Here's what I'm going to do. You're going to sit in the corner for the entire year, ignore everything I do on the Blackboard, ignore every homework assignment I give." What she was really saying was you're going to do the honors work instead. And you're going to thank me later. And sure enough, a decade later I went back to her classroom. I knocked on the door with my first book, and she said, "Can I help you?" I said, "My name is Brad Meltzer. I wrote this book and it's for you."

Brad Meltzer:

And she started crying, and I said, "Why are you crying?" She goes, "I was going to retire this year because I didn't think I was having an impact anymore." And I said, "Are you kidding me? You have 30 students, we have one teacher." And that woman, this English teacher, in the middle of south Florida, is the most important person at that point in my young professional life, and had no idea of her legacy, no idea for impact on me. And that is the power we all have.

Brad Meltzer:

It's not about your achievement. Your achievement doesn't matter. Whatever your job title is and those great things you do, that's going to be in your obituary. But when you die, no one's going to remember it anymore. Your job title fades with you, your resume fades with you, your job title's gone. But those things you do for other people, those things...

Brad Meltzer:

When you go do a walk for a 5k for breast cancer or for muscular dystrophy or someone in your family's sick and you raise some money or bring some can goods to your church or your synagogue, there are hundreds of people who benefit from that choice. They will never know your name, you will never know their name, but you're forever part of each other's legacy too. So we all make the mistake of thinking of the achievements. The achievements are the first things that fade when you die. What your real history is how you make other people feel.

Sean Riley:

Very interesting. So from a manufacturing, packaging and processing world, we have concrete examples of how we, "change" the world. Using the pandemic as an example, we continued to work through that and provide the food and the medicine and stuff like that still needed to get out to people. But you are putting into perspective, I guess, a deeper meaning than that, or that's not enough.

Brad Meltzer:

Yeah, no, listen. I think, you're trying to find the achievement and the achievement to me is the every day. They gave me a list of all the things that your manufacturing, packaging people do. They said, "You touch everything from water to ceiling tiles and everything in between. And what you have to remember is there are entire communities that are built because of what your membership does. There are strangers out there..." I told my wife when I was talking about your organization, she said, "Who are you speaking to for this week?"

Brad Meltzer:

And I said, "I call them the Lego makers. It's like, they give everyone all the pieces of the Lego. And then everyone gets to build these incredible things." But without you, there's nothing to build with. And so you give us all these pieces, you help truly build communities. You truly build businesses. There are people whose lives are changed because you put something in their hands or gave them a safe place to be, or made sure that light fixture worked, or all the other things that you guys sell that came in the...

Brad Meltzer:

And you forget that is all impact. Just letting people live and achieve their everyday lives, allows them to have the hopes and dreams and achieve the things that they never thought. And you never think of yourself as being responsible for them, but if you did your job wrong or it wasn't done right, watch the results. And so you get to be part of that as well.

Sean Riley:

And it's fascinating when you say that. I'm immediately thinking, our industry and manufacturing in general kind of is facing a workforce crisis. There's not a lot of people going into it. As a career choice, everybody thinks you have to go to college, you have to get a four year degree. You have to do this, you have to do that. And these type of trade type jobs are going unfilled.

Sean Riley:

And it makes me think of this is... You are giving examples of ways that these people working in these plants, these manufacturing facilities, these packaging processing facilities are touching so many lives. And it is a great way to kind of sell that you are more than just a job in a career. You are changing things, you're changing the world or communities like you just said.

Brad Meltzer:

That's exactly right. And that's the whole point of my talk is to realize that we all think of history as this thing that's written by these amazing, wonderful people who have their names in bold. And that happened in the past, but history is not some old thing that happened in the past. History is this thing that is... All the things that haven't happened yet, that's history too. And all of us are right in our stories every day, but we don't think of ourselves as the hero of those stories.

Brad Meltzer:

And we have to realize that those things that make you feel good, your power is your ability to say to someone, "Good job. I like what you did there. You have a real knack for that." Those words are power. Ms. Spicher changed my life more than anything else, and she was a ninth grade English teacher. And you can use that power every day. And if you don't use it, time fades and your power fades with it. But what I say is think of that person. I told you about Ms. Spisher, my ninth grade English teacher. I want you to think of your Ms. Spisher.

Brad Meltzer:

I want you to think of the first person who told you were good at something. I want you to think of the first, whether it's a teacher or a mentor, the person who gave you your first real job. You've got them in your head? I want you to thank them. That's it. That's all I ask. When we're done here and you hang up on this podcast, and you put it away, go find them on Facebook, track them down, put their name into Google, find them and go say thank you. You won't believe what comes from it. That person who was a giant in your life, you will now be a giant to them.

Sean Riley:

Well, that's absolutely the perfect way to put a button on this. And thank you for allowing me to be the conduit to share this out there as my little gift to people. I really appreciate you taking some extra time to come on here with us, Brad. This was great. So thanks again for finding time to come on here and share your message.

Brad Meltzer:

Of course. Thanks so much.

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