How to Write about Ideas

Join me in this live, two-hour class and discover the Five Things I’ve Learned about how to write about ideas – how to take complicated concepts and make them accessible; and how, in the process, to enlighten and entertain.

My name is James Surowiecki. I’m a journalist and an author, and I’d like to invite you to my new class, Five Things I’ve Learned About How to Write About Ideas.

I’ve been a writer for almost thirty years, and in that time I’ve written a lot of different kinds of stories for a lot of different kinds of publications. I’ve written short essays, op-eds, profiles, pieces of cultural criticism, long narrative essays, and so on. I’ve also written scripts for television and I’ve written documentary films. And pretty much all the various pieces I’ve written had one thing in common: at heart, they were about ideas.

That’s true, I think, of a lot of the best nonfiction writing. Journalism is often thought of as a matter of Who, What, When, and Where. But some of the most interesting and important writing does something different: its central focus is on Why and What Does It Mean? It looks at the deeper causes of human behavior, digs into the concepts that influence and shape us, uses insights from other disciplines to explain the seemingly simple, but actually complex, aspects of everyday life.

And so that’s what we’ll be focusing on in this two-hour class: how to write about ideas in an engaging and compelling way; how to take complicated concepts and make them accessible (without dumbing them down); how, as the saying goes, to both enlighten and entertain.

So we’ll take a big-picture look at what makes for good writing about ideas. And we’ll also go over concrete, practical advice on how you come up with interesting ideas, how to write strong openings and endings, and how to structure pieces so that the reader doesn’t lose the thread of your argument.

As part of this, we’ll also look at writers like Michael Lewis, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Joan Didion, and David Foster Wallace to see how they’re able to write about ideas in memorable ways, and how they use story, anecdote, and structure to bring the ideas they’re exploring to life.

My hope for the class is that it’ll make you more adept in the way you use and explore ideas. And it’ll help you figure out how to write more effectively about the ideas you’re interested in, whether you want to craft sharper social-media posts or write for magazines.

I hope you’ll join me!

-James Surowiecki

The Nature of Songs

Join me in this live, two-hour class and discover Five Things I’ve Learned about some of the essential elements that enable music to communicate, cohere, and endure.

Hi, I’m Robbie, and I’m a musician and a songwriter. Most of my songs are in the old-school country and bluegrass vein, but I also love jazz, blues, rock-and-roll, R&B, gospel, folk, and other American styles. I let anything and everything flow into my head when I’m making songs — all sorts of music and books and ideas and memories — which makes my stuff sound like me alone, I think and hope. But my voice and playing technique are definitely Appalachian-tinged, which delimits me usefully.

I’ve been playing shows since 1979 and touring and making records since 1989. I also write a little about music, and I occasionally teach camps and classes in songwriting and guitar playing, and I’m working on a book about the function of songs (aesthetically, socially, anthropologically, historically, biologically). All these somewhat disparate threads of thought and on-the-ground experience will feed into my “Five Things” class.

I want to think about the nature of songs with you. It’s a huge topic. What are songs “for,” if anything? Obviously the ones we like make us feel good, and they’re a way for people like me to make a living, but maybe there’s more going on than good vibes and profit motive. We all know about words as carriers of meaning and building blocks of ideas and stories, but what about the other two big song elements, tone and rhythm, why are those so appealing and powerful? When a song strikes us as a standout in its compositional grace, what are the characteristics at play?

There’s a temptation — I’ve certainly indulged it from time to time — to assert: “this [song/style] is better than that [song/style].” Over time I’ve become convinced that aesthetic opinions are unsupportable by proof or reason, and relatedly, that allegedly rock-solid principles of songwriting and composition are time-stamped vogues. That what we like is simply what we like, depending on where and when we’re born, what we’re exposed to early on, what was on the radio when we fell in love, etc. With that in mind, I’m going to try to avoid opinionating much during the session (slight exception in the premise of #5 below), because I don’t want to waste time spinning wheels. Also I’m hoping that people of widely varying tastes will feel welcome and get something out of the session. We’ll ecumenically explore the properties of songs that make them cohere, endure, and communicate emotionally. Of course my reference points will be the set of all the songs I’ve heard, which means more Lennon and McCartney than trap and drill, more Merle Haggard than madrigals.

It’s a fascinating subject! And I’d love to hear your feedback as we go. I’ll stick to the rule of five, but I’d like to wander pretty widely, between subjects one and five. This might make the session feel a little scattershot, thematically. But music’s all over the place! Songs are a slippery, multifarious subject.

Here are my five things:

— The grammar of pop songs. I learned the “Nashville number system” as a Music Row writer in the 1990s, and it improved my work instantly. We’ll leverage a simple do-re-mi scale to understand chords as musical building blocks with in-built relations. If you’ve been to Berklee, it’ll be useless; if you’re mathematically hard-to-reach, it might be challenging; for most of you, I think I can make it grok-able. And if you happen to be a guitar-based songwriter who doesn’t know this system, I promise this will be of great use.

— The social function of songs. This is something I haven’t exactly “learned” in a systematic or scholarly way, but am in process of learning about, and I’d like to share some of my findings and speculations. I’ll touch on songwriting in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, and medieval France; the Renaissance as a pivot in perspective; the invention of the phonograph and rise of the music industry as a revolution in song consumption and production.  

 — “The singer not the song.” A “song” is, among other things, a blueprint and a performance (in the flesh or on a recording). I’ll explain why I think performance is an actuality that trumps “composition” which is a potentiality and always subject to change.

— Storytelling in song, using “non-relatable” details. Think of the “warm smell of colitas” in Hotel California,something no one can relate to because it’s not even a thing; or, if you’ve heard Doug Kershaw’s Louisiana Man, the names of his family members that are included in the storyline. On the surface, it doesn’t stand to reason that popular songs can reference things that listeners can’t hope to get a handhold on. But there’s a lot about songs and stories that doesn’t “stand to reason.”These last 15 years, I’ve evolved from a detail-skeptic to an unabashed pointillist. I’ll talk about why.

— Good songs keep giving. And in any broad theorizing about music, we should keep concrete examples close to hand, to make sure we know what we’re yakking about and don’t stray off into the clouds. I’ll play and analyze a song whose construction I think is brilliant: “Still Crazy After All These Years” by Paul Simon.

Please join me!

-Robbie Fulks

The Heart of American Poetry

The Two Hollywoods

Join us in this live 90-minute class and discover the Five Things We’ve Learned about the people and values that shaped the movie business – and all we uncovered while compiling the comprehensive oral history of Hollywood.

There’s an old saying: Everyone has two businesses. Their own and the movie business. But how much do we really know about Hollywood? Or rather, about the two Hollywoods. The glory days of old Hollywood characterized by fun, flexibility, and familial good; and the Hollywood of today – a business shaped by agents, corporations, and global interests.

In writing our new book, Hollywood: The Oral History, we discovered that even though we call both periods “Hollywood,” they are distinct in nearly every way. We read transcripts of more than 3,000 American Film Institute seminars – candid, largely undiscovered sessions featuring some of the most important figures in movie history. And time and again we were delighted to discover that these figures championed and benefited from many of the American values and attitudes too often absent in the movie business today. We also found abundant evidence to contradict widely held contemporary beliefs about the way the business operated and key facts we’ve mistakenly come to take for granted about the figures such as the studio heads Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn, stars Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, and many, many others – personalities whose lives and work have been obfuscated by historical fantasy.

It’s this important story about the real American values that shaped the movie business that we want to share with you in our 90-minute class, Five Things We’ve Learned about the Two Hollywoods. We read thousands of never-before-published interviews with stars, directors, producers, designers, studio executives, and craftspeople. In the process, we gained unique, unprecedented insight into the real life of a workaday Hollywood that no longer exists. 

We’re excited to share with you all we learned about:

– How Hollywood’s founding studio heads, contrary to the popular misconception, were not tyrannical;

– How studio-era Hollywood, contrary to the popular misconception, represented women in front of and behind the camera;

– How the studio system, contrary to the popular misconception, represented values of family, fun and flexibility;

– How studio-era filmmakers, contrary to the popular misconception, enjoyed an uncommon degree of creativity and autonomy;

– Finally, why has the history of Hollywood been misconstrued for so long and why it’s essential that we get it right.

We’ll share these discoveries and more in our time together. This earlier era is a Hollywood to love, one that will make you marvel at the visionary talent, spirit of collaborations, forces of will and repeated innovation that created one of the world’s enduring fascinations: the American movie business. 

Please join us!

– Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson

Freedom, from Frederick Douglass

Join me in this live 90-minute class and discover the Five Things I’ve Learned about the meaning and value of freedom by studying the life and writing of Frederick Douglass.

My name is Nicholas Buccola and I am honored to invite you to join me for a class, Five Things I’ve Learned about Freedom, from Frederick Douglass.

As you may know, Douglass was born into slavery. From his earliest years, he recognized the wrongness of life without freedom and devoted himself to escaping from its terrors. After he was able to do so at the age of twenty, he devoted most of his next six decades to agitating on behalf of the freedom of all people. Douglass is primarily remembered, of course, as an abolitionist, but the abolition of slavery was but one of many causes to which he was committed. He also fought on behalf of women’s rights, the rights of immigrants, and the rights of religious minorities. He once said that his understanding of freedom contained within it “an encyclopedia of argument” with “manifold applications.”

I have spent a good part of the last two decades studying Douglass. What began as an essay I wrote for a graduate school seminar grew into my doctoral dissertation on Douglass, and then a first book about him. I have also served as the editor of a collection of his writings and speeches. Indeed, as I write this, I am gearing up for yet another trip across the country to share what I’ve learned about Douglass with several audiences. For about twenty years, I’ve thought about Douglass just about every day and I am excited share some of what I have learned with you. 

In this 90-minute class, I’ll share all I’ve learned about the ways in which Douglass’s life and work can help us today to gain a deeper understanding of what he can teach us about freedom. Among other things, we will consider what Douglass:

·      Can teach us about the ways in which our freedom depends on something within each of us

·      Can teach us about the ways in which our freedom depends on our connections to other people

·      Can teach us about the relationship between freedom and equality

·      Meant when he said each of us had the freedom to engage in “self-making”

·      Can teach us about the relationship between fairness and freedom

I hope you join me on a quest to discover some of the wisdom that Frederick Douglass has to offer. I believe that he is a quintessential American. His life and work have so much to teach us.

– Nick Buccola

How to Live in a City

Join me in this live 90-minute class and discover the Five Things I’ve Learned about how to make the most of city life – a practice that improves your well-being and the well-being of others around you.

My name is Thomas Dyja. I’m a writer, a Chicago native and a New York transplant, and the books I’m best known for—The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream and New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation—are histories of those two cities during dramatic, even iconic eras. I grew up in Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago, with the smell of the Stockyards still in the air, and then spent more than forty years in New York as it evolved from Fiscal Crisis to Luxury City. Both were cities in constant crisis, but they also both managed to be, in some very important ways, triumphant.

Not many people are talking about triumph these days, though, when it comes to any city. Instead we’re asking fundamental questions about them, not just because of Covid, but because of climate change and inequality, with some pundits and politicians even asking whether cities themselves are somehow….over, which is, of course, nothing new. Go all the way back to Ur and you’ll find that cities have always been used to scare people. They’re thought to be dirty and dangerous; greedy, sinful, and lonely. They’re places to escape, survive, or— if you’re strong and ruthless enough — conquer at the expense of everyone else fighting for their own spot in the line for the next overpriced apartment or trendy donut.

Well, after a life lived in cities, I heartily disagree. And that’s why I hope you’ll join me for Five Things I’ve Learned About How to Live in a City. Cities do need to change. But as we talk about what we want our cities to be in the years ahead, we need to see that while business and government build the buildings and lay the highways, it’s People who make the city. Though my books have shown how Chicagoans and New Yorkers created the cultures and communities that define those places, it’s true of Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, London, Paris, and Lagos too. The buzz, the friction, the exchange comes from us. Cities are the product of our connections to each other, how we the people exist in our cities not just as demographics, but in how we live with each other.

During my 90-minute class, I’ll offer strategies for an engaged, even enlightened, kind of urban life that involves more than just finding a job and a place to live. I’ll show how to use the structures and energies of cities to improve your own well-being, and in the doing, make your city a better place for everyone. We won’t be discussing policy points; we’ll be looking at living in a city as a kind of practice. I’ll share insights for new arrivals – from the need to learn local history and exchange knowledge with humility, to creating your own networks. More importantly, though, I want to reawaken long-time residents to the potential of their surroundings. Some of it’s as simple as celebrating with others and walking more, but we’ll also talk about the deeper, tougher realities of urban life. How friction creates meaning, for example, and how to invest in your community without embracing fear and exclusion. How power starts with small things and why gardens—both real and figurative—matter.

For our cities to work, we need to stop waiting for the Powers That Be to do the right things. We have to consciously make them work, ourselves. Not only can we live in cities in ways that are active, generative, and democratic, but given estimates that almost 90% of the world’s population will live in one by 2050, frankly we must.

I very much hope you’ll join me.

– Thomas Dyja

The Power that Comes from Connecting Generations

Join me in this 90-minute class and discover Five Things I’ve Learned about the great things that happen when generations come together.

My name is Marc Freedman. I am the founder and co-CEO of, an organization that elevates innovators and ideas that bring generations together. I founded Encore because I believe that the best way for older adults to find fulfillment and happiness is to connect with the next generation. Working together forges a legacy of love that lives beyond us.

This call to action brings both my personal and professional life full circle. I started out working with an organization that helped kids in growing up in poverty. I co-founded Experience Corps (now managed by AARP) to mobilize people over 50 to improve the school performance and prospects of low-income elementary school students in 22 U.S. cities. I’ve always seen older adults as an untapped resource. And I’ve seen the power of mentorship. (I even wrote a book about it). I originated the encore career idea linking second – or even third – acts to the greater good. Now, every day, I see people come together in ways that reverse the false narrative that pits the generations against each other. 

My own first-hand experience with mentorship began at Swarthmore College when a dean helped me navigate the shoals of academia, something I was ill-prepared for. Another mentor, John Gardner, the Secretary of Health and Human Services under LBJ, helped me launch Experience Corps. John was 85 at the time. Now that I am a parent of three teens, I relish the relationships they have forged with older neighbors whose grandchildren live hours away. All of us thrive because of it.

One thing I know for certain: We are what survives us.

I hope you will join me for my 90-minute class, Five Things I’ve Learned about the Power that Comes from Connecting Generations. I’ll share the foundations upon which I’ve built my own life and, most recently, I’ll also share what I believe are the personal and social consequences of some remarkably simple facts that have deep consequences for us all:

  • America today is the most age diverse society in history.
  • The real fountain of youth is the fountain with youth.
  • Age apartheid won’t get us where we need to go.
  • We need to be as creative bringing people together across age–as we’ve been at splitting them apart.
  • It’s time for a movement of ‘modern elders’ and ‘old souls.’

I’m very much looking forward to what I think will be an inspiring and rewarding session. I hope you’ll join Kris Rebillot and me. We’re both looking forward to it!

– Marc Freedman


Join me in this live 90-minute class and discover the Five Things I’ve Learned about agism – and about cheering up, pushing back, and living the life you want to live.

I’m Ashton Applewhite, an author and activist. I’m working to help catalyze a movement to make ageism—discrimination and stereotyping on the basis of age—as unacceptable as any other prejudice. I’ve written a book called This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, and gotten a standing ovation on the TED mainstage. Most importantly, I’ve learned that – because we live in such an ageist world – our fears about growing older are way out of proportion to reality.

I hope that you’ll join me for my upcoming 90-minute class, Five Things I’ve Learned about Fighting Ageism, where I’ll share all that I’ve found most helpful when confronted with the ageist stereotypes that – left unchecked – frame two thirds of our lives as an inevitable decline.

I’ll tell you how I’ve discovered that:

  • The first, hardest, and most necessary step in confronting ageism is to examine our own attitudes. Unless we challenge the stereotypes that we’ve grown up with, we feel shame and embarrassment instead of taking pride in the accomplishment of aging.  
  • By blinding us to the benefits of aging and heightening our fears, ageism makes growing older far harder than it has to be. It damages our sense of self, segregates us, diminishes our prospects, and shortens our lives.
  • Ageism feeds on denial and our reluctance to acknowledge that we’re going to get old. In fact, aging isn’t something sad or boring that old people do. We begin aging the minute we’re born.
  • All prejudice relies on “othering”—seeing a group of people as “other” than us—other color, other nationality, other religion. The strange thing about ageism? That “other” is us. Ageism is prejudice against our own future selves.
  • Older people can be the most ageist of all, because we’ve had a lifetime of absorbing these messages without ever thinking to question them.

I’ll also share with you what I’ve found to the biggest, most essential antidotes for challenging agism in our own lives:

  • Awareness: Recognizing our own prejudices helps us to see that “personal problems”— not being able to get a job or being belittled or feeling patronized, for example—are actually widely shared social problems that require collective action.
  • Integration: Making the effort to connect with people of all ages helps us to take steps to build equitable society for all ages – one that genuinely benefits from intergenerational collaboration.
  • Activism: Watching for ageist behaviors and attitudes, challenging them, and create language and models that support every stage of life, can make immediate differences for us and for others around us.

We have a lot to talk about!  Please join me in conversation with Kris Rebillot. We’ll take your questions and I’ll share how I’ve taken steps to cheer up and push back to live the life I want to live. And, I’ll share how you can, too.

See you soon!

– Ashton

The New Science of Longevity

Join me in this live 90-minute class and discover the Five Things I’ve Learned about the scientific hacks that can improve your health, increase your life span, and make it possible for you to Age Later now.

I’m Dr. Nir Barzilai. I’ve made it my life’s work to tackle the challenges of aging and to delay or prevent the onset of all age-related diseases. I’m especially focused on the “ big four”:  diabetes, cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. I hope that you’ll join me in my upcoming live class, Five Things I’ve Learned about the New Science of Longevity. I want to share with you the most important things I’ve learned about aging. Most importantly: Aging is not a certainty, but a phenomenon – one that can be targeted, improved, and even cured.  

My interest in aging was sparked by youthful interactions with my beloved grandfather, when I realized that I will probably one day look like him. Our change with time became my biggest, most lasting, mystery of life. Later, my wife’s grandmother Frieda – a Polish immigrant whose late-life vitality was in stark contrast with people twenty years younger – spurred my focus on the biology of longevity. She lived to be 102. Was there some biological “secret sauce” that kept Frieda wearing high heels well into her 90’s?  

My book, Age Later, shares my own research and that of my colleagues to demonstrate the science behind our confidence that we can ‘hack’ aging. As I’ll explain in our time together, there are already many innovative treatments and approaches being developed to help us “stop the clock” of aging.

What have I learned that makes me so optimistic?

  • Our lifespans will continue to increase. Today, most people die in their 80’s (after suffering from an average of three diseases) but the maximum lifespan is likely around 115 years. For most of us, this means we have 35 extra years we can start realizing now! 
  • Aging, as we know it, is over. Current innovations will allow people to stay healthy for an additional ten to twenty years. The most common side effect will be living to 100 or beyond.
  • Exercise is essential. Hands down, the most important intervention we have for aging is exercise. Eating less and partially fasting may also lead to more healthy years.
  • Genes do matter, especially for centenarians who don’t have “perfect” genomes. Many eat whatever they want and don’t exercise.  ‘Longevity genes’ slow their aging and keep them healthy.
  • Our DNA blueprint to be young isn’t harmed or diminished by age. Put another way, the ability to reverse aging is already contained, right within the human body.

During our time together, I’ll detail these discoveries. I’ll share with you, too, some of my most rewarding work, which has involved so-called “SuperAgers” ­– centenarians who remained remarkably healthy well past their tenth decade, even though some had endured extreme hardships earlier in their lives. (Many were Ashkenazi Jews who either fled Europe or endured the horrors of Nazi concentration camps). It turns out that SuperAgers have genetic benefits that elude most of us. Fortunately, technology has allowed us to identify some of the genes and the resulting molecular pathways that bestow long life to this lucky cohort (and, we’ve discovered, to their offspring). I’m now developing drugs and nutraceuticals that mimic those benefits for rest of us.

I’ll also detail the focus of much of my current effort: metformin. This well-known FDA-approved drug has been safely used to treat diabetes for more than 60 years. Metformin targets all the hallmarks that impact aging. Its effects demonstrate that aging can be targeted and that it’s possible to accelerate our abilities to age later. The FDA has given us the go-ahead to test metformin in a clinical trial. If the trial proves successful, it will pave the way for even better, more effective drugs.

Please join Kris Rebillot and me for what I’m sure will be an exciting class. We’ll take your questions and share the personal habits scientists now know give us the best shot at being healthy as long as possible. I look forward to talking with you.

– Dr. Nir Barzilai

Connection & Purpose, the Keys to Living the Life You Desire

Join health psychologist, researcher, and author, Dr. Kristine Klussman for a 90-minute conversation & Q&A discussing how deep, authentic connection to ourselves and others is the cornerstone of a grounded, fulfilled life, and purpose driven life. In this conversation we define connection, how to develop it with yourself and others and how to use it to identify purpose and meaning in your life.

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