Ken Burns: A Master Filmmaker on Creative Process, the Long Game, and the Noumenal – The Tim Ferriss Show

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Key Takeaways

  • In a world of prefrontal cortex domination, don’t forget to listen to your heart
  • If you experience a wholehearted (or whole-body) yes, it’s definitely a project or piece of work you should be taking on
  • Celebrate and embrace the complicated
  • How to fight anxiety:
    • 1) Remember – all things will pass
    • 2) Get help from others
    • 3) Be kind to yourself
    • 4) Remember this quote from Thomas Jefferson – “How much pain has caused us the evils which have never happened”
  • Ken’s guiding philosophy – “There’s always the possibility… there’s always the certainty, that the opposite of what I believe in might also be true”


  • Ken Burns (@KenBurns) has been making documentary films for more than 40 years
    • Since the Academy Award nominated Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, Ken has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made, including The Civil War; Baseball; Jazz; The Statue of Liberty; Huey Long; Lewis & Clark; Frank Lloyd Wright; Mark Twain; Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson; The War; The National Parks: America’s Best Idea; The Roosevelts; Jackie Robinson; Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War; The Vietnam War; and The Mayo Clinic: Faith — Hope — Science.
    • His newest work is Country Music debuts on PBS on Sunday, September 15th, 2019, at 8 EST/7 CS

The 4 Mementos Ken Carries in His Pocket

  • Item #1 – A coin given to him by an ex-Marine who was, at the time, a headmaster at The Greenwood School (a school for boys with learning difficulties) in Putney, Vermont
    • As a tradition, after completing the complicated task of memorizing and recite a brief portion of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the boys are given a coin
      • “This is a difficult test for any one of us, but if you have these learning differences, it can be a nightmare”
      • Ken made a film about it – he says the kids “moved him to his core”
  • Item #2 – A “feeling heart”
    • It’s a stainless steel heart given to Ken by a woman in Upstate New York, sent to him after The Civil War series had ended
  • Item #3 – A “mini-ball” given to Ken by a friend
    • It’s a bullet that would have been used during the Civil War – Ken found it on Gettysburg
      • “I carry it as a reminder of the time when we came closest to our near national suicide”
  • Item #4 – A button which came from the U.S Army uniform jacket of one of Ken’s friend’s grandfathers
  • There’s another item which Ken can’t quite fit in his pocket that he keeps next to his desk at his home in New Hampshire
    • They’re “leg irons” he purchased at an auction – they were once used to keep other human beings in bondage

Why does Ken carry these mementos?

  • “You’re asking a question which requires an answer from the head and I’m not sure the head made the decision to keep them. I think the heart did and the heart doesn’t have a rational or easily articulated response.”

The Power of the Heart

  • “I’ve been very hyper-analytical my whole life and have neglected to pay attention to signals coming from the body” – Tim
    • Tim has specifically been on the lookout for the “whole-body yes” as of late
  • What does a whole-body yes feel like to Ken when considering whether to take on a new project?
    • Ken gives the example of his latest work – Country Music
    • When someone suggested he explore the genre, Ken says:
      • “It was like this huge whole-body explosion. I could feel it in my chest. I could feel it in my gut… My physical, and more importantly, my emotional reaction to the subject had completely obliterated the little blip of a mental construct that had worked it’s way into my brain as an idea.”
    • It’s not a total yes, it’s a wholehearted yes
      • “You physically commit to it, you mentally commit to it, and you emotionally commit to it”
    • It’s very similar to the feeling you get when you fall in love – you have to know you’ll be sad when the project ends after a long 8-10 years of working on it
    • It’s the feeling of being enthralled to take on the LONG, LONG list of problems you know you’ll encounter on the journey to the finish line

The Motivational Neon Sign Ken Hangs in His Editing Room

  • The sign says – “It’s complicated”
  • What’s the reason behind it?
    • “It’s the license to say, ‘Even if it’s perfect, even if it’s working, let’s open it up and add in that complicated, conflicting, contradictory fact. Sure, it might destabilize it, but let’s do it anyway.'”
    • In short – celebrate the complicated
    • Ken recalls a quote – “Liberty is never being too sure you’re right” – and adds:
      • “The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s not doubt, it’s just conviction. Faith requires doubt, it doesn’t require certainty.”

The Civil War

  • Ken estimates it reached about 40 million+ people
  • It was first broadcast ~29 years ago

Has Ken ever experienced significant self-doubt?

  • “I am a very, very anxious person. But, I no longer have too much time for anxiety because people that I love are anxious now as well and I have to give my attention to them.”
    • Ken says during his early days as a filmmaker, through the creation of The Civil War, were “agonizing”
  • On making The Civil War – “It was debilitating, crushing anxiety about whether or not it would work”
    • The big reason – many thought the series was far too long

The 3 Things Ken Tries to Instill When Helping Others with Anxiety

  • 1) Remember – all things will pass
    • “All things are transitory”
  • 2) Get help from others
  • 3) Be kind to yourself
    • How does Ken practice this himself?
      • “I can talk myself down from the first thing. I’m smart enough to surround myself with people that help with #2, but I’m a complete failure on #3.”
      • The fact is – this hard for MANY people
  • And remember this quote from Thomas Jefferson:
    • “How much pain has caused us the evils which have never happened”

Ken’s Guiding Philosophy

  • “There’s always the possibility… there’s always the certainty, that the opposite of what I believe in might also be true”

The Moment Ken Knew He Wanted to Be a Filmmaker

  • Ken’s mother died of cancer in 1963
  • He recalls seeing his father cry while watching Odd Man Out and knew at that moment he wanted to be a filmmaker
    • “I had seen the safe haven films had provided for him, a man I had never seen cry during my mother’s illness, not during her death, nor at her funeral.”

Hampshire College

  • Ken went to high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan and went on to attend Hampshire College to receive a B.A. in Film Study & Design
    • He described it as – “A tiny experimental college… which was a graduate school experience at an undergraduate level… You proceeded in such the fashion you would in grad school with an emphasis on classwork and more of an emphasis on independent study.”
    • At the time, Hampshire was the most expensive college on Earth – room, board, and tuition in the Fall of 1971 cost $4,730 ($30 more than Harvard)
  • The year after graduating, Ken started Florentine Films with two other Hampshire grads

Go, See, Do, Be

  • Ken recalls this advice from one of his mentors, Jerome Liebling 
    • Go – Get out into the world
    • See – Look around you
    • Do – Make something beautiful
    • Be – Take it in

On Loving What You Do

  • Tim notes that the mentors who have had the largest impact on him “certainly had no clear boundary between work hours and off-hours”
  • Ken adds – “That’s the same now for me, I don’t distinguish”
    • “I understand that on Sunday night the world gets a little unhappy and Friday afternoon is something that’s supposed to be good. I don’t have that.”
  • The cliche says – “If you love your work, you don’t work a day in your life”
    • Ken couldn’t agree more and adds – “The people I love are the people I work with”
      • Ken and his cinematographer have been working together for 46 years

The Emotional Competent of Every Film Ken Makes

  • With every film Ken makes, he aims to create a type of emotional archaeology associated with each story that glues the dry facts, events, and past together
    • Not emotions relating to nostalgia or sentimentality, but the higher emotions – that feeling you get from art, from a cup of tea, from love, from looking at a sunset…
      • It’s an indescribable feeling, on the level of 1+1 = 3 (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts)

The Art of Storytelling

  • The fact is – we all die
    • “This is an amazingly depressing thing if you choose to take it that way. We could be reasonably excused as sentient beings for lying in the fetal position sucking our thumbs waiting for the inevitable end… but we do not. We raise babies, we tend gardens, we build buildings, we paint paintings, we make films, and we’re in conversation with one another… We’re keeping the wolf from the door. The wolf is the apprehension of our own mortality. And that’s what storytelling is.”
  • Storytelling is all about editing human experience 
    • You take the facts and create an emotional component that humans can relate to 
  • “By sharing a story, like raising a baby, like tending a garden, like building a building, we ensure a kind of immortality”

Parting Thoughts from Two Greats

  • Ken recalls a quote from Merle Haggard – “It’s what we believe in but can’t see like dreams, songs, and souls”
  • And another from Leo Tolstoy – “Art is the transfer of emotion from one person to another”

Additional Notes

  • “We know we were born under the sign that all men are created equal, but the guy who wrote that section of the Declaration, our creed, owned more than 200 human beings when he wrote it.”
  • Tim recently saw Willie Nelson perform at Austin City Limits
  • Tim’s girlfriend said something which he’s been pondering as of late – “Every child is born into a different family”
    • As people change over time, the family changes
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