7 Word Biographies

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Paul Holdengräber, who interviews cultural icons through the New York Public Libraries, always asks his guests to provide a 7 word biography. He calls them biographical “haikus” or “tweets”.

Here are some wonderful examples he has elicited:

“Writer, artist, Zen Buddhist, death row survivor.” Damien Echols, author of Life After Death, about 18 years he spent on death row and his release.
“Mother, grandmothers, aunties: everyone cooked. I napped.” Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love.
• “Current work in progress: twins in utero.” Poet Tracy K. Smith.
“An ant that nibbles away at totalitarianism.” Liao Yiwu, Chinese poet sent to prison for a poem of protest.
“Jew, Trace, Fear, Death, Life, Honor, Love.” Daniel Lanzmann, author of Shoah, an oral history of the holocaust (translated from French “Juif, Trace, Peur, Mort, Vie, Honneur, Amour”).
“Unfinished, unprocessed, uncertain, unknown, unadorned, underarms, underpants, unfrozen, unfussy.” David Byrne, songwriter and lead singer of the Talking Heads, 10 words.
“Endlessly amused by people’s minds.” Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, 5 words.
“Imagined missing father; wrestled, wrote, fathered children.” Novelist John Irving.

John Irving was so inspired by 7 word biographies that he wrote some for others:

• Charles Dickens: “Had many kids; wrote about unhappy childhoods.”
• Herman Melville: “More than a postal worker; knew whales, too.”

The use of alliteration, nouns, adjectives, sentences, phrases, symbolic or concrete descriptors, or even the decision to “disobey” the 7-word guideline reveals glimpses of the authors’ way of thinking, frame of reference and values.  When we whittle ourselves down to 7 elements, they usually reflect a core sense of self and what matters most.

We recently ran a workshop on Positive Ethics for Therapists in which we explored fundamental values that we bring to our personal lives and our work.  We handed the participants a list of values and had them circle 5-10 that they resonated with most.  Connecting with core values aligns us with our sense of purpose and meaning in life, one of the most effective strategies for increasing happiness and wellbeing (See the work of Seligman, Wong, Baumeister).

Art Directive:  We suggest that you choose your top 5-10 values (click here to download the list) and draw a simple symbol for each of the values that you chose so that you have not just a verbal but also a visual vocabulary for those values.  Keep that list/drawing in your view (in your office, on your refrigerator) as a reminder of what is important to you.

And draft your own 7-word biography!

Here is Rebecca’s attempt:

“See beauty in others.  Soften suffering. Cats.”

And Gioia’s:

Artist, visionary, appreciator.  Passionate, compassionate.  Also, Mommy.”

Share yours in the “Comments” section below!

5 thoughts on “7 Word Biographies

  1. Janet

    Hi there, I love this exercise! I have tried it in many ways. I was first introduced to something similar as a finding your Ikigai and I was asked to do it in six words. I blogged about this here http://positivearttherapy.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/my-ikigai-what-gets-me-up-in-the-mornings/
    I have since represented my Ikigai in various formats; journal pages, mandalas and even a puzzle. Each time I work with it I am provided with new gifts. Thanks for the reminder to re-visit it in a new way.

    Kindest Janet

  2. Erika Hamlett

    I have been contemplating this exercise for days. This is what I have come up with for this moment in my life…

    “Persistent. A unique concoction. Believer in process.”

    1. Rebecca Wilkinson, ATR-BC Post author

      How poignant, Sharon. Thank you for sharing that. Sad, but beautiful.

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