Here’s a definition of insanity for you: throwing in a good job, leaving behind a salary and travelling 10,000 miles across the globe to follow a hunch, a seed of an idea. Then driving around the United States, randomly turning up in bars to interview complete strangers and asking them deep personal questions about themselves. That’s what Ken did. Find out how he got on.
Ken was great fun to talk with. He’s taken some risks in life but his most recent one seems to be turning out well for him. Our podcasts have a lot in common; talking to people we’ve never spoken to before, hearing their stories, listening. They also have their differences; Ken’s is about 90 minutes per episode and encourages his guests to bear their souls. It’s a great show, check it out - The Jar.
Check out TheJar.live to listen to Ken's fantastic podcast.
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Thanks for listening!
[00:00:00] Steve: But with any luck you can do that without mentioning The Jar?
[00:00:03] Ken: Yeah, I can do that, because it, it wasn't about The Jar. The original decision was not about The Jar.
[00:00:08] Steve: Brilliant.
[00:00:09] Ken: So I can, we can leave that hanging. You want me to do a little Hello Ken Stearns thing?
[00:00:13] Steve: We don't do Hello. You can do a, "Hello" if you like.
[00:00:18] Ken: [00:00:20] [00:00:40] [00:01:00] I was born in Chicago, actually a suburb of Chicago called Wilmette, and really, you know, a fortunate kid. I grew up, my dad was an executive with a large printing company downtown. I had a super Disneyland life. Summertime, we played outside. I never saw my Mom from, you know, from [00:01:20] lunchtime until the dinner bell rang and you'd go in, you'd eat something, you'd go right back outside until the streetlights came on. And then the wintertime, of course is the wintertime in Chicago, crazy cold and dark and dreary.
[00:01:30] Steve: This is Ken Stearns. He's very engaging , the kind of guy you would definitely want to invite to a party. [00:01:40] Ken came up with a great idea for a podcast. So I thought I'd share it with you and a bit of his journey along the way. So picking up the story, after he graduated from university, he ended up leaving Chicago and heading for California.
[00:01:58] Ken: (MUSIC) [00:02:00] Long Beach where I settled is a great little beach town. So it's got a harbor, it's got a beach. It's close to L.A., it's close to San Diego. It's a real city. I know it's got a real vibe to it and... just a lovely place where I spent 18 years of my life. Fantastic. That's where I met my wife, got married, [00:02:20] and I became an insurance geek.
[00:02:22] Ken: Right, I had this very vertical piece of knowledge, of sales skills that I had picked up on a particular vertical in a market, if you will. And that opened up a door for me to apply for a job in Asia.
[00:02:33] Ken: I couldn't have found Philippines or Hong Kong or Taiwan on a map at that point in my life. I was a really, a [00:02:40] true American, not even sure I had a passport, honestly. So there I was applying for a job in Hong Kong and... I ended up boom, made this crazy decision with my wife at the time, to quit everything, put everything in storage, and to go to Asia for a few years. You know, there I was 12 [00:03:00] years later and then 20 years later, and you know, this, my kids spent a lot of time there. I finished my marriage there, I was at that point of the career in Asia where I didn't really have many options left. It was either stay in Asia, or somehow exit. I had kids in the US, grandkids in the US, it was time [00:03:20] to come home.
[00:03:20] Steve: To do this, Ken needed an exit strategy. Trouble is that wasn't quite so easy. His chosen strategy was to do something, to do anything, and then rely on unintended consequences to fire up the next stages of his [00:03:40] life.
[00:03:40] Ken: And before I knew it, I bought a red guitar and it consumed my life. And the people I met as a result of getting into music, led me down another road.
[00:03:52] Steve: (MUSIC) Well, the red guitar led to guitar lessons, and one of those unintended consequences [00:04:00] was meeting a special guitar teacher, Alonzo Passion.
[00:04:05] Ken: And Alonzo is a Filipino living in Thailand. We hit it off like brothers and he became this mentor and inspiring person who just really helped kind of squeeze out my creativity. And he ended up motivating me to [00:04:20] pick up a book that I had started writing years before, " Letters to God", you know, asking God questions about heavy things about, you know, life, about... love, acceptance, forgiveness, compassion. When that started to take shape, there was somehow was that idea of travelling the US. And... I had that in the back of my mind, [00:04:40] you know, as a retirement idea to kind of go around the US and kind of get reacclimated and somewhere in there, the podcasting idea came up.
[00:04:46] Steve: Right. Ken's exit strategy, a podcast. No business plan, just an idea.
[00:04:55] Ken: it was a pretty crazy moment for me. You know, imagine living in [00:05:00] Asia for 20 years. You pack up a bunch of stuff in a... big box and they take it away and store it. And you know, here I am with... two guitars, about four suitcases, a couple of boxes. I'm in Ho Chi Min Vietnam, and I'm getting on a plane and I'm coming home, I'm leaving a salary, I'm leaving a good job. I have no idea how I'm gonna make money. I got no [00:05:20] idea what it's gonna look like.
[00:05:21] Steve: What Ken did know is that it would be a podcast and it involved travelling. And to travel, you needed a van.
[00:05:30] Ken: I got handed the keys to this jagnormous, expensive van and I'm standing in this parking lot. The [00:05:40] sales guy walks away and I'm just going, fuck, there's no going back now. You know? And so there I was with the van and, it takes a village to raise an idiot and I got some good friends. And, you know, before I knew it I had logo on the van, I was driving the van up north and I parked for about a month... with my daughter in Portland [00:06:00] to get everything together.
[00:06:01] Steve: And it was during that time that the concept of the podcast took shape. So what is it?
[00:06:07] Ken: I create and host a podcast called The Jar or The Jar Live. And essentially what it is, it's a collection of questions about human thinking, human attitudes, human [00:06:20] beliefs. I created these and I put 444 of them in a jar. So there it is. It's in this big beautiful glass jar. And it's, you know, it's an intimidating piece of equipment.
[00:06:30] Steve: As jars go, it's certainly intimidating; A large individually sculptured piece of glass. Before we went [00:06:40] any further, I wanted to know a little bit more about those questions.
[00:06:44] Ken: I came up with the idea that the question should come from the book. And so I sat down and I went letter by letter and thought, "Where, is there a question? Where can I pull from this and ask a question?"
[00:06:56] Ken: I don't remember the actual words. So when these questions come out [00:07:00] and I'm looking at 'em, they are powerful questions. And I'm looking, I'm like, dang, who wrote that?
[00:07:05] Ken: People pull the first question and they're like, I call it 'instaregret', right? They instantly regret their decision to sit down with me. They realize, holy cow, it's an hour and a half of this. It can be quite discerning for a guest when it's [00:07:20] deep, deep questions. They have to instantly get into vulnerability... touch back into their life and their life experiences to kind of, to answer the questions.
[00:07:28] Steve: So just to be clear. Ken's idea was to drive around the States interviewing strangers, sometimes arranged, but often [00:07:40] just showing up in a bar and asking them deep personal questions about themselves. Did he have any clue that he wouldn't get assaulted and that anyone would actually answer these questions with a complete stranger?
[00:07:54] Ken: I did do one test. And a guy that helped me with the van, a young kid, I met [00:08:00] him in this, in his coffee shop, and I'm sweaty, I'm carrying this big jar with all these questions, this equipment I'm running across this, you know, halfway across Portland parking lots and stuff to get to this coffee shop. I was late. I don't know the sound quality. I couldn't get the buzz out of the microphones. And I just felt a little overwhelmed at that moment.
[00:08:18] Ken: And I did this test[00:08:20] and it was more than I could handle emotionally. His story was just too ripped, too painful.
[00:08:27] Ken: I I knew something was wrong with his answers, you know, he wasn't being truthful. And eventually the question was there and he like, he's like, I can't believe I'm gonna say this". He was molested as a young boy by his uncle.[00:08:40] And you know, he's said it and it and I'm like, what is, what do I do with that? You know, cut the commercial break . I mean, it was a powerful moment. Great kid.And that made the rest of his story kind of make sense. But it was the first time he ever told anybody and I was a stranger sitting at a coffee shop with them. And it just kind of like, you know, that's a lot to put [00:09:00] on me, right? What am I gonna do with that?
[00:09:01] Steve: Nonetheless, after some reflection, Ken forged ahead with the plan and the podcast. With the format confirmed, testing done, the van ready, it was time for the roadshow.
[00:09:15] Ken: [00:09:20] it's fun. The first city is fun. I'm... hanging out with an old college friend. I'm staying at his place . And I do these interviews and it all kind of happens and they're magic. And then I'm on my own. It's starting. Now it's starting. City number two, it's starting.
[00:09:33] Steve: And first real journey. Ken got lost.
[00:09:38] Ken: I end up finding out that my [00:09:40] Airbnb was in the wrong Coulee City. It was in Coulee, not Coulee City. And anyway, I drive through the city. There's no stoplight, there's no stop sign through the town. The only place I can see of any life is a bar called Couleegan's. I'm sitting in the van just kind of closing my eyes, going I'm really on my own. I'm really doing this. This is nuts. I [00:10:00] don't even have a guest in this town. I gotta hustle and find somebody cuz I'm burning money. I got a staff, I got a team. I mean, I'm like, I gotta go. I gotta produce something. I got, I got, I got 400 more interviews to go.
[00:10:12] Ken: (MUSIC WILD WEST) And so I open up the door to this bar and it just looks like your typical old fashioned bar. Big long ass bar, pool table in the back, some kind of [00:10:20] karaoke thing on the left side and some hardly looking dude about halfway down the bar, sitting there sipping a beer at two in the afternoon.
[00:10:27] Ken: So I stroll in, I give myself some space between him and I, and he looks over to me, he goes, " What's the jar?" Oh fuck, here we are, we're on. Game on. And we start talking. And[00:10:40] I don't know, we have two beers and before I know it, Steve, this guy's told me his half of his life story. And now I'm saying, "Would you like to be a guest on my show?" 24 hours later I'm in his home. His wife's cooking me dinner and I'm in his home and we're doing The Jar. The next night, I'm back at the same house [00:11:00] interviewing her because she wanted... she saw what he was doing and thought, "I gotta get some of that. I wanna be, I need the jar". And she wanted that cathartic experience of... just sharing our life and pouring it all out. I was overwhelmed and not prepared for what, what I was doing. It took a lot of courage. [00:11:20] Took a lot of courage.
[00:11:21] Steve: I decided to turn the tables on Ken. I was going to make him answer some questions. So the jar appeared, Ken's hand went in deep and out came the first card.
[00:11:35] Ken: The format is you read the question for the guest.
[00:11:38] Steve: Oh okay. Uh, [00:11:40] okay, here we go. Do you agree that the battle for hope really takes place only in the battlefield of our minds? wow. Right, so your guest might take half an hour to answer a question. You've got two, minutes.
[00:11:56] Ken: Oh, I love it. That's as as it should Hope [00:12:00] takes place only in the battlefield of our minds, you know, that's where it starts. It's up to us to find hope and to nurture it. I wrote about it being this small flame in the dead of winter at times for us, right? And, you know, you have to protect that little flame. It's up to us. We have to nurture hope and we have to keep it alive and... it's precious.
[00:12:19] Steve: Love that. That [00:12:20] was within
[00:12:20] Steve: two minutes. That's impressive.
[00:12:22] Ken: I didn't even steal the answer. How, how about one more?
[00:12:25] Steve: So we did question two. " Do you get along with negative people?" Answer, "No". And I'm trying to move the conversation along, but Ken's now on a roll.
[00:12:38] Track 1: We gotta do two more [00:12:40] cuz we gotta do four.
[00:12:41] Steve: Okay. You might, you might regret this.
[00:12:44] Ken: I regretted it the moment I saw it.
[00:12:47] Steve: You should have stuck at two. But anyway, share a memory that always makes you cry.
[00:12:53] Ken: Yeah. Um, I think if I think of my Mom or Dad, I think especially my Mom, [00:13:00] you know, there's, there's moments... just memories around her and her pass... and especially passing. A lot of moments would make me smile... my own memories. But definitely, you know, the end, right in the end game. It chokes me up. Still feel that.
[00:13:16] Steve: We'll come back to that fourth question in a moment. I [00:13:20] wanted to know how Ken has changed by meeting and listening to complete strangers bearing their souls.
[00:13:27] Ken: It has brought me to this place where I really do appreciate people. I mean, I'm really fascinated with humans now more than I've ever been. I'm a different person, a hundred percent a different person.[00:13:40] Just the way I, I look at people when I come into a place, just how I look at people and the way they act, the way they behave.
[00:13:48] Ken: We all have so much more in common than what I thought when I started. What we're doing, Steve is listening. I think that's what we're doing. We're listening and you're learning [00:14:00] listening skill, which is not easy. I watched some of my episodes and I'm like, I have to learn to shut the up.
[00:14:05] Steve: When I was very young, I remember being at my Gran's with all the aunties sat around the table and it was like this, "Yack, yack, yack, yack, yack". And my Gran... she leaned down to me, she leant over and she whispered, she said, "Look Steve, everyone's talking, [00:14:20] nobody's listening". But... anyway, enough about me, Ken...
[00:14:26] Ken: Yeah. Okay.
[00:14:28] Steve: Have I told you my story?
[00:14:31] Ken: Who cares about your problems? You come to the wrong place if you think I'm listening
[00:14:40] Steve: Spending time with Ken was real fun. And I'm sure he'll have continued success with The Jar. Anyway, he still had his fourth question waiting for him.
[00:14:53] Ken: Oh, and this is, well now I'm happy, I went... I had to suffer to get to this one.
[00:14:57] Steve: Hang on. Let me read that out, Ken. [00:15:00] So how can humanity live together in peace?
[00:15:04] Ken: So I'm glad we got to that one, especially in this moment in time. Right.... you know, I think... listening to people. I've sat with people I would probably not have had a lot of respect for in a previous [00:15:20] life, you know, and before I started The Jar. And it has shown me that my perceptions of people from afar as a group... is far, far different than the realities of... a human as an individual. And I think, you know, when you do break it down to a real person-to-person contact... you put a Russian and a Ukrainian [00:15:40] in a... room with a... cup of coffee, they probably would find so many things in common. The Jar is the bell curve that we've got in life right now. And the fringes of the bell curve have the microphones and the spotlights. But in life, somehow we've given the lunatics the spotlight and the [00:16:00] megaphones and you know, so if humanity's gonna live together in peace, we have to take it back from the fringe maniacs, and we have to focus back on being human. You know, start with what we have in common and celebrate our differences.
[00:16:14] Ken: We're getting more [00:16:20] down to the individuals. Put two people in a room.
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