Don’t turn life lessons into fences, says Josh Kilmer-Purcell in this talk.

He calls himself a contrarian and gives us some non-lessons for life. As you listen to him, you learn the biggest lesson in life and perhaps the most difficult: do not take yourself so seriously, you can never know everything. Take things as grey, a little white, a little black, nothing absolute. This is the lesson that endured with Josh Kilmer-Purcell too and the way he articulates it is: “…there’s no point in asking God for the answers to life….chances are you won’t even get the questions right.”

This talk is in a series organised under the title “Choice is Yours”, where people recount to you their life story of struggle, perseverance and triumph. Josh Kilmer-Purcell for all his modesty and berating his success, has been the creative director of several advertising firms, has reached the top of almost all that he has done and has lived a life quite funky. Beneath his humorous lilt are serious life lessons.

Josh says his life has been spent figuring out what he should be doing. “Even the most cursory look at my Wikipedia page should reveal that I have among the most lesson-less lives lived. I put the less in lesson.” So his talk is about the lessons he should have learnt and did not, or about lessons which he did learn but were wrong.

In the ’70s, he says, the first non-lesson he learnt was, “…if you apply yourself, you can be anything you want to be.” And he wanted to be a drag queen, being a gay kid. After some attempts at being a drag queen, Josh came home to the fact that the lesson was not right. “I wanted to be the most fabulous person in the room…but I was a horrible drag queen…so then I learnt you really cannot be what you want. You have your limitations. It is best to recognise them and move on.”

The next non-lesson that he learnt in childhood was, “…money does not matter as long as you are doing what you love to do…” Josh tells us of how he loved to write and so he wrote two books; the first one did well and was on the bestseller list for many years, and so the lesson seemed almost true till he wrote the second and he earned nothing.

So Josh went to his parents for advice… “get a real job…”, they said. He took a job in advertising and did so well that he bought a farm on a whim. He and his partner lost their jobs…so they were looking for ways to pay their mortgage and spending all their time watching television when they learnt their next lesson: “…things always work out for people on television…” Josh and his partner did a reality show on a network which folded in two years. Then they joined something called the “Amazing Race” which is a race around the world…eleven teams race and do crazy things all the way. This was their chance to win a million dollars, and here they learnt a serious lesson: winners never quit and quitters never win… Josh adds a caveat…even if you are a quitter, if you tie yourself to a non-quitter, you may be dragged around the world and win. So they did. In spite of the fact that Josh describes himself as a quitter, but his partner was not one.

Josh ends saying, “There is no such thing as lessons in life…it has to be lived moment to moment, case to case, and yet as I wrote all this down, I learnt something dangerously closer to a lesson…lessons are not all right or all wrong…we believe they are and turn our lessons into fences… I had treated my lessons as guideposts. If I wanted to accomplish something I looked for the lessons that could help me do so. I have to learn to embrace the ambiguity of lessons in life, that they are not always true or false…”

And so he builds a case for tolerance and freedom of expression.

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