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First Person

The Experience Questionnaire: Ken Burns

Filmmaker Ken Burns is a 15-time Emmy winner and two-time Oscar nominee whose eight-part PBS documentary “Country Music” airs Sept. 15. His previous PBS documentaries include “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “Prohibition,” and “The Dust Bowl.”

Where do you come up with your best ideas?
In relating to the material itself, in collaboration with colleagues, and in the solitude of walking, traveling, and even sleeping.

What is the best non-material gift you’ve received?
When my then-12-year-old daughter Sarah surprised me one Christmas with the present of her having memorized the Gettysburg Address.

What is the best non-material gift you’ve given?
I think it is in the speeches I’ve given, commencement addresses, lectures, and things like that, where I have been able to communicate something about “us” that seems to have given meaning to people.

“Trust the process. The next day everything is revealed.”

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Trying to be a good father to my four daughters.

If you had to choose a different profession, what would you do?
I’d like to be a professor at Hampshire College.

What is the most useful mistake you’ve made?
Every day in the editing room, learning that the decision I made a second ago was not quite right.

What’s the strangest experience you’ve had?
Sensing the power of our everyday life, that behind every seemingly ordinary moment is an extraordinary one.

What opportunity do you regret passing up?
Thousands of opportunities to be kinder to others.

How do you relax?
I don’t, unless you count working.

If you could go anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?
Home with my family in Walpole, New Hampshire.

What is your most indelible childhood memory?
My mother’s 10-year illness, and her death from cancer when I was 11.

What’s the most valuable thing you learned in school?
The photographer Jerome Liebling was my mentor and professor at Hampshire College. He taught me how to look at the world.

When you’re stuck how do you get unstuck?
Trust the process. The next day everything is revealed.

What is your proudest moment?
The birth of my four daughters, Sarah, Lilly, Olivia, and Willa.

What would you like to experience before you die?
World peace.

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Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

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