Keyes, Ralph 1945-

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KEYES, Ralph 1945-

PERSONAL: Surname rhymes with "eyes"; born January 12, 1945, in Cincinnati, OH; son of Scott (a regional planner) and Charlotte Esther (a writer; maiden name, Shachmann) Keyes; married Muriel Gordon (a college administrator), February 13, 1965; children: David Gordon, Scott Michael. Education: Antioch College, B.A., 1967; London School of Economics and Political Science, graduate study, 1967-68.

ADDRESSES: Home—690 Omar Circle, Yellow Springs, OH 45387. Agent—Colleen Mohyde, Doe Coover Agency, 58 Sagamore Ave., Medford, MA 02155. E-mail—[email protected].

CAREER: Newsday, Long Island, NY, assistant to publisher and feature writer, 1968-70; Prescott College, visiting assistant professor, 1971 and 1974; Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, lecturer, 1979; Widener University, Chester, PA, lecturer, 1983. Center for Studies of the Person, La Jolla, CA, fellow, 1970-79. Has also taught at Antioch College. Frequent speaker and leader of workshops and seminars on behavioral topics.

MEMBER: Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Antioch Writers' Workshop (member, board of directors).

AWARDS, HONORS: Woodrow Wilson Foundation fellow; San Diego Press Club Headliner of the Year for literature, 1976; fiction citation, Athenaeum (Philadelphia, PA).


We, the Lonely People: Searching for Community, Harper (New York, NY), 1973.

Is There Life after High School?, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1976.

The Height of Your Life, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1980.

Chancing It: Why We Take Risks, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1985.

Timelock: How Life Got So Hectic and What You Can Do about It, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1991.

"Nice Guys Finish Seventh": False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992.

(Editor) Sons on Fathers: A Book of Men's Writing (anthology), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992.

The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.

(Editor) The Wit and Wisdom of Harry Truman: A Treasury of Quotations, Anecdotes, and Observations, Gramercy (New Brunswick, NJ), 1999.

(Editor) The Wit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde: A Treasury of Quotations, Anecdotes, and Observations, Gramercy (New Brunswick, NJ), 1999.

Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins: The Paradox of Innovation, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2002.

The Post-Truth Era, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2004.

Contributor of articles to magazines, including Newsweek, Nation, Playboy, Mademoiselle, Human Behavior, Popular Psychology, Car and Driver, Change, West, Parade, Esquire, New York, Reader's Digest, Publishers Weekly, Cosmopolitan, Antioch Review, Family Weekly, Gentlemen's Quarterly, and Village Voice. Also contributor to newspapers, including New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Philadelphia Inquirer.

ADAPTATIONS: Is There Life after High School? was adapted for the stage as a musical comedy and produced on Broadway, 1982.

SIDELIGHTS: In his books Ralph Keyes explores obstacles ranging from learning how to deal with loneliness in an increasingly dehumanized and mobile society to the obvious—and not so obvious—difficulties associated with being unusually tall or short. Relying on statistical information, results from questionnaires, and comments obtained during personal interviews, Keyes blends a touch of humor and occasional sadness with his factual findings to come up with highly readable and entertaining "studies" of the insecurities troubling countless American adults. But why, he is often asked, does he choose to dwell almost exclusively on the negative aspects of human existence? The answer, notes Keyes, is simple: "Failure is more universal than success and I'm looking for universal subjects. I'm much more interested in exploring areas where I feel room for growth."

One of Keyes's most popular endeavors in this field focuses on what he believes to be the ultimate American experience: high school. Is There Life after High School? features Keyes's customary blend of facts and humor, and a certain nostalgia as well, as he recounts the trials and tribulations of adolescence as seen through the eyes of various celebrities and noncelebrities. According to some reviewers, this method is especially appealing when it is applied to a subject such as high school, for it always comes as a relief to readers to know that Henry Kissinger was the fat kid nobody would eat lunch with and that the bully who used to push Mike Nichols's head under water and stand on it is now a used-car salesman.

Taking into account these stories and other types of information, Keyes concludes that being included in or rejected from the popular group in high school is integral to shaping a person's future. He distinguishes between high school "innies" and "outies," with the "in" group consisting of male jocks and their female equivalents—cheerleaders—and the "out" group consisting of everyone who is not a jock or a cheerleader. In short, he offers some comfort to the "outies" of the world: he claims that they are better off in the long run. Writing about the book in the Chicago Tribune Book World, Susan Brownmiller pointed out, "The winners of the high school celebrity sweepstakes are not necessarily the ones who sail from success to success in the afterlife. . . . The standards of conformity by which they judge themselves and the rest of us do not prepare them completely for the varied games of individual achievement that adult persons play."

Lois Gould, commenting in the New York Times Book Review, called Is There Life after High School? a "painstaking—and pain-inducing—autopsy on high school." "High school, like youth itself," Gould added, "is best appreciated from a safe distance—say, twenty years. Even then, it hurts when you laugh. And if you stop laughing, it hurts worse. Ralph Keyes knows all this only too well. He is, like most of us, a lifelong sufferer from high school dis-ease. . . . Painful as it is to revive these horrors by publishing them, it is, for some, the only thing that helps."

For Francis H. Curtis, writing in Best Sellers, Is There Life after High School? falls somewhat short of expectations, for "while [it] does make a valid point or two, Keyes has tried to capitalize on research to give it authenticity and on sex and foul language to make it a seller. This turns an interesting topic and a valuable contribution to the literature into a treatise that fails to be much of either." In the Christian Science Monitor, R. J. Cattani criticized Keyes for being "a high school fan, a reunion buff" who "writes more with nostalgia than irony," but the reviewer concluded that Is There Life after High School? "roars with adolescent enthusiasm and apprehension. . . . [The author] should find many readers among those who now and then take out their senior yearbooks." Writing in the Washington Post Book World, L. J. Davis observed, "Reading this thoroughly engaging little study is like finding our adoption papers; we always knew it was true. High school in America is a universal but singularly worthless social experience that spectacularly rewards the meaningless skills of a few, traumatizes the majority, and marks us for life. . . . Keyes doesn't tell us what to do about it, but it is nice to know that we aren't alone."

Keyes dealts with the social ramifications of height in his 1980 book, The Height of Your Life, which, as John Leonard explained in the New York Times, "has to do with the war between the talls and the smalls; how our own height relative to someone else's affects our perceptions of ourselves, our self-esteem; what it feels like to be abnormal on either end of the scale . . . how always having to look up at other people is, literally, a pain in the neck." In addition to trivia such as heights of well-known people—chef Julia Child is six feet two inches, for example—and general facts—we all shrink an inch or two after age thirty—Keyes ruminates on how height breeds stereotype and even discrimination. Leonard found The Height of Your Life to be "an odd, breezy book, quick to record a joke, occasionally rueful, that gathers a kind of sadness as it moves along. . . . I am made to realize how crucial size is in social dynamics, and how cruel those dynamics are."

Keyes's next book, Chancing It: Why We Take Risks, was prompted, Lee Powell reported in People, by "a feeling of restlessness—one he believed others of his generation were sharing." Keyes explains: "People were talking the way I felt . . . wanting to take more risks." The questions, Powell stated, were why "and what constituted a risk in the first place?" More than five hundred interviews later, with an assortment of subjects as diverse as nuns and go-go dancers, policemen and drug dealers, Keyes wrote Chancing It, in which he sets forth his finding that there are two kinds, or levels, of risk: one that poses physical excitement and danger and another that involves personal chance-taking, such as revealing private emotions or making long-term commitments. The two levels of risk are usually mixed within any individual, though most people tend to prefer one kind to the other. Humiliation, Keyes elaborated to Powell, is "the universal risk," the one we are willing to avoid by taking other serious—even potentially fatal—risks. For example, Keyes told Powell, "high-wire walker Philippe Petit, who denies taking risks, told me he once worked on a cable that was dangerously loose just to avoid the embarrassment of walking away." Keyes suggests that we analyze our own risk-taking styles with the goals of finding productive outlets for our preferred risk-taking method—such as finding a job driving an ambulance or washing windows on a high-rise building for physical risk-takers—and taking some carefully chosen risks from the level we are less comfortable with to provide a "balanced diet of risks," Zick Rubin quoted Keyes as saying in the New York Times Book Review.

John Urquhart, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, labeled Chancing It "an entertaining, insightful tour through the psychology of risk-taking, with all its paradoxes and contradictions." Urquhart added that the book "helps readers recognize the contradictions in their own risk-taking behavior, and it makes the case that accepting risk is an essential part of a full and healthy life." While Rubin called Keyes "an entertaining writer with a light touch," he took exception to Keyes's analysis of the psychology of risk taking, which the critic considered "too loose and facile to be truly enlightening." Rubin believed that the author "overemphasizes the role of personality and underemphasizes the role of situational factors in determining the risks we take." Despite Urquhart's objection that the book lacks "practical pieces of information about risks in today's life," such as health risks associated with smoking and drunken driving, the reviewer concluded that "what you get from Chancing It . . . is a richly exampled, well-written account of the diversity of human judgment and behavior in the face of choices involving the fear of possible loss."

In 1992 Keyes saw the publication of two books, "Nice Guys Finish Seventh": False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations and Sons on Fathers: A Book of Men's Writing, the latter an anthology which he edited. Sons on Fathers includes almost eighty essays and poems Keyes collected for about twenty years. The selections are by men who have written strongly emotional pieces about their fathers and include such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway's son Patrick and writer Robert Bly, as well as other authors, poets, novelists, and journalists. Mary Carroll, writing for Booklist, noted that "Sons on Fathers is a celebration, a meditation, a plaint, and a eulogy"; the work was deemed an "important collection" by a reviewer for Library Journal.

"Nice Guys Finish Seventh" is a volume of research dedicated to clarifying the origin and wording of such common expressions as "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch," "Play it again, Sam," and hundreds of others. The book's title has its roots in the saying "Nice guys finish last," which has been attributed to Brooklyn Dodger manager Leo Durocher speaking of rival team the New York Giants. Keyes explained that Durocher actually said, as he waved to the Giants' dugout, "The nice guys are all over there. In seventh place." In addition, Keyes pointed out, seventh place wasn't even last. A reviewer for the Wilson Library Bulletin stated that the work is "basic to reference collections," and Mary Carroll in Booklist noted Keyes's "interesting, often surprising facts about who said what when . . . deserves a place in most quotation collections."

Keyes explores how authors confront their fears of writing in his book The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. Explaining that writers undergo something similar to the stage fright experienced by actors, Keyes "confronts anxieties like finding a worthy project, exposing self on paper, writing about loved ones and personal taboos, submitting work and facing editors," according to Ed Peaco in the Antioch Review. One suggestion Keyes makes is for writers to harness their fears to help them through their anxiety. As a critic for Publishers Weekly quoted Keyes, "many writing problems 'are really courage problems.'"

In Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins: The Paradox of Innovation, Keyes and coauthor Richard Farson argue that taking risks and failing are absolutely necessary to success. The question they ask, Paul B. Brown explained in CioInsight, is "How can you make companies, and the people who work inside them, more adventurous?" They find that people who experience failure are often more open to risk-taking and innovation, while successful people are prone to be cautious and do what they have always done. To spark more innovation in employees, Keyes and Farson propose, companies should be more tolerant of employees who take a risk and fail. As Jane Applegate put it in the Long Island Business News, "The book aims to destigmatize failure and question our obsession with success."

Keyes once told CA: "For most of my adult life I have been a freelance writer. Like so many who do it for a living, I don't enjoy writing as such. (Peter De Vries once said, 'I love being a writer. What I can't stand is the paperwork.') Yet I do like much that surrounds the writing process: developing story ideas, interviewing subjects, doing research. Creating a whole from these parts can be quite satisfying. There are few types of work with more tangible evidence of how you've spent your time than writing. Nor is there a better shot at immortality.

"Because so much of my writing gets onto 'touchy' ground, I nearly always try to soften it with humor. Just as the smoothest Scotch can pack the hardest punch, heavy messages are best conveyed with light prose. Although I don't see my work as a tool for righting social wrongs, I do hope it gives aid and comfort to readers by suggesting that they're not alone in having reactions to life which may feel embarrassing. Confronting 'negative' thoughts and feelings directly can have positive outcomes. (Unburdening myself with Is There Life after High School? made it possible for me to attend my twentieth class reunion, and enjoy it immensely).

"The longer I write, the simpler I'd like my writing to be; a well-cleaned piece of glass through which the reader can see clearly to the content inside. The ideal would be prose so transparent that readers wouldn't even be aware of my fingers at the keyboard. . . . The hardest work of writing, I find, is concealing how much effort it takes, and beating down the urge to show off."



Antioch Review, winter, 1996, Ed Peaco, review of The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, p. 111.

Best Sellers, September, 1976, Francis H. Curtis, review of Is There Life after High School?

Booklist, January 1, 1985, p. 604; May 15, 1992, p. 1646; October 1, 1992.

Chicago Tribune Book World, June 13, 1976, Susan Brownmiller, review of Is There Life after High School?

Christian Science Monitor, July 21, 1976, R. J. Cattani, review of Is There Life after High School?

CioInsight, June 1, 2002, Paul B. Brown, review of Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins: The Paradox of Innovation.

ETC, winter, 1993, William E. Coleman, Jr., review of Nice Guys Finish Seventh : False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations, p. 512.

Lambda Book Report, December, 1996, D. Killian, review of The Wit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde: A Treasury of Quotations, Anecdotes, and Observations, p. 25.

Library Journal, May 15, 1976; June 15, 1992, review of Sons on Fathers: A Book of Men's Writing; April 15, 1995, Charles C. Nash, review of The Courage to Write, p. 87.

Long Island Business News, June 14, 2002, Jane Applegate, review of Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins, p. 23A.

Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1980.

Men's Health, May, 1994, Mark Kram, review of The Height of Your Life, p. 24.

Newsweek, May 19, 1980.

New York Daily News, September 8, 1985.

New York Times, April 14, 1980, John Leonard, review of The Height of Your Life, p. C17.

New York Times Book Review, June 13, 1976, Lois Gould, review of Is There Life after High School?, p. 8; February 3, 1985, Zick Rubin, review of Chancing It: Why We Take Risks, p. 7.

People, May 13, 1985, Lee Powell, review of Chancing It.

Philadelphia Inquirer, February 17, 1985, John Urquhart, review of Chancing It.

Publishers Weekly, March 27, 1995, review of The Courage to Write, p. 68; April 8, 2002, review of Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins, p. 223.

Washington Post Book World, May 30, 1976, L. J. Davis, review of Is There Life after High School?

Wilson Library Bulletin, January, 1993, review of "Nice Guys Finish Seventh."

Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), June 16, 2002, William Wineke, review of Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins, p. F3.


Ralph Keyes Web site, (November 13, 2003).