How It’s a Wonderful Life Teaches You to Push Your Boundaries

If you’d never been born, how different would the world be?

Jen Adams here. All this week we’ve been discussing the humble beginnings of some great Christmas classics, from the Grinch to The Little Drummer Boy.

But there’s one final Christmas story that surely would have vanished into dusty history if not for the most random twist of fate …

And it started with a dream. A dream about a man who woke up one day and got to explore how different the world would be if he’d never been born …

This dream became the short story behind the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. In 1938, Philip Van Doren Stern opened his eyes with the whole thing vividly in his mind. Over the next five years, he worked to turn it into a 21-page tale he called The Greatest Gift.

Trouble was, he didn’t have a publisher for his story. He worked as a writer, but he was known for his books about the Civil War and his “portable Poe” literary collection.

So, it was out of character … and without support from his normal publishers.

Yet, rather than give up on his work, he paid to self-publish 200 copies and sent them out as “Christmas Card” gifts to his friends and family.

One friend had a connection in Hollywood, and unbeknownst to Van Doren Stern, he showed it to an executive at RKO Pictures.

They made him an offer for the rights – $10,000.

Frank Capra, who ultimately made the movie, called it “the story I had been looking for all my life,” and it’s gone on to become one of the staple films of the holiday season. (It’s probably playing on a TV station near you right now.)

What can you learn from this? On one hand, Van Doren Stern was very lucky. But, was it pure luck? Or, had his belief in himself – and his willingness to share his writing – ensured that he was discovered by the right person at the right time?

I like to think it came down to his initial actions – putting in the work to polish a great piece and then sharing it rather than keeping his writing to himself.

So, look inward a moment. What great idea or vivid dream are you holding back? Give yourself permission to put it down on paper … and make the commitment to share it with your family and friends.

After all, who knows where a little sharing might lead you? Philip Van Doren Stern certainly wasn’t thinking of Frank Capra when he wrote his piece … but Capra was looking for a writer just like him.

If you’re feeling bold (and please do feel bold!), take the first step by sharing your idea or the outline of your story in the comments. I’d love to hear all about it – and I’d love to hear more about the plan you have to make sure the people around you know you’re a writer with good ideas in the year ahead.

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Published: December 26, 2014

20 Responses to “How It’s a Wonderful Life Teaches You to Push Your Boundaries”

  1. I am so glad that he did it.
    While reading this story it made me think about how amazing would it be to have the same luck.
    But I am unlucky writer.
    My story is laying on shelf

    Guest (qendresa jashari)

  2. Currently I am writing a book about my life before I became a believer and after. I have done something I feel is unique, though it may not be. Each title reflects what it is about, so I have my parents and the boys so far. I want to include various times in life and need to do some brainstorming for the various chapters.

    I am blessed to have a ton of support from both my family and friends. One of my friends said she always wanted to be a character in a book, was that a hint?


  3. Bob Bly nailed it in his latest newsletter.
    I have been struggling with how to get my info to other people and build a list of new contacts. He highly recomemnds putting out a regular news letter for FREE and is signing them up for a subscription basis. My end game will be in writing a book, but this gets your name and writing out there and gives you validity.

    Terri Smuda

  4. If only Life came with an instruction manual -- could be a thought that might have crossed many a human mind. Then again, just like the gifts of Christmas which come in varied sizes and shapes-- one size will not fit all. But just like the thought of giving a gift is the same, faith connects all the different parcels of life that man will encounter.All the world's a stage they say and so it is where life unfolds.


  5. i found your article very exiting and disturbing at the same time. i already did exactly what you describe in your article. i submitted a very bold, exiting and unique idea to AWAI months ago and received no responds. due to the uniqueness of the idea i thought it, at lease, deserved some kind of a comment from some one at AWAI Even if it was not tested or did not test well because as stated in the letter you did not have all the information as stated in the idea in which no one ever requested....


  6. Well I do not expect anything will happen here...but I will share something that is near and dear to my heart.

    For as long as I can remember breathing was always a struggle for me. Everyday that I got up I had to focus on my breath.

    When I was three years old I had a terrible Asthma attack. I found myself out of my body and floating near the ceiling...the things I saw the people I met, I will never forget and it changed how I view the world what I have done with my life....

    Guest (Cindy M)

  7. Like Philip Van Doren Stern, I awoke one morning with my story fully formed. It's about what happens when Santa decides to add GPS technology to the sleigh & retire Rudolph. I have only shared it with family and friends so far. I consider it a fable for adults rather than a children's story. I envision publishing in the newspaper as a serial in days leading up to Christmas.


  8. starting back in 1983 (my first year in college) and till this day; i had some interesting thoughts about life run though my head. i thought everyone could benefit from these thoughts so in 2010 or 2011 i wrote some of them down and let some people read them. they seemed to like them so i kept on writing until they turned into my first book due out in January 2015! the title of the book is:"THE MEANING OF LIFE" and will be published by RoseDog Books. the book can be purchased @ rosedogbookstore dot com.


  9. in accordance with the article that i just read, here is and idea i came with a few months ago. it is my firm belief that these sales letters would great for all aspiring copywiters. i just need a little feedback. can anyone out there help me out. the title of the main idea is called "THE NEW RESUME" the letter kind of explains itself but their is much more. if anyone would like to see "THE NEW RESUME" please email me @ geraldfrierson@clear dot net. (you said be BOLD, this is my story as only i can tell it)


  10. Dear Jen,

    I guess I'm feeling bold. (smiling) Thank you so very much for sharing this amazing story with me. It was the shot of feel good inspiration in the arm I needed to read, at the right time. I'm a working screenwriter in LA and in the process of deciding the pathway niche for my copywriting career.

    The story of Mr. Van Doren Stern and the making of 'Wonderful Life' is a classic tale of never throwing in the towel on your options, seen or unseen.

    Great job Jen.



  11. When I first saw an email about AWAI, I jumped at becoming a member. I have a fairly long commute from NJ to NY 5 days a week and what with tolls and gas and also not having a salary increase in 5 years. I was becoming more and more disillusioned. really wanted to work from home but every time I was prepared to participate in one of AWAI training programs something came up that I had to use the finance for. I wrote a Manuscript for a authentic Cook book but is yet to get it published. I am struggling and really want to improve my circumstances. AWAI offer good training programs, I missed the 50% off deadline but I am interested in signing up for the boot camp. Is the best thing or should I sign up for another training program. HelP.


  12. Greetings, Jen. Can I send you my story ? It runs like this :

    Tom’s mom remembers very well the day he was born – because he was born twice on the same day of the year, nearly 30 years apart.

    Before his birth, Tom’s home was a quiet and harmonious place. His dad was a rich trader and his elder brother was very well-behaved and respectful. It was a peaceful family....

    Should I send you the whole story ? If yes, to which mail ID, please ? Regards,

    Hans Dholakia


  13. I have a story to tell from my own experience.
    I have bad allergy for over 20 years. I have to take 1 zertec everyday. At that time this medication was prescribed by the doctor. Sometime he switches me to claritin .During my vacation, I went with someone who is vegetarian. So he took me to different vegetarian restaurants. I forgot that I did not eat meat for many days. Suddenly my allergy was gone.I became a vegetarian since then.That changes my life


  14. Hello My first comment. Being bold is a learning process.

    Mine is here www dot theroadtohappiness dot org and I'm just starting to talk about it even though it's not fully functional yet.

    David Hands

  15. Thanks for this! I've had a story I've been working on for a while that has a dedicated page on my (creative) website complete with excerpts and gets mentioned in my signature line. This gives me encouragement to keep working at it.

    Wendy Strain

  16. Jen- Before I started painting and singing I was writing. All through my life I kept journals, daily diaries, planned events, did my homework, rote my poetry and lyrics for my songs I sang, and the recipes for the food and cakes I made. I've been writing behind the scenes for many years. Painting, sing- ing and film took center stage. I planned out the events that needed to get done. As I look at my writing swimming toward me she still wet and she brings new news with endearing eyes, and a cup of tea in one hand and a pen in the other to announce and seal our alliance and great plan for each other ahead. jpd

    Guest (Julie D)

  17. To: Jen Adams, Here,s the plot to my story:

    Two scientists on the verge of completing their secret invention that retrieves data from the brain of people who experienced great trauma or even death published their story. A few criminal lawyers saw a death sentence to their profession plan sabotage. Tentative title: Thou Shalt Not Kill; the dead can testify.


    Guest (Urell Odama)

  18. A delusional young boxer leaves a comfortable life in Hispaniola to pursue his dream of riches and fame in America only to be tormented by a decade of failure finally finds peace and happiness in a place that doesn’t exist.

    Mike Robson

  19. I have been exploring the idea of writing a novella based on what would happen if currency was deleted from our government and we had to go to bartering system, how this would effect interpersonal relations, govt etc, only in story form from one family's perspective. Who would put what value on their crafts and who would they barter with, would our system fail or blossom?

    Donna Tate

    Every thing you are right now seeing around or about us, comes to be, because of the believe that nothing is impossible.
    What ever you want to achieve, just start SMALL. Every thing you are seeing today started small.
    On given up. Never give up on your good believe or course, but you can step aside to a later date. Because, people easily give up, the world to date looks stand still, otherwise, the world would by now be more advanced and more civilize.


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