Filmmaker Ken Burns never set out to have a shelf full of awards. The catalyst for every project was the same.


The August series, Traveling Light, is reflecting on the essentials. Curiosity is vital to whatever we do. It’s the spark plug of life.

Think of something that you do really well. You probably started small. Something caught your eye. You wanted to learn more. One thing led to another. Before you knew it, you were spending more and more time with whatever caught your imagination.

That’s what happened for Ken Burns. You could say he’s a fan of his subjects, whether he’s profiling baseball, jazz, a historical figure, or the National Parks. OK, maybe more than a fan; he’s so intensely engaged that some might argue he’s a little obsessive. But that's what passion is about - being forever curious.

The act of creating - finding just the right mix of archival documents, period music and still photographs, and placing them with meticulous care - is equally important as the finished product. Others might see a pile of dusty antiques, but to Burns, they are vibrantly alive.

Here's how he describes the process:

I can look at a still photograph of building the Brooklyn Bridge and hear the workers hammering, the seagulls in the East River, the steam compressors hauling up big blocks of stone. You take an old photograph and you realize it has a past, it has a future…

That’s the DNA for everything I’ve done for the past 35 years. That attempt to look at a photograph and see time. To hear movement and sound…to create what the auteurs called “mise en scene”. I wanted to be one of those auteurs when I was growing up…

Now in his 60s, Burns is busier than ever…and he loves it. He says, “I enjoy total creative control right now. Nobody tells me to make it longer, shorter, better, sexier, more violent, whatever.”

Immersing himself in new subjects means finding fresh material - stories that are touching, funny, poignant, and always personal. That kind of enthusiasm has fueled his career. Fan favorite and winner of over 40 awards, "The Civil War", continues to air on PBS decades after its debut.

What isn’t on his horizon? Shooting Summer blockbusters that are high on violence and low on plot. Or spending hours trying to crank up social media followers. Those activities simply don’t fit into the category of “Interesting.”

Are the goals you’re chasing this year wearing you out, leaving you feeling uninspired? There’s an easy way to get a second wind: replace apathy with curiosity.

When you find something that sparks your heart and mind, small details aren’t a nuisance; they’re fascinating. You become so engaged that you lose any urgency to jump to the end. Your shoulders relax. You breathe a little deeper. You crave finding pockets of spare time.

When those things happen, you’re experiencing joy. And when you emanate joy,

Published by Michelle Mains