Updated on 02.13.16

Inspiration from Eva Cassidy, Sal Khan, Jimmy Carter, and More

Trent Hamm

A Dozen Pieces of Inspiration #19

Once a month (or so), I share a dozen things that have inspired me to greater personal, professional, and financial success in my life. I hope they bring similar success to your life.

1. Vincent van Gogh on passion and boredom

“I would rather die of passion than of boredom.” – Vincent Van Gogh

If you’re not filling your spare time with things that make you feel alive and excited and passionate, what exactly are you doing, then?

Maybe you feel as if you don’t have any spare time for passion. In that case, that means you’ve filled your life with obligations that you don’t care about, in which case you should be seriously looking at ways to divest yourself from those obligations as much as possible.

Maybe you don’t feel as though you have anything to be passionate about. In that case, you should be using your spare time to explore all kinds of new things. You should be trying everything under the sun and find something that does elicit an excitement within you.

A wonderful life is one in which you work to live, not live to work.

2. Tim Harford on how frustration can make us more creative

From the description:

Challenges and problems can derail your creative process … or they can make you more creative than ever. In the surprising story behind the best-selling solo piano album of all time, Tim Harford may just convince you of the advantages of having to work with a little mess.

I often feel as though my best writing happens when I’m pushed up against the wall of a deadline.

When I don’t have a big deadline right in front of me, it’s easy for me to get bogged down in the details of writing. I’ll write a sentence, stare at it, erase it, write it again, and so on. Half of the time, I’ll get so lost in the minutiae that I can’t see the forest for the trees.

When a deadline is on top of me, though, things are different. I tend to get into this writing “zone,” in which I write very efficiently. I stop worrying quite so much about writing the perfect sentence or the perfect paragraph and instead I focus on putting ideas down on paper.

The end result isn’t perfect, but it is pretty good and it’s usually more coherent overall.

In other words, because there’s a new kind of challenge in front of me, I step up to that challenge. I meet it head on. That challenge demands more of me than the normal day-to-day tasks.

That’s a good thing. It makes me stronger.

3. Jerry Rice on today

“Today I will do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t.” – Jerry Rice

Virtually all of us want a great tomorrow. We have dreams about the future that make for a much better life in some respects than the life that we have now, and it’s pleasant to think about those dreams.

The biggest thing that stands in the way of those dreams, though, is a pleasant day today.

Rather than exercising, we choose to binge-watch a show on Netflix. Rather than studying, we look at Facebook. Rather than building that small business, we leaf through a magazine. Rather than working on real change, we do little meaningless tasks around the house.

If you want a truly great tomorrow, you have to stop doing silly time-filling stuff today. Those things – browsing Facebook, watching television, and so on – don’t add up to a great tomorrow. Sure, they make the hours pass today and they entertain us for the moment, but they don’t build to anything better in life.

What are you doing today that builds to something better in life tomorrow? If you can’t answer that question when it comes to the things you’re doing today, perhaps you need to rethink what it is that you are doing today.

4. Remember the Milk

For many, many years, I used Remember the Milk as my preferred task management application. I started using it circa 2004 or 2005 or so and stuck with it for almost a decade.

The problem was that there were a few key features I really wanted that they just never seemed to implement. The biggest one was “subtasks,” meaning I wanted the ability to add a big item to my to-do list and give it a bunch of steps toward completion that I could check off along the way.

So, eventually, I switched to Todoist sometime in 2014 or so to manage my tasks. There were still aspects of Remember the Milk that I liked better, but Todoist was closer to exactly what I wanted than RtM was.

Well, recently, Remember the Milk rolled out a complete rewrite of their task management system and they added almost every feature I ever wanted, including, yes, subtasks. I tried it out and they work perfectly, almost exactly like I always wanted them to work.

So, now Remember the Milk is really close to my perfect to-do app, closer than Todoist. But do I go through the effort of switching back? I’m not sure yet.

Still, kudos to them to rolling out such a great design. Again, if I were starting from scratch, without hundreds of things already in Todoist, I would use Remember the Milk. For me, it’s the best task management tool out there right now.

5. The axe and the trees

“When the axe came into the woods, many of the trees said, ‘At least the handle is one of us.'” – Turkish proverb

This proverb comes from a number of sources of Greek, Turkish, and Western Asian sources, including from the fable The Woodcutter and the Trees.

For me, this proverb is a stark warning against confirmation bias. We rely so much on simple things to guide us toward what is right and good and away from what is wrong and bad that it becomes easy for those who want to fool us to put on the appearances of what we think of as right and good and lead us astray.

Don’t judge people by what they first appear to be. Don’t take their first words as symbols of comfort or symbols of mistrust. Don’t let a name or a label fool you.

Listen to what they’re saying. Watch how they act, how they treat others. Let the broader picture of things be your true judge.

6. Danit Peleg on downloadable physical objects and the future of shopping

From the description:

Downloadable, printable clothing may be coming to a closet near you. What started as designer Danit Peleg’s fashion school project turned into a collection of 3D-printed designs that have the strength and flexibility for everyday wear. “Fashion is a very physical thing,” she says. “I wonder what our world will look like when our clothes will be digital.”

For me, this video wasn’t amazing in terms of clothing, but in terms of the fact that very radical changes to shopping are coming in the near future. 3D printers can now print most of the stuff we buy at the store, from clothing to containers, from food items to small electronic devices. In the very near future, we won’t have to shop for much other than fresh food or refills for our home printers.

That’s an enormous shift from the world we live in today, where we have to shop for many different kinds of items. It’s really exciting to see things that we previously thought of as being in the far off future getting rather close to being available in homes. In fact, this stuff is already available for home use, but the interfaces and usability is still being improved.

7. Otto von Bismarck on learning from mistakes

“A fool learns only from his own mistakes. A wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” – Otto von Bismarck

Probably the most powerful thing that’s happened to me over the years of writing for The Simple Dollar is hearing from literally thousands of readers (probably tens of thousands), many of whom have shared their stories in great detail with me. They’ve outlined the choices they’ve made, both good and bad, and shared both their heartache and success with me.

There have been times when reader emails and messages have driven me to the brink of tears, both for joy and for sadness. Many, many such messages have left me thinking for days, about their life, about my own life, and about the world.

Over the last few years, though, I’ve realized that the flood of stories has actually helped me grow as a person. I can see many times where the stories of readers have guided me to make better choices in my own life, even if I never asked for or wanted such advice or input.

It is only through seeing the mistakes of others that I have managed to avoid them. Similarly, it is only through seeing the successful paths of others that I have managed to follow those paths.

Look at the people around you. What are they doing well? Where are they struggling? What can those things teach you about your own life?

8. Eva Cassidy – Over the Rainbow

From the description:

Restored footage of Eva Cassidy performing Over The Rainbow. The performance took place at the Blues Alley jazz supper club in Georgetown, DC, on the 3rd January 1996.

In 1996, Eva Cassidy was an obscure vocalist and guitarist who was somewhat known in the Washington DC music scene, but wasn’t known elsewhere. She discovered that she had melanoma and by the time it was caught and treated, it had spread throughout her body and she died late that year in musical obscurity.

Two years later, an audio recording of this performance at Blues Alley, along with her performance of Fields of Gold from the same show, was discovered by Terry Wogan and Mike Harding of BBC Radio 2, and the two broadcasters began frequently playing the songs. The response was overwhelming. Out of nowhere, her compilation album Songbird went from utter obscurity to the top of the British music charts. She ended up selling over ten million copies of her albums posthumously. By 2005, Amazon listed her as one of their five best selling musical artists ever.

Never give up. Never stop making things. You might never see the impact that it can have on others.

9. Bruce Lee on practice

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” – Bruce Lee

My children are all involved in taekwondo at various belt levels. They deeply enjoy the practices (although sometimes they grumble before the practices if they’re taken away from something else they want to be doing) and participate in tournaments and such.

The interesting thing is that they expect to be good at a new move or form that they’re learning almost as soon as they work through it a time or two. They’ll get a new form right and just decide, “Yeah, I’ve got this. I’m good at this.”

The other day, I had them do a simple move that they do over and over again at their practices. I told them I wanted to see it. All of them did it perfectly, almost without effort.

Then I had them do a form that they just learned but had only really done a few times. It was jerky and slow and amateurish.

The thing is, even then they couldn’t quite see the difference. It was only when I had them stop and watch each other that they saw it. They were clearly light years better at the thing they had practiced many, many times than at the thing they had practiced just a few times.

You’re far better off becoming the master of one thing than becoming the student of a thousand.

10. Sal Khan’s 2012 MIT commencement speech

An excerpt from this speech:

“Imagine yourself in 50 years. You’re in your early 70s, near the end of your career (we have a few models here if you have trouble visualizing that). You’re sitting on your couch. 2062, and you’ve just finished watching the State of the Union holograph by president Kardashian.

And you start to reflect on your life. You start to think of all your successes, your career successes, your family successes, the great memories that you’ve had. But then you start to think about all of the things you wished you had done just a little differently, your regrets. I can imagine what they might be.

You wish you had spent more time with your children, you’ll wish that you had told your spouse how much you loved them more frequently, you’ll wish you could have spent more time and told your parents how much you appreciated them before they passed away. And just while that’s happening, a genie appears.

The genie says, “Well, I’ve been listening in on your regrets, and you seem like a good person. I’m willing to give you a second chance if you are open to it.” And so you say sure, and the genie snaps his fingers and you blink your eyes and when you open them you find yourself right there right where you are right now, June 8th 2012, Killian Court. Some crazy guy is giving a commencement speech. And you say “Oh my god, I’m in my twentysomething, fit, pain-free body again! I’m around my peers again, and the genie was serious! I can have a second chance, I can have all of the successes, all of the adventures I had the first time around, but now I can optimize things. Now when I see my classmates and I give them that hug at commencement, I can hug them a little bit harder, I can show them how much I care about them. Now that my parents are back, I can finally tell them how much I appreciate them. I can finally give them more hugs, more time. I can do everything more; I can laugh more, I can sing more, I can dance more, I can be more of a source of positivity for people around me and empower more people.”

The question is, why not do those things now? Don’t wait around for a genie to give you a second chance.

11. Jimmy Carter on a motivated life

“We should live our lives as though Christ were coming this afternoon.” – Jimmy Carter

Regardless of your religious or political feelings, stop for a moment and ask yourself that question. What would you do if you know without a doubt that Christ himself was going to descend from heaven this afternoon? What would you do differently about your personal choices?

Now, here’s the real question: why aren’t you doing things that way today? Why does it make things different that Christ would be returning this afternoon?

In other words, why don’t we live every day up to the highest standard of our values and morals?

It’s a very interesting way to think about the world and about our own choices.

12. Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles

Bedroom at Arles

I felt that, this month, since I started with van Gogh, I should finish with him, too.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to see this second version (he painted three variations on this) of van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles at the Art Institute of Chicago.

As always with a van Gogh painting, whenever I see one of his best works in a room, it looks like it’s practically glowing with energy. It’s almost as if the rest of the room dims and his painting absorbs all of the energy in the room. His paintings come to life for me like no one else’s paintings do.

His art makes something simple, like a simple bedroom or a starry night, into an ecstatic moment, an eruption of joy and magnificence on a canvas that I’ve never seen anyone else capture.

I think very few people that have ever lived have had the gift of being able to create something that can do that.

Sure, his angles aren’t perfect. It’s not realistic (though it’s not meant to be). Many other people can create more accurate, more technical images. Others even manage to use more color.

But there’s something magical here, at least to my eyes. Something incomparable.

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