Once a month (or so), I’ll 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.
Quite a few people have written to me requesting that I bring back the old “Ten Pieces of Inspiration” series. I’ve decided to change it up a little. Rather than “stretching” to fit in ten pieces every week (which I did sometimes), I’m going to save up pieces until I have a dozen or so good ones. I hope to post this series on roughly a monthly basis, depending heavily on the pieces of inspiration that I find.
Some of these pieces may be a bit longer, both in terms of what I’m sharing and my comments and thoughts on them. As before, I’ll save my comments until after I’ve shared the item that inspired me.
1. Renata Saleci on our unhealthy obsession with choice
From the description: “We face an endless string of choices, which leads us to feel anxiety, guilt and pangs of inadequacy that we are perhaps making the wrong ones. But philosopher Renata Salecl asks: Could individual choices be distracting us from something bigger — our power as social thinkers? A bold call for us to stop taking personal choice so seriously and focus on the choices we’re making collectively.”
I often feel buried in choices. A single day at work offers thousands of choices. A single trip to the grocery store is a flood of decisions. Parenting? It’s a nonstop flow of them.
It is so easy to get caught up in the nuance of all of those little decisions. It is easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees.
All of those little decisions I make while parenting add up to the shape I’m giving to my children, at least as much as nurture provides in parallel with a child’s nature. All of those choices I make regarding the food I eat add up to my health and physical shape. All of the decisions I make while writing or making professional decisions contribute to the overall shape of my career.
It pays to spend time thinking about those big pictures. The stronger the picture you have of the big overall goal, the easier it is to make little decisions because you just instinctively choose the options that are in line with that big picture.
2. Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road
This is merely the first section of a lengthy poem. To view the full poem, check out the entry for Song of the Open Road at the Poetry Foundation.
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.
(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)
This poem perfectly captures those moments when my heart cries out for a change of scenery. There are times when I simply want to be done with all of the difficulties and troubles in my life. I want to walk away and explore my own independent freedoms, free to choose what I want to do all through the day. The earth below me, the sky above me, the thoughts and feelings inside of me – let those be my guide.
Yet, I know that there are many who rely on me, and to seek that independence would not only let them down, but it would also deny that they bring great joy into my life.
So I pack that desire away into a little box, only peeking a bit when I take the opportunity to spend an afternoon walking along a gravel road or strolling through a wilderness reserve, perhaps picking a few berries along the way and just enjoying the sunshine.
I like to taste that freedom, but I am happy not to fall face-first into it.
3. Vincent van Gogh’s Ravine (1889)
This painting was actually painted directly on top of an earlier work of van Gogh’s. He took the original painting – Wild Vegetation – that he must have been unhappy with and directly painted over the top of it with this new work. Why did he do it? In October 1889, van Gogh had run out of canvas, so he resorted to reusing a painting he wasn’t particularly happy with.
The standard practice with reusing canvas for painting is to just paint a base layer that completely covers the original, but when I look at this painting (and at the sketches of the original), I can’t help but wonder if a big part of the right side of the painting was a re-use of Wild Vegetation. Did the original peek through a bit? Did he intentionally use it in this way?
This type of re-use makes me think a little about my own life. I often hold onto half-written articles with an intent of using bits and pieces of them later on – and sometimes I do just that. Yet, at the same time, I don’t really want a garage full of junk.
The trick is knowing when something is useful enough to hang onto – and useless enough to let go of.
4. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance
This is a brief excerpt from the full essay, which you can read at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Texts website.
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.
The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preéstablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.
We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise shall give hint no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.
I re-read this whole essay once every month or two. In terms of impact on my life, I can’t think of any other short essay that compares. Every time I read it, I discover something new or walk away with some new idea to twist around in my head.
Here, Emerson is talking about the decision people make when they choose to express themselves in a unique fashion. His suggestion is that if you don’t put your full effort into that expression – whether it’s writing or speaking or performing or sharing a piece of art or anything else – you both betray yourself and whatever it is you’re trying to express.
If you decide to write (or express yourself in another way), don’t hold back. Write. Put it down on the page with the absolute best effort you can muster. If you don’t, not only will the writing not express whatever it is you wanted it to express as well as it could have, that reduced impact will only reflect poorly on you. If you’re just going to do a mediocre job and not give it your all, don’t bother. Move onto something else.
5. The Head and the Heart – Lost in My Mind (Cardinal Sessions)
I am in love with the Cardinal Sessions, which is a series of vocal and acoustic videos on Youtube. Their description:
Cardinal Sessions was founded in the summer of 2010 by two students from Essen and Cologne. They challenge the classic music video and try to replace impersonal footage with immediate and emotional snapshots.
This is the claim of our team that consists of six members by now: bands from all over the world with their different genres present their songs reduced to the essence of the musical spectrum – only vocals and unplugged instruments. Due to the spontaneous live-aspect and the approach to record every song without any additional rehearsal, songs emerge that often sound significantly different to their album versions.
We film on locations that the musicians mostly choose by themselves: remote places, frequented streets, parks, woods, fields, bars; nothing is impossible. We have accomplished our goal if the location fits well to the background of the music we and the artists want to present. But our most important purpose is that there are no borders: we film everything that we like, no matter how popular, famous or also unknown a band might be. It is still important for us to support local talents and it will always stay part of our concept.
It’s such a beautiful replacement for the music video. It replaces overproduction with almost no electronic manipulation at all, showing musicians playing music with their instruments and vocalists singing with their own voices in natural settings. If I were even remotely talented as a musician, this is how I would like to be featured.
The best part, for me as a listener, is that the music sounds happy and alive and vibrant. You can tell that the musicians in these sessions just love to play their music, and the entire project is about putting musicians in a happy place so they can play and be joyful and produce their best stuff.
The biggest winners are the listeners. We get to hear amazing, natural performances from lots of different musicians.
One of the biggest struggles I have is organizing my thoughts when it comes to large projects, like writing the first draft of a book or planning out a year’s worth of material for a class.
I’ve tried a lot of different approaches for this. I’ve used pen and paper, which usually dissolves into a chaotic mess as I try to insert thoughts and move sections around. I’ve used Evernote, which is better, but it either requires me to have a bunch of notes open all at once or forces me to scroll around to see the big picture.
Workflowy just solves the problem beautifully. It’s basically a notetaking program that takes the form of an outline, except that you can expand and contract elements of that outline with just a click and easily move large chunks of it around.
I’ve been working on three different book drafts in the last several months. In the last few weeks, I’ve moved all of the outlines and notes to Workflowy and never looked back. It just makes it so easy to organize all of the notes and thoughts into a sensible structure that I can start a fresh draft from.
This tool not only inspires me to better creative work, I’m also inspired by how smooth the design is. It’s as if someone thought of the exact problem I have and created a solution for it.
7. Stuart Scott’s speech at the 2014 ESPY Awards
For those unfamiliar, Stuart Scott is a sports broadcaster who is struggling with a difficult fight against cancer. On July 16, after a week in which Scott had four surgeries, he was presented with the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the ESPY Award broadcast. It was an amazing speech.
Two particular points really touched me.
“When you die, that does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live,” Scott said. An illness does not define you. A mistake does not define you. What defines you are the choices you make, day in and day out, year in and year out. What defines you are the things you do in this world to improve the lives of others and to make this world a better place.
Later, Scott offered, “So live, live. Fight like hell. And when you get too tired to fight, then lay down, rest and let somebody else fight for you. That’s also very very important. I can’t do this don’t give up thing by myself.” There is no struggle in life that we need to face alone. The hardest struggles require the help of others, and it does not make you stronger to turn away from that help.
8. Helen Keller on the doors of happiness and success
“When one door of happiness closes, another opens, but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us.” – Helen Keller
All throughout my life, I dreamed of becoming a writer. I wanted to write books and articles that would cause people to have a bit of additional joy and laughter and thought in their lives.
For years, I would write in drips and drabs. I finished a novel and shopped it around half-heartedly, getting one strong tug of interest from a publisher, but nothing more. It took me seven years to write it, a bit at a time.
Mostly, I just convinced myself that the door was shut on my dream of writing. I’d think about it quite often, but I’d never bother to actually write.
I thought that door was closed forever, but another door was opening. Writing about my own experiences and just giving them away online in the form of blogs and other things made things possible that I never thought would happen.
All it took was a willingness to actually do it. The path was there – all I had to do was actually write and actually share what I wrote – but I kept staring at the closed door of a “big shot” publishing deal.
What closed doors do I keep staring at today? It’s a question that’s made me think a great deal over the last few weeks.
Note: there is a bit of rough language during the middle third of this short film. You may not want to watch it at work.
Donkey is a short film by Keir Burrows about a man who finds a great deal of success in life, only to find himself questioning what he sacrificed to get there. It’s quite moving.
Although I was never at the top of the social pyramid during my school days, I was never really teased, either. I was always just kind of there. I got along reasonably well with people, but I only formed a few really strong bonds (one of them eventually becoming my wife). I mostly just avoided conflict unless someone delivered it directly onto my lap, in which case I would usually just defuse things by avoidance and humor.
There were always a few kids who were tormented endlessly by the masses, usually led on by a few cruel-hearted children who were followed by a number of others who just wanted to be accepted by a crowd. More than anything else, I wonder what happened to those kids that were teased. I’ve never been able to track down any of them, but whatever path life gave to them, I hope it was better than those years of cruelty.
The choices we make every day do so much to define the relative joy and success of others.
10. Samuel Johnson on reading
“What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.” – Samuel Johnson
I’m deeply passionate about reading. Even excluding all of the books I read strictly related to personal finance and professional purposes and the articles that I read both for enrichment and for research, I still manage to polish off a book and a half a week, on average. I try to devote at least one hour each day to reading for personal enrichment – and it usually turns into two, at least.
Sometimes, I’ll start a book or an article and, before long, I find that it’s just not holding my attention at all. Maybe the writing style doesn’t click with me, or maybe I just don’t find the subject interesting. No matter – I’m having to work to keep my attention on the book.
Whenever that would happen, I used to just force myself through it. However, the more I did that, the more I realized that I would get very little out of those books. I’d find myself retaining almost nothing of what I read. It was valueless.
Now, I sample books all the time. I’ll read the first chapter and see if I get lost in it. If I don’t… frankly, there are too many great books in the world to spend my time trying to force myself to read – and get very little out of – a book that just isn’t clicking with me.
Johnson’s quote is just a beautiful little reminder of this.
11. The Rule of Three
In the words of Chris Bailey of A Life of Productivity:
The rule is simple: at the beginning of each day, think of three outcomes you want to achieve by the end of that day. This technique allows you to channel your time, energy, and attention into just three outcomes over the course of a day, which is incredibly motivating.
I’ve been practicing this for the last month and it’s made an enormous difference in how much I’ve been able to get done over the course of a given day in terms of things that actually matter.
For example, my three outcomes for today were to write drafts of three articles for The Simple Dollar, create a two-level outline for a book idea I have, and go geocaching with my family and have some great conversations along the way.
I simply wrote these things down on a Post-It note and stuck it on my monitor. Whenever I find myself getting distracted or doing something less important, I look at that note and it gets me back on track.
The note contains all kinds of things, depending on the day. Sometimes it’s very professionally-oriented, as it is today. At other times, all of the items will be entirely personal (a few days ago, for example, my items were clean up and organize my office, build and paint a mousetrap racer with the kids, and prepare a report about the requirements for starting a human trafficking shelter in Iowa).
Give it a try. What three big things do you want to achieve today? You’ll find that such a simple thing can do a lot to make your day better.
12. Julian Treasure on how to speak so that people want to listen
From the video’s description: “Have you ever felt like you’re talking, but nobody is listening? Here’s Julian Treasure to help you fix that. As the sound expert demonstrates some useful vocal exercises and shares tips on how to speak with empathy, he offers his vision for a sonorous world of listening and understanding.”
The tone in which you say things are almost as important as what you’re actually saying. If you sound positive, for example, it’s much easier to connect with people regardless of what your message is. For the most part, people really don’t want to listen to others who sound negative. They might be entertained by a negative message, but it’s usually presented with positive vocal techniques.
The vast majority of people speak without really thinking about how they’re speaking, and this video walks through a ton of little things that people can think about and actually do when they’re speaking to add much more emphasis, impact, and connection to their words.
The real trick, for me, is focusing on how I’m speaking as much as what I’m speaking. Most of this stuff makes a lot of sense, but it’s a huge reminder to step back and focus on how I’m delivering ideas and sentiments at least as much as the message I’m delivering.