Inspiration from Alan Watts, Julie Dhar, Seneca, and More!

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. Thomas Henry Huxley on the things we must do

“The most valuable of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it has to be done, whether you like it or not.” – Aldous Huxley

If we want to have any kind of success in life, there are tasks that we don’t particularly want to do that have to be done, often at times when we really don’t want to do them.

Sarah and I both dream of financial independence, but achieving that takes a lot of hard work. It means that there are times when I’d definitely rather do something else for various reasons, but I choose the financially stable path.

I want to be the best parent I can be, and doing that takes a lot of work. It also means that there are times when I’d definitely rather be doing something else, but I choose to focus on my children.

It’s hard. It’s the hard part of personal finance success. It’s the hard part of parenting success. It’s the hard part of marital success.

The things you need to do to succeed in life aren’t complicated. They’re just hard to do. Getting yourself to do them instead of the easier and more momentarily enjoyable thing is the real challenge.

2. J. Marshall Shepherd on three kinds of bias that shape your worldview

From the description:

What shapes our perceptions (and misperceptions) about science? In an eye-opening talk, meteorologist J. Marshall Shepherd explains how confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect and cognitive dissonance impact what we think we know — and shares ideas for how we can replace them with something much more powerful: knowledge.

So, what are these biases?

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, absorb, and retain information that matches up with one’s pre-existing viewpoints, and avoid and forget information that does not. Think of a person who reads and watches news only from one source and remembers it well, but basically ignores all other sources.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is the tendency of people with mediocre ability to strongly overestimate their abilities. Think of someone who’s pretty bad at cooking trying to make some sort of amazing meal. Another good example is the Netflix series Nailed It!, where I can only assume some of the contestants are falling prey to this effect (while others recognize that they’re not good at baking).

Cognitive dissonance is the stress experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. Think of a person who doesn’t want to get drunk tonight but then promptly orders a glass of wine and drains it with supper.

We all do these things at some point in our lives. The challenge is recognizing the areas of our life in which we’re succumbing to these kinds of biases and working to overcome them.

3. Alan Watts on being alive

“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.” – Alan Watts

If you’re wearing yourself out trying to be something, stop. In the process of wearing yourself so thin, you’re inevitably failing at other areas of life. An exhausted person can’t really succeed at anything that they try to do.

If some aspect of your life is really wearing you out, then it’s time to step back from that area a little and recharge. If you’ve got so much on your plate that you’re not sleeping a full night of sleep each night, then you’re not giving anywhere near your full self each day.

If you wake up feeling dead, you’re not operating nearly at 100%. Take care of yourself first. The rest will follow.

4. Zettelkasten

So, let’s start off with a bit of a spoiler: for the last three or four years, I’ve been developing a high fantasy setting in incredible detail that I intend to write a number of high fantasy novels in. (What is “high fantasy”? Think Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings.) I’ve been using a number of tools to help me generate ideas and organize the world, but over time the material concerning the world has become so complicated that it’s become hard to manage.

Over the last few months, I’ve discovered the “Zettelkasten Method” for organizing a metric ton of notes on a particular topic. It’s a way of organizing a ton of interconnected ideas with side branches and clusters of ideas and so on, much like you would expect if you’re trying to describe an entire fictional setting.

The system has been tremendous for organizing all of the ideas I have. I have been moving them out of Evernote (my previous standby, which made linking notes kind of tricky) and into DEVONThink, which is a note management app that’s basically designed for this method. As I’ve gradually moved into this setup and become used to it, I’ve discovered how brilliant it is for organizing a ton of notes on a topic.

In fact, if I were starting a really big research or thought project that would cover years of work and possibly generate a lot of articles and books, I’d start with software like this from the very beginning using the Zettelkasten method. It works like a charm. It just takes some getting used to, but once it clicks, it’s essential.

5. C.S. Lewis on changing the ending

“You cannot go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” – C.S. Lewis

It is really easy to get hung up on the mistakes you’ve made in the past, but the truth is that no amount of wishful thinking can undo past mistakes. You can’t go back and change them, no matter what.

Thus, pining over them and feeling bad about them offers no benefit to your current life at all. The only thought you should give to them is to learn from them or to understand how to best remedy them (and continuously thinking about them is not a remedy).

It’s like drawing a line across a piece of paper. You can’t change the part of the line already drawn, but you can change where the line goes.

6. Beginning Bluegrass Banjo by Mark Wardle

Here’s the first video in this series:

So, what’s this all about? I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the banjo. My grandfather could play it incredibly well, but I always felt like he had a special knack for string instruments. I tried learning to play the guitar and, with a little less intensity, the ukulele, but neither instrument really spoke to me like the banjo always has.

I’ve been on the cusp of looking for a bluegrass banjo teacher a few times but I never really took a dive. I watched a lot of Youtube videos but none of them really clicked.

Until this one.

Something about Mark Wardle’s teaching style in these videos really clicked with me. The banjo makes sense now in a way that it hadn’t before. I now want to own a decent banjo and start mastering it, and the change is mostly due to these videos. If that’s not inspiration, I don’t know what is.

7. Seneca on life’s misfortune

“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” – Seneca

The moments of misfortune in my life have taught me more than all of the fortune I’ve ever had.

I was born with deafness in my left ear and near blindness in my right eye. I use lots of little tricks to get through life so that they’re a non-issue (most people don’t even notice unless they’re around me for a while), but they’ve also made me really understand the challenges that others face and it’s also made me understand that most challenges before me can be overcome.

I’ve been in a giant financial hole. I learned how to climb out of it. It wasn’t easy. It was quite hard, in fact.

At the start of my professional career, I was thrown onto a project that I was wholly unprepared to tackle. To make things worse, one of the three members of our tiny team basically decided to sandbag the whole project. Learning what I needed to know with extreme speed and turning that into a functional project with an incredibly accelerated timeline was one of the hardest challenges I’ve had to overcome. I learned more professionally in those three months than I learned over the rest of my career.

You learn more and grow more in times of trial than you ever do when times are easy.

8. Bear Bryant on mistakes

“When you make a mistake, there are only three things you should ever do about it: admit it, learn from it, and don’t repeat it.” – Paul “Bear” Bryant

This follows the earlier quote about dwelling on the past. Dwelling on the past is useless.

If you make a mistake, it’s okay. We all do it. What makes the difference is what you do afterwards.

Do you dwell on it? Bad move. Do you excuse it? Bad move. Do you blame others? Bad move.

Do you admit your mistake? Good move. Do you apologize with sincerity to any harmed parties? Good move. Do you try to learn from it so that you never repeat it? Good move.

Those choices are up to you in the aftermath of any mistake.

9. Julia Dhar on how to disagree productively and find common ground

From the description:

Some days, it feels like the only thing we can agree on is that we can’t agree — on anything. Drawing on her background as a world debate champion, Julia Dhar offers three techniques to reshape the way we talk to each other so we can start disagreeing productively and finding common ground — over family dinners, during work meetings and in our national conversations.

I think her tips really boil down to one thing: listen without formulating a response; rather, listen with the purpose of sincerely understanding their point. There is almost no conversation with opposing points of view that doesn’t go better if you do that.

If someone says something you strongly disagree with, throwing up your hands and walking away won’t make things better, nor will aggressive debate. Rather, listen to the person. Ask why they feel that way. Let that person explain what their train of thought is and listen, not just for ways to cut it down, but so that you understand it better.

Not only will this let you find areas of common ground, it’s also going to open the window to that person affording you the same respect later in the conversation or else looking really bad to bystanders.

Slow down. Listen. Don’t assume other people are morally broken or are bad actors. Try to understand their train of thought, and ask polite questions if you don’t understand. You’ll likely find that you agree on more than you think and that your views differ less than you think.

10. Miyamoto Musashi on truth

“Truth is not what you want it to be; it is what it is, and you must bend to its power or live a lie.” – Miyamoto Music

One interesting thing I’ve found as I grow older is that my mind doesn’t store memories perfectly – in fact, it does a pretty slipshod job of it. I tend to remember things in a way that makes the most sense, but that often turns memories into a collage which doesn’t represent anything perfectly well.

It’s dangerous to make big judgments based on those memories. I’ve learned that for important things, I really need to rely on external facts and numbers and data. If I trust those memories fully, I almost always end up making mistakes.

One of the biggest flaws I had when I was younger was an innate trust of my own memories. I could recall things quickly and put things together quickly, but I was actually making collages and then relying on those as though they were true. I’m now much more careful about relying on verifiable things.

11. Stretching

This might sound completely strange, but it’s been a big thing for me lately.

For about ten minutes after I wake up in the morning, I spend time stretching. I do my own thing – I don’t really follow any sort of set routine – but I have about fifteen stretches I do for about thirty seconds each, and with about ten seconds to switch positions, that adds up to about ten minutes. The closest one I’ve found to what I do is this video. I do several of the same stretches, but hold them for a bit longer than he does.

My original goal in doing this was to simply start kicking higher. I started doing taekwondo with my family through a program sponsored by our local parks and recreation department. Part of taekwondo is repeated kicking, and as you advance, the kicks need to get gradually higher and higher. I started stretching mostly to aid with that.

However, I found that about ten minutes of stretching right when I get up, drinking some water beforehand and then drinking some more water right after it, makes me feel really good to start the day. I’ve found that if I do vigorous exercise in the morning, I wind up feeling really sleepy mid-day, but if I stretch, I feel good all morning and also don’t feel like I hit a wall after lunch. I usually do it while listening to a podcast or an audiobook, so I’m waking up my mind, too.

Give it a try. Find a few stretches to do when you first get up. This isn’t high intensity stuff – just find things that feel like you’re stretching out various parts of your body. You’ll feel good afterwards, I promise.

12. Anthony Bourdain on impressions

“It makes a difference if you walk in the door saying, ‘I’m going to love it here,’ or you walk in the door saying, ‘This place is going to suck.’” — Anthony Bourdain

I could write an entire article on this quote – and, honestly, I probably will someday.

The way you feel about almost anything you do in life is set by how you choose to feel about it as you’re getting ready to do it.

If you’re about to exercise and all you can think about is how terrible it’s going to be, it’s going to be terrible. If you consciously choose to think about how good you’re going to feel during it and afterwards, it’s going to go well.

If you’re about to try a new food and you’ve already decided it’s going to taste bad, it’s going to taste bad. If you decide that it’s going to taste good, it’s probably going to taste good unless it really really hits a flavor you don’t like.

It’s true when you meet people. It’s true when you read a book. It’s true when you walk into someone’s house. If you choose to look for negatives and have a negative first impression, the experience is going to be miserable. If you choose to look for positives and try to have a positive first impression, it’s going to be pretty good most of the time. The choice is up to you.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.