Inspiration from Alice Walker, Henry David Thoreau, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 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. Alice Walker on power

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” – Alice Walker

You are not powerless. You are never powerless.

You control what you think. You control what you feel. You control how you speak to others. You control whether you try to use your words to lift up others or to drag them down. You control whether you spend your energy stepping into a challenge or stepping away from it. You control whether you choose to stand up against something that’s wrong or stand idly by while it happens. You control whether you tell others about your stand against something wrong or whether you say nothing. You control how you spend your money, your energy, your time, and your social capital.

All of those are completely controlled by you, no one else. Those things all have great power within them, the power to change lives, the power to change your life, for starters. All you have to do is decide to use those powers for something worthwhile instead of letting them idle away. When you let them idle, you give up your power by your own choice.

What, other than your own choice, stops you from writing a letter to the editor? Calling your congressperson? Telling a friend about something you care about? What, other than your own choice, stops you from spending time stocking shelves at your local food pantry? What, other than your own choice, stops you from telling someone that you love them and how important they are to you? All of those options are powerful options, yet it is only you that chooses whether or not to execute those options.

It’s your choice, no one else’s.

2. Crash Course Philosophy

Crash Course Philosophy is a series (currently numbering 46 videos) that provides a highly entertaining and wonderful broad introduction to philosophy. More and more, I’ve come to realize that personal finance is a mix of philosophy, psychology, and economics, with some bits of sociology thrown in there as well, all baked up together into something quite fascinating.

For me, the value of philosophy is that it’s taught me a lot about how I think, what elements of my life that I have control over (and what I don’t have control over), and what broad approaches I should take to my life going forward. To me, all of that is really foundational stuff for personal finance success. Asserting more control over my day-to-day decisions has been absolutely key for any and all success I’ve found, and I attribute a lot of that to reading philosophy, especially the Stoics (people like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, who I often quote here).

This series is a great lively introduction to lots of different ideas and schools of thought in philosophy. It’s kind of what I might hope that a great Philosophy 101 course at a university might be like. I hope you’ll give it a shot – it’s stuff like this that makes me believe that Youtube can someday replace cable television entirely.

3. Chuck Palahniuk on a happiness scar

“It’s so hard to forget pain, but it’s even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace.” ― Chuck Palahniuk

We all have joyful memories, but it is often the painful events that really etch themselves on our souls. Those scars lead us not to trust, not to open up. They encourage us to be selfish and to believe the worst in others.

Try instead to focus on what exactly brought you joy. Joy comes from opening up to others. Joy comes from sharing moments. Joy comes from trust. Joy comes from letting down your guard and experiencing the moment.

Our lives would all be so much better if we could live by the beautiful marks of our most joyous moments instead of being guided by the scars of our lowest moments.

4. Bullet journaling

Bullet journaling is simply a method of tracking your thoughts and activities in an interesting way that enables you to mix together thoughts and notes you’d like to save with the ongoing tasks of your life.

For me, bullet journaling is more of a source of inspiration for how to keep track of my own events. I tend to journal more as a reflection on my days and rely more on digital tools to keep track of my tasks and appointments.

More than anything, though, I love the bullet journaling community for how they share their ideas. I’m almost constantly sneaking ideas and strategies out of there to help me improve my own personal reflections and ways to track habits and so forth.

5. Brigham Young on taking offense

“He who takes offense when no offense is intended is a fool, and he who takes offense when offense is intended is a greater fool.” ― Brigham Young

Here’s the core message behind that quote: stop worrying about what other people think of you. There are people who aren’t going to like you, no matter what you do. If you spend your time worrying about how to please those people, you won’t ever achieve your goal, plus you’ll never achieve other goals in life, either.

Instead, worry about yourself. Worry about what you’re going to do to achieve the things you want to achieve in life. If you don’t know what it is that you want, spend some time figuring that out. Try to improve yourself in some significant way every single day.

If you have people in your life that you can’t please, don’t worry about pleasing them. Worry about making yourself proud of who you are. If you can strive for that, you’re going to have a pretty good life.

6. Alex Hofeldt on how small we are in the scale of the universe

From the description:

In 1995, scientists pointed the Hubble Telescope at an area of the sky near the Big Dipper. The location was apparently empty, and the whole endeavor was risky – what, if anything, was going to show up? But what came back was nothing short of spectacular: an image of over 1,500 galaxies glimmering in a tiny sliver of the universe. Alex Hofeldt helps us understand the scale of this image.

Whenever I feel broken down or ashamed of some mistake that I’ve made, I look up at the night sky and I realize that whatever mistake I’ve made is so tiny in the scale of the universe that it really doesn’t matter too much. At worst, I’ve adversely affected my own life and maybe the lives of a few people around me. It’s so tiny in the scale of things. I can’t and won’t let that little mistake drag me down. I’ll recover from it. I’ll hopefully fix it. The mistake is but a small one, even if it seems enormous.

The universe is far larger than I can really comprehend or that anyone can really comprehend. Everything we see in the entire night sky is just a drop of water in the ocean compared to the stars and galaxies that exist in the universe. It’s incomprehensibly vast.

It can be easy to feel like a meaningless speck in that vastness, but I find it comforting. It lets me know that the things that I feel are so big in my life really aren’t that big at all. They’re incredibly small, really. It makes the mountains in my life seem easy to reach and to climb.

7. Effective Altruism

Effective altruism is a topic that has deeply inspired me over the past few months to really think about what I’m doing both professionally and personally to do the most good I can do in the most people’s lives.

From this website:

Effective altruism is about answering one simple question: how can we use our resources to help others the most?

Rather than just doing what feels right, we use evidence and careful analysis to find the very best causes to work on.

But it’s no use answering the question unless you act on it. Effective altruism is about following through. It’s about being generous with your time and your money to do the most good you can.

Right now, I’m going through a great deal of reflection about the ideas on that site, about not only where my time and money goes, but about the “good” that I am doing with my writing on The Simple Dollar and elsewhere. It’s not an easy thing to really evaluate and compare to other things, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a question worth answering. Trying to figure out how to be more effectively altruistic in my life – and seeing how others have done so – is something that’s really inspiring to me.

Peter Singer gave an amazing short talk on the topic of effective altruism a few years ago:

From the description of that video:

If you’re lucky enough to live without want, it’s a natural impulse to help others in need. But, asks philosopher Peter Singer, what’s the most effective way to give charitably? He talks through some surprising thought experiments to help you balance emotion and practicality — and make the biggest impact with whatever you can share.

Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

8. Henry David Thoreau on why we’re busy

“It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” – Henry David Thoreau

This is a quote that I’ve found myself writing on top of my to-do list each morning. It’s an effort to try to reflect on why I’m doing the things that I do each day.

Why am I writing articles? To make an income, of course, but also to help people on their financial and life journeys and maybe inspire them or make them smile.

Why am I doing household chores? To keep the house clean and welcoming to guests and to make sure I can find things when I need them.

I’m trying to ask those things of everything that I do. In other words, I’m trying to give all of my tasks a meaningful purpose so that when I’m doing them, I can think about why I’m doing them and how it’s really benefiting my life, even if the task seems dull.

I’ve found that this is not only really helping to motivate me with regard to things that I need to get done, but it’s also putting some “soul” – for lack of a better word – into a lot of tasks. There’s this extra layer of meaning there that wasn’t there before, and it feels as though it’s drawing out a better part of me and encouraging me to invest more of myself into the work.

If that’s not inspiration, I don’t know what is.

9. Brothers Green Eats

A few weeks ago, I was looking for a video on making kombucha. Kombucha, for those unfamiliar, is a naturally fermented and carbonated drink that you can make in your own kitchen. I’ve made many batches of it and I wanted to find a video that really summarized the whole process, both including why one would want to make this stuff and the basics of how to make it.

I came across this video

… and it was just about perfect. It also made me fall in love with the channel as a whole.

Brothers Green Eats is an absolutely charming Youtube channel focusing on cooking at home. They cover a huge variety of topics and recipes and techniques and it’s all done in a very entertaining way. I’ve found myself binge-watching these videos, even at times when I should be doing other things.

That video and one of its sequels drastically improved my homemade kombucha, too.

10. Orson Scott Card on desire

“Once you know what people really want, you can’t hate them anymore. You can fear them, but you can’t hate them, because you can always find the same desires in your own heart.” – Orson Scott Card

Almost everyone I’ve ever met wants the same things that I want. They want to have a life that’s more than just work and sleep. They want to have a family of some kind, whether that family includes a spouse and/or children or just a very close tight-knit group of friends. They want to be loved.

When you learn about a person or meet a person, think about their life through that context. That person wants to have a rich life. That person wants to have close human contact. That person wants to be loved. That person wants to be respected. It may be that they don’t know how to do those things or that they struggle with the execution, but the vast, vast majority of people just want those things in life.

It becomes a lot harder to hate someone when you realize that you have those fundamental things in common.

11. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings – 100 Days, 100 Nights

From the description:

“100 Days, 100 Nights” by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, the title song from the album, available in stores offline and online. The video was directed by Adam Elias Buncher using two vintage TV cameras bought on E-Bay for $50 each. Shows how much you can do with just a little soul!

Sharon Jones’ voice sounds breathtakingly alive to me, as if there is a powerful and energetic spirit inside of her that must get out and the route that it has found to escape is through her voice.

I think, of all of her songs, “100 Days, 100 Nights” shows off her soulful voice and musical style better than any other. I could listen to this over and over and over. And, in fact, I did while writing this article.

Sharon Jones passed away in November 2016, and when she did, the world lost an amazing voice and talent.

12. Arnold Schwarzenegger on struggles and strength

“Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

You don’t build muscle by lifting a light weight into the air 100 times without pausing. You build muscle by lifting a weight you can barely lift several times until that last lift is really a struggle. Then, ideally, the next time you lift it, it’s just a tiny bit easier than before, and you keep repeating it until the next time you decide to add a little weight to the lift.

Why? Strength is only built through challenge. If you’re not facing challenge, you’re not building strength. If you’re not pushing your body or your mind toward some kind of limit, then you’re not improving. If it’s not hard, it’s not making you better.

Push yourself to read something challenging and you can feel your mind twisting under the new ideas. Push yourself to exercise until you’re panting. Push yourself to lift until your body is struggling.

You’ll find that it’s the struggle that makes you better. The easy stuff doesn’t really do anything at all.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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