Inspiration from Brooke Foss Westcott, Handwritten Letters, Elizabeth Gilbert, 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. Please enjoy the archives of earlier collections of inspirational things.

This month’s installment is heavily geared toward things that have inspired me to better writing, being a better parent, being a better husband, and keeping my head on straight during this most challenging of times.

1. Winnie the Pooh on memories

“We didn’t realize we were making memories, we were just having fun.” – Winnie the Pooh

Like many of us, my mind keeps turning back to things that seemed so normal just a few months ago that are now gone from my everyday life.

Once a week, I would go to a community tabletop gaming night with a fairly large group of people. I deeply enjoyed those game nights, mostly because they were just a fun release for me – true leisure time. Sometimes, my kids would go with me, and occasionally Sarah would go, too.

We used to have pretty regular dinner parties, usually with another couple or two, a single friend or two, and any children they might have.

I was in several different community groups, most of which haven’t met in many weeks.

I miss those folks. I miss those meetings.

I didn’t realize at the time that I was making memories that would lift my spirits in just a few months. I was just having fun.

2. The entire NPR Tiny Desk (Home) concert series, especially Laura Marling

Many, many, many musicians have done “live from home” concerts over the past month, often broadcast to YouTube. Many others have released full concerts to YouTube as well.

I’ve enjoyed many of these over the last month. I’ll often play them when doing housework or doing lighter professional work and sometimes before bed, just to relax a little.

There’s something really intimate and wonderful about these performances. The best ones — like this one by Laura Marling, in my opinion — really invokes a feeling of that performer being in the room with you, pulling out their instrument and playing several songs at a small house party.

Enjoy this one, and check out this playlist of many more.

3. Kurt Vonnegut on building and maintenance

“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Most people find it more fun to create and build, and it gets all of the attention and glamour, but as time goes on, I notice more and more that finishing things up and maintaining the results is often more important than the creation and is woefully under appreciated.

When I think about almost every job I’ve had, the work I did stood on the shoulders of a lot of people doing their maintenance work. They kept the building clean. They kept the power running. They kept the software updated and secure.

When I think about my daily life, so much of it exists because people maintain things. The energy that comes into our home. The food we eat. The water we drink. The removal of our waste. Our internet connection. Without maintenance, those things would fail often and rarely work.

Building gets all the attention, but maintenance makes the world work.

4. Getting Results the Agile Way by J.D. Meier

Over the course of a few weeks this past month, I slowly read Getting Results the Agile Way by J.D. Meier. The premise of the book is to apply the ideas of the Agile software development methodology in a broad way to, well, getting things done. It offers a pretty straightforward system for managing all of the things a person needs to get done, centered around setting the “big three” for each day (the three things you really want to get done) and doing that within a framework of having a “big three” for each week, month, and year, which you review each day, week, month, and (you guessed it) year.

There were two things I really enjoyed about this book. One, the system it described fits in almost perfectly with how I already keep track of all of the things that I need to get done. I already have a robust to-do list system and I already have a system of daily, weekly, monthly and annual reviews to make sure stuff isn’t falling through the cracks, so the ideas from this book were more of a refinement of what I already do than a radical change.

Having said that, what I really liked about this book was the density of it. Almost every page was packed with ideas that complement and fill out the system. Some of them definitely get into nitty-gritty details, but so many of the little things translated either into something actionable or something to think about, and every single paragraph seemed to have several such things. I read it slowly, highlighted tons of things, and took lots of notes.

I’m not sure that it’s really suitable for a long review on The Simple Dollar, but if you get a lot of value out of books on improving your ability to get things done, this is a very good read, though a dense one that you’re going to want to read slowly and think carefully about.

5. Brooke Foss Westcott on the revealing of character

“Great occasions do not make heroes or cowards; they simply unveil them to our eyes. Silently and imperceptibly, as we wake or sleep, we grow strong or weak; and at last, some crisis shows what we have become.” – Brooke Foss Westcott

It is in the most difficult of situations when we learn who we actually are and who the people around us actually are.

It’s easy to fall into the lull of a routine and move automatically through life, doing lots of practiced normal things, but what happens when the rug of normalcy is pulled out from underneath us? How do we react?

Do we react with despair? With anger? With compassion? With leadership?

I think we’re finding this out right now, about ourselves and about the people in our lives and about the leaders of the world.

6. Muhammad Ali on the pain of improvement

“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'” – Muhammad Ali

If you want to be good at something, you have to put in the work. If you want to get rid of your worst characteristics, you have to put in the work.

Putting in the work is often not very fun at all. It’s mentally taxing. It’s sweaty and exhausting. It eats up time that you could have spent doing something much more fun.

In the end, though, putting in the work means the difference between succeeding and failing. It means having the life you want versus having the life you’re left with.

7. Elizabeth Gilbert on why it’s OK to feel overwhelmed — and what to do next

From the description:

If you’re feeling anxious or fearful during the coronavirus pandemic, you’re not alone. Offering hope and understanding, author Elizabeth Gilbert reflects on how to stay present, accept grief when it comes and trust in the strength of the human spirit. “Resilience is our shared genetic inheritance,” she says.

Last month in my Pieces of Inspiration article, I shared a link to That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief, an article in the Harvard Business Review that really helped me get through the first days of adjustment to the world with coronavirus. This video is really a continuation of those same thoughts.

It is okay to feel overwhelmed right now. It’s okay to feel grief. The key is to not let them overwhelm you, to stay in the moment and recognize that you are the one who chooses what you do next and you are the one who chooses how you feel about it.

Take it one day at a time, and if that’s too much, take it one moment at a time.

8. Henry David Thoreau on solitude

“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” — Henry David Thoreau

This period of social distancing has actually left me feeling less alone than ever.

My wife is a teacher, so she’s working from home and spends much of her day preparing distance learning materials. All three of my kids are at home all day, too. The normal activities we used to fill our evenings and weekends are canceled and we’re encouraged to stay at home.

What this has meant for me — and for many other people — is a lot more time with my immediate family.

During a normal working day, I would spend most of the day at home. I work and focus best in solitude and, over the years, I’ve found it comforting. During the summer, I would spend three days a week or so working at the local library, often reserving a study room so I could work for several hours in similar solitude.

I love my family dearly, but I find that some amount of solitude, particularly over the course of a week or month, is really important for my own psychological well-being.

This means I’ve had to think carefully about how I work at home. I sometimes actually go into our laundry room with a chair and work on my laptop because it’s the most secluded and quiet place in our house.

This social distancing experience has taught me how much I love my family, but it’s also taught me how much I value a little solitude in my life.

9. Letter writing

Over the last month, our family has taken up a hobby of writing handwritten letters to people. Each of us has sat down, pen in hand and paper before us, and written at least a few handwritten letters to different people.

Some of the letters have been breezy, a fun way to put a smile on a friend’s face when they check their mail.

Others have been deep and thoughtful. I’ve exchanged letters with a friend and the chain has gotten very philosophical, with some wonderful deep questions about the future and about our lives.

Still others have been thankful. I wrote a letter to an old mentor thanking him for many things that he did for me over the years, and I intend to write a couple more.

It’s been cathartic for all of us. Even my children, who I did not expect to take to letter writing at all, actually dove into it, turning letter writing into a several-times-a-week activity.

10. Armin Albert on change

“People who are unable to abandon anything will fail to bring about any change.” – Armin Arlert

There’s this tendency that people have to add more and more and more to their life, almost constantly. More activities. More stuff. More distractions.

If you don’t learn the art of abandoning things, you eventually end up with an overstuffed life, where you never have the time and the energy to do everything well or to enjoy everything you have. You rush from thing to thing in a complete frazzle, never fully enjoying anything and never able to really give your best to anything.

Right now, we’re forced to abandon some things, and that’s good. It is the perfect time to learn how to abandon things. It is the perfect time to decide what to abandon, and to step away gracefully.

Don’t let this chance pass you by.

11. Calm and Headspace

Meditation has helped me stay calm during the last month during some very trying moments, and these two apps have helped with that a lot.

I find that Calm is a more useful tool when I’m dealing with family stress. It keeps me from overreacting to relatively small things and keep my cool in those moments when five people in a house most of the time for a month gets tough.

I find that Headspace is better for dealing with work-related stresses and helps me get into a mindset where I can drop into a flow state easily and get a lot of good work done in a small amount of time.

If you’ve ever wanted to try meditation, these apps will help. They both have free trials to give them a shot; just remember to cancel if they don’t click with you.

12. John Steinbeck on the lights of life

“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.” – John Steinbeck

We all miss things. We all miss people. We all miss experiences.

The thing to remember about missing something is that it is far better to have experienced something and enjoyed it so much that you later miss it when it’s gone than to never have experienced it at all.

The fact that there are things to miss is a sign that life is good, that it can provide such experiences that we long for them later, and when we have a lot of things that we miss, it’s a sure sign that life will provide wonderful things in the future.

Good luck.

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.