Inspiration from Edith Wharton, Joshua Waitzkin, Mandy Hale 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.

1. Edith Wharton on trying to be happy

“If only we’d stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time.” — Edith Wharton

For a long time, I felt like happiness was something that is a life goal, that there were ways to work toward “becoming” happy. Yet, time and time again, I realized that happiness wasn’t something that came about on its own. Happiness is something that comes about as a result of something else – an achievement, a connection, an experience. Happiness is actually found on the road to those things.

Don’t try to be happy today. Instead, try to do something that you’ve always wanted to do or something big you’ve been putting off. Give yourself a walled-off block of time to engage in a hobby that’s meaningful to you that you don’t give enough time to. Go play with a child or listen to a friend. Help someone.

Make those things routine, and you’ll find happiness along the way. You can’t aim for it, but it will find you.

2. Shannon Lee on what Bruce Lee can teach us about living fully

From the description:

Most of us know Bruce Lee as the famous martial artist and action film star — but he was also a philosopher who taught “self-actualization”: the practice of how to be yourself in the best way possible. In this inspiring talk, Bruce’s daughter Shannon Lee takes us inside the mind of her father, exploring how to use his philosophy in your daily life to achieve profound personal growth and make a lasting impact.

This video is incredibly powerful and a great overview of the idea of “self-actualization” and the life of Bruce Lee, and well worth watching.

I used to have a poster of Bruce Lee on the wall of my dorm room. I bought it at an on-campus poster sale when I was a freshman during a period when I was enamored with his movies and other “kung fu” movies of the 1970s. He was obviously best known as a movie star and a martial arts practitioner, but it’s not why the poster stayed on my wall for two years.

Rather, I watched a short documentary about Lee that was shown after one of his films at a student event on campus. That documentary discussed his idea that knowledge leads to self-knowledge and how your actions are an expression of your values and beliefs. If I believed in a particular idea or value – or thought that I did – and I didn’t express it through action, I didn’t truly believe it, or I believed in some other value more. What is it that I actually value?

It’s questions like these that have really driven my life since I was… well, pretty young, and the idea that knowledge translates into self-knowledge, that you should never stop learning and changing, and your actions are an expression of what you know and value was something that I’ve considered for a lot of my adult life. In a way, most of my life has been a process of learning, honing what I believe, and weeding out actions that aren’t in line with what I belief and leaning into actions that are in line with it, and that Bruce Lee poster was a piece of that journey.

3. Mandy Hale on where you don’t belong

“Growth is painful. Change is painful. But nothing is as painful as staying stuck somewhere you don’t belong.” – Mandy Hale

There are few things more frustrating and sad than seeing someone you care about stuck in a tough situation that only they can get themselves out of. You know they have the ability to do so, but it’s a hard path to travel. You want to help, but it honestly comes down to their choice, because while you can lead a horse to water, you can’t make them drink.

The thing is, if you’re not happy with the path you’re on, doing nothing and staying on that path will never make it better. If you look around your life and aren’t happy with some aspect of it, not changing anything will not make that aspect better.

Change is hard. Growth is hard. But nothing ever gets better without going through that process. You can’t get over the hill without climbing it.

4. Serene

Serene is an app I’ve been using to help me stay focused when I’m working and not at my desk. I find that I can focus pretty well when I’m at my desk at home. I can shut out distractions and really get down to business there.

Unfortunately, some days, for various reasons, I need to (or want to) work elsewhere, and I run into trouble elsewhere.

I’ve used Serene multiple times when working away from home (with my noise-cancelling headphones and my phone on “do not disturb, but vibrate for specific emergencies” mode) and I found it really helpful for keeping me on task. It blocks some apps of my choice and some websites of my choice (provided I install the browser add-ons) while I’m working on my task, helps me break down today’s main task into smaller pieces and work sessions, and walks me through some steps to get in a good situation for work.

The app’s idea is that there’s one big task you want to complete today and that task can be broken down into some smaller pieces that are individual work sessions. So, for example, if my goal today is to write two articles, I might have six work sessions – outline article A, write a good draft of article A, and edit & submit article A, and the same tasks for article B. The tool then locks down your computer (according to what you set up) while you work through each of those sessions, with breaks in between them.

I’m not a big fan of the audio (yet) — I usually use other audio for focus — but the tool does a really nice job outside of that in terms of creating a focused work environment wherever I’m at. I sometimes just need to get out of the house, even at the cost of productivity.

This app has a permanent place on my laptop. It helped me get a lot of writing done over multiple sessions in an environment where I’ve struggled to work in the past. Highly recommended if you sometimes work on a laptop in different environments and struggle to focus.

5. Richard Feynman on questions and answers

“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” – Richard Feynman

Part of the beauty of the world is the mystery about it, how the entirety of the human race only knows a fraction of what there is to know about the universe, and I can only ever possibly know a small sliver of that.

Life is like laying on your back on a country pasture in the nighttime and staring up at millions of stars. I can’t possibly know the story of each of them, but I can sit back and be awed by their collective beauty.

There doesn’t need to be an answer to everything.

6. Planet Money and rethinking channel surfing

As of late, I’ve been watching Youtube videos while eating lunch. I’ll find a channel that’s interesting and well-executed, turn it on while I’m prepping lunch, and watch a few videos while eating and cleaning up.

The channel I’ve been binging on as of late is Planet Money from NPR, which is a large collection of short videos on specific financial topics, mostly economics, but done in an entertaining way.

I think that channels like this are the ideal replacement for “channel surfing.” They’re free (if you have an internet connection), they’re usually pretty short and bite-sized so they’re good to watch if you’re eating lunch or something, and it’s not a big deal if you miss an episode.

I can list tons of these – Binging with Babish, Pro Home Cooks (formerly Brothers Green), Marques Brownlee, Kurzgesagt, CGP Grey – but there are so many individuals and small groups out there making really thoughtful and thought-provoking and engaging content if you look for it. A lot of Youtube is junk, but if you can find a few channels that actually bring value to you, they provide a pretty good bite for your mind to swallow while your mouth is swallowing lunch.

7. Brianna West on self-care and self-improvement

“True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from.⁣” – Brianna West

If I know what things make me unhappy about my life and I choose to do nothing to fix them, I’m essentially choosing to keep that unhappiness in my life. Any “self-care” I do is merely a short term distraction, because the problem remains. Leisure is good for relaxation, but it doesn’t take care of problems.

True self-care comes from doing the hard work to fix problems in your life and make real changes. Self-care isn’t a distraction from a problem, it’s solving a problem (or at least trying to).

If you feel overwhelmed by life, don’t turn to luxuries that distract you from the problems. Identify what’s wrong and work to actually fix it.

8. Jeremy Binns on our picture of life

“What screws us up the most in life is the picture in our head of what it’s supposed to be.” – Jeremy Binns

I have this picture in my head of what an “ideal life” should be like. Perfect relationships, perfect marriage, perfect kids, perfect work, perfect house, and so on.

Whenever I compare my life to that “ideal life,” my life looks … shall we say, highly imperfect by comparison. Nothing in my life is perfect. Nothing in my life is ideal.

Yet, lots of things in my life are good, even great. Lots of things in my life are beautiful.

That ideal life cannot exist in the real world. If I constantly compare myself to that, I can’t enjoy what I already have, and what I already have is quite good.

9. Mark Rosewater on twenty years and twenty lessons learned

From the description:

Magic the Gathering head designer Mark Rosewater shares twenty lessons learned over twenty years of designing one of the world’s most popular collectible card games. Watch to learn lessons such as “Restrictions Breed Creativity,” “Fighting Human Nature Is a Losing Battle” and “If Everyone Likes Your Game, But No One Loves It, It Will Fail”.

Yes, this is a video that’s ostensibly about game design, but it’s about so much more than that. Almost everything Mark Rosewater talks about in this video is applicable in some real way to life and, well, to every single creative endeavor we take on in life.

I watched this video recently because of a burgeoning personal interest in game design, but I couldn’t help but think, as I was listening to it, of how many of the ideas really apply to The Simple Dollar and to other creative work I’ve done in my life and, frankly, to a lot of things in my life.

For example, “restriction breeds creativity.” The Simple Dollar’s topic space is a relatively narrow wheelhouse. I try to expand on the idea of “spending less than you earn so you can achieve life goals” – that’s really the core message of the site – in each direction while keeping it as simple as I can. I try to delve into complex ideas, but to the absolute best of my ability, I try to avoid jargon or complicated language (for better or worse). That restricts my topics that I could write about quite a lot and that restriction forces me to be creative. What’s a new angle on this idea? What element haven’t I delved into before, or in a long while?

Or, for example, “if everyone likes your game, but no one loves it, it will fail.” From the get-go, I’ve had a vision in mind of exactly who I’m writing for, and it’s basically myself right at the point when I was earnestly starting my financial turnaround. I was absorbing everything I could about personal finance and what I wanted was clear and friendly voices to give me lots of ideas that I could plug into my life and turn this ship around. The Simple Dollar is a site I would have loved at that point in my life, and I figure that if it’s a site I would have loved, there are probably some people who would love it too. That doesn’t mean that everyone loves it or even that everyone likes it (though that’s nice). I’d rather change one life than mildly amuse a hundred people.

That stuff applies to my life, too. I constantly find that my best solutions for life problems and my best decisions come when there’s a restriction. When I have infinite choices, I just shut down, so I make a restriction right off the bat. Only store brands, maybe, or only stuff without added sugar.

Also, I’ve learned that having a few really close friends and family members — people that love me — is better than a truckload of acquaintances and people who vaguely like me. I’ll take one person that loves me over 50 acquaintances, and that shapes how I build relationships.

You can find really good life lessons in the most unusual of places.

10. Anne Frank on regret versus gratitude

“Dead people receive more flowers than the living ones because regret is stronger than gratitude.”– Anne Frank

It’s strange how regret is a stronger feeling than gratitude. I think that part of it is that we feel weak when expressing gratitude and love to people in our life, but we often feel more free to express regret because that other person is silent. We’re not expressing that feeling to their face.

It can be hard to express to others what they mean to us now, when they’re living. What if they don’t feel the same way? What if they think I’m silly or foolish?

Trust me, there’s very rarely a time when such an expression won’t at least be very meaningful to them, even if it’s not fully reciprocated. You’ll feel better and so will they.

Don’t hold the gratitude and appreciation in. Let it out before it turns into regret.

11. The Art of Learning: The Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Joshua Waitzkin

I’ve read this book four or five times since it was initially published in 2008. It’s a fantastic book on how to get better at pretty much anything and a wonderful guide to lifetime learning and deliberate practice.

I recently picked it up again, almost on a whim, and read most of it in a single sitting. It reminded me again of the true joy of learning something new and mastering a skill, and it renewed a little fire in my belly for learning and practice, as it does every time.

You cannot get better at the things you dream about by just sitting there.

12. Terry Pratchett on growing older

“Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.” – Terry Pratchett

I swear that it was just yesterday that I was 25 years old and working in data mining. It feels like yesterday that I started this site on a whim rather than writing daily material for it as a well-oiled practice. It feels like yesterday that I was holding my first child in my arms rather than teaching him how to drive.

What happened? It’s easy to lose track of the endless flow of hours and days until you wake up one day and look around and things have passed you by.

The one thing I can say about that feeling is this: it should be a reminder to us all to live in the moment, to say the things we want to say but are afraid to, to hug someone and to tell someone they matter, to apologize for a mistake. Leave those things undone and you’ll wake up in a few years wondering what happened.

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