Inspiration from Marcus Aurelius, Roy Bahat, Bryn Freedman, 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. Marcus Aurelius on pain

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” ― Marcus Aurelius

If you feel miserable because of your job or because of how your friend treated you or because of the weather, that miserable feeling isn’t caused by those things. It’s caused by you and how you choose to react to them.

You have the power to decide what impact anything outside of your own skin has on you. If a friend treats you poorly, you can let it bring down your mood, or you can just shrug it off and do something else. If your job is difficult, you can feel bad about it or you can view it as a fun challenge to overcome.

You decide. You choose how everything outside of your own skin affects your feelings. If you let those things bring you down, you’re choosing to allow that to happen. You’re choosing to let external things have power over your internal life.

It takes a great deal of practice to wrest that power back if you’ve spent your life letting other people and other things dictate your emotion, but it’s a path well worth it.

2. Thomas Curran on why our dangerous obsession with perfectionism is getting worse

From the description:

Social psychologist Thomas Curran explores how the pressure to be perfect — in our social media feeds, in school, at work — is driving a rise in mental illness, especially among young people. Learn more about the causes of this phenomenon and how we can create a culture that celebrates the joys of imperfection.

The drive for perfectionism is almost entirely a bad thing. Perfection is something attained only in the most fleeting of moments, and if you spend your life trying to attain it – or some image of it – over and over again, only to repeatedly fail to get there, you’re going to end up with a life full of despair.

This does not mean that trying to better yourself is bad. Actually, quite the opposite – the healthiest approach to life I’ve ever tried is a simple effort to try to make today a little better than yesterday in the things I care most about. I just figure out where I want to be in life and I put in some effort today to get a little closer to that destination. Ideally, I go to bed in a slightly better place than when I woke up. Over time, though, my idea of where I want to be shifts, so the journey is never complete – and that’s okay, because it’s the journey that’s worthwhile, not the destination.

If I go to bed each night thinking that today was a good day and knowing that I took a step or two forward on some things I care about, life is always good. If I go to bed feeling like I fell short of perfection yet again, life is always bad.

I know which of those paths I prefer.

3. Eric Thomas on what feels good versus what’s good for you

“Don’t make a habit out of choosing what feels good over what’s actually good for you.” – Eric Thomas

This is a constant battle in life. If I always chose the thing that felt good, I would never find financial success. I would never find health. I’d never find a lot of flavors of happiness, because many flavors of happiness rest on a foundation of achievement and that requires doing things that are good, not just things that feel good.

When people succeed at something, they’ve often spent many, many years making hard choices that you never see. They stayed home to study when they could have gone out. They ate oatmeal for breakfast instead of a sugary coffee and a bagel. They chose to spend less money in a situation where it might have been fun in the moment to spend more. They went to the gym instead of resting on the couch and watching Netflix. And they did that over and over again.

No one should pretend that those choices are easy. They’re not easy. Yet, in the long run, those harder choices result in a much better life.

You’re given these choices every day, many times a day. Will you choose the thing that feels good? Or will you choose the thing that’s good for you?

4. Due

I’ve written in the past about how the default “Reminders” app for iPhones has been incredibly helpful in terms of helping me achieve my goals, but I’ve actually migrated from Reminders to Due in the last couple of months, for a number of reasons.

Both apps have the same core function of enabling you to set reminders for yourself that go off at the time that you set, but Due stands apart for simultaneously being easier to create new reminders – especially repeating ones – and also being much more robust in terms of the options available to you. It’s just a better reminders app, and it has timers integrated as well (I use those for things like timing my tea as it steeps and so on).

I don’t use it for things that I have to do. It doesn’t contain my big checklist of things to do for the day, which I keep elsewhere. Rather, I use Due to nudge me to do things throughout the day. I have reminders of things like “drink a glass of water” or “think about what you want to do with the kids when they get home” or “don’t eat too much at lunch.” They automatically go off at various points throughout the day, and they can easily be shut off entirely if I prefer that on a particular day.

It’s just a great, useful, well-designed app from top to bottom, and it nudges me in a lot of areas of my life.

5. Aristotle on talent and need

“Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, therein lies your vocation. These two, your talents and the needs of the world, are the great wake up calls to your true vocation in life… to ignore this, is in some sense, is to lose your soul.” – Aristotle

What are you good at? What does the world need? How can you channel the thing you’re good at into something the world needs? Right there is a recipe for a career or, at the very least, a side gig.

I’m good at being able to consistently write solid, earnest, and reasonably thoughtful material day in and day out. Many people in the world seem to need some nudging when it comes to their finances. Boom – there’s The Simple Dollar’s recipe.

In my previous career path, I was good at being able to dig through data sets to find answers for scientists in a particular field, mentally translating their scientific questions into meaningful extractions of data. I was good at data mining. The world – or at least that particular world of science – needed some questions to be answered about some large data sets. Boom – there was my career.

What are you good at? What does the world need? Those are the two questions you should be asking yourself every time you find yourself at a professional crossroads.

6. Cal Newport – Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

I’m currently in the middle of reading this book, but it’s already swept me off my feet with tons of good ideas about how to reduce digital intrusion in my life.

The key idea is that technology should support a robust life, not supplant it. Technology is merely a means to an end, not the end itself. If a technological tool helps you to do something worthwhile, that’s great, but the worthwhile thing should be entirely independent of technology and the path to get there should only involve technology if it helps you get there more efficiently.

When I’m trying to focus on work, notifications don’t help me, so I turn them off. I can always look at them later. Blindly visiting websites almost never helps me, so I’m basically trying to cut that out of my life. Many of the apps on my phone are distractions when I’m idle rather than meaningful tools on their own, so I’m in the process of getting rid of the ones that aren’t meaningful tools on the path of the things I want to do. My smartphone’s home screen right now is nothing but apps that are there to help me accomplish real world goals, not digital distractions.

I want less virtual and more real in my life. It’s something I’ve desired for a long while, but it can be difficult with my career choices and the current state of the world. Newport’s book is just hitting it right on the head.

7. Anthony Bourdain on the lazy person inside

“I understand there’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons and old movies. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy.” – Anthony Bourdain

The lazy guy inside of me would be perfectly happy to never exercise, eat a lot of unhealthy food, and spend a lot of time playing computer games. The lazy guy inside of me would be really unhealthy and out of shape and be a pretty pitiful father and husband and friend.

That lazy guy inside of me is the enemy. I’m almost always better off over any time frame other than maybe the next hour or two by doing the opposite of what he wants me to do. He’s actually a great guide, because I just try to do the opposite of whatever he tells me.

I don’t always succeed. Sometimes he talks me into wasting time or eating unhealthy food or being lazy. It might feel good for the moment, but I end up feeling like garbage and my life certainly isn’t any better because of it.

It took me far too many years to realize that.

8. Jon Kabat-Zinn on the waves of life

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Life is always coming at you. There’s always something more on the ol’ to-do list. There’s always some unexpected event that comes crashing into your life. There’s always something not going according to plan. There’s always something more on the calendar.

You can certainly choose to feel overwhelmed by those things. You can hide under the covers. You can skip over a lot of the things you should be doing and let things build up.

On the other hand, you can just learn how to best deal with the onslaught of stuff. You can learn the best way to handle a rough day. You can go to bed at the end of the day feeling good about all of the stuff that you were able to handle.

You can drown or get knocked about by the waves. You can refuse to participate and just sit on the beach. Or you can get out there and surf, maybe falling off your board sometimes, but sometimes riding that wave and feeling that moment of bliss of having done something.

9. Lost and Found

This is an utterly charming animated short done in a unique style that won the Best Short Animation award at the 2018 AACTA Awards. It’s well worth watching.

What really captured me is that the animation uses no words and no human characters, yet it manages to convey a wide range of human emotion with incredible clarity and strength. It conveys love more powerfully than most romantic comedies with supposedly great human actors and actresses that I’ve ever seen.

The team behind Lost and Found, most notably director Andrew Goldsmith, director and writer Bradley Slabe, and producer Lucy J. Hayes (just the front people of a much larger team), are incredibly talented and I can’t wait to see where these people go in their careers.

10. Barack Obama on fighting hopelessness

“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something.” – Barack Obama

My great grandmother used to have a wall hanging in her guest bedroom that told the parable of the starfish. Here’s a common version of it:

One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.

Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish.”

The old man chuckled aloud. “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”

The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, “I made a difference to that one!”

Life presents us with an awful lot of beaches full of starfish, situations where solving the whole problem seems so far beyond our capabilities that it’s not worth it to even bother.

Yet, there’s always a piece we can do. There’s always a starfish we can throw back in the water.

I can’t solve child hunger, but I can put some items on the shelf at the local food pantry and make sure that some kid has supper tonight.

I can’t be a perfect parent all the time, but I can be a good parent right at this moment. Same for being a husband. Same for being a writer.

I can’t make everyone in the world like me, but I can be a good friend to this person right in front of me right now.

Focus on the starfish, not the beach.

11. Roy Bahat and Bryn Freedman on the meaning of work

From the description:

Roy Bahat was worried. His company invests in new technology like AI to make businesses more efficient — but, he wondered, what was AI doing to the people whose jobs might change, go away or become less fulfilling? The question sent him on a two-year research odyssey to discover what motivates people, and why we work. In this conversation with curator Bryn Freedman, he shares what he learned, including some surprising insights that will shape the conversation about the future of our jobs.

Provided that a person has enough money to meet their basic needs, the most important factor to people in terms of their work is the dignity of their work. Are they doing something meaningful in the world? Are they respected in what they do? Those factors make an enormous difference for people. Jobs where you don’t feel like you’re doing anything meaningful or where you don’t feel respected for what you do are jobs that people tend to despise.

The nice thing about this is that most of those jobs that people tend to despise are the ones that are most effectively targeted by AI and robotics. They tend to be low skill jobs with lots of repetition that truly feel like just a cog in the machine. AI and robotics will struggle mightily with many other tasks, and those are the tasks that are often meaningful and fulfilling for people.

Take truck driving. There’s a good chance that automated transportation will happen at some point, but the fulfilling part of the job for many truckers is the sense of being part of something and the actual delivery. The long haul sections are often the unfulfilling part, and that’s the part that AI can handle. I see a future where there are very large warehouses full of trailers that can drive themselves to other warehouses automatically on the interstate system, but rely on actual truckers for the last 10 to 50 miles of delivery, where navigation and accuracy is trickier. This lets truckers keep the meaningful part of their jobs and also go home to their families every night without losing their jobs.

I think this is where AI and robotics will end up in every field. It will gradually chip away at the indignity of jobs, leaving the more meaningful work for people to do for themselves, and that will be a truly great thing.

12. Leo Tolstoy on practical philosophy

“It is easier to produce ten volumes of philosophical writings than to put one principle into practice.” – Leo Tolstoy

I enjoy writing articles for The Simple Dollar, but it is undoubtedly true that it’s far easier to write about a principle of self-improvement than to actually put it into practice in my own life.

I can write all day about overcoming temptation, but using those practices in the store when I see something I really want is a whole different level of difficulty. I can certainly learn from that scenario, extract the useful bits, and share them with you, but that’s actually the much easier part.

Understanding what to do is one thing. Actually doing it can be quite another.

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.