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Inspiration from Rachel Hollis, “Focus” Walks, Bob Dylan 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.
Today, I’m going to list a bunch of things that have really helped me get through this stay at home period, helping me keep my mood up and keep me focused on my work and the people I care about the most.
1. Brian Eno – Thursday Afternoon
This has been my soundtrack for the last month. It’s a roughly hour-long piece of ambient music that I have been listening to almost nonstop for the last few weeks.
Often, ambient music helps me focus but leaves me feeling a little cold and sad. Something about this doesn’t produce that effect at all for me. Not only does it help me focus, but it also creates something of a warm feeling. If I listen to it when I’m working, I usually feel really good afterward. I feel upbeat and fairly peaceful and ready to tackle anything the world throws at me.
Not only do I listen to it when I’m working, but I’ve also taken to listen to it when I’m walking, too, which brings me to my next piece.
2. “Focus” walks
As the weather has improved here in rural Iowa, I’ve been making it my goal to deal with things by going on a lot of walks. It’s easy for me to go out of my front door and very quickly find myself walking along a gravel road with no one else in sight. I can walk for miles and miles without seeing another living soul, so being able to go on long walks while socially distancing has been wonderful.
As the last month has worn on, I’ve found myself adopting a mid-morning walk that I call my “focus walk.” It’s usually two or three miles long, and during that walk, I listen to mostly instrumental music, often Thursday Afternoon, as mentioned above. On most other walks, I listen to a podcast.
Those focus walks usually happen after a few hours of work, and they’ve become a really powerful way for me to clear my head. I listen to ambient music, look at the world around me and just think. I think about problems I’m trying to figure out, both intellectually and in my own life. I try to resolve my own feelings about the changes in the world. Sometimes, I just let my mind wander.
I almost always find myself having great ideas on these walks, particularly near the end. I’ll find myself stopping to jot down an idea I want to revisit later, then again, then again. The last half mile will sometimes take me 20 or 30 minutes because I keep stopping and jotting things down.
Not only that, when I get home, I feel great. I’m able to focus on work tasks really well, and that good feeling often lasts for much of the rest of the day.
I tried moving this focus walk around throughout the day, but it seems to work best in the mid-morning after I’ve already worked for a few hours. If I do it too early, I feel keyed up. If I do it too late, it doesn’t seem to offer nearly as much of a focus or problem-solving boost. There’s this magic mid-morning moment for my focus walk, and it’s really become the centerpiece of a lot of my days.
3. Alan Watts on reinventing yourself
“You’re under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago.” – Alan Watts
For myself, and honestly, for everyone in our house, this has been a time of reflection and mild reinvention. We’ve had lots of conversations about how this is probably the best time in any of our lives to just think about the person we want to be and what we need to start doing to be that person. It is a perfect moment for reinvention.
I think my youngest son is too young to understand, but I am actually seeing this strongly in my daughter, my oldest son, my wife and in myself. All of us are thinking of those thoughts. What parts of ourselves can we leave behind in the pre-coronavirus world? What parts of ourselves do we want to build up and emphasize in the post-coronavirus world? What routines and habits should we drop from our pre-coronavirus lives? What new ones should we build up in our post-coronavirus lives?
We have a unique opportunity right now to rethink and reshape ourselves. Take advantage of it.
4. The Dagger and the Coin book series by Daniel Abraham
This has been my fiction reading over the past month. It’s pure high fantasy, but with enough philosophical threads running through it to leave me thinking after almost every chapter.
The series deals with the balancing between military power and financial power in the running of a late medieval empire. There are fantasy elements in the story, but the real compelling thread is the contrast between the two characters that represent the “dagger” and the “coin” – the military power and the financial power, in other words. There are elements about how the world changes and sometimes roughly throws off those who are left behind, and many other interesting things.
Yet, beyond all of that, it’s just an interesting story. It’s fun to simply sit down and get lost in the world that Abraham has created.
Daniel Abraham is one of my favorite authors, not just for this series, but for his other writings, including his efforts under the pen name James S. A. Corey (a pseudonym he shares with Ty Franck, as they work together on stories under that name).
5. Isaac Asimov on science and wisdom
“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” – Isaac Asimov
If there’s one thing I learned at my previous career, it’s this: a huge set of data can tell you a whole lot of things, and if you have someone that doesn’t strongly understand the data analyze it, you’re almost guaranteed to come to the wrong conclusion about what the data means.
I witnessed it over and over again. Large data sets only answered questions for people who understood exactly what the data represented and what kind of things it could reliably represent. Often, that wasn’t the obvious conclusion you could draw from the set.
I like to use this example:
Imagine you have a disease that affects 1 in 1,000 people. You have a diagnostic test that is accurate but generates 5% false positives. You have a patient for which you know nothing else except that they have a positive result on the test. What are the odds that the patient has the disease?
The answer? Less than 2%. It’s not intuitive at all, but it’s the right answer. (The reason is that if you test 1,000 random people with a test that gives 5% false positives, 50 of them will falsely test positive (5% of the 1,000 tests given) and 1 of them will actually be positive, so all you know is that someone with a positive test actually just has a 1 in 51 chance of having the disease — 50 false positives and 1 correct positive.)
It takes wisdom paired with a lot of knowledge to understand what data sets mean. If someone without that wisdom tries to make calls based on data sets, they’ll often be the wrong calls, and some of those wrong calls can be disastrous.
For me, it is comforting to know that there are people out there with that wisdom who are actually studying and thinking about what the data means, and that makes it easier to shut out the opinions of a lot of armchair experts who lack such wisdom. It may be a rough road to get there, but we will get there.
6. Bruce Lee on teaching your children
“Instead of buying your children all the things you never had, you should teach them all the things you were never taught. Material wears out but knowledge stays.” – Bruce Lee
This is something I’m really taking to heart as of late.
I grew up without a lot of money and I’m often tempted to somehow “fix” that sense of not having what other kids had that still lives inside of me by buying things for my own kids. It’s a temptation I have to really work to resist.
More and more, I’ve come to realize that what I should be giving my kids is knowledge and skills, particularly of the kind I look back and wish I had growing up. My parents were wonderful parents, but in many ways, they didn’t really have any idea how to raise someone to be prepared for the modern era. I want to raise my kids to be ready for whatever may come.
I mostly focus on little things. I often ask them whether the thing they’re doing right now will help them in the future, and how. I don’t tell them to stop playing, usually, but I see them later choosing to do other things, like reading a book or making something.
They’re learning, and I’m learning, too.
I’ve mentioned Binging with Babish before on here, but I need to mention it now for a different reason: it’s become kind of a cornerstone for our family during all of this.
We’ve made about 10 dishes from this show over the past month or two, almost always doing them collectively. We’ve made apple strudel completely from scratch. We made a bizarre mega-cheeseburger with a mix of beef and black bean patties in different places. We made lemon cakes. We made a huge plate of nachos starting with corn tortillas.
The thing is, we’ve done most of these things together. My oldest son pulled off a completely from scratch apple strudel by himself. My daughter made lemon cakes with handmade whipped cream. My youngest son and my wife have made some bizarre sandwiches. We worked together on the nachos.
This channel — and the encouragement it’s given all of us to step into the kitchen and just have fun with it — has been a wonderful thing for all of us during these times.
8. Paulo Coelho on lessons from a child
“A child can teach an adult three things: to be happy for no reason, to always be busy with something, and to know how to demand with all his might that which he desires.” – Paulo Coelho
Spending so much time together with my kids filled me with anxiety and stress at first. I was very used to having a lot of quiet during the day, with freedom to define my own schedule. That went right out the door, which meant figuring out a ton of new routines and letting go of old ones. That caused stress.
Over time, though, I figured things out, and it wasn’t just by figuring out new routines. It was also, in part, about learning from them.
I learned to appreciate what I could do each day rather than lament what I could have done if things were unrealistically different. I learned to laugh a lot more about little things. I learned that it’s OK to take a breather from work, but that doesn’t mean doing nothing. I learned that it’s really OK to express what it is that I want, as long as I’m aware of and supportive of what others want.
They’ve learned from me, but I’ve learned from them, too.
A lot of people seemed to dive deep into Tiger King to get their documentary fix during these past months. For me, another documentary series did the trick — Formula 1: Drive to Survive.
I know basically nothing about Formula 1 racing. A friend suggested this by saying that it was about F1 racing, but it wasn’t really about F1 racing, and that I should watch at least the first episode. The first episode got me to the second, and then I was hooked.
Honestly, it felt to me more like a series about making something, that you had these teams coming together to try to out-build the others. There are engineers, managers, drivers and countless others all trying to work together, sometimes well and sometimes not so well, and for the most part, I found myself rooting for all of them.
Again, I don’t think I will ever be a big fan of Formula 1, but I now appreciate it in a new way, and I am deeply glad I watched this series.
10. Rachel Hollis on anxiety
“Anxiety is always feeling like something is out of place, and when you can’t find what it is, you start to think it’s you.” – Rachel Hollis
This is a feeling that I’ve dealt with for as long as I can remember. I think it will, to some extent, always be a part of me.
The last few months have really tested that feeling. There are obviously many things out of place, and that fills me with incredible anxiety. Yet, I’ve also come to realize that it’s not really me that’s broken.
The world is made up of structures built by fallible humans trying to do the best they can. They’re not perfect and are often very far from being perfect. When I expect perfection, I’m expecting something that can’t possibly happen. It’s all about learning to accept that imperfection as part of life.
I might sometimes start to think it’s me, but I’ve learned recently that it isn’t me, and that helps.
11. My paper journal
I have filled more pages with journal writing over the last month than probably any month in my entire life. Simply writing things down and going through them step by step helped me to resolve so many things that have made me worried and anxious.
There’s something special about putting pen to paper. It forces you — absolutely forces you — to slow down your thoughts a little bit. I often feel like my brain is zipping around at a million miles an hour, but then the process of writing forces me to put the brakes on it.
That simple braking changes everything. It makes me work through things a step at a time when I would often zip straight to a conclusion, but then I realize that the steps make the difference. It’s that slow progression through my reasoning that helps me calm down and see many things differently, and I find that incredibly calming while also helping me to make better decisions.
12. Bob Dylan on the rain
“Some people feel the rain, others just get wet.” – Bob Dylan
Difficult moments in our lives often offer us a mix of the good and the bad. In those difficult moments, it’s really easy to get lost in the bad and ignore the good that’s offered.
This year, so far, has been filled with a lot of worry and stress and anxiety and pain, but it has also had a lot of moments of hope and laughter and joy.
My favorite example of this is “wood chips.” It’s a child’s game that my children used to play on our play set in the backyard four or five years ago, sometimes with me and sometimes without. I had thought they’d outgrown it, but during the last month, they picked it up again, and more than a few times, I’ve played with them.
That memory of playing “wood chips” with them, laughing together on one of the first warm days of May during the year that coronavirus came and we all stayed at home, is something I will hold with me for a very long time.
I felt the rain that day.