Inspiration from Sam Harris, Owls, Dissatisfaction, Voltaire, 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. Sam Harris on how good your life is

“There are at least a billion people in this world, who’ll consider their prayers answered if they could switch places with you.” – Sam Harris

Whenever you find yourself struggling to feel content or happy with your situation in life, sit back and consider the possibility that there are a lot of people on this earth whose dreams and prayers would be completely answered if they were to switch places with you.

Around 700 million people don’t have consistent access to clean water. Around 800 million people do not have enough food to lead an active healthy life. Around 1.6 billion people don’t have adequate shelter from the weather.

I’m not suggesting any sort of charitable movement or anything like that. I’m simply suggesting that when you feel down on your luck, sit back for a moment and consider that a very large slice of humanity on this globe is lacking some combination of adequate drinking water, enough food to live an active, healthy life and basic shelter to keep out the weather.

For me, that thought instantly makes me feel extremely grateful for all that I have in life.

2. Hobonichi Techo 2020

A wonderful friend of mine gifted me this planner, which has immediately become my preferred habit tracking tool. It’s just about perfect for what I want to do.

Basically, at any given time, I have somewhere between 6 to 10 habits and behaviors I’m trying to track and improve. This planner is basically perfectly designed to make it easy to track that number of habits, as well as providing space to record specific details and thoughts about your day.

Basically, near the front, there are several pages that have each month displayed as a table, with each date as a row followed by ten squares. Those squares are absolutely perfect for tracking habits. Later on, there’s an individual page for each day, where I can write down more detailed notes if I want to.

Unless you are tracking a ton of habits at once, this planner is almost perfect as a habit tracking tool. I’ve been having fun setting it up and I can’t wait to use it all year long.

3. John Holt on intelligence

“The true test of intelligence is not how much you know how to do, it’s how you behave when you don’t know what to do.” – John Holt

No one knows everything. We all hit our knowledge limits at some time or another. I know, for me, it happens frequently.

What do I do when I don’t know something? Do I bluster? Do I pretend like I do know? Or do I shut up and listen? Do I start investigating the question so that I do know?

I think all of us do a little of one type of behavior and a little of another. We all want to seem knowledgable and sophisticated, so we sometimes stretch what we know, nodding when we’re lost. At other times, we look up something we don’t know so that we improve our understanding of the world.

The thing is, the more we lean toward actually knowing things rather than “faking” that we know things, the more we actually know and the less we have to fake.

Furthermore, it’s not the knowledge we acquire that makes us intelligent. It’s our willingness to respond to not knowing things by taking the effort to learn it that makes the difference.

Be a lifetime learner. You’ll always be glad you did it.

4. David Asch on why it’s so hard to make healthy decisions

From the description:

Why do we make poor decisions that we know are bad for our health? In this frank, funny talk, behavioral economist and health policy expert David Asch explains why our behavior is often irrational — in highly predictable ways — and shows how we can harness this irrationality to make better decisions and improve our health care system overall.

The interesting part about this video is that it all feels like common sense, but we so often don’t make the choices that make common sense. The things we need to do to stay healthy are really rational and sensible, but so many of us don’t do it. People don’t wear seat belts. People eat terribly unhealthy foods. People consume drugs.

The problem isn’t an information deficit. The problem is a behavior deficit. We know what we need to do to get healthy. We just often don’t do it. Why? Present bias. We value what seems good right in the moment rather than what’s good long term. That’s why we eat cookies. We hate the feeling of missing out.

Doesn’t this all kind of sound like personal finance? It’s because it is. Most of the mental traps that keep us from getting healthier are the same ones that keep us from improving our finances.

5. Robert Frost on tearing down

“Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.” – Robert Frost

It is so much easier to tear something down than it is to build something up. It is much easier to knock down the walls of an institution than to really understand what it is built upon.

Most of the time, we don’t do either one. We walk through the halls of life, not really thinking or worrying about the “why” of what we’re doing or the options that are available to us. It’s only when we see something that we feel is wrong, something that we feel is broken, that we pay attention.

Often, the instinct when we first see the problem is to knock down what we think the source of that problem is.

The thing is, there’s usually a reason for what happened, and more often than not, it’s not what you think it is.

I’m reminded of how I recently read a review of a restaurant online. The review was scathing, criticizing several things about the restaurant but particularly laying into the waitstaff, complaining about how there were empty tables but they had to wait and about how the service was bad.

Upon reading the responses, however, you learn that three members of the staff were told to go home because they were sick, leaving the shift manager and a person who had just finished training to handle all of the tables. They chose to close off a portion of the tables for the night because it was beyond their capacity to handle them all. As the normal traffic flowed in, they couldn’t all be seated, and the service was as good as you could reasonably expect in that situation.

The waiter probably isn’t out to get you. Rather, the waiter might be dealing with things in the back that you don’t even know about and is trying to keep things as pleasant for you as possible.

Don’t assume the worst in others. Don’t tear them down. Not only are you often wrong about the situation, tearing down the situation will almost never make things better for you. In fact, it’ll often make things worse.

6. An Antidote to Dissatisfaction

From the description:

Everybody is familiar with the feeling that things are not as they should be. That you are not successful enough, your relationships not satisfying enough. That you don’t have the things you crave. In this video, we want to talk about one of the strongest predictors of how happy people are, how easily they make friends and how good they are at dealing with hardship. An antidote against dissatisfaction so to speak: Gratitude.

This wonderfully animated video makes a great case for the value of simply feeling gratitude for the world around us, particularly as an antidote to mild dissatisfaction with the world.

When you step back from the feeling of being mildly dissatisfied with the things in your life and the world around you, and instead ask yourself what things are really good in your life and make a list of those things, it really helps.

This hits on the same theme as the quote that starts off this article. Your life might be challenging or difficult or unpleasant in some fashion, but you have so many good things in your life. Even worse, we often overlook those great things and dwell on those relatively minor discomforts.

Take me. I spent most of the day when I was writing this worrying about where a missing package was. The value of that package was maybe $100, but I let that thing make me feel rather dissatisfied and disgruntled all day long. If I step back and look at it, this is completely silly. It’s such a minor thing in life. I have so many good things, why dwell on that minor bad thing? The package did turn up eventually, making the dissatisfaction even more silly.

When you feel dissatisfied and unhappy, step back and think of the good things you have in your life. Try to make that response a routine rather than acting out.

I also want to note that the channel that this video comes from, Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell, is one of the best things on Youtube in my opinion. We have binge-watched the videos from this channel several times and ended up in tons of conversations about physics, philosophy, and countless other things. It’s a wonderful channel for a curious mind.

7. Franklin Roosevelt on life’s path

“A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” – Franklin Roosevelt

We all want the good life, but we often overlook how it is the hard moments in life that make us stronger and much more able to actually achieve the good life.

In 1998, I was placed into a job where I absolutely did not know what I was doing. I still, to this day, don’t know why I was given this job. I was responsible for a project that I didn’t understand, with countless intricacies and so much knowledge required that I simply didn’t possess.

I gave it my all. I made a mockery of it. I was demoted and basically fired.

The thing is, that was probably the most important job I’ve ever had in my life. I already knew how to work hard, but what that job taught me was humility. What I should have done is spent the first month or two doing nothing but learning about what I was doing and what was going on, even if it meant that there was no forward progress, simply so that when it did begin moving forward again, it wouldn’t immediately go off the rails.

I ended up applying that lesson over and over again in almost every job that I took on. I firmly believe I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t utterly failed at that project back then.

You might get lucky and have a smooth life no matter what you do, but if you’ve never navigated through really tough waters, it doesn’t take much to upset the boat. I’d far rather have a life that knocked me down a few times than a life where everything was easy, because I’m going to know what to do when things don’t quite go as planned.

8. James Watkins on persistence

“A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.” – James Watkins

Success doesn’t come overnight except with extreme luck. Rather, most success is but over a very long time, with small consistent steps, until suddenly the path is clear of obstacles.

If you want to do something amazing, the best thing you can do is figure out something you can do every single day without fail that chips away just a little at the obstacle before you. A little chip one day, then another little chip another day. You can swing away at it all you want, but you’ll wear yourself out and the obstacle will persist. Rather, you want to chip away at it, chip away, chip away.

What can you do today to get yourself closer to where you want to be? That’s a great question, but you should think of it more in terms of what you can do every single day without fail to get yourself closer to where you want to be.

9. Sturgill Simpson’s cover of In Bloom

This is a cover of Nirvana’s 1991 classic song “In Bloom,” done in a very different style. Here, Sturgill Simpson gives it a very mellow and downbeat Americana styling, changing it from a song about being disconnected from music fans (the original) to a song about the difficulty of figuring out how to love someone (this one).

I love genre-bending covers like this, particularly ones that manage to tweak the meaning of the original while still staying true to it. The obvious song to point at here is Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt, which changes the tone of regret so beautifully from the original.

I find myself often listening to the music of Sturgill Simpson lately, particularly his albums A Sailor’s Guide to Earth and Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. The songs address themes that aren’t often covered in country or Americana music, and it’s all done with such a deft touch that you can kind of just get lost in it. That’s talent, and it’s inspirational.

10. Winston Churchill on distraction

“You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” – Winston S. Churchill

Modern life gives us infinite distractions. You’re probably viewing this on some device — a computer or a smartphone — that frequently distracts you from things you should be doing. Your television is a distraction. A lot of people are distractions, too.

Distractions keep you from getting the things done that you want to get done. They keep you from achieving goals. They drain your focus, your time, your emotional energy and often your money.

Stop looking at barking dogs (I actually think this is an apt description of much of social media). Rather, stay focused on your destination. If you find yourself continually looking over at the barking dogs, it’s time to make some changes. Delete that barking dog app. Turn off that screen.

11. The Unfinished Fable of the Sparrows

From the description:

Nick Bostrom prefaced his 2014 book SuperIntelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies with a chilling parable illustrating how foolhardy humanity’s pursuit of strong, recursively self-improving general AI is without FIRST considering how to control and motivate it.

I’m sharing this video, not because it provides some grand answers about life, but because it asks some pretty good questions in a way that’s really approachable.

I watched this video together with my kids and it kept coming up again and again over the past few weeks, in snippets of dinner table conversation or in references when we were listening to a story on the radio during a car trip.

If there’s a lesson to be had here, it’s this: whenever you’re about to make a major move of any kind, you owe it to yourself and everyone else involved to spend some time thinking about what it will actually be like after this change. What might the drawbacks be? It’s easy to be an optimist about changes that you want, but what’s lurking back there?

An owl might solve your problems, but an owl might also eat you.

12. Voltaire on today’s courageous decision

“The most courageous decision that you can make each day is to be in a good mood.” – Voltaire

As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned that being in a good mood is often a choice. Yes, there are definitely things in life that can sour our mood, but the truth is that most of the time, you really do decide your mood or at least a healthy portion of it.

I can choose what I think about, and if I choose things that are uplifting, I generally feel better. If I choose things that drag me down, I feel worse. I can also choose to do things that make me feel better (like taking a walk or just going outside) or things that make me feel worse (vegging on the couch all day).

Those choices are up to me, and they’re still up to me no matter what the world around me is doing.

That doesn’t mean that this is some kind of magical solution to depression or other mental illnesses. They’re not. Rather, they’re tools that can help pull someone out of a minor funk or simply brighten someone’s day.

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.