Inspiration From Seneca, Ivy Lee, Coffee Cup Lids 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. Seneca on pleasure and punishment

“So called pleasures, when they go beyond a certain limit, are but punishments.” — Seneca

This has really been my quote of the month for the last month or so. It’s popped up in two or three things I’ve read and I actually wrote it down by hand and stuck it on the monitor of the computer I work at most days — which is a computer workstation on a standing desk in our basement.

You really can have too much of a good thing, and when you do, it’s not just diminishing returns, but an actual drawback. I love playing tabletop games and I have a collection of them that I’ve built up over 25 years or so, but I have so many that at times I’m almost paralyzed by the choices and overwhelmed by the thought of playing each of them to the depth they deserve. The thought of transporting the collection seems like a big challenge as well. There are moments when the entire thing feels far less enjoyable than it once did, even though I still truly love having the pleasure of sitting down at a table and playing a game with a friend.

So, as a result, I’m slowly paring down the collection. I’ve been selling some of them and giving a few of them to close friends that I know will enjoy them (and I know I can still play those games with them over time).

You really can have too much of a good thing, and the constant chase for more and more, and better and better, is just a step toward that destination. There is incredible value in appreciating and diving deep into what you have.

2. Max Richter — Tiny Desk Concert

From the description:

Half way through this performance of Max Richter’s achingly beautiful On The Nature Of Daylight, I looked around our NPR Music office and saw trembling chins and tearful eyes. Rarely have I seen so many Tiny Desk audience members moved in this way. There’s something about Max Richter’s music that triggers deep emotions.

In Daylight, which has been effectively used in movies such as Arrival and Shutter Island, a simple theme rolls out slowly in the low strings until a violin enters with a complimentary melody in a higher register. Richter, at the keyboard, adds a subterranean bass line for added gravitas, while high above another violin soars sweetly, mournfully. With all elements interlocked – and sensitively played by members of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble – the piece gently sways, building in intensity. It all adds up to a six-minute emotional journey that, if you open yourself to the sounds, can leave you wrung out.

“I’m very interested in the idea of a piece of music being a place to think,” Richter explained, adding that he had written Daylight as a response to the 2003 Iraq War.

Richter, whose music can’t be easily pigeonholed, lightened the mood with a miniature called Vladimir’s Blues. Its delicately toggling chords are an homage to novelist Vladimir Nabokov who, in his spare time, was a respected lepidopterist, obsessed with a subfamily of gossamer-winged butterflies called the blues. Richter plays the piano with the practice pedal engaged for a warm, muted sound.

Again in the final piece, Richter counters violence with calming, thoughtful music. His ballet Infra is a meditation on the 2005 terrorist subway bombings in London. It’s music about travel, too, Richter explains, saying that he was inspired by Schubert’s melancholy song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey).

In trying times, music by the soft-spoken Richter can feel like a safe haven, a place for personal reflection or a welcoming, utilitarian space to clear the mind.

Please, give yourself 10 minutes and turn the volume up and listen to this one. It’s worth it.

3. Augusten Burroughs on flaws and intentions

“I, myself, am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.” — Augusten Burroughs

This is an incredibly accurate description of how I feel most of the time. My entire life has been a lot of flaws and missteps usually done with the best of intentions.

For the longest time, I dwelled on those flaws, missteps and all of the mistakes I’ve made in my life. These days I focus more on what I can do to fix a few of those flaws and make a few less missteps so that maybe I can add up to more than just good intentions.

We all make mistakes — a lot of them. None of us will ever be perfect or even close to it. The only thing you can really do is try to make yourself into a slightly better person tomorrow than you were yesterday.

4. Tim Ferriss on 11 reasons not to become famous

Here’s a little story you might not know about me.

In 2009 and 2010, I was putting a lot of effort into making The Simple Dollar into what you might call a “mainstream success.” I was doing media interviews all the time and consciously seeking out as many of those opportunities as I could. I wrote two books in that timeframe — they were good, but I’d write something much different today, something I’ve considered doing and even started drafting a few times — and did a bunch of media related to them. I popped up on several national radio and television programs and a ton of local ones. I actually had reporters contacting me for stories and other media opportunities. At the time, I really wanted to do all of this, not only because I thought it would help earnings and secure financial stability for my family, but also because I really thought I could help a lot of people get their financial lives in order.

Late in 2010, I entered into talks with a large production company that did a lot of business with a popular basic cable network to produce a reality show of sorts, of which I was going to be a featured person, likely on every episode. The show centered around a different family each episode that was struggling to make ends meet, and then I’d visit them and point out things they could do to keep their spending low — things that would ideally be applicable to a lot of viewers. If you’re familiar with the show Big Spender, the format was going to be a less intense version of that, leaning more into lighter humor and a more earnest approach. I wasn’t going to “berate” people as Winget, the host of that show, did; rather, we wanted to highlight the families themselves and use me as more of a “friendly and humorous neighbor” type that made financial cutbacks less scary than they seemed. The “conflict” dynamic was going to center more on the families trying out various changes rather than having conflict with me.

Contracts were being discussed in detail. I tried to get in the best physical shape I could so I’d look good on television. They helped get a few nice media profiles done about me. I had tons of teleconferences where we hashed out the details of the show. We were discussing a book to complement the show that would come out while it was in production, and I was starting to draft that. All of this was happening while I was still keeping up with The Simple Dollar to the best of my ability. In order to do that, I hired a few “virtual assistants” to help keep the site running. They did save time on the whole, but they often made missteps that frustrated me — but largely weren’t their fault, as it was usually due to a lack of clarity on what they should be doing.

As this was going on, a few really worrisome things happened. I was subjected to a couple of extortion attempts centered around the website. At one point, it was hijacked by someone wanting a payday. There was a threat made against my family, serious and specific enough that I talked to a lawyer and the local police about it. I was threatened with a lawsuit. For a while, I had someone in my community who seemed to be stalking me — I don’t think the person had bad intentions, but they still crossed some lines with their behavior. I had some conversations with a few fairly famous people about how they handled these things and started to plan for it.

One day, I woke up and realized that I just didn’t want this. I didn’t want to be famous. I didn’t want to worry about my family in that way. I also realized that I didn’t want to be back in a situation where I was juggling my time like I was in my previous career, and I was clearly heading there. I made the career leap so I could be more available to my family, not so I could just find another career that sucked down my time and also introduced all of these other complications.

So, I dialed all of it back. I backed out of the production deal, which was OK because they decided that the economy had turned around enough that the time wasn’t right for the show anyway. I cut back significantly on my media appearances. I gradually cut back on my “virtual assistants.” Eventually, when the deal was right, I sold the site, reducing my role to that of a writer.

This article I’ve linked here hit home for me. The things that Tim lists are familiar to me, but I never had them to the extent that he does, partially because I dialed things back before they could reach that point. I might have been there had I made a few different choices, and I’m extremely glad I chose the route I did.

His story is inspiration to me, as it reminds me that I made the right decisions back then. I have sometimes wondered over the years if I should have leaned in on all of those options, but that article made me feel like I unquestionably made the right choice, and it made me appreciate where I am now versus where I might have been.

5. Habeeb Akande on stars and shadows

“Fake friends are like shadows: always near you at your brightest moments, but nowhere to be seen at your darkest hour. True friends are like stars, you don’t always see them but they are always there.” — Habeeb Akande

I really like this analogy.

The best thing about collecting a lot of stars is that there is always light in your life, no matter how bad things get. Sure, it can feel good to have “good time friends” around when things are good, as they’re usually quite fun to have around. Yet, time and time again, I’ve found that those good time friends simply aren’t there when you need them.

One of the things I really look for in a friend — and something that encourages me to lean in on a friendship — is the fact that they are there for friends in their light and dark moments. If a friend calls me up and says, “Sorry, I can’t make it to game night tonight, another friend of mine is going through some rough stuff and really needs me,” I’m actually going to lean in to that friendship going forward.

Collect stars, not shadows.

6. Interview with 103 year old in 1929

Something I’ve always enjoyed is talking with older people, particularly to hear about their life as they lived through events, social changes and so on. This man was born when Beethoven was still writing compositions and lived through the development of the telegraph, the telephone, electricity, the car, the airplane and moving pictures. I would have loved to spend an afternoon with this guy, just to hear about his life and what he saw and learned.

One of my most vivid memories of childhood was when I was about 12 years old or so and got to spend an afternoon with my great grandmother when she was in her mid-80s. We spent almost all of it talking about her life. She had written something of an autobiography which I had read a day or two before and there were some things I wanted to hear more about. I still recall many of the stories she told me.

She told me about how an older sibling of hers went off to fight in World War I (she called it the “Great War”) and how that war really divided her family. She told me how the farming community she lived near dealt with the Spanish flu of 1918, which really hit them hard. She told me about the first time she heard a radio at about age 10, and the first time she saw a movie at about age 13 or 14. She told me about how her husband surprised her by coming home with a television set in the back of his truck after work one day in about 1950 or 1951, and they were the first family on the block to own one. She told me about what my grandmother was like as a child — feisty, which wasn’t really surprising, to tell the truth.

Talk to your grandparents and your parents about what life was like for them when they were younger and how life changed around them as society and technology changed. It’s so easy to not really listen today. Put down the devices and the spare thoughts and really listen. There are amazing stories there.

7. Steve Jobs on living your own life

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.” — Steve Jobs

You have to forge your own path in life. Don’t let your decisions about what’s right for you be determined by what you see other people doing, what you see in the media and what you see on social media in particular.

Don’t be afraid to be frugal. Use your money for stuff you actually care about. Don’t be afraid to spend your afternoons doing something that someone else thinks is nerdy. Who cares what that person thinks?

Find your own answers about life, about the universe, about everything, and live by what seems right to you, not what other people tell you to think and live. Every thought I’ve ever shared on this site isn’t a recipe for living, butthoughts that can hopefully help you find the right life for yourself. Take the ones that work and dump the rest.

8. Wilson Mizner on kindness

“Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet them on your way down.” — Wilson Mizner

One of the best pieces of advice that I received from my mentors is to make friends with the support staff where you work. Make friends with the janitors, the IT people, the building maintenance people and administrative assistants. Remember their birthdays and what’s going on in their lives and honor those things.

Why do that? Not only is it the right thing to do toward your fellow person, but when something goes wrong and you need help, those are the people you are going to call, and if they like you, they’re going to do double to help you. If they think you view them as peons, they’re going to take their sweet time and do a mediocre job.

Be nice to the person checking you out at the grocery store or the person stocking shelves who is just trying to do their job. Be nice to the customer service rep you’re talking to. Make that your normal, because when things go to pieces, people are going to be nicer to the people who were nice to them to begin with. Plus, you’ll feel a lot better about yourself, and you’ll make their day better, too.

9. Ivy (and the Ivy Lee Method in general)

One of the big tweaks I tried to implement in 2020 was the “Ivy Lee method.” It’s a strategy where you make a list of the six big things you want to accomplish the next day across all of the areas of your life. What needs to be done tomorrow to make tomorrow a good day?

I’ve been doing this every day so far this year and it’s been really helpful. I use Omnifocus as a task manager, as many of you know, and each evening I’ve been defining six tasks for the next day that I give a “#priority1” tag to. The next day I focus my energy on getting those out of the way.

Here’s the amazing part: When I get them done (or to a point where they’re going to inevitably be done), it feels great. I feel like today has really been worthwhile, and I usually then feel motivated to take care of a few more things, because today’s already a pretty good day — so why not make it a great one?

If you want to try this strategy without integrating it into something more complicated, I highly recommend the Ivy app linked above. That’s basically what it does — it helps you to create a to-do list of six items each day. Choose six things that would define a really good day for you and get to work.

10. Svend Brinkmann on overworking yourself to success

“If you think positively every single day, work hard, strive to become the best version of yourself, surround yourself with inspirational people and never give up, then there are no limits to how exhausted you can become.” — Svend Brinkmann

It can really feel overwhelming sometimes to try to fit all of the things you’re supposed to do into a single day. If you try to hit a home run every single day in every area of your life, you are flat out going to burn out and fail sooner rather than later, and then you’ll just feel like a failure.

If you want your life to be better, it’s probably smarter to just dial into one or two big things you want to change and leaving the rest alone. Identify one single daily habit or task — something you can do every single day — that will move you forward on that thing. Make it your goal to just stick to those changes for, say, 90 days. Don’t change anything else in your life.

If you really stick with that change (or two), I virtually guarantee your life will be a little bit better after 90 days. You can consciously stick with that thing (or two) for a while longer until they become the norm, or you can try another one or two things.

Don’t try to change everything at once. Don’t try to be “perfect” in all spheres of life. You’ll just fail, feel bad about it and likely burn out and not accomplish much of anything at all.

11. The evolution of the coffee cup lid

From the description:

Author A.J. Jacobs shows how the coffee cup lid was perfectly designed to give you a full sensory experience while drinking.

I love how simple things that we take for granted every day, like coffee cup lids, had a ton of thought involved in their design and production process, and this is a great example of that.

The coffee cup lid seems so commonplace and forgettable, but there are so many little features and design innovations involved with it that you can almost get lost in the sea of details. All of the shapes and bumps and curves on a coffee cup lid are there for a purpose, and those purposes make sense. It comes together to work really well and conveniently so that no one gives it a second thought.

I watch videos like these on almost every common thing that humans use and take for granted. To me, it reveals something deep about life, about how so much of life is really lived on the shoulders of giants.

12. Marcus Aurelius on waking up

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” — Marcus Aurelius

Life is an amazing thing. Enjoy it.

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.