Inspiration from Yuval Noah Harari, Notability, Heraclitus, Rhiannon Giddens, 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. Yuval Noah Harari on putting off your “real” interests

“How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.” – Yuval Noah Harari

This single paragraph, from Harari’s book Sapiens, sums up so much of the challenge of modern life. The best of our intentions are shaved away, bit by bit, day after day, year after year, by the relentless grind of modern life. Our jobs are mentally exhausting, leaving us with little mental energy to enjoy what we have. We’re constantly being distracted and tempted by things around us, most of which are fleeting. Our sense of what life ought to be like and our desire to be liked and accepted leads many of us to follow what others are doing and the path of others before us in getting a house somewhere, getting a car, getting a mortgage, and so on and so forth without really considering whether that’s what we really desire or whether it’s in line with what we want from our lives.

We’re wired to do this. All of this takes advantage of the natural instincts we all have, passed down to us from our ancestors on the savannah.

The challenge of modern personal finance, of modern life, is to figure out how to overcome all of that. If we’re predisposition to follow this kind of path even though it makes us unhappy and unprepared for the later stages of our life, how can we overcome that predisposition to find a better path for us in this modern world? That’s the real question, and there are no easy answers to it.

2. Elizabeth Dunn on how helping others makes us happier — but it matters how we do it

From the description:

Research shows that helping others makes us happier. But in her groundbreaking work on generosity and joy, social psychologist Elizabeth Dunn found that there’s a catch: it matters how we help. Learn how we can make a greater impact — and boost our own happiness along the way — if we make one key shift in how we help others. “Let’s stop thinking about giving as just this moral obligation and start thinking of it as a source of pleasure,” Dunn says.

If we spend $15 on a movie ticket and spend two hours watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster, many will feel as though it’s a worthwhile use of money – after all, you got some entertainment out of it, and that feels good.

On the other hand, many people simply won’t give $15 to a good cause. They feel like they get nothing out of it or that the recipient is somehow undeserving of that $15.

Why do we see the negatives in giving $15 to someone in need but see the positives in giving $15 to a movie theater? Why do we value the good feelings that a Hollywood movie might give us but undervalue the good feelings we might get from helping someone out that really needs it?

It’s an interesting question to think about and it starts to dig into how we’re really wired.

3. The Dalai Lama on taking and using the best of what you learn

“Don’t try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a better Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.” – The Dalai Lama

Over the last several months, I’ve read a number of books on secular Buddhism, as I’m very interested in what it can teach me about being more in tune with my inner voice and also helping me to quell desire for things I don’t really need. I wrote about some of what I’ve learned in this article, if you’re interested.

In that journey, the above quote has given me a lot of value. For me, this isn’t so much a quest to change religions but a quest to understand myself better using insights I’ve never really had access to before. I’m not particularly interested in becoming a Buddhist, but I am interested in what Buddhism can provide that will help me become a better version of who I am, and I think there’s a lot of value there.

Too often, we want to draw strict lines between things, building up walls and rules that tell us that we must think A, B, and C, and that we must not think X, Y, and Z. There were perhaps times in the past where such walls and rules were useful, but a healthy thinking person should be able to look past such walls and rules, pulling together what works for them to build their best life.

4. Notability

As I wrote about last week when describing my journaling practices and how they help my finances, I was on the fence about moving to journaling with a digital tablet and stylus. After writing that article, I gave it some thought and realized that, over the long term, it would be much more cost efficient for me if I were able to move to an all-digital system for journaling. No more cost for pens or paper, just an irregular replacement of my tablet and stylus, and I already have an iPad with an Apple Pencil that I use for some types of note-taking and brainstorming.

So, I decided to engage in a thirty day challenge next month to do all of my journal writing on my tablet, and as a “warm up,” I wanted to spend some time figuring out what apps and tools to use to make it go as smoothly as possible.

Pretty quickly, I figured out that Notability on an iPad with an Apple Pencil is a pretty good solution for this. I already used Notability for other note-taking purposes, but after spending a lot of time with it in the last week or so, I’m pretty well convinced this will work splendidly for me going forward. The fact that I can date entries and keep individual ones for as long as I want while trashing ones I don’t want to keep is wonderful, as is the ability to easily search my own handwritten material.

I’m pretty happy with Notability as my journal going forward for at least a while. I’m going to stick with it through a thirty day challenge regardless, but it really seems to work almost perfectly for what I want.

5. Heraclitus on drawing on your own past

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.” – Heraclitus of Ephesus

I don’t actually find much value in looking back at my past beyond the past few months. I enjoy having nice memories of relatives that have passed and some of the best moments of my childhood and young adult life, but beyond that, dwelling on the past does me almost no good at all.

The reason is that I recognize that I can’t undo the past, and even if similar opportunities come my way in the future, I won’t be the same person in the same situation any more. You can’t undo the past. All you can do is take care of the present in the best way you can and prepare yourself for the future.

When I do fall into the trap of looking back, the deeper I look at myself, the less I recognize. I am not the same person who made those choices. Ideally, I’ve grown and become a better person in some ways, and time naturally changes all of us by adding experiences to our life and age to our body.

I look back at the recent past and do some after action reviews, and I like some of the best memories of my life, but I prefer to keep my eyes forward rather than backward. What can I do to make the rest of my life great? What can I do to make my children’s lives great? What can I do to be a positive force in the community? Those are the questions that really matter.

6. Rhiannon Giddens – I’m On My Way

Rhiannon Giddens is one of my favorite musical artists actively performing today. Her music is stunningly beautiful, soul wrenching, and socially conscious all at once. Her solo performances and some of her older stuff with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and her side project Our Native Daughters has made me yearn to pick up a banjo and flail badly with it.

Her latest album, There Is No Other, came out last month and, I’ll be honest, it didn’t really click with me at first. The one song that did was “I’m On My Way,” which felt like it would have fit perfectly on her last album, and it was that song that nudged me into giving the full new album a few listens, and now I thoroughly enjoy it as well.

Give her music a listen with an open mind and an open heart and I suspect her voice and her banjo will blow you away.

7. John Wooden on the value of argument

“Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people who’ll argue with you.” – John Wooden

To be clear, this quote isn’t talking about arguing in the negative or antagonistic sense. Rather, Wooden is talking about having people in your life that will question your ideas and assumptions and push back on your thoughts in a way that’s intended to make you both better.

These kinds of relationships are surprisingly rare. It requires a level of trust between the people involved so that they all understand that everyone else inherently has value and that pushback is not intended to be negative or to cut someone down. It’s done out of respect and out of a desire to make everyone involved better.

I’m not always the biggest fan of sports, but I find that really good coaches often develop this kind of relationship with their players. It’s one of the good things about sports, in my opinion. I also find that this is one of the best parts of mentor relationships.

If you’re really lucky, you find friendships like this, and those are truly invaluable relationships that you never want to wither.

8. Terence McKenna on your plans

“If you don’t have a plan, you will become part of somebody else’s plan.” – Terence Mckenna

Whenever I hear this quote, I think of the workplace.

Some people go to work just to clock in, do what they’re told, earn a paycheck, and go home. They’re collecting a paycheck in exchange for some work. They’re just part of someone else’s plan.

Others look at work as a tool to move to where they want to be in life. They’re constantly evaluating their job in terms of the value it gives them, not just in terms of pay, but in terms of career improvement, personal improvement, relationships, and so forth. The job is a part of their plan for their career and their life.

Are you a part of someone else’s plan? Or are the parts of your life a part of your plan?

9. The Brothers Green provide advice on home cooking

This is actually a three part video series from one of my hands-down favorite Youtube channels, The Brothers Green Eats. I was originally just going to link to the third part, but the whole series is so good that I want to just share the whole thing.

Here’s the first part, “The Home Cooking Survival Guide For Your Busy Work Week“:

… and the second part, “How to Create the Perfect Meals to Bring to Work“:

… and the third part, “The #1 Skill to Master as a Home Cook“:

(That “number one skill” is improvisation – the ability to make meals out of whatever you have on hand.)

What I love about this series is that it really addresses in a visual way the challenges of meal preparation at home on a day-in-day-out basis when you have a busy family. It’s hard, and I know – Sarah and I both work full time and have three kids that frequently have weeknight activities, and Sarah and I are both involved in various things as well. Preparing and cooking meals and cleaning up afterwards can be hard.

While the ideas they offer here are pretty much in line with what Sarah and I already do – plan meals in advance, make a grocery list, get the ingredients on that list, do some of the meal prep during the weekend, improvise a little later in the week, and so on – these videos explain the ideas so well in a nice visual form that I had to share it.

Plus, The Brothers Green Eats is one of my absolute favorite Youtube channels, so I am glad to be able to share some of their work that’s really widely applicable. They’ve entertained me for a long time and they’ve often convinced me to make unusual things in my own kitchen.

10. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche on choosing your discomfort

“Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.” – Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

Every single one of us has mental quirks. Every single one of us has things that make us happy and make us unhappy. The question is, are we each aware of those thing? Are we really aware of the sources of what makes us happy and unhappy? Furthermore, are we able to understand how malleable those things are?

If you’re willing to accept being ruled by your emotional whims, you don’t have to worry about any of this. You can just be led along by the ups and downs of your emotions and react to everything in the moment.

On the other hand, you can peer deep into what drives you. It’s sometimes unsettling and confusing, but the deeper you look and the more you understand, the more you realize how much power you have to control the waves of your internal life.

Both paths have penalties and benefits. I find the latter to be much more worthwhile – although it’s really difficult at first, it ends up bringing greatness.

11. Kimberly Noble on how income affects childhood development

From the description:

Neuroscientist and pediatrician Kimberly Noble is leading the Baby’s First Years study: the first-ever randomized study of how family income changes children’s cognitive, emotional and brain development. She and a team of economists and policy experts are working together to find out: Can we help kids in poverty simply by giving families more money? “The brain is not destiny,” Noble says. “And if a child’s brain can be changed, then anything is possible.”

I grew up fairly poor, with my family having less money than almost everyone else I know today. We lived in a small home in the country and there were times when things were really lean. I know I missed out on a bunch of opportunities because my family couldn’t afford certain things: musical instruments, school trips, and so on.

Naturally, having the resources for those things would have had some real impact on my childhood. I don’t know what it would have changed, but I know that the changes would have been positive ones.

Money, on the surface, seems like the reason for that, but it’s worth noting that it’s just as important that I had parents that genuinely cared for me and would have used such money to give me educational opportunities.

I would be in favor of a system that rewarded parents with a tax credit for exceptional spending on educational opportunities for their children. Things like buying them a musical instrument, paying for lessons, and so on. That way, involved parents can catch a break on some of those extra expenses that really matter but can be hard to justify. Remember, that money would cycle straight back into the economy.

12. Emily Maroutian on being stuck

“You’re not stuck. You’re just committed to certain patterns of behavior because they helped you in the past. Now those behaviors have become more harmful than helpful. The reason why you can’t move forward is because you keep applying an old formula to a new level in your life. Change the formula to get a different result.” – Emily Maroutian

If you want new results, try new approaches. If you want the same results, keep doing the same thing.

If you want to get ahead financially, you have to change something about your finances. You need to spend drastically less or earn drastically more or, ideally, both. There’s no magic way to keep spending like you are and not have an increase in income and somehow start having splendid financial results.

If you want to lose weight, you have to improve your net balance of calories for the day. The most effective way to do that, by far, is to eat less, but exercise is definitely helpful, too.

If you want something different, you have to start doing things differently.

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.