Inspiration from 7 Up, Lauren Oliver, Julien Baker, 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. Thoreau on happiness

“Happiness is like a butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will evade you, but if you notice the other things around you, it will gently come and sit on your shoulder.” ― Henry David Thoreau

I spent a lot of years of my life chasing happiness, believing that I could somehow build a “happy” life. What I learned is that such an endeavor is basically impossible.

Instead, you should try to build a life that’s in line with what your values and principles are, and what you’ll find is that happiness naturally bubbles up as you get closer and closer to that destination.

Happiness is a side effect of doing something worthwhile. When you do worthwhile things, happiness occurs naturally. If you chase happiness for happiness’s sake, you’ll never actually catch it.

2. 7 Up

From the Wikipedia entry on the series:

The Up Series is a series of documentary filmsproduced by Granada Television that have followed the lives of fourteen British children since 1964, when they were seven years old. So far the documentary has had eight episodes spanning 49 years (one episode every seven years) and the documentary has been broadcast on both ITV and BBC. In a 2005 Channel 4 programme, the series topped the list of The 50 Greatest Documentaries. The children were selected to represent the range of socio-economic backgrounds in Britain at that time, with the explicit assumption that each child’s social class predetermines their future. Every seven years, the director, Michael Apted, films material from those of the fourteen who choose to participate. The last installment, 56 Up, premiered in May 2012; Apted has stated that filming for 63 Up will occur in late 2018, for release in spring 2019. Apted has also been reported as saying: “I hope to do 84 Up when I’ll be 99.” The aim of the series is stated at the beginning of 7 Up as: “Why do we bring these children together? Because we want to get a glimpse of England in the year 2000. The shop steward and the executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old.”

The video embedded above (if you can’t see it, you can reach it by clicking on the link) is the full documentary 7 Up, which covers the fourteen children as they were in 1964, as seven year olds. Each subsequent entry in the series revisits most of the children at seven year intervals in their lives, as things go in different directions for them.

I watched these for the first time as a marathon in around 2002, when 42 Up was the newest entry available; I watched the entire series again a few years later after 49 Up was released, and yet again with the making of 56 Up. Each time it utterly charmed me and left me thinking about the fragility and difficulty and beauty of human lives.

A few days ago, a friend of mine pointed out that all of the films were freely available on Youtube, so there’s no reason not to dive in. This Youtube list contains the entire series, starting with 7 Up and continuing through 56 Up, the most recent entry.

3. Lauren Oliver on the whole of people

“I shiver, thinking how easy it is to be totally wrong about people; to see one tiny part of them and confuse it for the whole.” — Lauren Oliver

I feel like this is a good quote to pair with 7 Up, actually. In that series – and in fact, throughout our lives – we get only relatively small glances at these people. We see only little slivers of their lives. Even with the best efforts of the filmmakers, this would be true; a filmmaker visiting a person for a few days once every seven years cannot capture their true nature.

Yet, as I watch those films, I can’t help but draw some conclusions. I think I would be friends with some of them, and I’d probably avoid other ones.

Those quick takes may or may not be accurate. I’m making them based on really limited information about a person. I might be seeing that person at their best or at their worst. I might be seeing a quirky moment that’s not emblematic of them as a whole. It’s impossible to really tell.

What I do know is this: some of the worst mistakes I’ve made in life have been due to snap judgments about people, almost all of them more negative than they ever should have been. I drew some very negative conclusions about people and guided my behavior regarding them based on very little information mixed in with my own ideas and assumptions, and it has cost me many potential dear relationships over the years.

The tiny part of a person that you actually see is a pretty poor representative of the whole.

4. Jerry and Marge Go Large

This article by Jason Fagone chronicles the store of Jerry and Marge Selbee, who, in their retirement, discovered and then exploited holes in the Michigan and Massachusetts state lottery systems.

I found myself reading this article one evening while Sarah was busy grading papers, and I couldn’t help but mention to her that this is literally the kind of thing that I can see us doing in retirement.

We’re both curious people who like to understand how systems work. We aren’t afraid to take big leaps of faith on things that we feel certain about.

I’d like to think that Sarah and I, in our later years, will go on a lot of quirky adventures, like Jerry and Marge.

I’m also sharing this because it’s just a fun story, a well written one by Jason Fagone. This one’s really worth your time.

5. Benjamin Franklin on apologies

“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” – Benjamin Franklin

One of the hardest things to do is to genuinely apologize when you’ve made a mistake and not turn it into an excuse or an avenue for blaming others. Anything beyond “I messed up” is simply a way to deflect blame off of yourself and, in the process, make the apology a lot less valuable.

An apology that ends up being nothing more than a redirection of blame or an excuse of a mistake is a worthless “apology;” in fact, you’re often leaving things in an even worse state because the other person perceives that you won’t own up to your mistakes.

When you mess up, apologize sincerely without excusing your mistake or blaming others. Admit that you messed up, state that you’re sorry for it, and that you want to do what you can to make it right and to make sure it won’t happen again. Make it clear that it’s on you, not on anyone else.

It’s hard to do that. It’s much easier to just shovel the blame onto someone or something else. If you do that, though, you eliminate virtually all of the meaning of the apology and look pretty weak to boot.

6. Michelle Knox on talking about your death while you’re still healthy

From the description:

Do you know what you want when you die? Do you know how you want to be remembered? In a candid, heartfelt talk about a subject most of us would rather not discuss, Michelle Knox asks each of us to reflect on our core values around death and share them with our loved ones, so they can make informed decisions without fear of having failed to honor our legacies. “Life would be a lot easier to live if we talked about death now,” Knox says. “We need to discuss these issues when we are fit and healthy so we can take the emotion out of it — and then we can learn not just what is important, but why it’s important.”

This whole video harkens back to a big theme I’ve come to really understand in my life in the last few years. The best time to talk about something is when you’re as far away from emotion as possible regarding that thing.

So, for example, don’t talk about death when you’re sick. Talk about it when you’re healthy and vibrant, so there’s as little emotion as possible in the subject.

When you’re talking to your parents about aging, don’t do it at their moment of weakness. Wait for a time of strength, when they’re feeling as healthy and unemotional as possible, and then have that discussion.

Don’t talk about a marital problem when you’re both riding the wave of that problem. Talk about it when you’re getting along well and you’re far away from that problematic area emotionally.

This is a key life lesson, one that has stuck with me over the years, and this video really highlights that idea.

7. Roy T. Bennett on self-improvement and criticism

“Let the improvement of yourself keep you so busy that you have no time to criticize others.” ― Roy T. Bennett

Unless criticism is asked for, criticism of others is rarely a worthwhile endeavor. It achieves very little and often has the opposite effect of what you desire, with the recipient ignoring the content of what you’re saying and just being upset with you.

Hold it in. If you don’t have something worthwhile to say, then don’t say it at all.

That doesn’t mean that one should never criticize. A person should definitely criticize from time to time, but it should generally be at the invitation of the person who seeks criticism and is looking for ways to improve.

“Brutal honesty” doesn’t achieve anything worthwhile.

8. Julien Baker – NPR Tiny Desk Concert

From the description:

In March of 2016, just a handful of months after her debut album Sprained Ankle was released, Julien Baker came and played a quiet, thoughtful Tiny Desk concert that went on to become one of our most popular and certainly one of the most-talked-about Tiny Desk Concerts of the year. (It’s now approaching two million views on YouTube alone.)

Fast forward to the summer of 2017, when I heard that a new record was imminent. I don’t usually ask an artist back for a second Tiny Desk Concert simply because they have a new release — but for Julien, I had to make an exception. With all the love that surrounded her first visit to the NPR offices, I reached out to ask if she would be willing to do something different this time around. Last fall, she delivered.

All the songs for her return to the Tiny Desk come from last year’s Turn Out The Lights. Just a few weeks before the album’s release, she came to Washington; we tuned our piano, she brought violinist Camille Faulkner. The first two songs, “Hurt Less” and “Even,” were accompanied by Camille, with Julien on piano for the opening tune and acoustic guitar on the second. It’s quite stunning, as she sings:
Putting my fist through the plaster in the bathroom of a Motel 6
I must have pictured it all a thousand times
I swear to God I think I’m gonna die
I know you were right I can’t be fixed, so help me

For the last, Julien put together an arrangement of “Appointments” that begins on electric guitar, which then was looped as a backdrop to her on piano and voice. Julien Baker is a massively talented songwriter with a deeply caring heart and a perfectionist streak — all of which delivered to her a career-making year. We are so thrilled to have her return. Set List “Hurt Less” “Even” “Appointments”

She’s just fantastic. Well worth a listen.

9. Inspirational notes

For the last several months, about once a week or so, I’ll stick a note inside of one of my children’s backpacks. It’s a note card in an envelope with their name on the front, and on the inside, I just write a short note saying something I admire about their character and how I hope they share that with the world.

It takes me about ten minutes or so to do this. I just stop for a little bit, think of some truly worthwhile characteristic that one of my children possesses, and then I’ll write about it.

I’ll tell a quick anecdote about when I saw that characteristic used in a positive way, how I am incredibly proud that I’m their parent when I see them using that aspect of themselves, a gentle encouragement to use that characteristic in other aspects of their life, and a general reminder that I love them. That’s it – nothing fancy.

I know that my kids have read the notes because of comments I’ve overheard, but not one of them has said a word about them to me. I do know that they’re read, though, and I do know that they’re thought about, and that’s enough.

Will it make a positive difference? Maybe. I think it will, given enough time.

Don’t just get inspired. Be an inspiration.

10. Muhammad Ali on the pebble in your shoe

“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.” – Muhammad Ali

It’s often one or two little details that make the difference between success and failure.

You might be able to perfectly nail everything else you need for a diet, but it’s that mid-afternoon wave of hunger that you thoughtlessly indulge that undoes things.

You might have perfect control over your spending except for that one little linchpin. Maybe’s it’s online spending at a particular website, or maybe it’s regular splurging on food.

Whatever it is, there’s often some little detail that puts a big scratch on the beautiful surface of your progress.

The thing is, it’s far more meaningful to stop and pull that pebble out of your shoe than to keep on running for a little bit longer and just quit. Fix the little problems before they become big ones.

11. Marily Oppezzo on the creative benefits of going on a walk

From the description:

When trying to come up with a new idea, we all have times when we get stuck. But according to research by behavioral and learning scientist Marily Oppezzo, getting up and going for a walk might be all it takes to get your creative juices flowing. In this fun, fast talk, she explains how walking could help you get the most out of your next brainstorm.

Going on walks is unquestionably my most powerful creative tool. I don’t have anything else in my repertoire that really compares to it. It’s part of the reason why winters are often very hard in terms of writing productivity – the weather rarely cooperates with the kind of long outdoor walk that I enjoy.

While I enjoy winter in small doses, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find Sarah and I living further south in the winter months when we are older. I think it agrees much better with both of us.

Still, I can’t laud walking enough if you’re trying to piece through a difficult idea in your head or you’re trying to brainstorm some solutions.

12. JFK on strength

“Do not pray for easy lives, my friends. Pray to be stronger men.” – John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Hoping that the future will become easier won’t really help very much. It’s very likely that the future won’t become easier.

Instead, recognize that your life right now probably is easier than it will be in the future and plan accordingly. Work a little harder today so you don’t have to work quite as hard tomorrow. Save a little money today so you don’t have to scramble tomorrow.

Don’t hope for an easier life. Work for a stronger you.

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