Inspiration from Agnes Obel, Marcus Aurelius, Kurt Vonnegut, 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. Friedrich Nietzsche on friendship and marriage

“It is not lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

My wife is my best friend in the world. The thing that makes our marriage work isn’t romance, but the fact that we enjoy hanging out together and doing things together. Yes, I absolutely still get that little flutter in my heart when I see her smile or when I hold her close, but that flutter isn’t the real glue that holds things together. It’s the friendship.

I can talk to her about anything, literally anything in my life. I’m the type of person that likes to resolve things on my own by thinking and writing about them, but when I need someone to talk to, she’s there, constantly. She’s the person I most want to spend leisure time with or do fun things with. She’s the person who I want to hang out with in the evenings, even pulling myself away from doing something I’m personally enjoying solo just to do something else with her, because her presence makes that thing much more fun.

This is the one lesson I would give to anyone regarding marriage. Don’t marry someone merely because the fires of passion and physical attraction are hot. They will ebb and flow over time. Marry someone because you have that fire and because they’re your best friend, too. Marry the person you’re as happy to see in the morning as you are to see them in the evening. That marriage will last.

2. Agnes Obel – Tiny Desk Concert

From the description:

Agnes Obel, a Danish singer and writer of deeply alluring music, brought her work into what you could call its opposite — an office in the daylight. While the setting is a bit contrary to her carefully plotted, vocally dense songs, she mapped out a strategy which included her own reverb and monitor mix in the (successful, I think) hope of giving the Tiny Desk an aesthetic more suitable to these focused and powerful songs.

And so, today we have Agnes Obel performing three songs from the enchanting Citizen of Glass [album] alongside her band — keeping it sonically spare with just the right touch of keyboard and cello.

I’ve always been a fan of these kinds of smaller musical performances, where the musicians are in a small space and the listeners are very close to the musicians. Arena concerts and music festivals are fun, but I’m often so far from the musicians that I might as well be at a club somewhere.

Agnes Obel is amazing. I heard her for the first time on a radio show recently and I’ve found myself listening to countless recordings and performances of her work. The way her voice merges in with that cello is just stunning. It’s one of those things that I could listen to all day long.

3. Stephen Hawking on three keys to life

“One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.” ― Stephen Hawking

Be curious. Do something. Cherish love. If you can follow those guidelines every day, you’re going to have a pretty good life, I think. It goes along well with Jim Valvano’s three elements of a great day: you laugh, you cry, you think.

Think about your best days. I’ll virtually guarantee you that the best days of your life include a lot of those elements, or one or two of them in incredible abundance.

Think about your rough days. I’ll also bet that a lot of those elements are missing on those days.

Cultivate those things. You’ll build a better life if you do.

4. The 4 conundrums of the universe that lead to all [cognitive] biases by Buster Benson

Simply put, these four conundrums are:

1st conundrum: there’s too much information
2nd conundrum: there’s not enough meaning
3rd conundrum: there’s not enough time & resources
4th conundrum: there’s not enough memory

Those are the four real problems of the modern world as we embark on the information age, and the only tools we have to handle those conundrums inside of our head were ones that we evolved in the stone age. In other words, our brains aren’t made to handle the flood of information and options in front of us, especially given that we don’t have the time and resources to really explore all of those options or to really figure out what they all mean, and we certainly don’t have enough space in our head to store all of it.

So we use shortcuts – cognitive biases. We find ways to chop off large pieces of these conundrums to leave us with a decision that we can deal with. We quickly eliminate 95% of the dozens of laundry soap options at the store with barely a glance so that we can make a more narrow decision between two or three options. We only notice new options. We assume our gut instinct is right and just trust it. We edit our memories in our head and generalize our ideas.

Every single human alive does all of those things. It’s how we survive. Personally, I know I heavily edit my own memories, compressing them down into some fundamental piece that exists to retain the essence of the moment but is often inaccurate in the details.

Things like this fascinate me and inspire me to learn more about how my brain actually works.

5. Marcus Aurelius on the quality of one’s thoughts

“The happiness of one’s life depends upon the quality of one’s thoughts.” – Marcus Aurelius

This quote left me thinking quite a lot over the last month. What exactly does he mean by “the quality of one’s thoughts”?

After a lot of thought and a healthy amount of additional reading, I’ve come around to the idea that he’s referring to the fact that we choose what we think about, and that by choosing worthwhile things to think about, we build a better and more joyful life.

If you spend your time thinking about negative things and about how horrible others are and never think deeply about anything, you’re not really going to have that happy of a life. Everything is horrible.

If, instead, you make the conscious choice to see positive things in people, to look for things that we have in common rather than the differences between us, to see the beauty in the world, and to think deeply about things so that you understand them better, you’re likely going to have a much happier life.

That choice is up to you. Only you have the power to choose what you think about. You decide whether your thoughts are negative or whether they’re positive. You decide whether your thoughts center around tearing people down or building people up, tearing yourself down or building yourself up.

6. Sue Klebold on her experience as a mother of one of the Columbine shooters

From the description:

Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two shooters who committed the Columbine High School massacre, murdering 12 students and a teacher. She’s spent years excavating every detail of her family life, trying to understand what she could have done to prevent her son’s violence. In this difficult, jarring talk, Klebold explores the intersection between mental health and violence, advocating for parents and professionals to continue to examine the link between suicidal and homicidal thinking.

Being a parent myself, I cannot imagine the difficulty of seeing a child that you’ve raised and poured so much love and effort and care into doing something so destructive. It’s beyond any realistic imagining that I’m capable of producing.

The most good that I can do is to keep a close relationship with my children and keep my eyes wide open regarding their physical and mental health. If I see things that aren’t adding up, then I need to intervene and get help. That’s my role as a parent.

Yet, even given that, I have absolutely no illusions that it will be easy to do this. I know it will be hard. I know that it’s quite likely that I would see signs of negative mental health and not recognize them. It’s hard and frankly a little intimidating.

I am inspired by Sue Klebold’s courage in standing up and talking about her experience. That, in itself, is incredibly inspirational.

7. The criticism cycle

This is almost something that could be a regular post on The Simple Dollar, but I haven’t quite codified it into a real full article yet, just a recent tactic that I’ve found really working wonders in my life.

Whenever I’m excited about something that I’m about to commit a lot of money to or a lot of time to, I stop and intentionally go and read a negative article about that thing. I’ll read a negative review of a game or a negative description of a journaling system or a negative writeup on a particular piece of software. Whatever it is I’m thinking about investing in, I don’t start investing until I’ve read criticism of that thing.

What I’ve found, time and time again, is that the criticism strongly inflames concerns I already hold in my heart. On some level, some of the criticisms were things that I was already wondering about a little, but the anticipation and hype was completely overwhelming them in my heart and drowning out all critical thoughts.

The simple cycle of stepping back, breathing for a moment, and reading some criticism first has kept me from buying several items recently and, in at least one case, has kept me from investing a bunch of time into something that wouldn’t have worked well for me, either.

I find that when things survive that onslaught of reading thoughtful criticism, I’m recognizing on some level that the benefits of the thing truly do outweigh the drawbacks. That doesn’t seem to happen very often so far, and that’s a good thing. It means I’m being more careful with my choices, even in the area of my hobbies and personal interests.

8. Arthur Schopenhauer on talent and genius

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

Once, I overheard a thoughtful friend of mine say that talent answers the questions, wisdom writes the questions, and genius discovers the questions. I love that analogy.

It is my belief that talent can be cultivated, but genius can never be cultivated. You can create an environment where that spark of genius is more likely to occur, but you can’t sharpen a person and get them to the point where genius comes easily. It never does.

The problem, of course, is waiting for those key moments of genius to strike. Is it better to wait ten years for one truly original idea? Or to spend those years developing talent that can do the things that are known exceedingly well?

It’s a great question to think about, and those always inspire me.

9. RescueTime

One of the big things I struggle with is professional distraction during my workdays. I try very hard not to get distracted, but often I’ll be reading financial news or someone’s self-improvement blog and then I’ll find myself going down a rabbit hole of links and information and sites and then an hour later I realize I’ve done very little. I’m trying to guard myself against that.

That’s where RescueTime is coming in handy for me right now. I’ve been using it to track my time and I’m frankly stunned how much of it is spent on what I view as unproductive sites and tools. I go through long periods where the only thing open is my writing tools, but then there are periods where I’m flashing from website to website, looking at social media, and so on and so forth. It’s those periods that I really want to concentrate on.

I honestly view RescueTime as being the equivalent of having a pocket notebook that keeps track of every dime that I spend, except that RescueTime is looking at my time use when I’m working. That, to me, is incredibly useful.

I’ve been using the “free” version of the tool – it’s one of those “freemium” things – but I’m strongly considering buying the full version of it because it’s been so useful thus far. I used it many years ago, but it had substantially fewer features and I don’t think I was quite ready mentally to be using the data it provides. Now? It’s invaluable to me.

10. Charles Wadsworth on parents and children

“By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he’s wrong.” – Charles Wadsworth

I don’t know if that’s perfectly true, but I definitely understand Wadsworth’s sentiments here.

When I was in my late teen years – especially when I was in college – I found conversing with my parents to be very difficult. I had this overriding sense that they didn’t understand me and that anything I might want to talk about with them would be a futile effort, so when I visited home, I mostly just read books and didn’t say much.

Now that I’m older, it’s completely different. I now see that they have incredible amounts of wisdom to share with me, wisdom that they were sharing all through my life, even when I wasn’t really listening to it. I now call them quite often for advice on various things, not because they’ll perfectly understand every nuance, but because I know they’ve thought through situations like this before and I know that they’re going to give me their unvarnished opinion on what I should do and why they think so.

Even if it doesn’t match up perfectly with what I’m seeing, that advice is valuable. It’s one of the most valuable resources I have in my life, and it’s one that I wish I had the maturity to understand and appreciate when I was at earlier stages in my life.

I know quite well that my kids are going to go through the same growing cycles. They’re going to be experiencing so much of the world in the next decade or so of their lives and, in many ways, it will be hard for them to communicate that discovery with me.

Our relationship is a strong one, though. I’m pretty confident they’ll come around. I actually look forward to being the “parent” in the parent/child relationship that I now have with my own parents. It just might take a while to get there.

11. Buena Vista Social Club – Chan Chan

The Buena Vista Social Club was a members-only club in Havana, Cuba back in the 1930s and 1940s. After the revolution in Cuba, social clubs like the BVSC were closed down and the musicians largely put down their instruments and found other avenues of work, only playing in their spare time. In the 1990s, however, Ry Cooder (an American guitarist and record producer) went to Havana to work on a music project and, in the process, found some of the people who used to play at those old social clubs, particularly a group of musicians that played at the original BVSC.

That group of older musicians recorded an album, entitled Buena Vista Social Club, and then later performed a few concerts which were recorded and released as a documentary also called Buena Vista Social Club. This is a video of one of the songs from this album, one that managed to stick its fingers into my heart in the 1990s and still resides there today.

Something about this song simultaneously feels very… passionate and loving while also being sad and haunting at the same time, like a song you would dance to with the love of your life and hold that person just a little bit closer without really knowing why. Amazing, amazing music.

12. Kurt Vonnegut on handling the hardness of the world

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.” – Kurt Vonnegut

The world can be a hard place, but never forget you have the power to decide whether or not it hardens your own heart. You decide for yourself whether to see the ugly in the world or whether to see the beauty in the world. You decide, every day, whether you want to contribute to the ugliness or the beauty of it.

What do you choose?

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