Inspiration from Andrew Sullivan, Dan Harris, Albert Camus, 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. Stephen Jay Gould on a great tragedy

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” – Stephen Jay Gould

A few weeks ago, another website – I’m not sure which one, to tell the truth, and I couldn’t quickly find it with an email search – asked me for a quote that inspired me to think. I sent in a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of my favorite writers, because I happened to be thinking about it at that time. Emerson has many, many great quotes about self-reliance, something I strongly believe in.

After that, though, the question about what quote that has made me think more than any other kept coming back to me. That Emerson quote that I used was a good one, but was it really the true answer? Upon reflection, I think I’ve spent more of my life with this quote from Stephen Jay Gould running through my head.

I can’t help but wonder how many truly great minds have been lost to the circumstances of history. The greatest thinker who ever lived likely never shared a significant thought in his or her life, as that life was preoccupied with the daily efforts to merely stay alive. That, to me, is the greatest tragedy in all of humanity.

The great scientists, the great leaders, the great inventors, the great artists that we know are likely all overshadowed by the talents of those who never got the chance to develop their skills and their thoughts and their ideas. Instead, they were born into circumstances of great misfortune, spending their life as a slave or as a sharecropper or as a sweatshop worker.

Humankind will never be able to achieve its true greatness as long as the greatest among us never have the chance to flower, and that kind of flowering isn’t easy or obvious. Einstein was largely regarded as a failure in school, for example. It wasn’t until he found a place in society and a chance to flower that his mind flourished and his ideas were shared, ideas that today power inventions as disparate as atomic energy and GPS.

How do we make that happen? I honestly don’t know. It’s an incredible problem. But it’s that problem, both in the misfortune of lost opportunity that it brings to every one of us and in the difficulty of finding a way beyond it, that occupies a surprising amount of my thoughts.

2. I Used to Be a Human Being by Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan is a long-time current affairs blogger and writer who recently stepped away from all blogging. This article explains why he did it.

The real reason? Internet addiction, in essence. His constant need to be connected and to have an endless stream of information and news was robbing him of a great deal of his quality of life.

I think that anyone who has a job that involves online writing, podcasting, video creation, or other online creative work can feel some real echoes in what Sullivan is writing about here. I certainly can. Even though I intentionally put time aside for things away from the computer with my cell phone turned off and nothing to distract me, there are times where I feel almost trapped by the constant need to write fresh things and to have new things to write about.

I have posted at least one article a day somewhere online for the last ten years. I don’t believe I have missed a single day. Most of those articles are more than 1,000 words in length. Many are thousands of words in length. In order to do that, I have to have a very clear routine for what I’m doing and my “muse” – my cutesy name for my internal ability to write – basically never gets to really rest for very long.

It can wear at you. At times, it really wears at me. This article speaks to that experience amazingly well.

3. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the silence of friends

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

There are people in life who will always speak negatively about us. There are people who will treat us as stepping stones to whatever thing they want to march toward. That’s just life.

It’s our friends that are supposed to serve as a retreat from those things. They provide companionship, friendship, the window to explore new ideas and new things without being alone. They pick you up when you fall.

Yet, sometimes, those friends aren’t there. In those moments when you need them most, they vanish into the mists.

Are they really friends? Yes. Sometimes they don’t know that they’re needed.

Still, it doesn’t change the fact that a friend that isn’t there for you when you need them can often turn out to be a greater scar than a person who is cruel to you.

I try my best to be there for my truest friends. Sometimes, I’m sure I fail at it, but it’s something I never intend or want to do.

4. Sal Khan on teaching for mastery, not scores

From the description:

Would you choose to build a house on top of an unfinished foundation? Of course not. Why, then, do we rush students through education when they haven’t always grasped the basics? Yes, it’s complicated, but educator Sal Khan shares his plan to turn struggling students into scholars by helping them master concepts at their own pace.

When I watched this video, I couldn’t help but agree with Sal Khan’s argument that people master skills at different paces and that the best educational system is one that enables people to build mastery at their own pace.

The problem is that our current educational system essentially makes that impossible.

Having individual students work at their own pace works great in classrooms with small sizes. Let’s say you have a class that lasts for fifty minutes and you have ten students in the class. That means, each and every day, you can devote five minutes to each student. That’s long enough to provide some good individual direction to that student with 45 additional daily minutes for practice. Even better, imagine if the class had only five students in it – that’s ten minutes per student per day, with forty additional minutes for practice. If an individual student causes problems in this kind of setting, a teacher can handle it one-on-one without disrupting instruction of other students. Plus, teachers would have much more time for individual feedback on their work, and there would be less need for homework to demonstrate mastery.

The problem is that funding doesn’t exist to allow for class sizes that small. Instead, we have classes with 25 students in them. This means there’s only time for two minutes of individual instruction per student. That’s simply not enough time for students to have any real individual instruction. The teacher thus has to teach the class as a whole, meaning that some students are bored with the slow pace and others are lost with the fast pace. Even worse, disruptive students interrupt the learning for all 25 students, not just their own learning.

This video is more of a discussion of what education could be rather than what it is forced to be due to limited educational funding. It’s patently obvious to anyone that this model would serve students better, but it’s also much more expensive than our current models.

Videos like this make me think about what’s possible and what we could do better as a society, and to me that’s inspirational.

5. Madeleine L’Engle on vulnerability

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.” ― Madeleine L’Engle

It’s easy for an introvert like myself to simply choose not to talk in a challenging situation. If there are lots of new people or just one or two people that I’m not comfortable with, I can barely squeeze out small talk. I feel very vulnerable.

When I was younger, I felt that vulnerability and I believed that growing up would solve that vulnerability. As an adult, I realize that the only way to solve that kind of vulnerability is to pick and choose the areas I really want to fix in my own life and to work hard at fixing them.

Growing up isn’t a phase in life. You stop growing up when you choose to stop growing.

6. Meditation 101, narrated by Dan Harris

Here’s the full transcript of the video:

Despite what you may have heard, meditation does not involve joining a group, paying any fees, wearing any special outfits, sitting in a funny position or believing in anything in particular. It is simple, secular, scientifically validated exercise for your brain. You don’t have to do it yet, but just so you know here are the three steps.

One: Sit with your back straight and your eyes closed.

Two: Notice the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. Pick a spot where it’s most prominent. Usually that’s your nose or your chest or your belly, and just focus your full attention on the feeling of your breath going in and
coming out.

Now as soon as you try to do this, your mind’s going to go nuts. You’re going to start thinking about: what am I going to have for lunch, why’d I say that dumb thingto my boss, your brain’s gonna go nuts and that’s fine.

The whole game is to notice when you’ve gotten lost, and to start over. And to start over again. And again. And again. And every time you do that, it’s like a bicep curl for your brain, and it shows up on the brain scans. Scientists have found this in the lab. It’s also by the way, a radical act.

You’re breaking a lifetime’s habit of walking around in a fog of projection and rumination and you’re actually focusing on what’s happening right now. Meditation is unlike anything you do in the rest of your life. “Failure” is actually success! As I said the whole game is just trying, failing, starting again, failing, starting again.

Here’s my advice: You should be meditating every day, 5-10 minutes a day. That’s it. This doesn’t require some giant investment. I don’t care how busy you are, you have 5-10 minutes to give this a shot. I guarantee you it will make a big difference.

I often talk about meditation on The Simple Dollar and how it has changed my life. This is probably the best brief description of it that I’ve ever found. The video clocks in at exactly two minutes and it explains the idea in a nutshell, both the practice and benefits.

For me, meditation has made it possible for me to focus far better on tasks than I have in a very long time. During the mid ’00s, I had a very hard time focusing on tasks for very long. Even during the period when I was simultaneously holding down a full time job, launching The Simple Dollar in my spare time, and figuring out how to be a father and a good husband to boot, I still had a hard time focusing for more than a minute here or a minute there.

You can really tell this is true if you read some of the earliest posts on the site. They’re super brief and while they cover one point well, they often don’t include enough action or example to really do anything based on the article. That’s because I had a hard time focusing on one topic long enough to write anything with much depth at all. I’d lose focus, then snap back to attention, then lose focus, then snap back, over and over and over.

Focused, mindful meditation fixed that. It’s almost as if adopting this as a daily practice applied some kind of magic medicine to my brain. I can now write a rough draft of a 3,000 word article in a single sitting, then edit the whole thing in a second single sitting (it’s a bad idea to do them back to back, I’ve learned). I can put my cell phone down and just utterly ignore it for hours, something that was basically impossible for me just a few years ago.

The narrator of this video, Dan Harris, wrote an amazing book called 10% Happier that I strongly recommend. Harris’s book starts with a discussion of him having an on-air panic attack on live television when he was a news presenter at ABC News. He had that panic attack in large part because his inner voice that drove him to success (and a workaholic life) also made it very difficult for him to ever relax and live in the moment or to focus on a specific thing for very long. His solution? Basically, it’s the little meditation trick in this video, the same one I use.

7. Anand Giridharadas’s letter to all who have lost in this era

From the description:

How did we get a world of such disconnect, fracture and fear? Writer Anand Giridharadas tackles this question by reading a letter to his fellow citizens in which he confesses to his and others’ part in ignoring people’s pain until it turned to anger. There is another way, he says: “Dare to commit to the dream of each other.”

The greatest failure of the modern world is that we somehow stopped listening to the pain of others and started listening only to our own pain.

Here’s the reality. Right now, we live in a tumultuous world, with technological progress moving so fast that society simply hasn’t caught up to all of the changes of the last thirty or so years yet. In roughly a generation’s time, globalism, the internet, and cell phones have completely altered the way all of us are employed, how we buy almost everything, and how we communicate.

That radical shift is changing everyone’s lives. For some people, the changes are for the better. For some, it’s for the worse.

Often, the people whose lives are getting better can’t understand the upset of people whose lives appear to be worsening. At the same time, those whose lives are worsening can’t understand the optimism of those whose lives are getting better.

Rather than trying to listen and trying to build a better future for all of us, the solution has been to isolate ourselves with like-minded folks and to simply label everyone else as “wrong” in some fashion.

That doesn’t actually fix anything. It actually makes things worse.

8. Oscar Wilde on the lives of others

“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” – Oscar Wilde

No matter what you’ve done, your life can be better than it is right now. At the same time, no matter how great the reputation you’ve built up, you can flush it down the tubes very quickly with just a few poor choices.

Take those two together and what do you get? You get a very, very meaningful today.

Today is the day when you get to define what your tomorrow is going to be like, for better or worse. Are you going to make it great? Or are you going to make it terrible? Are you going to spend your energy building something, whether it’s your primary path or a backup plan? Are you going to coast? Or are you going to do something foolish and tear it down?

The choice is yours, every single day. It matters not what your past was like.

9. Kio Stark on why you should talk to strangers

From the description:

“When you talk to strangers, you’re making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life — and theirs,” says Kio Stark. In this delightful talk, Stark explores the overlooked benefits of pushing past our default discomfort when it comes to strangers and embracing those fleeting but profoundly beautiful moments of genuine connection.

You’d be surprised how often my day is made by having a conversation with a stranger, whether I’m the person starting that conversation or they are.

I’ve been overwhelmed by a kind comment from a stranger. I’ve been amazed at the insights from someone that I started conversing with out of the blue. I’ve built new friendships just because I chose to open my mouth at a key moment.

Those things only happened because I chose to talk to strangers.

Here’s a simple challenge for you: the next time you see someone on the street who’s nicely dressed or who is doing a good deed for someone, tell them. Point it out and say you appreciate it. It often starts a conversation and, even if it doesn’t, it’ll probably make that person’s day.

10. Pena Chodron on inner peace

“Inner peace begins the moment you choose not to allow another person or event to control your emotions.” – Pena Chodron

It’s up to you to decide what things in your life actually influence your happiness. You decide whether things get to you. You decide whether things bring you down. You decide – no one else.

You are the gatekeeper to your own emotional state. Never, ever, ever let someone else dictate how you feel. You can choose to let someone else lift you if you’d like, but never, ever let someone else drag you down.

It’s always your decision. It’s always up to you to decide how you’re going to emotionally respond to something.

11. Corinne Bailey Rae’s Tiny Desk Concert

There are times when certain creative works just jump out and strike me out of nowhere. The paintings of Vincent van Gogh do this, as do the books of Philip K. Dick. Something about them is electric and alive in a way that many similar things just aren’t, at least for me. They’re like neon lights in a gray landscape.

Corinne Bailey Rae’s voice is like that for me. I don’t know what it is. It’s not one of those things that can be described or quantified. There’s just something about her voice that stands out like a giant bright beacon whenever she’s performing. It’s like she’s willing me to smile and feel joyous when she’s singing something upbeat or she’s willing me to feel sad when she’s singing something downbeat.

The vast majority of music tends to work best for me when I’m in the same mood as the musician. There’s just something about her where she can just will me to the mood of the song she’s singing.

Some human beings have magical voices. Corinne Bailey Rae is one of them.

12. Albert Camus on friendship

“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” – Albert Camus

It sounds so simple, but it’s actually quite hard.

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