Inspiration from Bob Ross, Aala El-Khani, Marie Forleo, Walt Whitman, 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. Marie Forleo on clarity

“Clarity comes from engagement, not thought.” – Marie Forleo

To put it another way, action often makes things clear in a way that mere thought and study cannot. You can have all of the ideas in the world floating around in your head, but it’s what happens in the real world when you put them to the test that makes all the difference.

I actually wrote this in several recent entries in my personal journal, simply because I often find myself thinking about and writing about potential actions but then often I don’t follow through with them. The ideas are good and worthwhile, but they haven’t been put to any sort of practical test.

I’ll give you an example. Recently, I’ve been reading a series of novels by Jo Walton in which a group of people in the ancient world move to a remote island in order to build the ideal city as described in Plato’s Republic (The Just City being the first in that series). Reading those novels has made me spend a lot of time thinking about how to apply some of the material in The Republic to my own life and my own civic life.

The catch, of course, is that it’s all theoretical. None of this works unless I try it. For it to really mean anything, I need to take some of the conclusions I’ve drawn and actually put them to practice, focusing on my own behavior as a part of the community in which I live.

2. Ulysses

The computer I’m using right now is very likely to be the last one I’ll ever buy. Why? The reason is that, more and more, mobile programs are getting good enough to match what I do on the desktop and carrying around a tablet is far easier to carry around and use than a desktop computer.

While that switch is still some ways off in the future – I’ll probably keep using my current setup until there are hardware problems I can’t handle or until my key software is no longer supported – I am definitely looking at tablet and mobile options for replacing all of the software I currently use. Ulysses has blown me away as a long-form word processor and text editor.

I currently use Evernote directly for editing articles, but when I work on something longer, like a book manuscript, I see some real limitations in Evernote. It doesn’t manage long documents particularly well. So, for the time being, I’ve been using Scrivener for writing long things like business plans and novel drafts.

The problem is that Scrivener’s mobile app… is okay at best. The desktop program is fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but the mobile app? Not good. It just feels like they tried to throw in as many features as possible without really thinking about any sort of mobile usability. That’s to be expected at this point, as it’s a fairly new app with a ton of features jammed in, but it’s clunky.

Ulysses, on the other hand, has a really good desktop program for writing, but it’s not quite as good as Scrivener (part of that might be personal familiarity). However, on mobile, Ulysses blows Scrivener out of the water. That mobile app is amazing; it’s literally the best long-form writing program I’ve ever tried on a phone or tablet.

What’s inspirational about this? Well, when you spend hours each day on a particular task, finding the right tool inspires you to do more and better work, and I feel like Ulysses might be that tool for me going forward. It’s kind of like chopping down a tree with a pretty good axe and then picking up one that’s basically built for you.

3. The Dalai Lama on shortcomings

“To be aware of a single shortcoming within oneself is more useful than to be aware of a thousand in someone else.” – Dalai Lama

Here’s the reality of the world: no one is perfect, and that includes the two of us. I’m not perfect, you’re not perfect. The catch is that I can only control myself and you can only control yourself. I’m the only person that can put forth effort to try to improve my own bad habits and traits; you’re the only one that can put forth effort to try to improve your bad habits or traits. Thus, recognizing our own bad habits and traits is inherently more important than recognizing the bad habits and traits in others because we can actually take action to fix our own bad habits and traits.

It goes further than that. We also have the capacity to control our own reactions to the flaws in other people. We choose whether or not to allow them to fester and treat that person negatively or to simply let them flow right past us and look for their good traits. That’s within us. That’s our decision.

Again, it comes back to our own traits and habits and the fact that we control them, while we don’t control the traits and habits of others. We decide how we react to the behavior of others. We decide whether we choose to think negative thoughts about others. We decide whether to form a negative opinion of others. We decide whether to emphasize the positive traits or the negative traits in others. That’s our choice and the outcome of those thoughts reflects on us far more than it reflects on the other person.

4. Aala El-Khani on what it’s like to be a parent in a war zone

From the description:

How do parents protect their children and help them feel secure again when their homes are ripped apart by war? In this warm-hearted talk, psychologist Aala El-Khani shares her work supporting — and learning from — refugee families affected by the civil war in Syria. She asks: How can we help these loving parents give their kids the warm, secure parenting they most need?

I cannot even conceive of the challenge, difficulty, and pain of having to raise my children in a war zone where I could not reasonably protect the day-to-day safety of my children. If I’m being honest, I cannot really do so now, but at least I can live with some strong confidence that my children won’t be felled by a random bomb from the sky (or from the ground). I can make them feel reasonably safe in their lives. In a war zone, that ability goes away.

Because of that relative safety, I know that my children’s stress levels are low and that their immediate needs are met, and thus I can spend a lot of time parenting them for the long term and helping them think about their future. I’m not focused on the necessity of keeping them alive each day; I can somewhat take that for granted. I can instead focus on longer-term things, like building character.

I am incredibly thankful that I live in a place where I can take that for granted.

5. Henry David Thoreau on being lost

“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” – Henry David Thoreau

One of the biggest patterns I’ve come to realize in my life is that when I’ve faced my lowest points, I’ve usually responded with some sort of intense personal growth. When I felt most hopeless about my career – at two different times – I began to completely change directions and wound up in new and unexpected places. When I felt most hopeless about my finances, I completely turned that ship around by rebooting a ton of my life behaviors. When I felt most helpless about my health, I turned that ship around as well.

In those darkest moments, I truly felt lost. I felt as though my life was a large mistake and that I had made so many mis-steps that I would never really be able to undo all of the damage.

But somewhere in that sense of being lost, I began to realize that I had the power to fix one little small thing. I could do something to make things just a little bit better. And in doing that, I saw another thing. And another thing. And it became a trickle of things. And then it became a flood. And then it became a life change.

Don’t fear hopeless moments. Be inspired by them. It’s your mind telling you that your current direction has to change and it’s demanding that you look around for something to do to make that change, no matter how little. And once you do that first thing, you’ll start looking for the second. And then the third. And then a flood.

6. Red Baraat – NPR Tiny Desk Concert

From the description:

Red Baraat’s fusion of bhangra, go-go, hip-hop and jazz is driven by frontman Sunny Jain’s percolating playing of the dhol, a double-sided drum which forms the rhythmic lattice of support for their boisterous horns and guitar. And though Red Baraat graced the Tiny Desk five years ago, we had to have Jain’s band back to celebrate Holi, the Hindu festival of color, of good over evil, and the coming of spring. Usually you’d see the dusting of brightly colored perfumed powders strewn in the air, covering bodies and clothing. The notion of doing that in the office was a fun thought, but the band (with my nudging) opted instead for confetti cannons and passing candied treats. It made for quicker cleanup, but their uplifting spirits lingered on, giving us a chance to shake off the final days of winter and demonstrating why music is so essential to the soul.

I love listening to NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts due to the musical variety that they demonstrate. These short concerts cover almost every imaginable genre of music and have led me to discover Red Baraat, a musical group I almost assuredly would have never heard otherwise.

The music is indescribable. The attempt above, calling it a “fusion of bhangra, go-go, hip-hop, and jazz” is a feeble one. It sounds like the music of a culture that doesn’t truly exist in this world that I inhabit, yet it is incredibly beautiful and still somehow really human. It makes me want to move in a way that music rarely achieves for me.

The best music I hear on Youtube usually winds up on repeat for a while. I’ve listened to this one a lot of times in the last week or so. It’s just so full of life.

7. The Voluntary Life

The Voluntary Life is a podcast about voluntary living, meaning that it focuses on reflecting on how many elements of life you really can control and then choosing what you want in all of those areas. The idea is that no matter what kind of life you live, most of the elements of that life are voluntary – you’re choosing them, whether you immediately realize it or not.

Thus, the podcast spends a lot of time addressing many of the assumptions of modern life – home, work, career, family, travel – and trying to undo them and ask real questions about them.

This has become one of my go-to listens in the car and when I’m doing household chores. I’ve come to realize that I’m happy with a lot of my life choices – I’m very happy living in a house on the edge of a small town with a wife and children in a good school district – but I also realize that I don’t have to make those choices and the number of options before me is immense, and that by thinking about those choices a little, I can sometimes find better ways to do what I’m doing.

This one’s well worth a listen.

8. Walt Whitman – I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.

I think of this poem whenever I see some of my own little natural souvenirs from travel or some adventure in the world. I’ll often bring home a twig or a leaf or a rock or something from a hike or from a trip, not because I intend to keep it forever, but because it can be a fleeting little physical reminder of that trip, a “curious token” of that experience.

I still fondly remember pulling over once in the Arbuckle Mountains of Oklahoma so that my wife and I could find a rock that was a perfect example of the amazing red colors that we were seeing along the road. She found this small little stone and we took it home with us. It still resides in our front garden and somehow it reminds me of how I felt during that stop, just enjoying a short adventure with someone that I love so much.

I don’t really need to keep that rock itself. Honestly, it’s just a little splash of red in our front garden that we’ll probably forget if we ever move. That doesn’t mean that seeing that little red rock doesn’t take me back, much like that twig on Whitman’s mantle takes him back to that Louisiana oak.

9. The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross

When I was little, I used to love visiting my great-grandmother’s house. She was quite old, as one would expect, but during my early childhood she was still quite lively. I still remember her nearly running from room to room playing with me when she was in her early seventies.

She loved to paint. She mostly painted in a studio that her daughter rented for her use, but she sometimes painted at home as well. I remember her showing me her paints and brushes a few times, though I don’t recall ever actually putting paint to canvas with her.

What I do remember, though, is that she absolutely had to watch Bob Ross’s Joy of Painting show at 2:30 in the afternoon each day. That was the one television program that she insisted on watching, and the local PBS station played it every weekday in the middle of the afternoon.

I remember watching it with her and feeling incredibly peaceful. I’m sure it was a mix of Bob’s ultra-chill and friendly demeanor and the peace I generally felt that came from being at my grandmother’s house. The thing is, though, I can still watch The Joy of Painting years and years later and still feel some of that peace.

Here’s an episode where Bob paints a winter retreat. Enjoy.

10. Carl Jung on understanding ourselves

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” – Carl Jung

This is the flip side of that earlier quote about how one flaw in ourselves has more meaning than a thousand flaws in others. It’s normal to be irritated by someone else’s flaws, but why? Why are we irritated? What does that irritation tell us about us?

I’ll give you an example, one that I was thinking about earlier today when reflecting on a friend. I have a friend that is almost never punctual. He treats the clock as some kind of general guidance rather than a tool for meeting others at an agreed-upon time. This frustrates me, as I’m a punctual person – I’m actually a “show up several minutes early” kind of person, and it’s served me well many times in my life.

Here’s the thing – that tardy friend is also pretty much the most tolerant person in the world when it comes to last-minute emergencies. Even if you don’t contact him, he’ll wait around for you for a long time and not be worried at all if you’re late. If he has something else he needs to do, he’ll often wait around for you until he’s already late for the next thing and then cheerfully tell you it’s no big deal. Often, when he’s late to see you, it’s because he ran late being a good friend to someone else.

When you step back and look at the things that irritate you in others, you’ll sometimes see that the picture isn’t really what you thought it was, and it leads you to both a better understanding of yourself and of the people around you.

11. School of Life

School of Life is a wonderful Youtube channel that offers up some great philosophically-based advice on a quality life, as well as some good general “here’s how to handle the adult world” advice. Here’s one of my favorite examples (and how I discovered the channel), How to Find Fulfilling Work:

I’ve watched some of these videos with my own children when we’ve been discussing particular topics and I’ve often thought to myself that the advice mirrors some of the best advice my own parents gave to me growing up. It’s advice that older children and teenagers often don’t want to hear from their parents due to maturity levels, but they’ll find it so useful later on in life. I’m glad this channel exists for just that reason – to give that kind of advice to people who missed it or didn’t get to hear it the first time.

It also makes me appreciate my own wonderful parents, who have always given me so much of themselves to help me make my own life better. It’s a standard I hope I can live up to with my own kids.

12. William James on the best use of life

“The greatest use of a life is to spend it on something that will outlast it.” – William James

Every single time that I’ve ever heard that something I’ve done has had an impact on someone else’s life and changed it, I’ve felt tremendous. It’s made me feel as though my life has purpose and meaning.

I view life as being like a rough lake on a windy day, with waves going in all directions and little sense or pattern in the water’s surface. We spend our lives out there on boats, tossing rocks into this lake. Almost all of them make no ripples at all. Some of them, though, make big ripples, big enough to affect the movement of the other boats and maybe, if we’re lucky, helping those other boats move toward the place they want to go.

I want to spend my life throwing big rocks into that lake.

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