Inspiration from Emily Esfahani Smith, Cus D’Amato, Steve Martin, 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. John Green on loving people and things

“People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos, is because things are being loved and people are being used.” – John Green

A friend of mine shared this quote with me recently, along with the comment that we’re utterly wasting the current technological revolution because we’re just chasing more and newer stuff without solving basic problems of human suffering.

I think this is the struggle of the twenty first century. We either have or will shortly have the technology needed to handle almost every kind of manual labor and low skill job in existence. What happens then? What happens when the vast majority of the world doesn’t have a skillset that’s worth employing? We’re walking straight toward that point, and we’re not even seriously talking about it.

What value do those lives have? Do we continue to buy into the idea that the only real value of human life is what that person can produce? That’s the idea we’ve operated under for the last few hundred years at least, but in that situation, we consign the majority of the human race to worthlessness.

Perhaps we need to start asking ourselves if people beyond our immediate circle have worth beyond what they can produce, because when things can exceed the production capacity of most people, when automated fleets of machines do all of the farming and all of the manufacturing and all of the transportation and all of the warehouse work and all of the unloading and loading and all of the package and mail delivery… what’s left?

It is easy to say, “Well, sure, all humans have worth,” but what does that mean in a world when the majority of people are essentially idle because all of their work is being done by machine? What is their purpose, if not to produce? How do we begin to transition to a world that shows them love beyond what they produce? Or do we? It’s a question I’m really struggling with right now, and it’s inspiring me to read a lot of challenging material.

2. The Seven Year Pilgrimage to Enlightenment

From the description:

For our latest episode of Endurance Test, LA-based director Ivan Olita explores the spiritual practice of Kaihōgyō, performed by the monks of Mount Hiei, Japan. The 1000-Day pilgrimage has been completed by less than 50 monks in over a century, and traditionally, any monk who cannot complete it must take their own life.

From the related article:

What these monks do is an example of the ultimate distillation of life. They go to the essential core, getting rid of literally anything that is unnecessary both physically and spiritually. The doiri, a nine-day retreat without food, water, or sleep, which takes place around the fifth year of the pilgrimage, is the most extreme example of this.

They lose themselves in the trees, rivers, purity.

The fact that they make this journey on foot does not mean the movement is the goal—it is just a means to reach enlightenment. They lose themselves in the trees, rivers, purity—entranced by the rhythm of the mountain, awakening their spirits with the pace of nature from night to sunrise, day after day.

Whenever I feel that I can’t achieve a goal, I think back to this video. These monks take on 1,000 marathons over the course of seven years, of which 100 are essentially marathon-and-a-half in length and 100 more are double length marathons. They do this for spiritual enlightenment. Along the way, they take on additional challenges, like the mentioned doiri.

I could fill myself with questions of why they are doing is, but the why isn’t really so important in the end – suffice it to say that they are seeking enlightenment. What’s meaningful is the focus on the goal and the willingness to give up so much to attain that goal. Spiritual enlightenment is central to their life and they take on a truly incredible goal to attain it.

What am I willing to take on to achieve my own goals? What can I do to achieve enlightenment, or any other thing I want from life? What am I willing to give up?

3. Mitch Albom on moving on

“In order to move on, you must understand why you felt what you did and why you no longer need to feel it.” – Mitch Albom

The biggest mistakes that I make in life are ones that are driven by regret.

My past is filled with a ton of what-ifs. What if I had just stayed at my old job and kept The Simple Dollar as a side gig? What if I hadn’t said yes to Sarah and given up on another relationship that was dying on the vine? What if I hadn’t decided to sell The Simple Dollar in 2011 and remain just as a writer?

Sometimes I look down those other paths and I feel a bit of regret. I see what my life might have been like. I see relationships with people that I now miss quite a bit. I see business opportunities and intellectual challenges that seem wonderful.

It’s easy to get lost in those regrets. However, when I step back to right now and I look at those moments seriously, I realize I chose the right path. All of my feelings are on the side of the path chosen. Those other paths withered away for a reason – and often for many reasons.

Regret takes me away from the life I have now, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

4. Emily Esfahani Smith on how there’s more to life than being happy

From the description:

Our culture is obsessed with happiness, but what if there’s a more fulfilling path? Happiness comes and goes, says writer Emily Esfahani Smith, but having meaning in life — serving something beyond yourself and developing the best within you — gives you something to hold onto. Learn more about the difference between being happy and having meaning as Smith offers four pillars of a meaningful life.

Lately, I’ve been writing a lot about the concept of contentment, which I view as a state in life where happiness occurs naturally from your day-to-day life. Hand in hand with that idea is that contentment comes hand in hand with finding some sort of meaning in life.

In this video, Smith touches on four pillars of finding meaning: belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling. On the surface, those seem almost “buzzword-y,” like they come out of a pop psychology book, but as I thought about them, I realized that a person who has those things really has a content life.

A person with belonging is someone with a healthy social circle around them, one that they’ve worked to build over time. It isn’t given to you.

A person with purpose is someone that just has a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Maybe it’s just being a parent, or a good spouse. Or maybe you have a job that you derive meaning from.

A person with transcendence is someone who can find wonder in everyday life and can achieve a state of flow where they’re wrapped in the task they’re doing and lose track of time.

A person with storytelling is someone who can simply work through the events in their life and set them in terms of redemption, growth, and love. What stories do you tell about yourself? Do you grow? Do you redeem yourself? Do you share stories with those elements? Do you think about situations in that way?

Those four things really are at the foundation of a content life, at least as I see it. This is a beautiful talk, well worth listening to.

5. Rumi on changing the world

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” – Rumi

The only thing you can really change is yourself. You can try and try, but you can’t really fundamentally change anyone else unless they choose to open themselves up to you.

The only change that matters comes from a person who is in control of themselves and exhibits great virtues in the world, and that’s a person who has invested the time to change and improve themselves.

That person, by their normal actions, makes the immediate world around them better. This improves the lives of those nearby, and that ripples outward. Perhaps that person can inspire or mentor others to make similar changes, but, again, those changes come from within. The changes ripple outward.

In the end, though, it comes back to changing you. It comes back to making yourself better.

6. Tinycards

As many of you know, I started on a path recently to become a black belt in taekwondo. I chose taekwondo because I’ve long been interested in a martial art, there are inexpensive lessons near my home, and it has a self-defense and personal improvement focus that really appeals to me. It focuses greatly on self-defense, focus, and elements of personal growth. The vast majority of classes is spent on individual technique and then “sparring” with a partner which is mostly about developing defensive technique.

Part of learning taekwondo at my school is learning a pretty sizable number of move sequences intended to simulate certain fighting situations where you may have to respond defensively or certain sequences of moves that synchronize well together. The list of these that you need to know to achieve black belt status is impressive.

As a result, I’ve been seeking out a “flash card” tool I can use on my phone to review the moves and other pieces of information that I need to remember and master. Tinycards is hands down the best tool I’ve found for this.

What I’ve done is created a big set of “cards” that depict the name of the move on one side and a description of the moves on the other side. During belt progression tests, the instructor simply calls out the name of the move and the students are expected to be able to pull off the move immediately, so it requires knowledge of the moves expected in response to just the name of that moveset.

If you’re struggling to remember a large set of individual facts, I highly recommend Tinycards. It’s brilliant for this.

7. Caitlin Quattromani and Lauran Arledge on how their friendship survives opposing politics

From the description:

Can you still be friends with someone who doesn’t vote the same way as you? For Caitlin Quattromani and Lauran Arledge, two best friends who think very differently about politics, the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election could have resulted in hostility and disrespect. Hear about how they chose to engage in dialogue instead — and learn some simple tactics they’re using to maintain their bipartisan friendship.

For the last several months, I’ve been deeply inspired by a private group I’ve been a part of with several of my oldest friends and a few of their closest friends – people who I know socially but perhaps aren’t incredibly close to. The purpose of this private group was to have discussions on issues entirely without negative tone or personal attacks – they were entirely banned. If you wanted to criticize something, you had to come with a question, not a criticism. If you attacked someone, your message was deleted; if it happened too often, you’d be tossed out of the group. If you quoted a statistic, you had to provide a source for it.

The thing is, once we adopted those strict rules of being pleasant to each other and discussing issues in a positive fashion, we came to realize that we all had a lot in common with each other, far more than we would have initially thought on November 9, 2016. Most of us want many of the same things – security and freedom for ourselves and our family, opportunity and respect for the people of the world. The difference is in our route to those goals, but when we sit down and actually discuss those routes in a positive way, we can begin to see that other routes have positive elements and our own ideas perhaps aren’t as perfect as we once thought, either. In fact, there may just be some room for compromise and borrowing ideas from each other.

Strangely enough, having political discussions with friends with very different views in 2017 has actually brought some of us closer together.

Unfortunately, this is a private group of friends, so it’s also filled with in-jokes and coarse language and references to personal matters and so on – not something to be shared publicly.

Instead, I’m sharing this video, which really hits on the same points. Be positive. Focus on the common things that we share. Don’t waste your time with people or media that tries to paint whole groups of people as bad or immoral, because they’re really not. Talk, listen, and ask questions, and recognize that other people are generally good people who may just see a different path than you do.

8. Theodore Roosevelt on mind and morals

“To educate a man in mind, and not in morals, is to educate a menace to society.” – Theodore Roosevelt

I’m very happy with the education that my children receive at school. They are adept readers. They’re strong at arithmetic. They’re able to reason through difficult problems. I really couldn’t ask for more.

However, public schools are pretty weak in one area. They don’t really do much to teach character or morals. The rules structure there is mostly meant to keep children in their seats and focused on learning the material as presented, which is fine for what it is, but it doesn’t really teach much about having an internal sense of right and wrong.

I can also understand why schools shy away from such education. No one really wants their children to be taught morals and values that they themselves don’t 100% agree with.

Thus, such lessons fall back on the parents, which I consider to be a good thing provided that the children have involved parents.

I feel like my children have strong basic values and morals, but they’re growing older, and many of the moral and ethical questions that they’re starting to face are very challenging ones.

It’s up to me as a parent to guide them through this, to begin some of their final preparations for flying on their own through life. I want to send out good citizens, people who will make the world a better place than they found it. I relish the challenge.

(In case you’re wondering, one big step I’m taking is having dinner table conversations about this stuff, working through the right and wrong of complex issues and getting them to think about it while their focus is engaged with the rest of the family. The conversations we have and the resultant subtle behavior changes tell me that this is a good path to keep following.)

9. Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Singers – NPR Tiny Desk Concert

From the description:

It’s hard to think of an artist who’s brought more joy to more people, across more generations — and in more ways — than Steve Martin. In the 1970s, he won the hearts of young children for his playful appearances with The Muppets while simultaneously charming legions of older fans with his subversive standup routines. Later, as an actor, he wrote and starred in some of the most memorable comedies (and a few dramas) of all time, while writing books, plays and even a Broadway musical.

Throughout his 50-year career, one constant in Steve Martin’s life has been the banjo. It was a staple of his early standup shows and even fans who only wanted to laugh couldn’t help but marvel at his playing. Over the years, he’s continued to perform and record with country and bluegrass luminaries like Earl Scruggs, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and others.

These days Martin is working on music full-time. He’s just released a stellar bluegrass album he recorded with The Steep Canyon Rangers called (perfectly) The Long-Awaited Album, a record filled with often hilarious story songs and world-class performances.

Martin’s set with The Steep Canyon Rangers at the Tiny Desk was at times thrilling, particularly his opening solo for the song “So Familiar.” But it was also playful, comical and a joy to witness. At the end of the typical three-song performance, the group graciously decided to do one more called “Caroline,” a hilarious, first-person account of how not to handle a breakup.

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with an older relative who was just baffled that Steve Martin would walk away from a stellar comedy career to play bluegrass music. Why on earth would he give up making so many people laugh to play bluegrass music at small venues and sell recordings that not many people listen to in the big scheme of things?

Well, for me, I find it hugely inspirational. Martin may have been really successful in the comedy world, but when he found that his passion was heading elsewhere, he didn’t just keep churning out comedies and making money with them when his heart wasn’t in it. He walked away. He had always loved bluegrass, but he now wanted to devote himself even more fully to it.

And so he did.

It’s difficult to walk away from something successful, even when your heart is calling you elsewhere. It’s courageous to do it, and inspirational to others when you do.

Keep playing that banjo. I’ll listen. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I happen to like bluegrass anyway and Steve Martin is a really good banjo player.)

10. Jack Dixon on change and results

“If you focus on results, you will never change. If you focus on change, you will get results.” – Jack Dixon

It’s easy to set giant goals for yourself. I’m going to lose 100 pounds this year. I’m going to pay off all of my debts. I’m going to do this big thing or that big thing.

The problem is that those goals don’t have anything to do with how you actually live your day-to-day life. They don’t encourage you or motivate you to really change for the long term. You climb that mountain, and then what? You’re the same person with the same habits as before and you’ll eventually go right back to where you started.

The path to a better life is in changing that day to day routine. It’s in giving up the routines that caused you to get into debt or to get heavy in the first place and find better routines, and then mindfully practicing those routines until they become the new normal in your life.

Then, you’re a changed person. Your life path has changed. You’re headed to a new destination.

11. The Destructive Switch from Search to Social

A key quote:

Whereas the 2006 Internet was used to find specific information, the 2017 Internet is more used to see what’s out there to entertain you. You don’t go to Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, or Instagram because you’re looking for something, rather, you want to see what it has found for you.

On the Internet in 2006, you were focused on pulling out what you wanted. Unless you were reading the news, whatever you read was something you had sought out. But now, most of your information is pushed onto you. You no longer enter the Internet the way you would a public library, where you browse and pick out what you want to read in peace, it’s more like the Las Vegas strip, where you’re bombarded with demands for your attention and need not exert any effort to be entertained.

It’s a subtle change, and most of us haven’t noticed it happening, but it’s been damaging to our minds in a few ways. Ways that don’t feel evident in our day to day, but when we step back and look at them, are glaringly obvious.

The clearest problem is what it’s done to our attention spans. How easily can you sit down with a book for an hour without checking your social media or email? Can you read through this whole article without switching to another tab or window at least once? What about at work, do you get a few hours of deep work without checking the news, email, or social media? Or do you jump around multiple times a minute?

I notice the same thing. If I have an internet device near me, I find myself jumping around constantly, looking at all kinds of information sources that are foisting information on me. Inherently, I have some level of trust in those sources of information, and they shape what I think, but the problem is that when I’m doing this, I am never thinking deeply.

The only solution I’ve found is to regularly disconnect. I turn off my phone and put it away completely. I turn off my computer. I then just go do things that don’t involve electronic devices. I go on a walk in the woods. I read a book and take notes on it sometimes. I make a complex meal. I play a game with friends or with family. I help my children practice at soccer. That time is incredibly inspirational for me. It fills me with energy, with thoughts, and with peace. I highly recommend it.

12. Cus D’Amato on a beaten man

“To see a man beaten not by a better opponent, but by himself, is a tragedy.” – Cus D’Amato

It’s one thing to be beaten by something outside of our control. A great opponent. A disaster or an illness that we couldn’t prevent.

It’s another thing entirely to be beaten by ourselves. To give up. To throw in the towel. To not try with our whole heart.

The thing is, it’s rarely the outside world that beats you. Almost always, people beat themselves. That’s the greatest tragedy of all.

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