Inspiration from Gillian Welch, John Steinbeck, 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. Colin Grant on being the son of a difficult father

From the description: Colin Grant has spent a lifetime navigating the emotional landscape between his father’s world and his own. Born in England to Jamaican parents, Grant draws on stories of shared experience within his immigrant community — and reflects on how he found forgiveness for a father who rejected him.

For starters, I love hearing the stories of people with lives that have been much different than my own. While I can hear a few echoes of similarity in Colin’s story, most of it is on completely different ground than what I’m familiar with and I find that fascinating. It’s a window into another world of human experience.

More than that, however, this story shines because it shows that we all have the capacity to overcome and rise above the challenges and mistakes and problems of our past. It’s not easy – nothing worth doing ever is – but you don’t have to define yourself and give yourself limitations because of what your past was like.

Your parents don’t define you. Your childhood doesn’t define you. Your early adulthood doesn’t define you. Your mistakes and successes back then don’t define you. What defines you is the choices you make right now that will carry forward from here. You define yourself every single day by what you choose to do (and what you choose to not do).

2. John Steinbeck on the fall of adults in the eyes of children

“When a child first catches adults out—when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not always have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just—his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.” – John Steinbeck, East of Eden

I still remember how it felt when I first realized that the adults I really looked up to in my life – my parents, some of my teachers, and a few others – weren’t perfect. They were fallible flawed people who often made tremendous mistakes and could actually hurt me intentionally and for no reason.

It was crushing.

The thing is that, even through that crushing change, my parents were always there for me. They were the same steady, reliable, thoughtful people that they’ve always been and it didn’t take too much of that “teen angst” period for me to realize how valuable they really were. My parents were not perfect, but they were far more than I deserved.

I can’t be perfect for my own children. My best bet is to be the kind of steady, reliable, thoughtful parent that my own parents were for me so that when the reality of my supposed infallibility comes crashing down to the ground for them, they’ll see that there is still a ton of value in those broken pieces.

You can never be perfect, but you can always choose the better option.

3. FollowUpThen

FollowUpThen is a surprisingly useful tool that I’ve come to rely on more and more and more over time. It’s one of those things that’s such a simple idea that I can’t believe I didn’t think of it.

Basically, FollowUpThen is a service to which you can send an email and the service will send it back at the designated time. For example, if I send an email to the address threehours@followupthen.com, it will forward that email back to me in three hours. If I send it to twoweeks@followupthen.com, then it will forward that email back in two weeks.

This helps me plow through my email inbox quite easily. I don’t have a need to leave messages around in my inbox if they’re related to things I’m not going to deal with for a while. Instead, I’ll forward the email to, say, threedays@followupthen.com and then I can just archive the email, cleaning out my inbox.

Three days later, I get an email – right on time – that tells me what I need to know. That time, I can actually do something and then get rid of the email for good.

It’s just brilliant.

4. Gillian Welch – Time (The Revelator)

This song blows me away every time I hear it. The mix of Gillian Welch’s voice and David Rawlings’ guitar on this downbeat song is something special, period.

This is a downbeat song, don’t get me wrong. I am so often blown away with how music can so effectively convey an emotion and a mood, something this song does so well.

The best songs make you feel something. They don’t simply go in one ear and out the other. They change you on the way through. That’s what makes them special.

5. Lao Tzu on leadership

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu

This simple statement outlines the biggest danger for leadership: the human need for recognition. Many people who take on the mantle of leadership expect and desire that the position will give them some form of recognition – recognition by peers, recognition by superiors, recognition by pay, and so on.

The problem is that questing for such recognition almost always stands in the way of leadership success. It requires the leader to stand out from the rest of the project in some way, which draws away from the many people that contributed to success.

A true leader strives for no recognition; if any comes their way, they deflect it to the others on the team. This works for several reasons. One, great leaders will simply be recognized no matter what they do because of the team’s success. Two, deflecting recognition to team members allows those team members to shine. Three, deflecting recognition to team members shows those members that you personally appreciate them.

If you take on a leadership role, you’re better off not caring at all whether you get recognized for your efforts. Instead, focus entirely on making sure that the project you are working on is a success. If there is success and there is recognition doled out, deflect it to team members that genuinely deserve it. You will never, ever regret doing this.

6. Walt Whitman – I Hear America Signing

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day — at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

I sing when I am truly happy with my work. I’ve been known to sing when I’m building or fixing something. I sing in the shower when cleaning myself and I sing when I give my children baths. I’ve even been known to sing when revising my own writing.

Why? It feels natural. Singing comes from the heart and when it’s done while working, it’s often an expression of pleasure with that work.

I am always happy to hear someone singing because they’re happy with whatever task they’re doing. That happiness is a wonderful sound.

7. Dan Harris on the simplest way for improving your life

From the description: Dan Harris explains the neuroscience behind meditation, but reminds us that the ancient practice isn’t magic and likely won’t send one floating into the cosmic ooze. He predicts that the exercise will soon become regularly scheduled maintenance, as commonplace as brushing your teeth or eating your veggies. Harris, an ABC News correspondent, was turned on to mediation after a live, on-air panic attack.

Also, from the transcript: In sports this is called being in the zone. It’s nothing mystical. It’s not magical. You’re not floating off into cosmic ooze. You are just being where you are – big cliché in self-help circles is being in the now. You can use that term if you want but because it’s accurate. It’s slightly annoying but it’s accurate. It’s more just being focused on what you’re doing. And the benefits of that are enormous. And this is why you’re seeing these unlikely meditators now, why you’re seeing the U.S. Marines adopting it, the U.S. Army, corporate executives from the head of Ford to the founders of Twitter. Athletes from Phil Jackson to many, many Olympians. Scientists, doctors, lawyers, school children. There’s this sort of elite subculture of high achievers who are adopting this because they know it can help you be more focused on what you’re doing and it can stop you from being yanked around by the voice in your head.

I’ll be the first to admit that I used to think that meditation was bogus. It was something that was a waste of time that was sold by “new age” types as some sort of patent medicine cure-all that didn’t really do anything.

It took a friend of mine to coax me into it. She kept insisting that it really worked and at a professional conference I attended in either 2003 or 2004, she walked me through it. She basically insisted that I do it for five days in a row and directly walked me through the process.

I basically did it to get her off my back and for the first couple of days, I didn’t notice a change. By the end of the fifth day, though, I began to notice it. It was subtle, but there was something different. I just seemed more aware of what was going on around me. I picked up more out of what people were talking about. I didn’t get bored or tired quite as easily.

I’ve basically kept it up as a daily practice since then. There are a lot of different practices for doing it, but the way that works best for me (and has for a long time) is to just focus on one phrase and repeat it over and over in my mind for twenty minutes, bringing my mind back to that phrase if it starts to drift.

It really makes a difference. I can focus on my children for long periods of time. I can concentrate on basically any project for hours and hours. I notice lots of little things all the time and can often recall them later.

It isn’t life changing. I’d describe it as a 10% or 15% improvement on my focus and attention compared to where I’m at without it. However, it’s enough to be noticeable and it’s enough that, over the course of days and weeks, it really adds up to a much better life.

It doesn’t require you to buy anything or wear yourself out with physical effort. It just requires a few minutes (I used to just do it for five minutes or so, but it gradually grew over time because it really feels good.)

8. Neil DeGrasse Tyson on cheating in schools

“When students cheat on exams, it’s because our school system values grades more than students value learning.” – Neil Degrasse Tyson

A quote like this points out something that’s unquestionably true – a higher value is placed on grades than on actual learning – but it leads down a long path of thinking. How exactly do you fix that problem?

The reason that tests exist in school is because they solve the problem of inadequate numbers of teachers. With individual learning, a teacher can accurately assess what a student knows. When you have a math teacher teaching 160 different kids per day in a rotating classroom environment, that type of one-on-one assessment is quite simply impossible.

Another problem is that those test scores are what parents and colleges and employers use as a basis to judge the students by. What a student has learned can’t be summed up by a single number, but a person’s SAT score or GPA certainly can be. When it’s that number that becomes the source of judgment, people are going to focus on how to improve that number, not on what it represents.

I don’t know what the solution is, but it does leave me thinking, and when a quote can leave you thinking for a long time, it’s a quote worth respect.

9. Richard Branson on entrepreneurship

From the description: I think the most important thing about running a company is to remember all the time what a company is. A company is simply a group of people. And as a leader of people you have to be a great listener and you have to be a great motivator. You have to be very good at praising and looking for the best in people.

I actually believe what he’s saying here. His company, Virgin, has a strong reputation for being a great place to work because they treat people like people, and yet Branson was able to become a billionaire by building it.

I’ve found that there are two ways to succeed in business. One is to crush your employees into the ground in order to sell for the absolute minimum prices. The other is to treat your employees well so that they’ll attract customers even in the face of somewhat higher prices.

Even as a frugal person, I’m usually attracted to the second type of business. A company that has a history of treating me well is likely to earn my business in the future, even if I could save a dollar or two by going elsewhere.

If I ever again find myself in the position of having employees to manage, this is the philosophy I’ll take. They’re people, not tools.

10. Kurt Vonnegut on looking back

“And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes. People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

The story of Lot’s wife was the one story that always troubled me when I was younger. She was the one in that whole group that made sense to me. As she walked away from Sodom and Gomorrah, she was walking away from every friend she had ever known, every member of her extended family. She loved them. No matter how many mistakes they may have made, they were still the people that she loved and the people that she had filled her life with. It is no wonder that she looked back at them.

The problem is that looking back is always a double-edged sword. Our hearts often long for the good things we once had, but that can keep us from seeing the good things we have today. Our minds often regret the errors we once made, but focusing on them allows us to excuse the mistakes we make today.

You can’t change the past. You can only change the present and, by extension, the future. At best, the past only serves to teach us lessons about what we can do today and tomorrow. If you must look back, look back only with the aim of using that past to make the present and the future better.

11. The Missing Scarf

This short animated film has won a ton of animation awards over the last two years and deservedly so. Although the ending is a bit dark (be forewarned… screen it yourself before you share it with the kids), the film touches on a number of thought provoking ideas, particularly the amplification of everyday fears into something much larger than they ever should be.

But that’s not entirely why I’m including it here.

I’m including it because that film was, in large part, the work of one guy holed up with his laptop. As is described here:

Then came production, which basically consisted of Eoin [Duffy] and a laptop for almost 5 months, as he alone designed and animated all visuals.

He collaborated with a few people on specific elements – refining the script, the music, the voice work, and so on – but the crux of this thing came from just one guy on his laptop.

If you ever think that you can’t really do anything amazing by yourself, just think of Eoin Duffy spending months with his laptop and essentially creating an amazing short film basically out of thin air. That’s pretty inspirational.

12. Emerson on disagreements and personal attacks

“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Just because someone disagrees with you does not mean they are personally attacking you. Just because someone else does not follow your way of thinking does not mean that you are less of a person, nor that they are less of a person.

Few things in life frustrate me more than when people judge the entirety of someone else by what their political beliefs are. A person is not a lesser person because they have a political or philosophical or religious stance than is different than your own. All it does is provide a convenient excuse for you to not have to think about your own stances because you’ve decided that the opposition is somehow less than you.

Every time I see someone use the words “Obummer” or “Teabagger,” I don’t lose respect for President Obama or the Tea Party. I lose respect solely for the person that would use the word “Obummer” or “Teabagger” to describe a person or persons that they disagree with on political philosophy. Rather than actually listening to each other and working together to come up with a healthy solution to whatever problem is at hand, they instead choose to slap a horrible name on the other person so that the other side becomes less human and thus they don’t have to listen to or interact with that person. That cheap label becomes an excuse not to think and not to work to solve problems.

Never, ever fall into that trap. Not only do you lose, so does everyone else who might have been a part of a worthwhile conversation.