Inspiration from Henry David Thoreau, Bruce Lee, Ben E. King, 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. Henry David Thoreau on unrealized potential

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” – Henry David Thoreau

I can make a long list of the people in my life that had the potential to do great things and had the tools to achieve them, but the circumstances of their life painted them into a corner.

One of the sharpest analytical minds I’ve ever known wound up giving up his future opportunities because his younger siblings were essentially without parents. He stepped up for the children, but the world lost out on the great things he could have contributed.

One of the greatest writers I’ve ever known was buried under a giant pile of medical issues. The world will never know her genius, as she never produced enough finished material to even fill a single volume of poetry and short stories.

The single greatest mathematician I’ve ever met couldn’t live with the pain that was brought about from one single mistake that he made, even though the outcome was largely not his fault.

We are all caught in difficult circumstances, but we should never let go of the dreams that we have. There is always time to study. There is always time to go back to school. There is always time to relaunch your career. Every day that passes is another opportunity to claim what’s inside of you.

2. John Green on why learning is awesome

From the description:

Some of us learn best in the classroom, and some of us … well, we don’t. But we still love to learn, to find out new things about the world and challenge our minds. We just need to find the right place to do it, and the right community to learn with. In this charming talk, author John Green shares the world of learning he found in online video.

The video starts with a great story about what a “paper town” is – you should really watch it just for the story – but the rest of the video is where the real story is.

For me, the valuable part of the story was that it’s really hard to value learning if you’re not part of a community of people that value learning. It’s really hard to explore new ideas if you’re not part of a community of people that value exploring new ideas.

And when you don’t value learning and you don’t value exploring new ideas, you become very set on the handful of ideas that you have acquired, the minimal structure that you need to get through daily life. Ideas that don’t match that handful are outright rejected out of hand because they don’t fit into that structure and there’s no value to you in learning and there’s no value to you in exploring new ideas.

If everyone in the world spent just an hour a day truly considering new ideas and perspectives that aren’t their own without outright rejecting them, and then shared those things that they’re learning with the communities they’re involved with, I truly believe the world would become a much better place at an extremely rapid rate.

Does that sound beautiful? Go find a community of learners. There are lots of them out there. What are you interested in? What question do you have? Go seek it out, and look for people who are answering and asking questions in that area. Twitter. Reddit. Even Youtube.

3. Kurt Vonnegut on happiness

“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.'” – Kurt Vonnegut

I think that, quite often, people don’t really realize what makes them happy. We’re more prone to notice it when we’re sad, because when we’re happy, we’re usually engaged in something and don’t notice the happiness.

I know that I have a lot of happy moments in a given day or a given week, but I tend to notice the sad moments far more. I notice when I’m not happy or frustrated and it becomes very central in my mind. When I’m happy, I’m usually lost in doing whatever it is that made me happy.

Vonnegut’s solution is simple: Take effort to notice when you’re happy. Notice those times throughout the day when you feel good about things.

I’ve been trying very hard to do this over the past several months. I find that, over and over again, simple things make me happy.

I usually feel happy after some vigorous exercise and, sometimes, during it, especially when I’m exercising at that right level where I feel exerted but don’t feel overwhelmed. I feel happy when I get intellectually lost in something, like a great book or an article. I feel happy most of the time when I’m playing tabletop games with people whose company I love. I feel happy most of the time when I’m doing something with the members of my immediate family, almost regardless of what that thing is.

The trick is noticing that joy in the moment and realizing how rich my life is with such joy. As I see how much joy actually flows through my life and how those islands of sadness are really minor in the big scheme of things, I feel better about a lot of things in my life.

4. Ben E. King – Stand by Me

This song gives me cold chills every time I hear it. It’s a deep and intense personal reaction, as if Ben E. King is summoning some long-forgotten moment in my soul with just his voice and the music of his backing band.

I feel similarly about the film that shares a title with this song. In my eyes, it’s the best collection of child acting performances I’ve ever seen in a film, with that set of teen actors carrying off dramatic performances that most adult actors would kill to be able to pull off. There is something similarly haunting and personal and intense in that film for me, something that tries to dredge up something deep inside of me.

stand by me

Music can sometimes reach down deep inside of you, touching something you scarcely knew was there. Film can, too. Stand by Me achieves both.

5. Thomas Edison on success

“The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don’t like to do.” – Thomas Edison

This quote is blunt, but there’s a good point behind it.

More than anything else, I’ve found that people who are truly successful at the things they care about in their life often eliminates the idle time in their life as much as possible. Their time is purposeful.

That doesn’t mean that they don’t have leisure time or that they don’t have fun. It’s that when they do have leisure time, they’re choosing to actively do something that they want to do with that time. They don’t sit there idly channel surfing or web surfing. If they’re tired, they sleep rather than doing something idle.

In other words, successful people fill their time with positive activity toward their goals. That positive activity can sometimes be quite hard and it is much easier to just kick back on the couch and relax. It’s a choice we’re constantly faced with.

6. Alix Generous on her inner life with Asperger’s

From the description:

Alix Generous is a young woman with a million and one ideas — she’s done award-winning science, helped develop new technology and tells a darn good joke (you’ll see). She has Asperger’s, a form of autistic spectrum disorder that can impair the basic social skills required for communication, and she’s worked hard for years to learn how to share her thoughts with the world. In this funny, personal talk, she shares her story — and her vision for tools to help more people communicate their big ideas.

This is one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen for understanding how the world looks a little differently through someone else’s eyes.

The truth is that we all see the world a little differently than one another. Some people feel very strongly about personal and national security, while other people feel very strongly about feeding and caring for others. Some people feel very strongly about standardized testing in education, while others feel much more strongly about teaching critical thinking. Some people read social cues and are very empathetic, while other people are much more focused on facts and correctness. I could go on and on and on.

We all see the world differently. It doesn’t mean that someone who thinks differently than you and cares about different things than you is bad. In fact, usually the opposite is true. The challenge for all of us is to try to understand other people. What drives them? What do they truly care about? Why does that cause them to come to different conclusions than I do?

7. Bruce Lee on doing

“If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.” – Bruce Lee

This is a succinct description of something I struggle with all the time. I have all kinds of things that I want to do floating around in my head. I’ll elaborately plan around those things, trying to figure out some kind of best way of doing them, but that often means that I don’t actually start doing them.

I literally have notebooks full of ideas and plans and criticisms of plans and revisions of plans. Those notebooks are a monument to avoiding starting things I should have been doing.

You’re far better off just doing something a time or two, evaluating the results, and then doing it again, and then evaluating those results, and so on.

Don’t plan too much. Instead, just do it.

8. Andrew Solomon on how the worst moments in our lives make us who we are

From the description:

Writer Andrew Solomon has spent his career telling stories of the hardships of others. Now he turns inward, bringing us into a childhood of struggle, while also spinning tales of the courageous people he’s met in the years since. In a moving, heartfelt and at times downright funny talk, Solomon gives a powerful call to action to forge meaning from our biggest struggles.

I spent more than a year of my childhood in the hospital due to various ailments. Perhaps the most frightening is that I had five reconstructive surgeries on my left ear in order to remove a tumor that kept returning; the final surgery simply eliminated all of the structure in there, making it impossible for the tumor to return but also eliminating all hearing ability. I am completely deaf in one ear and the left side of my head around my ear is a morass of scars if you look very closely at it.

That sounds like a horrible childhood to many, but there were some big side effects. I spent a lot of time laying in hospital beds or in my bed at home, with nothing to fill my time, so I spent a lot of my childhood reading books. My mother limited my television time but didn’t really limit my reading time at all; she would go to the library and get new ones all the time and occasionally buy me one, too.

If I had not spent those many hours as a child reading, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. I don’t know exactly what my life would be like, but it almost assuredly wouldn’t involve me being a self-employed writer, one that has the freedom to be there when his children get on the bus in the morning and be there for his children when they get home off the bus in the afternoon.

There were many, many days where I couldn’t get out of bed or I couldn’t walk around at more than a shuffle’s pace. At those times, I would have given anything for my situation to be different.

Now, I see those years for what they were. They were years that molded me (in part) into the person I am today.

Do I feel bad that I didn’t get to run about and participate in sports as a child? To an extent, perhaps, but I now see that the path I did take went in a direction and led to a destination that I love.

9. St. Francis of Assisi on labor, craft, and art

“He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.” – Saint Francis of Assisi

In this definition, there’s nothing wrong with being a laborer or being a craftsman or being an artist, and here’s why.

Each one of us has a lot of physical energy inside of us. We apply that whether we’re being a laborer, a craftsman, or an artist. We have a bit less mental energy inside of us – there’s only so much focus and concentration that we can deliver in a day. We apply that whether we’re a craftsman or an artist. What we have relatively little of is that emotional energy, that “heart” from which great things appear. That’s the hardest thing to channel.

In our daily lives, we need to be a laborer about some things, a craftsman about other things, and an artist about a few things.

I’m a laborer when I empty out the dishwasher and reload it, or when I do a load of laundry, or when I go to the grocery store with a list in my hand. Those things are common.

I’m a craftsman when I write some of my articles, when I prepare a meal plan and a grocery list, or when I figure out our schedule for the week. Those things are less common.

I’m an artist when I write my best things, when I’m a great husband, or when I’m a great parent. Those things are special.

Where will you use your head and your heart?

10. e.e. cummings – You Are Tired

You are tired,
(I think)
Of the always puzzle of living and doing;
And so am I.

Come with me, then,
And we’ll leave it far and far away—
(Only you and I, understand!)

You have played,
(I think)
And broke the toys you were fondest of,
And are a little tired now;
Tired of things that break, and—
Just tired.
So am I.

But I come with a dream in my eyes tonight,
And knock with a rose at the hopeless gate of your heart—
Open to me!
For I will show you the places Nobody knows,
And, if you like,
The perfect places of Sleep.

Ah, come with me!
I’ll blow you that wonderful bubble, the moon,
That floats forever and a day;
I’ll sing you the jacinth song
Of the probable stars;
I will attempt the unstartled steppes of dream,
Until I find the Only Flower,
Which shall keep (I think) your little heart
While the moon comes out of the sea.

I need to always be there for the people I care about, especially in their lowest moments.

11. Charles J. Givens on planning for success

“Achieve success in any area of life by identifying the optimum strategies and repeating them until they become habits.” – Charles J. Givens

No matter what you’re doing in life, you can improve it and thus improve the outcome by developing a better way of doing things and then just consciously repeating that better way until it becomes normal.

The thing is, they don’t even have to be the optimum strategies, especially not at first. They just need to be better than what you’re already doing.

This is the key to having a better life than you had a month ago or a year ago. You might not see the results immediately, but they will come with the tides of time and the sheer power of repetition.

12. Mark Twain on adulthood

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” – Mark Twain

When I was a teenager, I couldn’t wait to get out on my own, away from my parents. I wanted freedom and independence. I was certain of so many things in my life and I was ready to take on the world.

Now, I wish my parents lived right next door to me so that I could stop by every single day to chat with them, to help my father with some household chores, to watch a movie with my mother.

When I was fifteen, I had intelligence but lacked wisdom, but I thought I had both. Now that I’m in my late thirties, I’d like to believe I have a modicum of both, but I often feel blinded by the immensity of what I don’t know and don’t understand.

My parents have always been two people I could trust through all of that, and I wasn’t able to see that until I realized how little I actually knew.