Inspiration from Henry Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, Ingress, 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 being yourself

“Be yourself – not your idea of what you think somebody else’s idea of yourself should be.” – Henry David Thoreau

Stop worrying about what other people think.

It’s really simple. But it’s really hard.

There’s this internal desire we have to want to live up to the expectations of others, and we often allow that to trump our expectations of ourselves.

When that happens, the end result is almost always unhappiness after a while. Why? Because no matter hard you try to conform to what someone else wants you to be, you’re the only person living in your own skin. When you’re alone, it’s only you there, and if you’ve spent all of your time molding yourself to be what other people want, you’re not going to be happy with what’s left behind. Not only that, your wallet’s probably going to be pretty empty, too.

That’s why my philosophy – and the philosophy I’m trying to instill in my kids is – is simply to be the best me I can possibly be. I don’t try to conform to what others want of me at all, but I do try to improve myself by looking at what I don’t like about myself and working to make that better. Others can make up their mind for themselves if they like me and, if they do, they’re welcome to be a part of my life, but I am not going to become someone else for them.

2. Bertrand Russell’s message to the future

Bertrand Russell was a British mathematician and philosopher who was hugely influential in both fields in the early 20th century. In 1959, near the end of his life, he gave an interview to the BBC where the questioner asked him about the one message he hoped to pass to future generations. Here’s the video of it:

Here’s a transcript of the video:

INTERVIEWER: One last question: Suppose, Lord Russell, that this film will be looked at by our descendants, like the Dead Sea scroll, in a thousand years’ time. What would you think it’s worth telling that generation about the life you’ve lived and the lessons you’ve learned from it?

RUSSELL: I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say to them is this: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.

The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple. I should say love is wise; hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more closely and closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way; if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.

I’ve read a number of Russell’s writings over the years and, as I feel with most philosophers, I don’t necessarily agree with everything he said – in fact, I disagree with a healthy portion of it. What does impress me about Russell (and many of the other great philosophers) is the depth they went to to explain their ideas, so you can work through the idea piece by piece yourself. He was one of the best at doing that, at least for me as a reader.

However, this little clip blew me away. Both his intellectual point – trust in the facts and draw conclusions based on just the facts – and his moral point – love trumps all and tolerance is a high virtue – are both sorely needed in this world.

3. Ingress

As I’ve mentioned many times before, my family is a big fan of geocaching, which is essentially a worldwide scavenger hunt using any GPS device. It fills up a lot of our weekends – in fact, there’s a good chance that, as you’re reading this, my family is involved in some sort of GPS-related activity.

The problem with geocaching is that my family have found almost all of the geocaches within a reasonable radius of our house and there isn’t much motivation to return to them very regularly. In order to keep doing it, we’re having to go further and further away from home. That’s okay – we squeeze in geocaching on almost any road trip that we take – but it does mean it’s harder to do it as part of a neighborhood stroll or something.

That’s where Ingress comes in.

Ingress is a free sci-fi themed smartphone game that borrows heavily from geocaching. Rather than finding caches, you’re instead going to “portals” all over the world which are shown to you on your smartphone. There are about ten within a mile or two of my home, for example.

Everyone who plays is assigned to one of two teams, and those teams are trying to gain control of these “portals” and all portals nearby. Over time, depending on who visits these portals in the real world, the control over the portals shifts back and forth between the two teams. If a person is able to be the one to “tip the scales” and switch a portal from one team to another, they then become the “owner” of that portal and other people can see their username in the game. It’s kind of fun, because you eventually start having “rivals” in your local area who are on the other team and keep stealing your portals. There’s a sci-fi story behind all of it, of course.

What that means is that we have a fun game to play as we walk around our neighborhood. We can easily reach three different portals on a short walk (fifteen minutes) and, as I said, we can hit ten if we go on a long walk (an hour to an hour and a half). We can also do it in different areas.

Best of all, it’s free. How? As you’re walking around, you’re essentially improving the map data for Google Maps, as they can use your walking path along with their satellite data to improve their map usefulness. It’s a really smart idea, I think. From a privacy standpoint, I really don’t mind this at all.

My family really enjoys this and it has become a parallel experience to geocaching to encourage us to take family walks. And it’s free.

4. Julia Cameron on asserting yourself

“I have learned, as a rule of thumb, never to ask whether you can do something. Say, instead, that you are doing it. Then fasten your seat belt. The most remarkable things follow.” – Julia Cameron

This is an incredibly simple and powerful rule to follow in life.

For starters, it’s a powerful self-motivator. Instead of deciding in your head whether you should do something that’s clearly a positive move, just say “I’m going to do this.” It’s very motivating, at least for me. Instead of thinking “Hmm… should I take a walk now or later?” I just think “I’m going to take a walk now.” That gets me out of my chair and outside.

Not only that, it’s pretty useful when relating to other people. I’ve learned that most of the time, other people in a group are just waiting around for someone to give them a plan. If you simply say, “Well, I’m going to do this” – whatever this might be – most of them will go along with it. If someone has a good reason to raise an objection, they’ll do it and you can discuss it at that point.

I do this all the time now for minor decisions such as where we’re going to eat while traveling or what we’re going to do this evening. Most of the time, if someone else immediately pops up with an alternate suggestion, I’ll completely agree with them and switch course. It’s a surprisingly rare occurrence, however; usually, this just gets things going without a bunch of standing around and waiting for someone to make a decision.

5. Monica Lewinsky on the price of shame

From the description: “In 1998, says Monica Lewinsky, “I was Patient Zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously.” Today, the kind of online public shaming she went through has become a constant. In a brave talk, she takes a look at our “culture of humiliation,” in which online shame equals dollar signs — and demands a different way.”

I went back and forth on including this video, because the speaker is such a hot-button political entity even now.

The reason I chose to include this talk is that she makes a really good point. Rather than being seen as a human being who made a poor romantic decision, she was ridiculed and turned into a public joke that is, in many places, still running seventeen years later.

When I think about some of the worst moves I’ve made in my life, I can’t even imagine what my life would be like if those mistakes were breathlessly shared on national news for years and years and years. Not only would it be completely devastating to my reputation, it would be highly embarrassing.

Do I think Monica is some sort of beacon of virtue. No. But let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

The world would be a better place if we judged people based on their best moments rather than their worst ones (provided that their worst ones weren’t meant to be harmful or cruel).

6. A Time to Talk by Robert Frost

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, ‘What is it?’
No, not as there is a time talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

It is so easy in our busy lives to put our friends and loved ones aside in the moment when we have something urgent to attend to.

The thing is, few things are truly more important than those fundamental relationships in your life. Your family, your loved ones, your closest friends – they are genuinely important on a level that the urgencies of minor consequence in our daily lives just can’t compare to.

Dropping those relatively inconsequential “urgent” tasks for a moment to talk to our friends and loved ones when they need an ear is one of the most valuable things we can do for other people – and for ourselves.

7. H. L. Mencken on a full life

“You can’t do anything about the length of your life but you can do something about it’s width and depth.” – H. L. Mencken

Every single day that shuffles by gives us an opportunity to do great things. We choose, over and over again, whether to lead a deep life or a shallow life. That decision is in our own hands, whether we like it or not.

Do you choose to improve yourself every day? Do you choose to share your skills to help others and inspire people? Do you try to build big, amazing things?

Or do you post selfies to Facebook? Do you watch hours of television each night? Do you worry about the nuances of other people’s social lives?

You choose how to spend your time, your physical energy, and your mental energy. You can use them toward a wider, deeper life. Or you can settle for a trickle.

8. Time lapse of Bridal Veil Falls

A long time ago, I thought that pictures of waterfalls where the water just looked like a giant froth of white were always edited. That is, until last summer when I was messing around with time lapse photography when we were looking at a waterfall. It looked amazing, and suddenly I realized that such effects weren’t fakery.

Since then, I’ve come to really appreciate time lapse photography of waterfalls, especially when the effect is more subtle, as it is here. This is a beautiful image and currently serves as the desktop background on my computer.

Thanks to Thomas for the image.

9. Persi Diaconis on the best way (and worst way) to shuffle cards

Persi Diaconis is a mathematics professor from Stanford University who, in this video, explains why you should bridge shuffle a deck of cards at least seven times before dealing a hand of cards.

I didn’t just share this video because I found the topic interesting (I do – I took multiple classes on combinatorics in college, so I love to see it applied like this), but because of how the professor explains it. He takes some pretty complex math here and turns it into a friendly explanation.

Higher mathematics isn’t an unapproachable thing, but many people like to make it seem so. It’s mostly just a way of describing things very accurately and precisely, but there’s no reason not to find ways to introduce it in simpler terms like this.

I’d take a math class from this man any time.

10. A Walk Poem by Rainer Maria Rilke

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-

and charges us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave…
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.

There are times, when I’m outside on a sunny day and I can feel a breeze on my face, where I feel almost on the verge of understanding some deep secret about the world. It’s something I can almost put my finger on… but then I just feel the warmth on my skin and the breeze on my face and it’s gone.

The world around us is an endlessly beautiful place.

11. Charles Parkhurst on impulses

“The heart has eyes which the brain knows nothing of.” – Charles Parkhurst

Those little clicks of desire are driven by some part of us that isn’t controlled by rational thought. It comes up out of the subconscious, nudging us toward things that our rational mind knows is a foolish choice.

Some people allow those clicks of desire to drive them. Others try to drive those desires out of mind and out of heart.

I find myself somewhere in the middle. Often, those clicks of desire will drive me to a place where I don’t want to go, but at other times, they steer me right and take me to a place that I desire.

The magic of life is balancing the eyes of the heart and the eyes of the mind. Let one lead too often and we miss out on some of the magic and opportunity of life.

12. The Decemberists – June Hymn

This is one of those songs that just burrows right down into my soul every time I hear it. Something about it just perfectly captures the natural beauty of early summer, with everything in full growth and nature offering up an abundance of beauty.

During that time of the year, the fields behind our house fill up with wildflowers. There’s a farmer that occasionally clears it for hay, but there is always a period of a few weeks in length where the field is just full of all kinds of flowers. We pick them and use them as centerpieces on our kitchen table. In the evening, Sarah and I will sit out behind our house, listening to the crickets sing their summer songs.

I can’t wait.