Inspiration from Isabel Allende, Robin Williams, Emily Dickinson, 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. Isabel Allende on living passionately, no matter your age

From the description: “Author Isabel Allende is 71. Yes, she has a few wrinkles—but she has incredible perspective too. In this candid talk, meant for viewers of all ages, she talks about her fears as she gets older and shares how she plans to keep on living passionately.”

I’m a big believer that your true values are expressed by what you do, not by what you say. Happiness is present in my life when I’m doing things that really resonate with what I care about… and I feel unhappy when my time is spent on things that I don’t care about.

The best thing a person can do is find things that they deeply enjoy. Things that are so enjoyable that you lose track of time when you’re doing them. Things that are so life-affirming that you’re incredibly glad that you spent your time doing things that way.

We all have at least some free time. The average American watches five hours of television per day and 11 hours per day using digital media. Why not take some of that time and do something that leaves us feeling really fulfilled at the end of the day, something that we can just get lost in?

2. Theodore Roosevelt on blame

“If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.” – Theodore Roosevelt

It is really, really easy to fall into the trap of blaming others for the difficulties and challenges in our life. Very rarely is a problem caused in our life where someone else – or some larger entity – didn’t play a role in it. Why not blame them?

There are two problems with that. First, you’re a part of every problem in your life. These problems did not occur without your action or your inaction. Even regarding the challenges outside of your control – illness, injury, and so forth – you have full control over how you respond to them.

Second, there’s no one in the world you can actually change but yourself. Sure, you might be able to browbeat someone into doing whatever it is that you want that person to be doing, but it’s an empty victory. You’ve likely not changed their heart one little bit and they’ll probably go back to doing things their own way the second you’re out of the picture.

If you’re the only constant across all of the problems in your life… and you’re the only person that you can actually change with your efforts… doesn’t it make sense that you look at yourself and try to fix yourself as the sensible path to making your life better?

3. NPR Music Tiny Desk Concerts

The Tiny Desk Concerts series is a collection of brief concerts by musicians recorded as they visit the offices of National Public Radio. These concerts vary widely and cover almost every kind of music from country to rap, from classical to bluegrass, from jazz to rock, and everything in between.

For example, here’s a recent concert by Nickel Creek:

… and here’s a concert by Preservation Hall Jazz Band:

This series provides a very easy way for me to hear lots of different voices and musical styles. I’ll often go to the Tiny Music Concert home page and just start playing the concerts, starting with whatever’s new. The music and the voices become a part of my day, lifting me up and pushing me onward.

4. Emily Dickinson’s ‘T Is So Much Joy!

’T is so much joy! ’T is so much joy!
If I should fail, what poverty!
And yet, as poor as I
Have ventured all upon a throw;
Have gained! Yes! Hesitated so
This side the victory!

Life is but life, and death but death!
Bliss is but bliss, and breath but breath!
And if, indeed, I fail,
At least to know the worst is sweet.
Defeat means nothing but defeat,
No drearier can prevail!

And if I gain,—oh, gun at sea,
Oh, bells that in the steeples be,
At first repeat it slow!
For heaven is a different thing
Conjectured, and waked sudden in,
And might o’erwhelm me so!

Like many, I’m fascinated by Emily Dickinson. She was a reclusive introvert who scarcely left her home during the latter years of her life and was regarded as an eccentric by her community, but she left behind a wealth of beautiful poetry.

Her words remind me that no matter what it is that I am feeling inside and no matter how much I want to hide and lock the door, there is an incredible world out there with incredible depth. Even the simplest things, like the sweep of an emotion through our heart, is an amazing experience.

If I fail at the things I attempt, it’s fine. Nothing can take those things away from me. The sturdiest prison cannot steal from me the joy of feeling sunlight’s warmth on my skin or the touch of joy I get from remembering my first date with my wife. I can fail at everything for the rest of my years, but I’ll never lose that smile I get at the aroma of caramelized onions or the sensation of fresh grass under my toes.

5. Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son

The Return of the Prodigal Son

The story of the prodigal son is one that I often struggled to understand when I was younger. I always cast myself in the role of the responsible son, the one that was always there to help and never wandered away, and I understood his frustration deeply. How was it fair that I could work so hard to do everything right and yet the people that were celebrated were the people who had seemingly done little?

Now, as I look at Rembrandt’s interpretation of the story, I see myself as the father. If I have one child that works hard and excels and another who does not, I still want to celebrate the successes of the less-triumphant child, even if they pale next to the child that’s successful. It is not a slight against the successes of the successful child. It is joy in the improvement of the average child.

It is so tempting to see choices like that as comparisons between children, but the truth is that they’re not really comparisons at all. It’s a celebration of the individual, of the lost becoming found, of the person triumphing over challenge even if that challenge might be easy for others.

6. If This, Then That

If This, Then That is a tool that lets you connect events on one website to events on another website. For example, let’s say you want your phone to change its wallpaper each day to whatever NASA’s space picture of the day is. With just a few clicks, you can set that up in IFTTT and, thereafter, your phone’s wallpaper will change daily to a new space picture.

I’ve used IFTTT for a long time, but it’s mostly been dabbling. I have it set up so that whenever my kids are tagged in a picture on Facebook, a copy is stored to our family picture folder on our home computer. I have it set up so that I receive a text if there’s a greater than 30% chance of rain tomorrow.

Recently, I realized how many of these little recipes I have set up that do these little things for me within the IFTTT app. In fact, I’d guess that half of the notifications on my phone are triggered by IFTTT, and they’re all useful things (to me) that I’ve set up myself.

It can be a bit complicated and overwhelming at first, but once you start playing around with it and try out some recipes that are actually useful to you, you’ll be incredibly glad you have it.

7. Jarrett Krosoczka on why lunch ladies are heroes

If you actually stop for a little while and take a look around your life, you’ll notice that your daily routine relies on the competence and often the excellence of a lot of people. Construction workers build the roads you drive on and the buildings you enter; engineers usually design them. Teachers educate the people you interact with, giving them the basic skills they need to perform their job. Almost everyone you meet performs some sort of role in sustaining your day-to-day life, either directly or indirectly.

Many of those people are actually quite heroic. They do a tough job that improves the lives of a lot of people and are rarely appreciated for it. That’s a tough road.

Today, when you see someone who works hard to make the lives of others a little bit better, even in a very indirect way, tell that person thank you and that you appreciate it. It can really make a world of difference.

8. Total Eclipse by Annie Dillard

This is an excerpt from the full essay:

You have seen photographs of the sun taken during a total eclipse. The corona fills the print. All of those photographs were taken through telescopes. The lenses of telescopes and cameras can no more cover the breadth and scale of the visual array than language can cover the breadth and simultaneity of internal experience. Lenses enlarge the sight, omit its context, and make of it a pretty and sensible picture, like something on a Christmas card. I assure you, if you send any shepherds a Christmas card on which is printed a three-by-three photograph of the angel of the Lord, the glory of the Lord, and a multitude of the heavenly host, they will not be sore afraid. More fearsome things can come in envelopes. More moving photographs than those of the sun’s corona can appear in magazines. But I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky.

You see the wide world swaddled in darkness; you see a vast breadth of hilly land, and an enormous, distant, blackened valley; you see towns’ lights, a river’s path, and blurred portions of your hat and scarf; you see your husband’s face looking like an early black-and-white film; and you see a sprawl of black sky and blue sky together, with unfamiliar stars in it, some barely visible bands of cloud, and over there, a small white ring. The ring is as small as one goose in a flock of migrating geese – if you happen to notice a flock of migrating geese. It is one 360th part of the visible sky. The sun we see is less than half the diameter of a dime held at arm’s length.

The Crab Nebula, in the constellation Taurus, looks, through binoculars, like a smoke ring. It is a star in the process of exploding. Light from its explosion first reached the earth in 1054; it was a supernova then, and so bright it shone in the daytime. Now it is not so bright, but it is still exploding. It expands at the rate of seventy million miles a day. It is interesting to look through binoculars at something expanding seventy million miles a day. It does not budge. Its apparent size does not increase. Photographs of the Crab Nebula taken fifteen years ago seem identical to photographs of it taken yesterday. Some lichens are similar. Botanists have measured some ordinary lichens twice, at fifty-year intervals, without detecting any growth at all. And yet their cells divide; they live.

The small ring of light was like these things – like a ridiculous lichen up in the sky, like a perfectly still explosion 4,200 light-years away: it was interesting, and lovely, and in witless motion, and it had nothing to do with anything.

It had nothing to do with anything. The sun was too small, and too cold, and too far away, to keep the world alive. The white ring was not enough. It was feeble and worthless. It was as useless as a memory; it was as off-kilter and hollow and wretched as a memory.

When you try your hardest to recall someone’s face, or the look of a place, you see in your mind’s eye some vague and terrible sight such as this. It is dark; it is insubstantial; it is all wrong.

Life sometimes hands us moments where we get to see the dimensions of our life in an entirely new way. The things that are usually familiar are now unusual. The familiar friendships take on an unusual strain.

Those moments are special. They’re opportunities to see all that is familiar from a different angle, from the other side of things that we don’t often get to see.

Sometimes, we’ll find that things are more beautiful than we originally thought. A loved one is truly a good person, in ways you never saw before. At other times, things aren’t as good as you once thought them to be.

Don’t be afraid to sometimes step out of your comfort zone. If it gives you the chance to look at your life through new eyes, take it.

Annie Dillard has a wonderful collection of essays entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk, of which this is just one entry. It’s well worth your time.

9. Derek Redmond’s run at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics

This video has embedding turned off, but I strongly encourage you to visit the video linked above and watch it.

Wikipedia explains what happened quite well:

At the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona he tore his hamstring in the 400 metres semi-final but continued the race limping and, with assistance from his father, managed to complete a full lap of the track as the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

ESPN also has a great story about the moment.

You have to be there for your children, both at their high moments and their low moments. Sometimes, they need you to celebrate. Sometimes, they need you to hug. Sometimes, they don’t need you at all.

No matter which is the case, you’ve got to be there. That’s what it means to be a parent.

10. A Story of Healing

Wikipedia explains:

A Story of Healing is a short documentary film in which Donna Dewey follows a team of five nurses, four anesthesiologists, and three plastic surgeons from Interplast in the United States for two weeks of volunteer work in the Mekong delta of Vietnam. The film shows not only how this changes the lives of the 110 patients who undergo surgery, but also the lives of the volunteers themselves. The epilogue, which runs after the credits, follows-up on two patients helped by Interplast, 16 months after their surgery.

The willingness of people to give so much to each other gives me hope for the future. As I watch this, I cannot help but think of the many workers who are aiding people who are currently suffering from Ebola in West Africa and the many, many more volunteers around the world who are giving of themselves simply to help others.

The world is a wonderful place, but we sometimes don’t see it . If we take our eyes off of the horror show of the news cycle, we can see the countless good things that people are doing around the world.

11. Robin Williams on the people around you

“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel alone.” – Robin Williams portraying Lance Clayton in World’s Greatest Dad

At first glance, one might view this as a criticism of people around you. After all, if you’re around people who leave you feeling alone, then they’re not being good friends, right?

The more I consider this quote, however, the more I realize that he’s actually talking about having a healthy internal life. If you’re happy when you are alone, it’s going to be much easier to be happy when others are around and you’re more likely to be happy when interacting with them.

In the end, you can’t rely on others to boost your happiness. Sometimes they won’t be there for you. If you allow someone else to become the center of your joy, you’re inevitably going to lose that joy. However, if you find that source of joy within yourself, it never needs to go away.

Stop worrying what other people think. Do things that make you feel better about yourself, even if it means losing some friends or making some hard changes along the way. You’ll never, ever regret it.

12. David Rakoff’s The Invisible Made Visible

This is a reading of a written essay about Rakoff’s struggle with cancer. He died several months after this reading from the cancer he spoke of.

In our lives, we just expect certain things to work, and when they stop working, we begin to realize how much of our life really consists of walking on stilts. We expect so much and barely give all of those working pieces a second thought.

I was born with virtually no vision in my right eye and complete deafness in my left ear. I also had a non-functional thyroid at birth. I often wonder what other people can see or hear that I can’t make out, as I often have to turn my head a certain way to hear people well at all and have to angle my face sometimes to see things. I wonder what kinds of energy other people must possess, as sometimes ordinary days leave me feeling completely wrung out.

Yet, in the end, I don’t really need those things. I can still experience the visual beauty of art and the auditory wonder of a great musician. I can hear my children laugh and I have plenty of energy to play with them.

Why look at the glass half empty?

I hope that as my final days come, I can approach them with the same respect and humor and thoughtfulness that Rakoff gives here.

Want to see more? Here’s the previous Dozen Pieces of Inspiration.

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