Inspiration from NASA, Paulo Coelho, J. Robert Oppenheimer, 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. Tom Wujec on solving a complex problem

From the description:

Making toast doesn’t sound very complicated — until someone asks you to draw the process, step by step. Tom Wujec loves asking people and teams to draw how they make toast, because the process reveals unexpected truths about how we can solve our biggest, most complicated problems at work. Learn how to run this exercise yourself, and hear Wujec’s surprising insights from watching thousands of people draw toast.

One of my greatest passions is taking problems – whether they’re personal issues in my life or intellectual problems or professional challenges – and breaking them down into little pieces to understand how they work. I love taking a big challenge and breaking it down into smaller and smaller bits until each little bit can be solved, so that you can take all of those pieces and put them together again. I just enjoy that process deeply.

On the other hand, my wife brings a more tenacious solution to the table. She tends to dive right in and start tossing out solutions until she finds something that works, then she’ll refine that solution until it’s “good enough” and then moves on with life.

That’s essentially what this video is about. You can learn a ton about people when you see how they break down a very simple process so you can at least partially understand how they see the world.

I find that to be a beautiful thing. It’s a good thing that we all think differently and that we don’t all subscribe to the same exact intellectual processes. This little “toast” experiment is just a wonderfully simple way to see how we can see a problem in many different ways.

2. Alden Nowlan on emerging wisdom

“The day the child realizes that all adults are imperfect, he becomes an adolescent; the day he forgives them, he becomes an adult; the day he forgives himself, he becomes wise.” — Alden Nowlan

I see that transition to adolescence happening already in my two oldest children. They’ve begun to realize that the people around them are not perfect and that they sometimes do things poorly.

It’s an amazing transformation, just as every change in their life has been. I’ve watched them grow from a blurry picture on an ultrasound to a wonderful little baby to a toddler exploring the world to a child learning everything possible about what’s happening around them.

I hope they continue to grow, into and through adolescence into adulthood. And I hope that as they learn that the people around them are imperfect, so are they, and that they forgive themselves for their imperfections.

3. NASA’s stunning Image of the Day gallery

Each day, NASA shares a high-definition image, usually taken by a satellite or astronomical station, depicting either an amazing feature of our planet or of our universe or some aspect of its exploration.

Many of these images are absolutely breathtaking and almost shock you with the beauty of the world and the universe around us. It is almost overwhelming how beautiful our world can be at times.

I was particularly blown away by the recent image of cloud “streets” on the Bering Sea, which is now the desktop wallpaper on my computer and my phone. It’s just an amazing image.

Take the time to browse through these images and appreciate the amazing beauty around us on a scale that very few people are ever able to see. The moments of our lives can be beautiful, but there are so many larger layers of beauty that can just take your breath away.

4. J. Robert Oppenheimer on fear and pessimism

“The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true.” – J. Robert Oppenheimer

This quote has been on my mind a lot lately. Is this really the best world we can create? How exactly do we build a better world?

In the end, I don’t think this is the best possible world. I guess that makes me a realist. Instead, I just believe it takes a lot of time for us to fix the problems around us. They aren’t solved overnight or even in decades or sometimes even centuries.

Some people see big changes that are coming in the future and they want them now, but it’s easy to lose track of the downsides of something you’re really optimistic about and it’s easy to overlook the many, many steps it takes to make major changes happen.

This is true on an individual level, too. People start on big life changes without realizing how much work it is to bring about big changes. Often, they wind up disillusioned and disappointed.

The true power comes when you realize that you can make big changes, but you have to make them one little step at a time. Focus on making the right little steps.

5. PhotoMath

I happen to enjoy math. I minored in it in college and always relished the challenge of my math classes. I’m actually looking forward to helping my children with their math as they grow older and I recently had a lot of fun working with my oldest child as he learned long division.

So what’s Photomath? It’s a smartphone app that enables someone to take a picture of a math problem in a textbook and the app shows you, step by step, how to solve that problem. Seriously.

I know quite well that there are a lot of parents out there who struggle to help their kids with math when they have questions at the table at night. This app makes it all so much easier than before.

To me, this kind of app shows off the potential of what a smartphone can be better than virtually anything else can. It can be a magnificent learning tool, and that makes it into an empowerment tool.

6. Phillips Brooks on strength

“Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be the miracle.” – Phillips Brooks

Phillips Brooks was a 19th century Episcopalian minister. I found this quote in the footer of a friend’s email and it really struck me.

Life is going to throw challenges at all of us. No one is ever going to have a perfectly easy road through life. That’s just not how it works.

Wishing or praying for a solution to all of your problems might be nice, but it’s usually not going to happen. Solutions rarely just fall out of the sky like raindrops.

Most of the time, solutions to the problems that life hands us come from hard work and focus and determination. If you want to pray for anything, pray for the ability to focus. Pray for the ability to deal with stress.

The one thing all of the challenges in your life have in common is you. Make yourself stronger and you can deal with all of them better.

7. 750 Words

One of my big pledges to myself in 2015 is that I was going to actually complete a novel draft or two during the year. I have tons of plot outlines and character sketches floating around in various notebooks and documents, but I’ve had a hard time turning those things into anything more than that.

This is basically the situation that 750 Words is built for. It’s a tool that encourages you to write 750 words a day, which is about perfect because that’s roughly the length of a scene.

I’ve been using it to work on my novel for the past several weeks. The thing that I find really powerful about it is that it works from any computer and that, once you’ve done it a few times, it starts to generate some really useful stats that can clue you in to how you are most productive when writing.

It’s a beautiful and simply designed tool that’s really useful if you’re trying to motivate yourself to write every day.

8. Navi Radjou on creative problem solving within extreme limits

From the description:

Navi Radjou has spent years studying “jugaad,” also known as frugal innovation. Pioneered by entrepreneurs in emerging markets who figured out how to get spectacular value from limited resources, the practice has now caught on globally. Peppering his talk with a wealth of examples of human ingenuity at work, Radjou also shares three principles for how we can all do more with less.

There were two angles from this video that really inspired me.

The first is that entrepreneurship really doesn’t require that much investment. The most important ingredients are an idea and the time and focus to implement it. If you want to do something entrepreneurial, it’s not money you really need.

The second is that when we’re constrained by difficulties in life, we often are pushed to our creative peak, coming up with solutions we might not have otherwise considered.

My financial turnaround was a good example of this. We were pushed up against the wall, so I started using practices I had previously never even thought of or had discarded. It was those practices that turned everything around for us.

I think the trick is to know how to put enough pressure on yourself so that those good solutions pop out, but not so much pressure that you just shut down. There’s a happy medium in there somewhere.

9. Look Up

(Note: there is a bit of adult language in this video, just a word or two.)

I work in front of a computer all day and I’m often checking updates on various things on my own phone, or sending text messages to friends. For a long time, I thought that was the answer to social connection. It’s not.

The best thing that the internet and your phone is useful for is for improving your life outside of those things. They can help you find new people to spend time with or to learn new things, but they can’t substitute for human experience.

Over the last year, I’ve really come to understand this. The internet has helped me find several clubs and community organizations lately, a couple of which I’ve really come to enjoy. When I go to those meetings, my phone goes off.

Around our dinner table, our phones and tablets and such things are off. We turn them off and talk to each other about our day.

Sometimes, when I go out and about, I intentionally leave my cell phone behind. I just go out to see what I can see in the world around me. I go out to meet people and notice things I would have never seen if I was staring at a little screen.

Try it. Instead of staring at a screen, turn it off and talk to someone face to face. Get up and walk around your neighborhood. Look for a community group through your library or Meetup and turn your cell phone off before you go.

Look up and see the world. It’s pretty amazing.

10. Casey Gerald on the power of overcoming your personal challenges

Fast Company had this to say about this speech:

When Casey Gerald woke up on the morning of his graduation from Harvard Business School this past May, he had a bad feeling. As a child, Gerald’s parents had abandoned him, first his father, who had a drug problem, then his mother, who was bipolar. Gerald knew that trouble always lurked, punctuated by the memory of gun-toting thieves who broke into his apartment while he slept a few years earlier, threatening to kill him, and only fleeing at the last moment when the sound of police sirens approached.

But this day would not end with disappointment. Gerald, who had made his way to Yale undergrad before HBS, had been chosen by classmates to deliver the student address. And he went on to deliver an inspirational speech that became a viral phenomenon, viewed more than 100,000 times.

This is just an amazing and inspirational speech. It makes me want to do something that contributes to the improvement of the world, whether it’s starting a business, building a nonprofit, or simply volunteering to make things better.

It doesn’t matter how terrible your situation is. It doesn’t matter how disadvantaged your childhood was. It doesn’t matter what kinds of mistakes you’ve made. You can always improve yourself. You can always do better than you’ve done before. You can always contribute to make the world a better place.

Don’t let your childhood or your mistakes or your apathy to this point in your life hold you back from doing something bigger and better than you’ve ever done before.

11. The Gift

Just watch.

Of all the things that got to me in this film, it was the note that the father wrote for his son telling him that he was going to become a great man someday.

It literally inspired me to write a few notes for my children and stick them in their books so that they’ll discover them in a few days. Little inspirational things.

Perhaps you can do the same for the important people in your life. Just take a little notecard and write that person a little note, something that will inspire them and make them feel a little better about their day. Stick it where they’ll find it in a few days, preferably when you’re not around.

Those types of things can make such a difference in a person’s life.

12. Paulo Coelho on doing the things you’ve always wanted

“One day you will wake up and there won’t be any more time to do the things you’ve always wanted. Do it now.” – Paulo Coelho

This quote almost perfectly sums up so many of the decisions I’ve made in my life over the past few years.

The biggest one revolves around my children. They are only going to be children once, and I can already see their childhood starting to slip away as they gradually move toward adolescence and their teen years. Over the last several years, I’ve been able to be there with them every step of the way because I chose flexible hours over better pay. It’s something I would have never imagined being able to do when Sarah was pregnant with our first child and it’s something I don’t regret for a minute.

Another big one revolves around my wife. It is so easy to think that today is just an ordinary day and that it doesn’t deserve any special consideration and that you can just rely on your spouse always being there. Sarah deserves more than that. She is an amazing, amazing woman who handles so much with charm and grace and reliability. She is so good at just taking care of things and rolling with whatever is dealt to her that it’s often easy to just forget about how absolutely incredible she actually is. She makes the lives of everyone around her easier and better. There is never any better day than today to tell her how much she means to me.

This quote also inspires me to save. I could always go about doing things the easy way, spending money without any consideration for the future. But one day I would wake up and have nothing at all in the bank without any more time to build for my future, consigning me to some very challenging years down the road. I don’t want that at all. I want financial independence and a nice house in the country and a few international trips with my family before my children get too old.

I could go on and on listing these things, but they all boil down to the same thing. Today is the only day that matters. If you want something in your life, today is the day to work for it. Don’t put it off for tomorrow. You’ll wake up sometime down the road never having done it and the opportunity will have slipped through your fingers.

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