Inspiration from Nick Bostrom, Sarah Sellers, Kurt Vonnegut, Barbara Bush, 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. The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

This is a animated video adaptation by CGP Grey of a highly renowned philosophical fable of the same name by the esteemed Nick Bostrom (his book Superintelligence is a very worthwhile read if you’re concerned about artificial intelligence that exceeds human intelligence). It is one of those rare beautiful things that manages to be entertaining and incredibly thought provoking both for adults and for children.

This video (and the actual essay itself) has been the centerpiece of a bunch of discussions in our family. We’ve watched it several times, noticed tons of little nuances, and talked over and over about what the different elements might represent and what the overall meaning is. Not to spoil too much, but our general family consensus is that the dragon represents “potentially preventable things that cause death,” which is a huge subset of things – cancer, acts of violence, and war, among others. We’ve dug into the nuance of what the train is, who the king is, and so on. We’ve even noticed a number of little details in the video (I’ll give you a hint as to one of them: watch what the queen is doing and where she is throughout the video).

If you found the video enlightening, I strongly encourage you to read the essay that it’s based on. It’s the same story, but the essay goes in a few different directions that work better with the written word than in video form.

This video, to me, is an example of why the internet exists, or at least an example of the best part of it. It lit a spark for our family, even our youngest child, to engage in some powerful philosophical discussions while also being entertaining. It’s not something that would have ever been widely distributed even a decade ago. With all of the challenges in the world and the bad things we might notice, let us never forget all of the great things we have and the good things in the world.

2. Chris Rock on helping yourself

“I used to have horrible cars that would always end up broken down on the highway. When I tried to flag someone down, nobody stopped. But if I pushed my own car, other drivers would get out and push with me. If you want help, help yourself – people like to see that.” – Chris Rock

The other day, I was attempting to explain to my youngest son, who is now in second grade, why he should do homework. He didn’t see the purpose in doing homework if he already knew the topic.

The argument that finally got to him was essentially the same one as the Chris Rock quote above. Doing a homework assignment isn’t just about learning the material. It’s about showing the teacher that you’re trying to learn, and if you’re trying to learn, the teacher is much more likely to try to help you when you’re struggling. There’s no better way to show that you’re trying to learn than by doing your homework. If you don’t do your homework, your teacher is going to think, “Gee, that student isn’t even trying, I’m not going to work so hard to try to help him learn this tough subject,” and then you’ll be lost. As is usual, I turned that around on him – does he like helping someone learn something if they don’t care to learn and don’t bother to listen to what you’re saying? I pointed out a recent experience he had with a friend where they got into a fight over playing a fairly complicated video game.

The overall principle here applies to the adult world, too. You’re much more likely to get help from others if you show that you’re trying to help yourself. You’ll almost always see more sympathy for someone trying really hard to get a job than someone who sits around and doesn’t look for one. Your boss will have a lot more sympathy and approval of you if you’re working on something rather than just sitting there watching the clock, even if there aren’t any active tasks to do. People are drawn to help others when they see that other person genuinely trying. Keep that in mind whenever you meet a challenge – you’re a lot better off struggling against it (and you’ll learn a lot more from that struggle) than from just giving up immediately and hoping someone will fix it for you.

3. Handwritten letters

One of my quiet personal projects for 2018 was to write a handwritten letter to one person a week for the whole year, and then maintain handwritten correspondence with them if they wrote back and there was a clear reason to continue correspondence.

Handwritten letters are wonderful, deeply personal things to receive in the mail. Someone spent the time to sit down with a pen and a piece of paper or two and write out their thoughts longhand, solely for you. In that entire process, they were thinking about you and the things they wanted to share with you. The time and thought involved in a handwritten letter, even a short one, is wonderful – I cherish them.

The process of doing this has been interesting. I mostly wanted to write to people in the context of them, not me. I’ve been aiming to ask a lot of questions (hoping to spur a follow-up letter) and to share something I’ve learned in the last few years that might be useful or highly interesting to them. It’s actually harder than it sounds.

Yet, even though it’s been hard, it’s been really rewarding. Several people have written back to me, and almost everyone I’ve written to has expressed some form of appreciation for the letter.

The strange part? It’s been incredibly rewarding for me, so much so that I would have found plenty of value in this if I never sent the letters at all. It has made me think about the various people in my life in a deep way, figuring out what they care about, how (and if) I connect to that, and what I can add to that. Often, in that process, I’ve found a lot of things I care about, and in the process of writing a letter, I’ve figured out things about me, too.

Give it a try. Try writing a few letters to people in which the focus is on them, not you. Ask questions. Share things that are primarily relevant to their life, not yours. It is really hard at first. Push through it. You’ll find it’s really, really rewarding, even before you put the stamp on the envelope and drop it in the mailbox.

4. Arne Garborg on what money can buy

“You can buy food, but not appetite; medicine but not health; knowledge but not wisdom; glitter, but not beauty; fun, but not joy; acquaintances, but not friends; servants, but not faithfulness; leisure, but not peace. You can have the husk of everything for money, but not the kernel.” – Arne Garborg

Money can’t buy the important things in life. Money can’t buy peace or wisdom or friendship. The things that you might buy that promise those things don’t actually provide it. Peace and wisdom and friendship and many other things come from within you or are freely given by others.

The only real value that money has is in securing a stable enough foundation to enjoy those important things. It’s hard to enjoy peace or wisdom or friendship if you’re not secure in where your next meal will come from or whether you’ll have a roof over your head.

Beyond that, money just fulfills momentary desires. The things we ache for the most can’t be bought.

5. The quiet hour

Over and over again, I’ve come to realize that the first hour to an hour and a half of my waking day is perhaps the most valuable time I have each day. I call it the “quiet hour,” and unlike the rest of my time, I don’t really schedule anything for it. I usually just go through a morning routine at my own pace, without pushing myself and jumping from thing to thing in an orderly fashion.

I find I like it best in spring, where the “quiet hour” starts when it is still dark or when there’s the first faint hint of light on the horizon. As the “quiet hour” passes, the world slowly comes to life as I’m doing things like stretching and meditating and journaling and planning the day and reading a little. I’ll see the light getting brighter. I’ll hear birds start chirping. Eventually, I’ll hear Sarah stirring, and that’s usually followed shortly by children stirring.

When everyone wakes up and gets dressed and comes upstairs/downstairs to start their day, I feel alive and refreshed and ready to tackle pretty much anything that the world throws at me.

6. Paulo Coelho on opinions and examples

“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” – Paulo Coelho

Everyone has a vision for what they want the world to be like. Some people manage to actually produce that vision, most on a small scale, but a few on a larger scale. They didn’t achieve that by staying at home. They didn’t achieve that by pontificating their opinions.

They achieved it by doing something. They achieved it, at first, by living their life in accordance with that vision. Later, they busted their tails to share that vision with others through action.

If you want to change the world, don’t talk about it on social media. Go do it.

7. Stephen Covey on listening to understand

“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” – Stephen Covey

If you’re listening to someone solely as a courtesy while you wait for your opportunity to say what’s on your mind, you’re not listening. You’re not engaged with what that person is saying. You’re likely signaling to that person that you’re not engaged with what that person is saying. Furthermore, you shouldn’t be surprised when they do the same thing to you in return when you’re speaking.

If someone is telling you something, make it your goal to understand what they’re saying. If it’s complicated at all, repeat it back to them in your own words and ask if you got it right. If nothing else, they’ll know that you were actually listening to them and making an effort to understand them.

Even better is the follow up question. If you ask someone a follow up question, you’re not only listening and demonstrating that you’re listening, but you’re also usually conveying your own thought in there to an extent, because a question reveals what part of what they’re saying is grabbing your attention and interest.

Lately, when I’m in conversation with someone, 80% of what comes out of my mouth are questions. A lot of them are restatements of what they said. Unless there is a big conversational lull or someone has directly asked me a question, I usually am asking questions and listening.

What happens? I feel like I get to express myself more than enough, but more important than that, I feel like I understand the people in my life much better than I used to. The conversations are better and deeper, and I feel like the relationships are stronger, too. Whenever I do say something, people usually listen, because I’ve paid them the same courtesy.

Try it. Listen to understand. Don’t worry about replying.

8. “Cool is an emotional straightjacket.

Those five words really nail a sentiment that I’ve had for a long time, in that if you’re altering your behavior to please others (beyond the relatively minimal requirements for participating in society, like basic hygiene, clean clothes, and a minimum level of friendliness), you’re putting yourself in a pen that no one else cares about. You are far better off being yourself and then connecting with people that happen to click with who you are.

I find that this idea really underlies my parenting practices. I strongly encourage my kids to be themselves, as they feel most comfortable, and then gravitate to people who seem to fit in with that natural comfort and not worry too much about the judgments of others (provided, of course, that my children are handling the basics of being a participant in society as noted above). Don’t worry about being “cool.” Be yourself, and find people who like you when you’re being yourself. Don’t adopt new ideas or practices simply because you see others doing it – think them through first and make up your own mind about them. Don’t do things and think things and feel things just because others seem to want you to. Do them and think them and feel them because you want to.

The idea that “cool is an emotional straightjacket” is something I’ve believed for a long time and used as a parenting principle for a long time, but I’ve not heard the concept expressed so beautifully and succinctly before.

9. Kurt Vonnegut on maintenance and building

“Another flaw in human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Recently, I went out to lunch with an old coworker of mine from more than a decade ago. We caught up on things, as old friends do.

At one point in the conversation, I mentioned that I left my previous job in part because everything was becoming “maintenance” and we weren’t “building” things any more, which was less interesting to me. It occurred to me later that this was exactly what Vonnegut was talking about in this quote.

For me, it wasn’t even so much that we weren’t “building” things, but that as we entered a “maintenance” phase of our project, it was clear that the resources available to us were going to start dwindling and try to keep things held together with duct tape. This is because, not only are individuals not as interested in maintenance as they are in building, society as a whole does not appreciate maintenance as much as they do building.

People are always looking at the new flashy thing. The well built thing that is well maintained and lasts and lasts and lasts starts to be taken for granted. It works, it’s worked for a long time, so why worry about it? It usually works and keeps working because someone is busting their rear end maintaining it, but people rarely see the maintenance.

It’s often a running joke that in IT departments, the best-run IT departments don’t look like they are doing anything because everything is running well. A department with a strong dedication to maintenance is doing it quietly and nothing is breaking, so it often looks like they’re not doing much – they’re not replacing stuff, they’re not installing new systems, we rarely see them, they must not be doing anything, let’s cut their resources and staff and salaries.

The message here? Appreciate those who are quietly maintaining the things you rely on. Don’t cut their budget because they seem invisible – if they’re invisible, that probably means they’re doing a really good job of keeping the things you rely on working without you having to think twice about it. Thank the person that cleans your office if your office is always clean enough that you just don’t notice it at all. Thank your IT department if your computers and other resources just work without skipping a beat most of the time.

Maintenance isn’t attractive, exciting work. Done well, it attracts no attention at all. And that’s a shame.

10. WALL-E in seven different genres

This video simply takes clips from the Disney/Pixar film WALL-E and re-edits them into seven different previews for the movie. The interesting part of this experiment is that the previews are for movies in entirely different genres.

One of the trailers makes WALL-E appear to be a post-apocalyptic Mad Max style of film. Another trailer makes it appear to be a romance. Another switches it into a pure horror film. One of the trailers makes WALL-E appear to be a presentation by Apple designers.

The trick? It’s all about film editing. The order of the scenes shown, the way the film cuts between scenes, and the music used all alter how we feel about what’s on the screen. Is it joyful? Is it sad? Is it scary? Is it persuasive? It all depends on the order of the scenes, how they jump back and forth between each other, and what the music is like.

This is a pure appreciation of how important editing is in terms of making a good film come to life.

11. Barbara Bush on regrets

“At the end of your life you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child or a parent.” – Barbara Bush

At the end of your life, you will regret the truly important things left undone.

In the busy parts of our lives, we tend to focus on the urgent things – the things that scream out “I need to be fixed!” Those things grab our attention and time.

What we often let slide are the important but not urgent things – things like playing a game with our kids or having a long phone conversation with our mother. Those things might not be exciting and they might not be urgent, but they’re important and they’re deeply fulfilling in a way that few things are.

Make time for them. Wall it off. Turn off your phone. Turn off your distractions. Give into the moment and do the important things. You will never regret it.

12. Yuki Kawauchi and Sarah Sellers

Who?

Yuki Kawauchi is a full time school teacher in Saitama Prefecture in Japan. Sarah Sellers is a full time certified registered nurse anesthetist at a hospital in Tucson, Arizona.

So why am I talking about these people?

As a part time hobbyist runner training solely in his spare time, Yuki Kawauchi won the 2018 Boston Marathon men’s division. (He is apparently considering becoming a full time runner after his win, though not immediately.)

As a part time hobbyist runner training solely in her spare time, Sarah Sellers finished second in the 2018 Boston Marathon women’s division.

These two are not full time runners. This is not their career. It is their passion, something they fill up their spare time with. And yet they’re both unquestionably among those at the top of their sport.

If someone with a full time career who is just training in their spare time can do that at the Boston Marathon – not some small marathon in the middle of nowhere, but one of the prestigious marathons in the world – why can’t you do what you dream of?

(Please note that I am not undermining the performance of the other top finishers, particularly the women’s elite winner, Desiree Linden, who turned in an incredible performance. I was just captivated by the personal stories of Yuki and Sarah and the fact that they managed to do this as a side gig, which puts my own commitments into question and challenges me greatly. The performance of top level marathoners, whether full-time professional or as a side hobby, is incredibly impressive and takes an unbelievable amount of work and dedication. Yuki, Desiree, Sarah, and all of the top finishers are amazing. Frankly, in my opinion, anyone who gave it a serious try is amazing.)

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