Inspiration from Sathya Sai Baba, Stephen Fry, Son Volt, 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. Bob Dylan on regrets

“I don’t believe in regrets. Regrets just keep you chained to the past. You gotta make peace with the past. There’s no reason to regret it. You’ve done it, just make peace with it.” – Bob Dylan

A few weeks ago, I was digging through some very old journal entries, some of my oldest ones from the mid-1990s. I read an entry about an old friend of mine who passed away several years later. Our friendship had faded and I actually didn’t hear about his passing for a while, well past his funeral, and it filled me with huge regret when I heard about it and I actually felt some regret when I read this entry.

As I thought about him, I’m reminded of what one of the best people I’ve ever known, who I’ll call Tony, once said about friendships. He told me that some friendships are for a day, some are for a season, and some are for a lifetime. They all fill a need for us, but it’s okay for some friendships to only be for a day and it’s okay for some friendships to only be for a season. Just don’t let them end with a cruel word.

We were great friends at a key point in both of our lives and then our lives went in different directions. I don’t recall ever saying anything cruel or intentionally leaving him out; I simply moved several hours away and then, shortly thereafter, he moved away as well and we simply didn’t see each other any more.

I don’t regret letting that friendship end any more. Rather, I’m glad we were friends at that time when we needed that other person in our life as someone to hang out with and talk about the inherent difficulties of figuring out what came next in our lives. We both needed that, and then we didn’t, and that’s okay.

2. Son Volt – Windfall

This song comes straight out of that time period I wrote about above. This song, the entire album it comes from, and some of the albums of two closely related bands (Wilco and Uncle Tupelo) were the soundtrack of that period in my life.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve played so many of those albums over and over again, out of a mix of admiration of the beauty of that music as well as the way it can transport me to another place and time if I let it.

Music has an ability to do this. Art has an ability to do this. It’s somehow tied to feelings deep inside of us, and for me, this song taps into that sense of doing something familiar but knowing that the familiar is about to end. I think it comes both from the song itself and from the period of my life that I identify with it.

3. Sathya Sai Baba on when to speak

“Before you speak, ask yourself: Is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve the silence?” – Sathya Sai Baba

I’m trying to move in this direction with my own conversation, moving away from meaningless chit chat and trying to save my words for things that actually have meaning and are better than the silence.

The big challenge that I often have to overcome with this is that, for several hours a day, I’m mostly silent. I work from home, by myself, and there’s no reason to talk. Thus, when my kids and my wife get home, I’m anxious to simply communicate with another person and sometimes I’ll end up just talking for the sake of talking.

That’s a bad habit and I want to trim it out, so I’m focusing on being more purposeful with my words. Am I communicating kindness? Am I communicating anything useful? Am I communicating worthwhile information? If not, why speak?

4. The Five Minute Method

I’m not sure where I picked up this idea, but it’s something that I’ve done both consciously and unconsciously for years and it’s been particularly powerful as of late.

The idea is this: whenever there’s something you need to do that you really don’t want to do, agree to just do it for five minutes – literally setting a timer if you want – and then you can quit with no guilt afterwards. That’s it.

Don’t want to exercise? Agree to just do some exercise for five minutes. If your timer goes off, you can quit, or you can go longer if you want – in either case, it’s a win.

Don’t want to meditate? Set a five minute timer.

Don’t want to do that dreadful work task that’s hanging over your head? Set a five minute timer.

Don’t want to dig into that project that’s going to take all day? Set a five minute timer. Quit after the five minutes if you want. Do it another day.

This really works for me for some reason. Quite often, once the five minutes are up, I want to keep making headway on the project at hand anyway. If I don’t, I know I can quit with no guilt because I know I made just a little progress. It goes back on tomorrow’s to-do list.

Try it. Use it with every task that seems miserable in your life.

5. Aaron Sorkin on learning

“If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.” – Aaron Sorkin

This is spectacular advice. If you want to genuinely understand the world better, surround yourself with people who know things that you do not and learn from them.

There’s only one problem with this strategy: there are enough people in the world who are genuinely opposed to being exposed to new ideas that many people have their guard up and immediately get defensive when discussing ideas. If you ask a question, they assume they’re just being attacked by someone who isn’t actually genuinely interested in an exchange of ideas, but rather in just creating conflict and discord.

In other words, this approach does not work well online outside of specific, carefully moderated situations. It works best face to face, with people you’re interacting with directly and who you have some form of real life social connection with. It is that social connection that encourages those involved to put down their defensiveness and exchange ideas.

It’s why I go to meetups. It’s why I like to go to lectures and presentations when I can. It’s why I often have really deep discussions with friends I trust. It’s why I read books that challenge me. I don’t know a lot of things about the world, and even in the areas I do know well, I don’t know every perspective or idea. I want to know those things.

6. Thubten Chodron on creating habits for happiness

From the description:

Thubten Chodron is a Tibetan Buddhist nun, prolific author, and world renowned teacher. She is the founder and abbess of Sravasti Abbey, and co-author of a book with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Want to be happy? Join Venerable Thubten Chodron to learn how. By becoming aware of how our actions affect those around us, as well as ourselves, she offers ways to identify and overcome our self-centered attitude that pretends to look out for our welfare, but is actually self-sabotaging and primes us to make unwise choices.

The core idea that she presents is that taking purely self-centered actions – ones where we don’t even consider the impact on others – rarely brings us lasting happiness. Rather, considering how the things we do affect others and filtering what we do to center more on things that benefit others and ourselves often becomes a source of lasting happiness.

Think about the things you do in a given day. How many of them are things that you do entirely because they benefit you? How many of those things are things that you’ve even considered in terms of how they affect people besides yourself?

Here’s a good practice: spend a day logging everything that you do. Then, a day or two later, go through that log and ask yourself how many of those things were done solely because they benefited you. Then, for each of those things, consider alternative things you could have done that might have been good for others, too, without shortchanging yourself (or only having a minor relative drawback for you).

I did this a week or so ago and I found a lot of little things that I could do differently. It was pretty surprising how I could tweak lots of little things in my life to be a little less self-centered without adding a whole lot of effort, and then doing things in the less self-centered way felt a whole lot better. For example, I redid my morning routine so that I could make a better breakfast for my kids; in the end, it didn’t cost me any time, but by thinking of things in terms of them, they wound up with a better breakfast most mornings that they could eat with their dad.

7. Malcolm Gladwell on self-contradiction

“If you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.” – Malcolm Gladwell

It’s worth noting here that Gladwell is talking about contradicting yourself in terms of ideas, not in terms of behavior or lying about what you’re up to. His point is that if you’re actually thinking about an idea and turning it over and over in your head, your understanding of that idea deepens and your opinions on that idea likely change a little, and that results in your current views and comments potentially seeming hypocritical compared to earlier views and comments.

I think it’s good for society to move past looking at a person’s evolving views as being a bad thing. We should want people to turn over ideas in their head, understand them better, and thus evolve their views on those ideas. Sticking to the same ideas in the face of a lot of contradictory evidence isn’t a good thing.

It’s not hypocritical to change your views when you learn new information. A person who does this isn’t a hypocrite. Rather, they’re just being thoughtful.

8. Heath Ledger on happiness

“Everyone you meet always asks if you have a career, are married, or own a house, as if life was some kind of grocery list. But no one ever asks you if you are happy.” – Heath Ledger

This is a good point, but it’s also a difficult one. Having a conversation with someone about whether they are happy feels really awkward. Asking someone if they’re happy often opens the door to a conversation that most people don’t want to have even with people they’re very close to.

I’ve been turning this over in my head for a long time and lately I’ve moved to using a pretty standard conversation starter that I think hits on this in a meaningful way.

I simply ask people “What’s good in your life right now?”

If they don’t seem sure of what I mean, I explain it simply: “What have you done lately that you’ve really enjoyed? Have you read a good book? Watched a good movie? Spent time with someone cool? Finished off a big project?”

I find that almost everyone has something they can talk about here, and it’s usually something that gets them excited and positive and animated. Not only that, I learn about all kinds of interesting things, and I usually learn something pretty interesting about that person, too.

9. Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python

This is the single best free introductory course to computer programming that I have ever found. If I were to point someone toward a resource from which they could learn the basics of computer programming without shelling out significant cash, this would be it.

The catch is that it’s an online course that runs somewhat irregularly. It’s often hard to catch it right when it starts – sometimes it’ll be in the middle of a session and other times it’s not running at all.

I’m mentioning it here because a new session of this class starts at the beginning of June. It’s completely free and it’s really, really good. This is highly recommended if you’ve ever wanted to dig into computer programming a little to understand what exactly it is. This is good teaching at its finest.

10. Jim Rohn on discipline and regret

“We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.” – Jim Rohn

I have dropped this quote before in inspiration columns, but it has been incredibly powerful for me over the years.

In general, you have two choices most of the time. You can be disciplined right now, or you can have regrets later on. You can eat that unhealthy meal right now (no discipline) and suffer some negative health effects down the road (regret), or you can eat a healthy meal now (discipline) and be fitter and healthier in life (no regret). You can spend your money on something frivolous (no discipline) and then have to deal with financial difficulties later on (regret), or you can skip by most unnecessary expenses (discipline) and achieve your big financial goals (no regret). It’s true for many of life’s challenges – exercise, building relationships, and so on.

We always have a choice – discipline or regret. The catch, of course, is that discipline isn’t very painful at all – often just a little uncomfortable at the moment – while regret can be incredibly painful and long lasting.

11. My in-laws

My wife’s parents both recently retired. They spent the last decade or so really stabilizing their finances so that they could afford to retire and still enjoy travel and doing things with their grandchildren and having hobbies.

They visited us for the first time since they’ve both retired and I swear I could tell a difference with them. They both just seemed a little more relaxed, but at the same time, a little more interested in doing things. Often in the past, they would visit us and both seem a bit tired from their busy lives and would treat their visit as a mini-vacation of sorts where they could relax.

When they came up this time, they wanted to help us with a couple minor home improvement projects and they threw themselves into painting a room with gusto. They seemed upbeat and happy and possibly more energetic than I’ve seen them in a while. They talked about things they wanted to do in the very near future and seemed excited about all of it.

In other words, they’re doing exactly what I want to do when I retire.

12. Stephen Fry on depression

“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather.” – Stephen Fry

I’ve had periods of deep melancholy in my life that probably swung into mild depression, though I was never treated for it. I went through most of a year once where I had minimal motivation to do much of anything at all other than the absolute bare minimum. It took me a long time to climb out of that hole.

Lately, I’ve been watching a good friend of mine fall into that kind of depression spiral. He’s gradually become more and more withdrawn from me and from other mutual friends. He doesn’t respond to text messages or other methods of communication much at all. Even when I do manage to get him out of the house, he’s largely uncommunicative. I know from others that he rarely leaves his home.

I am really at a loss as to what I can do to help. In the end, I think the best thing I can do is to just keep inviting him to do things, keep sending him positive things about the things we’ve had a shared interest in, keep checking in and poking without actually talking about the elephant in the room that is depression. If he does decide to talk about it, I’ll just listen and empathize, but I won’t push him to talk about it. I want him to remember that people care about him without blatantly saying “people care about you.”

I miss him. I wish I had a magic way to help, but I don’t. Rather, I think the best thing I can do is to just not let that thread of connection between us wither and die, not push him to talk about the depression, but rather to talk about the positive things we share and if he decides to open up about it, I’ll just listen and be supportive and not try to jam my own experiences into it.

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