Inspiration from Seneca, Emilie Wapnick, MIT, Steve Martin 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. Sigmund Freud on struggle

“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.” – Sigmund Freud

This statement didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me until recently. Right now, I look back at 2006 and 2007 as perhaps the most beautiful years of my life.

I was struggling in almost every aspect of my life in those years. My finances were a mess and I was trying to fix them. I was feeling a ton of professional challenges and dissatisfaction in my career. We had an infant son that grew into a toddler and then another baby arrived on the scene. We moved from a tiny apartment into a larger house and had to figure out how to be homeowners. I launched three different side gigs, two of which utterly failed and the third of which was a success beyond all realistic expectations.

Almost every day was full of challenges of one kind or another. I was learning how to overcome workplace challenges of a wide variety, how to be a small business owner, how to be a father, how to be a good husband after the honeymoon year was over, how to be a homeowner, and how to be a financially responsible adult, all at the same time.

It was exhausting. It was also exhilarating. Each day brought a new challenge and a new success.

Today, I still fill many of those roles, but in many ways I’m practicing skills that have become strong and reflexive. The struggle of learning something new when your life relies on it is something that I don’t particularly want to relive, but it is something that gives that period in my life a certain glow in my memories.

2. The American Dream for the Next Generation

The American Dream for the Next Generation is a course from MIT for which the materials are available for free online. I went through the course over the last few months, listening to the lectures and reading the materials, and I found it incredibly worthwhile. It’s one of the first online classes I’ve taken that I would recommend to almost anyone.

The title of the course really explains what it’s all about – it involves a lot of discussion about what the “American Dream” was and is and then looks ahead at what the “American Dream” will become for the next generation or two as they grow into adulthood.

This is one of those topics that borders on philosophical in nature, but it’s a really tangible flavor of philosophy. Almost every piece of the course left me thinking about what kinds of goals people have and how they change over time as society and technology changes.

Part of me wants to go off on a tangent with a bunch of different discussion points that this class inspired, but it would take much of the joy out of it if I shared all of my takes on the ideas without giving you the opportunity to explore all of this on your own. So, I encourage you to take the time to dig into this stuff on your own. You’ll be glad you did.

3. Neil Peart on trying again and again

“Keep striking that flint and steel, and eventually you will produce a spark. The more you are practicing your chosen art, the more likely you are to stumble upon inspiration in that work.” – Neil Peart

I spent many hours in my teen years engaged in various solitary activities with the music of Rush playing in the background. For me, albums like 2112 and Signals and Moving Pictures and A Farewell to Kings form the soundtrack to a particular period in my life.

Many of those hours were spent teaching myself how to write computer programs. My school offered a couple of computer courses, but nothing in the depth of my exploration. I learned about graphics programming, explored languages like Pascal and C, and eventually I wound up doing that kind of thing for a living.

Many more of those hours were spent coming up with stories and writing fiction and nonfiction in all sorts of genres and styles, which I suppose led me to the life of a freelance writer that I live now.

If you keep doing something over and over, trying new ways of doing things and exposing yourself to new influences while also mastering the basic underlying skills, you’re going to get better at that thing, whatever it is. Even if you don’t necessarily have the ideal talent at that thing, you will have enough skill that you can sometimes produce something great.

It just takes a lot of hours of failure and practice and failure and more practice and occasional sparks of something good and then more failure and more practice. People often don’t have the patience for all of that failure, but without it, you can’t ever figure out what works well.

4. Steve Martin and Edie Brickell – When You Get to Asheville

Steve Martin rose to prominence as an absurdist comedian, one with such a strong career in that area that Comedy Central recognizes him as one of the 100 greatest standup comedians of all time. He moved on from there to acting, appearing in a number of comedic and dramatic roles. From there, he moved on to writing, publishing pieces in The New Yorker, producing an acclaimed autobiography, and writing the scripts for several films and plays.

It’s his last career shift that’s perhaps the most amazing, though. He’s now perhaps best known as an extremely acclaimed banjo player, racking up a number of Grammy awards and performing at countless music festivals as well as the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. Just listen – he’s really good.

It’s easy to just remark, “Oh, he’s just talented,” and while that is likely true, it’s foolish to think that he hasn’t put a ton of work into his various crafts. You can be an incredibly naturally talented comedian in the world and not make millions laugh – that takes talent and work. The same thing is true of his writing, with his giant collection of published stories and novels and nonfiction books and plays and film scripts – it takes talent, sure, but it also takes a ton of honing of one’s craft. It’s also particularly true of his banjo playing.

Whenever someone tells you that you can’t do something completely different than what you’re doing, think of the guy who performed this sketch, and the guy who wrote this, and the guy who also performed this song. He did all this stuff, and there’s no reason you or I can’t try something different, too.

5. Pliny the Younger on desire and possession

“An object in possession seldom retains the same charm that it had in pursuit.” – Pliny the Younger

I always find it amazing when the words of someone who lived thousands of years ago ring absolutely true in my own modern life.

I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I have desired some item or another, convinced myself that I really really wanted it or even that I needed it, only to purchase the item and discover that it really wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be.

A lot of those items wound up on my shelves, unused and practically forgotten.

The real truth of the matter is that I only have so many hours in my life. I honestly have more interests that I would love to follow up on than I have hours available in my days.

On top of that is the fact that items are often not all they are cracked up to be. Often, much of what you hear about a new thing comes from marketing departments, news stories that are barely more than rewritten press releases, or from people who are deeply passionate about that particular item for some reason due to their specific personality or interest. None of those actually provide any sort of real help for your decision-making process because they all artificially alter the product’s potential impact on your life.

In other words, the product looks much better on the shelf and in the dreams you have of holding it in your hands than it actually does in your hands.

Keep that in mind and be patient when you buy. Seneca was right, all of those thousands of years ago.

6. Emilie Wapnick on why some of us don’t have one true calling

From the description:

What do you want to be when you grow up? Well, if you’re not sure you want to do just one thing for the rest of your life, you’re not alone. In this illuminating talk, writer and artist Emilie Wapnick describes the kind of people she calls “multipotentialites” — who have a range of interests and jobs over one lifetime. Are you one?

This video touches on similar ground as the Steve Martin video and comments above. You don’t have to have the same type of job and the same interests from your childhood to your grave.

Part of the challenge with being a “multipotentiality” is that there is a strong sense in this country that you have to prepare for one career path and to prepare again for something different is some kind of failure.

I am often inspired here by my mother-in-law, who was a professional cheese maker (seriously) before giving that up and returning to school to be a nurse. She also started a band in her fifties.

You don’t have to be the same thing you were yesterday. Today is a new day, a new opportunity to explore new things and new interests.

7. Baron Fig Confidant

It’s not a secret to any long-time reader of The Simple Dollar that I use notebooks of various kinds all the time to take notes. I keep a pocket notebook with me at all times to jot down quick notes, but I also like using larger bound notebooks for larger-scale brainstorming and project planning.

A friend of mine bought me one of these notebooks as a gift a while back and, quite simply, it’s just about the perfect notebook. It hits almost every point that I want in a notebook. It’s bound in an incredibly sturdy fashion, yet the notebook lays flat. The pages feature dot-grid formatting, which is my favorite style. The paper is strong enough to withstand all of the ink I throw at it without bleeding through, yet is thin enough to keep the notebook at a reasonable thickness.

Not only that, the company itself plants a tree for every notebook purchased, replenishing the wood used in the making of the notebook.

I don’t talk about specific products very often on The Simple Dollar, but this has become an everyday use item for me. If you actually write out your thoughts as I do, this notebook is a wonderful tool and would make for a great gift this holiday season.

8. Earl Nightingale on dreams and time

“Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.” — Earl Nightingale

Most of the big goals I hold for myself at this point seem far down the road. Unless something unexpected happens, I won’t hit any of those big targets for several years.

And that’s okay. Those years are going to pass anyway.

I have a choice that I can make, every single day. I can either have a great life at age fifty, or I can have a mediocre life at age fifty and have some things I don’t really want or have time for right now.

Yeah, the number of years between then and now can feel despairing sometimes, but those years will pass regardless of whether I’m working toward a goal or not. I’m going to be forty, forty five, fifty someday.

The question is what kind of life I want forty, forty five, fifty to be and whether it’s worth sacrificing that life so that I can be lazy or so that I can have some unnecessary physical item today.

9. Scott Dinsmore on finding work you love

From the description:

Scott Dinsmore quit a job that made him miserable, and spent the next four years wondering how to find work that was joyful and meaningful. He shares what he learned in this deceptively simple talk about finding out what matters to you — and then getting started doing it.

Work that you love doesn’t mean easy work. For some, it might mean work for which you love the process of actually doing it. For others, it might mean that you love and value the result of that work, like someone digging a proper well for a village without water.

Many people find themselves in situations where they’re doing work for which they neither love the process nor love the result. I am incredibly thankful that my current job has both elements, but I remember a time when I didn’t feel either, where I felt as though I was just filling out paperwork all day.

It was miserable. I never, ever want to go back.

There is too much joy in life to work at a job where you don’t either love the process or love the outcome. If you find yourself forced to work at one of those jobs, view it solely as a stepping point to a job where you love the process or love the outcome.

10. Seneca on imagined suffering

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” – Seneca

It is so easy to imagine that a positive life change will be horrible and painful and awful. Spending less? It’s got to be complete misery. Exercising a lot? Totally miserable. Giving up television? That sounds like something from Dante’s Inferno.

Yet the reality of those life changes is often nothing like the horrors that we imagine. When you put some tight controls on your spending, you still find joy. When you start exercising, you begin to experience the pleasures of feeling better every day. When you start eating better, you can start to discover the varieties of delicious ways to prepare different foods.

Life goes on, and it can be a better life. Just don’t listen to your imagination. It just wants to keep you where you’re at right now.

11. Yousician

You’re probably familiar with the video game known as Guitar Hero, right? You have a plastic guitar and you play along with the notes as they appear on the string by hitting buttons on the fret of the “guitar” and “strumming” a special button.

It’s a fun game, but it really doesn’t do much of anything at all for teaching you guitar.

On a separate thread, over the last few years, I’ve tried several things for teaching myself guitar and none of them have worked. The time I have for practicing is pretty awkward for taking lessons, so I’ve tried to learn from books and videos and so on and nothing has clicked.

Yousician has.

So, here’s how it works: it’s basically Guitar Hero with a real guitar. My computer has a built-in mic, which listens to the sounds and identifies if I’ve hit the right notes. On the screen, it actually looks a lot like Guitar Hero, showing you the upcoming notes that you need to play. It uses strings and colors and numbers in a very clear way that makes it easy to know which strings to hold down, how to form a chord, and how to strum or pick.

I find myself drawn to playing it every day and I’m actually learning the guitar. I can play really simple melodies now without the game on at all, which is farther than I’ve ever made it in learning the guitar.

It’s free to try it and very highly recommended.

12. Ralph Waldo Emerson on today and tomorrow

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could do. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

You’re going to mess up every single day. You can either obsess on those mistakes and use them to convince yourself that you’ll never succeed, or you can look at them as tools to teach yourself how to be better tomorrow.

You have that choice, every single day.

But if you take one thing away from that choice, let it be this: you are not a failure. Making mistakes does not make you a failure. Making mistakes makes you human.

And since you’re going to make mistakes anyway, you might as well use them as lessons for the future.

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