Inspiration from Serial, George Bernard Shaw, Barns, 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. Carol Dweck on the power of believing you can improve

From the description:

Carol Dweck researches “growth mindset” — the idea that we can grow our brain’s capacity to learn and to solve problems. In this talk, she describes two ways to think about a problem that’s slightly too hard for you to solve. Are you not smart enough to solve it … or have you just not solved it yet? A great introduction to this influential field.

Carol is the author of a book called Mindset that I’ve found quite valuable over the years. The core idea behind Mindset is that people tend to subscribe to two basic mindsets in their approach to life – a “scarcity” mindset and an “abundance” mindset. I described them like this in my review:

The first attitude points to what Dweck calls the “fixed” mindset. In other words, they believe that the person they are is already defined and the outcomes produced by that person are indicative of the person they are. They can’t change – all they can do is bluff and try to make who they are appear as good as possible.

The second attitude is the “growth” mindset. People who revel in failure recognize that a failure isn’t necessarily a poor reflection on them. Rather, it’s an opportunity to see where exactly they fall short and what exactly they need to work on. It’s a reminder not of where they cannot go, but an insight as to what they need to do to get there.

My number one goal as a parent can be summed up as encouraging my children to have a “growth” mindset and not a “fixed” mindset. It’s something I work on internally as well, encouraging myself to stick to the tenets of a “growth” mindset, and I can see it over and over again in my life. I look at my past not as a fixed and rigid description of who I am, but as a series of experiments with different results from which I can draw ideas for what my next step might be. Each day, week, month, year is an experiment, a chance to try and discover a better way of doing things.

2. Abdul Aziz bin Marzuq on love, hate, and blindness

“If love blinds you from seeing the faults of the one you love, then hatred blinds you from seeing the good things in the one you hate.” — Abdul Aziz bin Marzuq

With me, I can sometimes see Sarah’s flaws – she’s human, after all – but I usually just don’t care very much because, for me, her many positive traits outshine them, more so for her than for others. Anyone who has been married for a long time knows what I mean.

So, why wouldn’t the same be true for the people you strongly dislike or even hate?

Think, for a moment, about the people, the politicians, the public figures that you most strongly dislike. Is your intense dislike for those people causing you to not see the good things in them?

Often, once we start to dislike someone, we start to minimize their positive traits and ignore reports of them, and instead focus on the negative reports about them and the negative traits we observe in them. It causes a negative feedback loop as we continue to see that person in a more and more negative light.

It may just be that Obama or Boehner (or whoever it is that you loathe) has done far more good than you see because you’re blinded to it by your intense dislike. In fact, it’s probably true for anyone in your life.

Of course, if love has never blinded you to the flaws of someone, then perhaps you’ve never loved at all.

3. A barn in winter

Many people associate living in the Midwest with exposure to agriculture, and they’d be correct. When you drive around the state, virtually all of the space between towns is taken up with agricultural production.

To me, that’s a beautiful thing. It’s a reminder of where our food comes from. It comes from the ground. It’s planted, grown, and harvested by people with skill and a strong work ethic. In many cases, these same fields have been planted by the same families for many generations – I happen to know at least one sixth generation farmer.

Winter may be a bit of a respite for some farmers, as the ground is frozen and covered in snow (at least in Iowa), but that usually doesn’t mean rest. There are still animals to feed, crops to plan for the coming year, vehicles to maintain and repair after the harvest year.

A barn in winter may look like a quiet place, but it’s far from that. The work needed to provide our food is a year-round project, without cease.

Thanks to Rodney Campbell for the wonderful picture.

4. David Allen on having and holding ideas

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” ― David Allen

Many people wonder why I constantly keep a pocket notebook. This simple quote explains it all.

I keep a pocket notebook because I want to use my brain for thinking and not waste some of that processing power for remembering. When a thought pops into my head that has nothing to do with what I’m doing, I want to get it out of my head until I’m finished with the task at hand. That’s what a pocket notebook is for – I just pull out that notebook, jot down enough of my separate thought so that I can come back to it later, and then get back to my main task.

It’s purely a concentration thing. I have a hard time completing any major thoughtful project if I don’t give it my full concentration, and spare thoughts eat into that concentration. When I’m trying to find the right way to say something, a spare thought about the need to get milk at the grocery store doesn’t help, and it really doesn’t help if I force myself to try to remember it. My brain is now going in two ways at once. If I simply remove that spare thought – adding milk to my ongoing grocery list in my pocket, for example – then my full concentration can return to the task at hand.

I fill up a little pocket notebook about once a week. I love looking back at those old things as they’re beautiful little windows into how my life was during that week. I can see the things I was thinking about, the little errands and tasks I was on, thoughts about the book I was reading or a magazine article I read, the quotes and poems that inspired me. It’s all beautiful.

5. Ayesha Siddiqi on being there

“Be the person you needed when you were younger.” – Ayesha Siddiqi

When I was young, my father was almost constantly working. During my earlier childhood years, he worked a night shift, which meant that during the school day, I wouldn’t see him at all. He filled his weekends with several side businesses, too, particularly his commercial fishing business.

Later on, he worked a day shift, but he would often work overtime and I was starting to be buried in extracurricular activities myself as I was involved in practically every club at my school.

I have many great memories of my father from my childhood. He was a man who worked very hard to make sure that I never did without and that I had everything that I needed, but there were times when I really wanted him to be there and he was busy with work or with something else.

Now that I’m a father, I want to always be available for my children. It’s a big part of the reason why I made the choice to become a freelance writer because it enables me to work from home and be flexible with my hours. I can push my writing periods around throughout the day. I do most of my work during the hours when they’re in school, before they wake up, or after they’re in bed. Sometimes, I work when they’re involved with other things, too.

I’m not always hanging out wherever they are when they’re at home, but they know that if they need me, whenever they need me, they can just come and knock on the small bedroom I use as an office.

I want to be the person that I needed at times when I was younger.

This quote is currently the desktop picture on my second computer monitor, overlaid on top of a picture of my three children.

6. Serial

Serial was a complete twelve episode podcast presented on the internet in late 2014, finishing up in late December and comprising the first season of the show. From the description:

On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month later, her body turned up in a city park. She’d been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.

Sarah Koenig, who hosts Serial, first learned about this case more than a year ago. In the months since, she’s been sorting through box after box (after box) of legal documents and investigators’ notes, listening to trial testimony and police interrogations, and talking to everyone she can find who remembers what happened between Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee fifteen years ago. What she realized is that the trial covered up a far more complicated story, which neither the jury nor the public got to hear. The high school scene, the shifting statements to police, the prejudices, the sketchy alibis, the scant forensic evidence – all of it leads back to the most basic questions: How can you know a person’s character? How can you tell what they’re capable of? In Season One of Serial, she looks for answers.

In my eyes, Serial is pretty close to the pinnacle of what public broadcasting and investigative journalism can be and it makes a strong case as to why it should be well-funded. It takes a ton of time and effort and thought to dig into the depths of an issue in the way that Serial dug into this trial and without appropriate funding, you’re relying completely on volunteers to do it, which isn’t a realistic model.

Serial, in this first season, is executed amazingly well. It’s almost addictive to listen to and presents the facts of the case amazingly well. I would love to hear similar situations investigated with such clarity and depth while also managing to be incredibly entertaining.

7. The Crash Course YouTube channel

Crash Course is a large collection of rather videos intended to teach the basics of topics in short gulps (about ten minutes per video) and organized into “seasons” that focus on broader topics. For example, the biology “season” is forty videos in length, each of which covers a specific topic. They’re rather entertaining, with a good sense of humor throughout and a lot of information packed into the videos.

Here’s an example, covering the reasons for World War I from the “Big History” season:

And another, covering Oedipus from the “Literature” season:

You get the idea. The videos are done well enough that you can dive into individual videos to learn more about that specific topic, but they actually get better if you start the “season” from the start, as the videos make factual and humorous references to each other.

I love to listen to these as background audio when I’m doing other things. Just yesterday, as I was doing dishes and reorganizing our pantry, I had my laptop open on the counter playing the videos from the season on ecology, just listening to the audio. Almost every time, these videos spur me to dig even deeper into the topics discussed, but they also function really well as pure entertainment.

8. George Bernard Shaw on failure

“When I was young, I observed that nine out of ten things I did were failures. So I did ten times more work.” – George Bernard Shaw

The vast majority of the things I do in my life are failures.

I could dwell on those failures and think of myself as a failure. Or I could simply try more things and by sheer numbers have more successes.

This really ties into the “abundance” versus “scarcity” mindset that Carol Dweck talked about in the first piece of inspiration this month. You can view the world has having a “fixed” number of successes in it and some people are either luckier or less ethical than others, or you can view the world has having unlimited opportunity for success that is only limited by your own efforts.

Like it or not, I’m going to fail at most of the things that I attempt. The real question is what I take from that failure. Is it a lesson that convinces me to get back up and make a better attempt based on what I’ve learned, or is it a reason to just give up?

9. Roger Lewin on education and children

“Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.” – Roger Lewin

In November and December, my oldest son was working on memorizing his multiplication tables. He was pretty diligent about it and took pride in his successes, but he really didn’t see the point of it.

So, particularly during December, I looked for problem after problem in the real world where he could use his multiplication skills.

“So, how many cookies should I make?” “Hmm…” “Well, how many people are we making cookies for?” “Twelve.” “And how many cookies should each person get?” “Three?” “Sure, three. So, now we know enough to figure out how many cookies we should make.” He’d stand there for a minute, then it would click. “Thirty six!”

“We need four square feet of wrapping paper to wrap this box, and we have five boxes of the same size to wrap. How many square feet need to be in the roll of wrapping paper?”

“I’m going to make four times the normal recipe of this soup. The normal recipe uses eight cherry tomatoes, so how many cherry tomatoes do we need?”

I looked hard for these kinds of problems in our life and I constantly relayed them to my son. Again and again, he’d piece them together and realize that the solution involved multiplication.

The key thing is that he understood how it was useful and that made him much more excited about learning such things.

Of course, the more he advances in some of his subjects, the trickier it will be, but I think I can relate things to the real world for quite a while yet.

It’s all about the problem solving.

10. Neil Young – Heart of Gold

This song reminds me of two distinct periods of my life.

I first discovered Neil Young when I was pretty young thanks to a DJ on our local rock station that would play songs by him in the evenings. The station was a “top 40” station in the mid-1980s, but the DJ would constantly find reasons to play Neil Young records, both his newest releases and his old ones. Of all the songs, Heart of Gold really stuck with me. I remember distinctly, one night, I was laying in my bed. I was probably nine or 10 years old. The moonlight was coming in my window at that strange angle that it often did, illuminating the dresser and the shelves. Neil Young was on the radio. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Later on, in college, I actually purchased Neil Young’s Harvest album on sale somewhere and I listened to it nonstop during the fall of 2001. I was listening to Harvest when I first learned about 9/11, as I was at work and a coworker came in and interrupted me to let me know about what was happening. I listened to that album a lot that fall and, for some reason, Heart of Gold just clicked with me.

This is going to sound strange to some of you, but in many ways 9/11 was the moment that made me feel like an adult for the first time, that the relative “safety” of my childhood was somehow gone. During that time, the opening lines really struck a chord with me:

I want to live,
I want to give
I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold.
It’s these expressions
I never give
That keep me searching for a heart of gold.

Where was the safety I once had? Where had it gone? Did people no longer love one another? The world had changed. And so had I.

11. Candlelight

On Christmas Eve, my family and I went to a church service at a small rural church, in large part to hear the musical performance of two close family members.

During that service, I sat next to my youngest son, who is at that magical preschool age where everything is interesting and sitting still is incredibly hard.

At the start of the service, the ushers passed out small white candles to everyone. He was instantly curious about this candle and I allowed him to hold it throughout the service. He wrapped his arm around my leg when we stood and held that candle fiercely in his hand.

During the service, he drew a small picture for the church’s pastor and wrote that he loved him on the bottom, something that my son does a lot right now. He’s just learning to write and one of his favorite messages to write is “I LOVE DAD” or “I LOVE MOM.”

At the end, a flame was passed from candle to candle in the church and then the lights were dimmed. I carefully lit my son’s candle and kneeled down next to him, allowing him to hold the candle on his own. As the people sang “Silent Night,” he stared wide-eyed at that little flame in front of him.

If I remember one thing about this month, it will be the glow on the cheeks and in the eyes of my son reflected from a candle on that cold winter’s night.

Thanks to Lisa Widerberg for the image.

12. Ian McLaren on kindness

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – Ian McLaren

It’s easy to get frustrated with someone when they bump into you on the sidewalk and barely utter a “Sorry.” It’s really easy to get annoyed when the waiter at a restaurant forgets some piece of your order.

The single thing I always try to keep in mind is that these people are fighting their own battles. Maybe that person on the street just broke up with the person they dearly love. Perhaps the waiter just heard that his father has cancer and is just trying to make it through their shift. Maybe someone has a sick child at home and would rather be at home taking care of that kid instead of dealing with endless customers. Maybe that person is sick themselves and is trying to make their way home. Maybe that person is suffering from depression or another mental illness, or perhaps they’re partially deaf or blind.

Every single person out there is fighting their own battles. Sometimes, the difficulty of those battles can affect you.

Rather than being enraged at someone because their mind or heart wasn’t on this moment and wasn’t on addressing your particular desires at that moment, step back for a minute. Put it in perspective. Forgive a little bit.

I’m not saying you should overlook genuine problems, but when someone bumps into you on the street, don’t get mad. Just let it go. When your waiter forgets to get you a straw for your drink, don’t get enraged. Just let it be, and ask again if you really want one.

In those moments where you’re fighting your own battles, you’re thankful for those that help you make it through. Do the same for the people you interact with. Be kind.