Inspiration from Sketchnotes, Fountain Pens, Voltaire, Ralph Waldo Emerson 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. Barry Schwartz on how the way we think about work is broken

From the description:

What makes work satisfying? Apart from a paycheck, there are intangible values that, Barry Schwartz suggests, our current way of thinking about work simply ignores. It’s time to stop thinking of workers as cogs on a wheel.

Barry Schwartz is a psychologist and author whose writings have made me think deeply over the years. His most recent book, The Paradox of Choice, is a book I have actually read twice; it makes a great case that having an abundance of choice often causes us to make worse decisions.

Here, he argues that most menial jobs are only menial because they operate with the assumption that most people are lazy. The truth is that most people are not lazy and if you appeal to them with something beyond exchanging menial labor for a paycheck and give them opportunities to feel empowered and to use their creative side, they’ll go far beyond what you might expect. If you give someone a soulless job, they’ll give you soulless work.

If your job is not fulfilling and challenging you, spend your spare time finding things to do that fulfill and challenge you and then seek out ways to make money from that. You don’t have to quit your job or radically change your life to do this. You just have to use your spare time a little differently.

2. Sketchnotes

As I’ve mentioned many times, I am an avid journaler. I use it to write down the events of my life, walk through complicated ideas I’m struggling with or thinking about, organize my plans and goals, and so on. I’ve found that I prefer to write these down by hand.

Over the years, I’ve experimented a little with colors and layouts in my journals, but I’ve never really committed to it per se. I would mostly just prefer to write in my same old handwriting style with black ink.

Last month, I found myself inspired by the concept of sketchnotes. In a nutshell, sketchnotes are about making notes and personal writings as vibrant as possible, using doodles, colors, sketches, different writing styles, and other things in order to fill a page with ideas.

I’ve started experimenting with this in my own journal and I’ve found it to be a blast. I’ve found that I can express a lot with colors and little sketches alternate fonts and doodles that would be difficult to express in words.

While I still use a lot of writing in my journals, my October journal so far has seen an explosion of color and different things and, for some reason, it feels more alive and vital than it has in a long time. Part of me actually wants to show these pages to my friends and family, something that I’ve never wanted to do with these before.

If you like to journal or you take a lot of notes for various purposes like I do, take a look at sketchnoting. You might find it inspirational.

3. Voltaire on the measure of a person

“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” – Voltaire

In other words, don’t judge a person by the conclusions that they’re drawing, but by what they’re actually thinking about and what they actually care about.

I have conversations all the time with people who have certain feelings about political issues that are different than my own. I don’t agree with their conclusions and sometimes their conclusions sadden me.

The thing is, though, that they actually care about the issue in some way. I find that time and time again, if I sit back and ask people why they care about an issue, we can quickly find common ground.

When I ask people about why they’re upset about, say, welfare fraud, they’ll usually say that they find it unfair that their tax dollars are being misused. Fine, I tell them, but wouldn’t it make sense to start off with the biggest frauds on the tax system and eliminate those first, then move down the chain? That’s something that we almost always agree on. We both care about fraud against the government.

You can do this about almost any issue. If you keep backing up on why people care about an issue, they almost always reach a point where there are some fundamental agreements. If that doesn’t happen, you’ll find that the person actually has some truly repugnant views on the world that are really incompatible with most of society. Why does this work? Because, for the most part, people agree on truly fundamental values.

Try it sometime. You’ll be surprised how quickly you come to an understanding with people who seemingly disagree with you.

4. Yves Morieux on how too many rules at work keep you from getting things done

From the description:

Modern work — from waiting tables to crunching numbers to dreaming up new products — is about solving brand-new problems every day, flexibly, in brand-new ways. But as Yves Morieux shows in this insightful talk, too often, an overload of processes and sign-offs and internal metrics keeps us from doing our best. He offers a new way to think of work — as a collaboration, not a competition.

The single best experience I have ever had in a workplace came when I was in an office with just one other person for about nine months. It was just the two of us, assigned on a project that was seemingly set up to fail. We were on a one year contract and basically left over there to see whether or not we could come up with anything that might solve a rather difficult problem.

We were basically unmanaged. We didn’t have anyone measuring our productivity. We didn’t file reports. We just knew that if we didn’t come up with something, our jobs would vanish at the end of the year, but if we came up with a good solution, we likely had jobs for a very long time.

Our one direct supervisor would occasionally pop in, mostly to ask if we needed anything, and left us almost entirely alone.

What happened? We worked incredibly well. We had a limited functional prototype in about six weeks when a review board had basically said that it was impossible. We had a full functional prototype at about the five month mark and then met with that review board and they were so impressed that they recommended that we be employed for the long term to work on this.

Eventually, our group grew and then went under new management. What happened? The magic somewhat faded. We had to file reports and go to seemingly pointless meetings. The rate of development actually slowed down, even with more people.

If you want good people to do good work, take the reins off as much as you can. Let them do good work. Often, they will.

5. Ralph Waldo Emerson on books

“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Without looking at my journals or other lists, I can probably name about 100 books that I’ve read during my lifetime, which is a surprisingly small amount considering I’ve read more than 100 books in a year before.

Have I forgotten those books? I can’t recall the titles or the authors.

However, what I can recall are some of the ideas they gave me, some of the scenes that challenged and changed me, some of the trains of thoughts that those books placed me on.

I don’t remember the names of all of the books I’ve read. Without help, I don’t even remember the names of a majority of the books I’ve read – not even close.

However, most of those books changed my life in some way. They made me see things in a different way or just think differently about life. I’m a better person for having read them.

6. Writing with a fountain pen

A few months ago, I received a beautiful handwritten card from an old friend. The card used an orange red ink and the writing just flowed across the page in a way that gave an impression of real time and thoughtfulness. I emailed my friend and asked about it and he told me that he had used a fountain pen to do it.

For those of us born after about 1960, a fountain pen is a predecessor to the ballpoint pen, used for writing purposes. There are a number of mechanisms to fountain pens, but they all use an external ink source and draw some of that ink into the pen. The ink then flows down in a very thin trickle down to the tip (called the nib) and thus onto the page. It’s a bit archaic, but it has a few advantages, the biggest of which is that such pens work incredibly well for cursive and calligraphic writing. It’s perfect for things like handwritten cards for people, for instance.

My friend had used a TWSBI 580 fountain pen along with iroshizuku yu-yake ink, which just looked gorgeous.

Inspired by this, I requested a fountain pen as a gift for my birthday and received a Lamy Safari fountain pen, which is considered a very good entry-level fountain pen. I didn’t have a chance to use it immediately and set it aside until recently, when I had to write a number of thank you cards. I felt that it was a perfect time to bust out this fountain pen, and so I did.

What I found is that the pen itself encouraged me to write a little bit slower than before, but as I wrote the lines across the page, the pen flowed so incredibly smoothly. The curves weren’t bumpy as they often are with a ballpoint pen – they just flowed, which makes sense because of how the pen works.

While I wouldn’t suggest everyone go purchase a fountain pen, what I realized was that certain tools just work better for certain things. A fountain pen is clearly matched very well with cursive writing, for instance.

I wrote several cards with my Safari and I found myself thoroughly enjoying the experience and wanting to try other pens just to see how they worked and see how other inks looked on paper.

7. Mitch Albom on things left unsaid

“Nothing haunts us like the things we don’t say.” – Mitch Albom

When I look back at my life, there are very few things that I regret. Almost all of them fall strictly under the category of “things left unsaid.”

There are several people who have passed away that I never got the chance to say goodbye to, at least not in any proper way. In particular, my grandmother and my favorite uncle come to mind here.

I had one very close friend who I have been unable to contact for many years because of a willing lack of use of the internet and some extreme care with identities.

I never regret negative things that I left unsaid. Often, those negative feelings were far better left unsaid.

I regret the positive things left unsaid. I regret not telling people how much they meant to me.

Never leave those things unsaid. That person might not be there tomorrow and you’ll find the unsaid words leave a hole in your heart.

8. The Avett Brothers – Bring Your Love to Me

Never mind the beautiful song – it’s an Avett Brothers song, of course it’s beautiful, they’re probably my favorite musical group of the past ten years – but simply watch the video. The video is done using shadow puppetry, showing what kinds of things can be done with this simple art form. The puppetry is done by Hobey Ford.

I love this type of art. You can imagine similar things done hundreds or thousands of years ago, around a campfire in a village where the light is directed one way, and someone standing there making art for the gathered people.

This video is just a taste of that, along with a beautiful song.

9. Fyodor Dostoyevsky on lying to yourself

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

We want to be the heroes of our life’s stories, but often we’re not the heroes. Sometimes, we lie to ourselves a little bit in order to maintain that myth, but that myth doesn’t really get us anywhere at all.

It is far better to be honest with ourselves, to accept that sometimes we don’t do the right thing, that sometimes we are in fact the villain.

The best thing any of us can do is to wake up and try to be a little bit better than we were yesterday. If we believe ourselves to be the hero of the story, always making the right moves and never wronging others, only being wronged, then we can never become better.

We can only become worse.

And that is a truly sad outcome.

10. Pumpkins


We already have three small pumpkins that we have sitting on our front step. By the end of the month, those pumpkins will be joined by others, as well as a few gourds. It’s a tradition of decorating the home for the harvest season, a tradition dating back for many, many generations before my birth, likely back to my ancestors at the birth of civilization and agriculture.

The arrival of those pumpkins often comes with the end of summer. The nights begin to turn a bit cooler. Things like apple cider begin to seem a bit tastier. The long sleeved shirts are taken down from their summer hiding spots and moved into dresser drawers.

During this month, I’ll carve a few pumpkins with my children. We’ll make some pumpkin pies and some pumpkin smoothies and some pumpkin bread. We’ll decorate a beautiful jack-o-lantern, and I plan on doing some tricks with lighting them this year. Our children will select costumes for beggar’s night and the better ones will be handmade by a collective of parent and child.

And so the big beautiful cycle continues.

11. Kurt Vonnegut on pretending

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” ― Kurt Vonnegut

The internet makes it so easy to put on a disguise and express our true feelings underneath a cloak of anonymity. We no longer have to feel the negative or positive ramifications of our words, so it becomes easier to say things that we wouldn’t otherwise say if we were actually facing those ramifications.

In other words, we become our true selves. We no longer have society’s guidelines holding us back. Many people become something different than what they seem to be in their everyday life. Some become cruel. Some become kind. Some explore ideas that would be anathema in their daily lives.

I’m going to propose a challenge to you: when you’re under that garment of anonymity, why not try to pretend to be the best possible person? Try to be the person you wish everyone in the world could be, the type of person that your friends might see with incredulity if they saw those words and actions, particularly if they came from you.

What would the world be like if, when we put on a cloak of anonymity, we became the best possible people?

What would your world be like if it were only you that did that?

12. B. J. Miller on what really matters at the end of life

From the description:

At the end of our lives, what do we most wish for? For many, it’s simply comfort, respect, love. BJ Miller is a palliative care physician who thinks deeply about how to create a dignified, graceful end of life for his patients. Take the time to savor this moving talk, which asks big questions about how we think on death and honor life.

I watched this video twice, all the way through. Then I went downstairs and baked some cookies with my family. Watch this video, and you’ll understand why.

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