Inspiration from Terry Pratchett, Rhiannon Giddens, Stephen Jay Gould, and More!

Once a month (or so), I’ll 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. Sir Terry Pratchett on the impact of a person

“No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.” – Sir Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett’s books entertained me for endless hours over the last two decades. He was the author of a humorous fantasy series called Discworld, where he used the tropes of a fantasy world to often comment on things in the real world in a very funny yet insightful way. He’s written many other books, too, including the great sci-fi series The Long Earth.

He passed away this week. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s over the past few years, but had been confronting the disease in at least some degree of a public light, giving that terrible ailment a very human face. Many of his fans – myself included – had wished that Terry would find a way to handle Alzheimer’s, but it was not meant to be.

I will miss him greatly. There won’t be any more new Discworld novels, which used to come out every year or two, nor any more of the Long Earth novels or any of the other surprises that used to come out every once in a while. His wit and fun writing style mixed with great commentary on our world will truly be missed.

2. Documentary Heaven

This is a website that collects videos – and links to videos – of documentaries that can be found for free online. In other words, it’s a treasure trove for me.

Some of my favorite films of all time are documentaries. Hoop Dreams. Man on Wire. Exit Through the Gift Shop. 28 Up. A great documentary has all of the dramatic impact of any other film, but at the same time manages to provide some direct insight into the real world with information and ideas you can take home with you.

The only minor challenge with Documentary Heaven is that sometimes documentaries disappear from the site, usually because the original documentary maker removes the documentary from Youtube or whatever video service they’re using. This can be frustrating – and it’s why I haven’t made any links directly to specific videos on there.

3. Rhiannon Giddens – Shake Sugaree

Lately, I’ve been listening to the music of Rhiannon Giddens for hours on end. She’s a folk music singer with a voice that just repeatedly reaches out of the speakers and touches my heart and mind.

It’s not that her voice is technically perfect, but that there’s something so emotionally resonant in how she sings that I almost can’t help but pay attention to her. Technical singing skill is impressive, but it’s not the only important part in singing. A technically perfect voice can sometimes not carry any emotion at all, while sometimes faltering and cracking conveys so much more meaning than technical perfection can ever bring to the table.

This is just one example of her music. I was looking for a single song to show as an example and I found myself listening to this one over and over again. In fact, I’m listening to it on a loop as I write these words.

4. Ibn Taymiyyah on self-reliance

“Don’t depend too much on anyone in this world because even your own shadow leaves you when you are in darkness.” – Ibn Taymiyyah

As valuable and wonderful as it is to have people around you who love you and care for you, they still cannot help during those moments when you are alone. They cannot help with the things you feel in your heart and think in your head.

The most important thing that a person can ever have is a sense of comfort in their own skin. That leads to an ability to be joyful even in solitude.

Be happy with yourself and it becomes much easier to be happy with the whole world. Be unhappy with yourself and the world around you becomes a much more miserable place to be.

Beyond that, learn to trust yourself in every possible situation. The best way I’ve found to do that is to learn lots of basic skills in lots of different areas of life. That way, you’re never lacking confidence no matter what life throws at you. You can handle it – you don’t need others to survive.

Self-reliance is a beautiful and powerful thing. It makes the whole world seem different, whether you’re surrounded by people or in complete solitude.

5. A Soft Murmur

I have suffered from tinnitus since I was a teenager. If you don’t know what that’s like, imagine that there is always a rushing sound in your ear. To me, it sounds like a strong ocean wave that never fully breaks.

Sometimes, that noise is so quiet that I can’t even really hear it. At other times, particularly when I’m tired or in a really quiet room, it can be incredibly loud. It never fully goes away, though.

This becomes tricky when you have to work in a solitary environment. Conversation is one of the most useful ways to make the noise quieter and so when you’re alone, it’s very easy for that noise to get really loud.

The solution is ambient noise – things that aren’t predictable and rhythmic. That’s basically exactly what this website provides. You go there, hit the play button, and you get an audio stream that works really well for keeping that background tinnitus in check without distracting you from work tasks.

I’ve been using it a lot lately and it’s been very helpful to me.

6. James A. White Sr. on the little problem I had renting a house

From the description:

Fifty-three years ago, James A. White Sr. joined the US Air Force. But as an African American man, he had to go to shocking lengths to find a place for his young family to live nearby. He tells this powerful story about the lived experience of “everyday racism” — and how it echoes today in the way he’s had to teach his grandchildren to interact with police.

It is really easy, when you’ve found success in your life, to look at the lives of others through your lens of success. If something was easy for me, it ought to be easy for you, right?

That’s just not true. For starters, we’re all made up a little bit differently. Some people can speak confidently in many situations while others cannot. Some people avoid conflict while others practically relish it.

There’s also the factor of your outward appearance. How you look, from the color of your skin to the expression on your face, changes how other people deal with you.

The end result of all of that is that each of us ends up facing completely different challenges in life, often due to things completely outside of our control. I’ve never had a problem renting an apartment or buying a house, but clearly others have, for what amounts to superficial differences. I consider that to be a real tragedy.

7. Stephen Jay Gould on lost human ingenuity

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” – Stephen Jay Gould

It is almost a guarantee that the smartest person who ever lived died in complete obscurity after working as a slave or some other common laborer. That person, in the right environment, could have done things that would have changed the world, but that opportunity never came to them.

There are hordes of brilliant people who never had the opportunity to share what they could do with the world, and that’s a tragedy for the whole of the human race.

The best thing we can do as a species is to provide true opportunity for as many people as possible. If we can open the door for the most brilliant people in the world, whoever and wherever they are, to have their gifts recognized and cultivated, we all benefit.

One of the questions I’ve begun to ask myself lately is what I can do with my life to increase those opportunities for people who may not ever have the chance to spread their wings otherwise. I haven’t really figured out an answer yet, but that opportunity question is one that’s heavy on my mind.

8. A great debate on Western parenting styles

From the description:

Why are there so many Chinese maths and music prodigies? Because Chinese mothers believe schoolwork and music practice come first, that an A-minus is a bad grade, that sleepovers, TV and computer games should never be allowed and that the only activities their children should be permitted to do are ones in which they can eventually win a medal — and that medal must be gold.

These methods certainly seem to get results, so perhaps western parents should start being more pushy with their children. But is it defensible to cajole and bully one’s offspring to success? Isn’t it better to be raising happy, rounded individuals rather than burnt-out brainboxes? Who’s right and who’s wrong?

In this debate from 2011, Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, takes on Justine Roberts, co-founder of Mumsnet, the phenomenally successful parenting website.

I loved this debate and found it very thought-provoking. The issue of how to parent today is a difficult one and these two women present some compelling views.

Sarah and I come down somewhere in the middle here. We don’t necessarily push our children to succeed right now. They don’t have to be number one in everything. Instead, we’re much more concerned with their ability to solve problems that are directed at them.

Take piano playing, for example. I would far rather my child spend an hour learning the fundamentals of composition and how to read a variety of sheet music and how to improvise and things like that rather than have that child spend an hour in rote memorization and perfection of a specific piece.

When my children work on math, I’m glad that they do work on how to solve structured problems and do memorize their multiplication tables, but I’m far more interested in their ability to solve story problems and translate a real-world scenario into a mathematical solution.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m more interested in their work ethic than the results and I’m more interested in their ability to problem solve than their ability to repeat things they’ve memorized. So, I don’t really match up well with the “success at a young age” parent.

On the other hand, I do expect work ethic and commitment from my children, which doesn’t match up with the other parent. So, I feel like we come in somewhere in the middle of the two.

9. George Bernard Shaw on how a person changes

“The only man who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew every time he sees me, while all the rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.” — George Bernard Shaw

With even our closest friends, we have to rely on a picture of them that’s been built up over the years. That picture sometimes doesn’t reflect the person that stands before us right now.

How can you avoid that? Listen. Pay attention. Recognize that the other person might have changed over time. Don’t get so hung up on details that you miss the big picture.

My closest friends in the world are friends that I have known for a very long time. They’re different people than when I first met them. Sometimes, that’s hard to see, but I’m glad when I do see it. It’s kind of like having a mix of an old friend and a new friend all at the same time.

Yes, there are absolutely moments where I recognize that some of my oldest friends and acquaintances look at me and see the person that I was five or ten or fifteen years ago. That’s okay. It just means that I need to spend some time introducing the person that I am today.

10. A flower in a spring field

Over the last week, spring has arrived in central Iowa. Temperatures went from the 30s and 40s to the 60s and 70s. All of the snow melted. We went from wearing winter coats to wearing short sleeves.

In the last day or two, the first glimpses of green have started to appear. A few blades of grass are emerging on the hillside near our home and soon the ground will be green with fresh growth, dotted here and there with a few flowers.

The earth coming alive again after a long, cold winter is one of the most beautiful things that there is.

Many thanks to Fabrizio Sciami for this amazing image.

11. Edward Snowden on privacy and parenting

“A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought. And that’s a problem because privacy matters; privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.” – Edward Snowden

This saddens me greatly.

One of my main goals as a parent is to make sure that my children have as much privacy as possible while growing up. I want them to make mistakes and learn from them without real consequences beyond what we set for them. I want them to explore difficult ideas without having painful social consequences of sharing their thoughts on those ideas.

I know that as they get older, those things are going to become more and more challenging, particularly as they begin to use texting and other forms of media to communicate with their friends and peers. While I don’t want to just blindly restrict them from those things, I do see the problems with them.

The ability to communicate with each other so effortlessly and easily is a powerful thing, but it isn’t consequence free. We lose a large piece of our privacy and, if used too much, we lose some of the skill that is required to enjoy being alone. Both of those are real losses, and I sometimes wonder if the tradeoff is worth it.

Privacy in the modern world is something that’s very easy to forget about, but it’s something we should never lose. We all need the capacity to explore ideas and make small mistakes without them being exposed to the world and held against us later on in our lives. That’s valuable, and it needs to always exist.

12. Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah

Recently, I sang a couple verses of this (slightly edited) and the chorus of it to my children as a bedtime song. I didn’t really know if they liked it or not. One of the three of them fell asleep while I was singing, while the other two really didn’t say anything at all.

The next night, my daughter – the middle child – wanted to hear the song about church. I didn’t know at all what she meant, so I tried to think of a church hymn that she might know. She kept telling me that the various hymns I suggested were wrong. I asked her if she could sing it and she didn’t say anything for a while, then broke out in a rendition of this chorus that almost brought me to tears.

I have long used popular songs that I’ve known as bedtime songs for my children, singing them a capella or, on occasion, with very simple accompaniment in the form of hand claps or something similar. I’m always fascinated by which ones click with them (like this one or Heart of Gold) and which ones did not.

Anyway, there was something about the voice of a child mixed with the emotions of this song that almost dropped me to my knees. I really think that Leonard Cohen would approve.

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