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. Starry Night – Vincent van Gogh
This has always been one of my favorite paintings. For years, I kept a poster of it on my bedroom wall above my bed so that I could gaze at it each night before I fell asleep. Something about Van Gogh’s style speaks to me in a very deep way, a way that really can’t be described in words.
So, why am I including this now?
Recently, my son brought home an art book that he checked out from the library. In it were beautiful prints of various paintings. He’s browsed through the book a lot over the last week or so.
Yesterday, I asked him what his favorite one was. He thought about it for a second, then started browsing through the pages until he found this one. Starry Night – the very same painting that I’ve adored for many years.
Even more interesting than that was the fact that he pulled out several other paintings that I love, such as Bedroom at Arles. These choices were completely independent of me – I simply asked him to show me which ones he really liked.
I never realized that art appreciation could be such a tool for father-son bonding.
2. Duties of American Citizenship – Theodore Roosevelt
A key excerpt:
Of course, in one sense, the first essential for a man’s being a good citizen is his possession of the home virtues of which we think when we call a man by the emphatic adjective of manly. No man can be a good citizen who is not a good husband and a good father, who is not honest in his dealings with other men and women, faithful to his friends and fearless in the presence of his foes, who has not got a sound heart, a sound mind, and a sound body; exactly as no amount of attention to civil duties will save a nation if the domestic life is undermined, or there is lack of the rude military virtues which alone can assure a country’s position in the world. In a free republic the ideal citizen must be one willing and able to take arms for the defense of the flag, exactly as the ideal citizen must be the father of many healthy children. A race must be strong and vigorous; it must be a race of good fighters and good breeders, else its wisdom will come to naught and its virtue be ineffective; and no sweetness and delicacy, no love for and appreciation of beauty in art or literature, no capacity for building up material prosperity can possibly atone for the lack of the great virile virtues.
But this is aside from my subject, for what I wish to talk of is the attitude of the American citizen in civic life. It ought to be axiomatic in this country that every man must devote a reasonable share of his time to doing his duty in the Political life of the community. No man has a right to shirk his political duties under whatever plea of pleasure or business; and while such shirking may be pardoned in those of small cleans it is entirely unpardonable in those among whom it is most common–in the people whose circumstances give them freedom in the struggle for life. In so far as the community grows to think rightly, it will likewise grow to regard the young man of means who shirks his duty to the State in time of peace as being only one degree worse than the man who thus shirks it in time of war. A great many of our men in business, or of our young men who are bent on enjoying life (as they have a perfect right to do if only they do not sacrifice other things to enjoyment), rather plume themselves upon being good citizens if they even vote; yet voting is the very least of their duties, Nothing worth gaining is ever gained without effort. You can no more have freedom without striving and suffering for it than you can win success as a banker or a lawyer without labor and effort, without self-denial in youth and the display of a ready and alert intelligence in middle age. The people who say that they have not time to attend to politics are simply saying that they are unfit to live in a free community.
For all of the benefits we receive from being Americans, not too much is really expected of us. Sure, we pay our taxes, but our tax dollars alone do not equate to the value we get from being an American citizen.
Roosevelt’s point here is that we owe it to the community to be involved politically. That doesn’t mean you need to be a politician, but it does mean that you are obligated to vote and that you have an idea of what you’re actually voting for. When you choose not to play that part, you essentially shirk your responsibility. You give it to someone else and thus forfeit your right to be unhappy with how things happen.
Yes, politics can be a corrupt game. Yes, it can be boring and tedious to follow along. Yes, it can be tempting to just root for “team red” or “team blue” and vote a straight ticket without really thinking about it. All of those things are failures.
3. Live and Die – The Avett Brothers
I have this long, long playlist of music by The Avett Brothers that I often listen to when I’m working. Most of the time, that music just flows into the background of whatever I’m doing.
Every once in a while, though, something will pull me out of my focus and almost force me to listen. It’s almost like the music is trying to tell me something and my subconsciousness is picking up on it, even if my conscious mind isn’t.
This song seems to do that frequently for me. I’ll be happily typing along and then Live and Die will start playing and I will just stop. Something about it just pulls me out and makes me pay attention.
4. Bill Watterson on stargazing
“If people looked at the stars each night, they’d live a lot differently. When you look into infinity, you realize that there are more important things than what people do all day.” – Bill Watterson
The universe is an amazingly beautiful place. When you look up at the sky at night, you cannot see the end of it. There is no limit. There are just stars floating around on an infinite sea of blackness.
All of the things that we fill our days with are tiny compared to that vastness. We are so tiny.
The only way to make ourselves feel bigger is to find ways to fill our hearts with genuine lasting joy and, in my experience, the only way to find that is to do the things you love as deeply as possible. Stop worrying about what other people do or think. Do the things that mean something to you.
Everyone who has read The Simple Dollar for very long knows I’m a big advocate for trying new things. The world is full of things to do that don’t cost anything at all, so why not try as many of them as you possibly can? At best, you’ll find a new passion. At worst, you simply tried something new that you might be able to talk about later in a conversation and you had an interesting afternoon. If that’s the worst case scenario, then you’re doing pretty good.
At the same time, I’m a parent. I’m constantly seeking things to do with my children, preferably that fall in line with the above ideas. I want new and interesting things to do with them that don’t cost much (or don’t cost anything at all) while exposing them to new experiences that might launch a passion for them (or even for me).
That’s pretty much exactly what DIY.org is. It’s basically an organized collection of activities that encourages kids (and parents) to try out new things. There’s a huge collection of options there and there’s a badge system in place to encourage you to try new things.
We just started digging into this as a family and it’s been quite fun so far. My oldest child, who’s nine, can handle a lot of the activities on his own, but not all of them. My younger children need some help. We’re considering signing them up for the full badge program as a Christmas gift if they keep up with their interest.
If you’re looking for lots of interesting things for your children to do so that they’re exposed to new activities and ideas without going out and spending a lot of cash, you should really check out DIY.org.
This video is equally amazing and haunting. The robots depicted here are doing tasks that humans would have been doing not very long ago at all. They’re finding items in a warehouse and automatically moving them to where they need to be. They keep everything organized. Most shocking of all, they do it for a cost that’s far less than an equivalent human worker.
On the one hand, that’s terrifying for the future of blue collar jobs. After watching this video, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine similar machines doing a lot of entry-level jobs, which then puts a lot of blue collar workers out of a job.
On the other hand, it forces you to ask yourself a vital question: what value do I offer beyond what that robot offers? What can I provide that is more valuable than simply fulfilling repetitive tasks?
That’s a question everyone should be asking themselves right now. The competition isn’t immigrants and it isn’t other workers. It’s machines, which over the course of years are far less expensive than workers at doing these kinds of simple tasks like picking items in a warehouse (or, in the near future, making burgers at a fast food restaurant and so on).
It’s a question that might scare you, but it should motivate you to improve yourself. It motivates and inspires me to work on things that no robot could replicate (at least, not without a giant leap in artificial intelligence).
7. Rainer Strack on the workforce crisis of 2030
At the same time, there’s a lot of evidence that there will be more jobs in the future. It’s just that these jobs will require specialized skills. The speaker here, Rainer Strack, points out one big motivator for that job boom – a boom in the elderly who are no longer working. They’ll still need services and goods, but they won’t be in the workplace any more.
In other words, if you have useful skills, there will be plenty of jobs for you. If you don’t bother to acquire those skills, your job possibilities are going to slip away. That’s not a fate that you want.
These two videos, in tandem, make me interested in what’s coming. As more and more “basic skills” are taken care of, what kinds of things will we build on top of them? I’m glad I’ll be around for at least the next few decades to find out, and I’m inspired to work on my own transferable skills so that I’m ready for whatever may come.
The “final version” algorithm is a tool for managing your to-do list that I’ve found really useful lately. More and more, I’ve been moving back to keeping my to-do lists on paper, so this works really well with it.
Let’s say you have a to-do list in front of you. Put a dot in front of the first actionable task on that list – the thing you can actually take action on. Then, go through each item after that on the list and ask yourself whether you want to do this item before that item with the dot beside it. If you do, then put a dot before that item. Keep going down the list, but always compare the item you’re looking at now with the last item above it with a dot beside it.
When you’re done, you’ll have a few items with dots beside them. Your next task should be the bottom item with a dot beside it. When you’re done with that, cross it off. Your next task then becomes the remaining bottom item with a dot beside it. When there are no more items with dots beside them, start over again adding dots.
I have no problem making long to-do lists of straightforward actions for me to take, but I’ve always struggled with figuring out which one to do next. This is a simple way of pointing at the best – or one of the best – options very quickly. I’ve been using it for about a week and a half and it’s worked really well.
Sick Science! is a video series produced by Steve Spangler. Each one illustrates an interesting scientific principle in a very clear way, but most importantly, you can do all of these at home. Here’s an example:
What I love about these videos is that they show something simple enough that I can do it with my children at home in the kitchen or the garage, but each one ends with a great prompt to talk about the actual scientific principle behind it.
My favorite ones are the ones that I can present as a puzzle or a brain teaser for my children to solve. How can you balance twelve nails on the head of one nail? How can you fill an upside-down cup with water? How can you make a flag seem to disappear? Figuring the answers out together is a lot of fun.
I absolutely love doing these at home, but if I were an upper elementary (or junior high) science teacher, I would be using these over and over and over again in the classroom. These are just fun, plus they set the stage for learning so much about the physical world around us.
10. Marcus Aurelius on your mind
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Never, ever fall into the trap of expecting outside events to solve all of your problems. The only way to solve most of your problems is within yourself.
You always have the choice to fight for what you want or to give up and let it be taken from you. You always have the choice to wallow in sorrow or to stand up and walk again.
Time and time again in my life, I’ve seen people give up. I’ve seen people simply choose not to work for the things that they dream of. I’ve seen people walk away from all kinds of opportunities because they believed they couldn’t do it.
When you do that, it’s not the events of the outside world pulling you away from the things you’re dreaming of. It’s you.
That choice is yours. No one can take it from you but you.
11. Fosbury flop
This video describes how Dick Fosbury, a relatively unremarkable track and field athlete in the mid-1960s, started tinkering with the standard technique for high jumping, trying things that were completely different than how it had been done up to that point. His experimenting worked, as he developed a seemingly awkward way of jumping that actually takes advantage of the physics of the human body to get some extra height due to putting the center of mass outside of the body and below the bar even as the jumper goes over the bar.
This is inspiring not just because of the physical achievement, but because Fosbury tried a completely different approach to what seemed like a normal way of doing things. Rather than just following the same methods, he tried something completely different.
His result? He won the gold medal for the high jump at the 1968 Summer Olympics using his technique, while everyone else used older techniques.
Why not try a different way of living your own life? Spend today doing things in a different way and see if anything really useful comes of it. You might just be surprised.
12. Hemingway on the light
“We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in.” – Ernest Hemingway
No one is perfect, no matter how you might perceive them.
Eventually, the things we build in our life will crumble. Our loved ones will pass away. Our projects will fall to dust or move in unwanted directions. Our health and our mind will not be as sharp as they once were.
As painful as those things are, there is beauty in them. Every failure is a doorway to something new if we simply see the light that comes in through the cracks.
This website, The Simple Dollar, was built out of the shattered remnants of my own financial failures. Without that near-bankruptcy, this site would have never existed.
My relationship with Sarah was able to blossom because of the painful departure of other people. It seemed incredibly awful at the time, but it opened the door to something beautiful.
I have a mass of scars behind my left ear, several on my torso, a number on my hands, some on my feet, and in other places, too. They mark me as imperfect, but without them, I would not be standing here today.
Imperfections don’t make you less of a person. They make you more of a person.