Inspiration from Yo-Yo Ma, Benjamin Franklin, Brene Brown, 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. Mark Epstein on talking to your past self

“It’s one of my theories that when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.” — Mark Epstein

I can certainly vouch for this. There are many, many posts on The Simple Dollar that are the result of me working through some financial (or other) issue in my life, trying out something, seeing if it works, and sharing the results. I’m writing it as much for myself as I am for anyone else.

That’s because, in the end, who else can I really advise? As a reader, all you can really do is take what I’ve found and shared and apply it to your own life if it fits. I can’t know whether it does or doesn’t fit – that’s up to you, and that’s a key part of all of this.

The best advice comes from someone who made a mistake, stepped back, figured out how to do things better, and moved forward. I think the best stuff I’ve shared on here follows that mold.

2. The Tables

From the description:

A look at the powerful connection between a pair of outdoor ping pong tables in the heart of New York City and the unlikely group of people they’ve brought together, from homeless people to investment bankers to gangbangers.

The Tables is a short documentary directed by Jon Bunning about a small community of people that developed around a couple of outdoor ping pong tables in a park in New York City.

This is a beautiful little film about how communities develop and grow and create a sense of belonging for people in those communities.

To me, finding a community like this for yourself, something that fills your time and brings you the joy of being engaged in something with like-minded people, is one of the most powerful things you can do in life. As long as that community is not consumer-oriented (meaning it’s not focused on the act of buying, or requires a constant purchase of new things), it’s also a great way to curb desires to constantly spend.

There are really few things better in life than walking into a room full of like-minded people who are all there for the same reason – some sort of shared interest or passion. You feel comfortable with being passionate about that thing in a way that you don’t get to in normal society without people looking at you oddly. You feel a quick natural bond with the other people there. They can quickly become friends.

Find your community. Start with Meetup if you don’t know where to go.

3. Robert Tew on self-respect

“Respect yourself enough to walk away from anything that no longer serves you, grows you, or makes you happy.” – Robert Tew

This is a quote I’ve tussled with in the past. On one level, it seems to indicate that you should just walk away from responsibilities if you decide you don’t want the burden any more. Walk away from parenting? From a loving marriage? What value is there in that?

The more I look at it, though, the more I see something different. I see a call to change things in your life that you’re unhappy with rather than just tolerating them. That doesn’t mean ending your marriage, but it does mean finding a different approach if it’s not going in a healthy direction. That doesn’t mean walking away from your kids, but it does mean trying to find new ways to be a good parent.

If you’re unhappy with some aspect of your life, find a new way to navigate that part of your life.

4. Sam Maher – New York Handpan 01

From the description:

It’s a Terratonz Handpan; or called a Terrapan. Scale: C, Aeolian. – Notes: (C#)-G#-A-B-C#-D#-E-F#-G#.

A handpan is a kind of percussion instrument that you play with your hand that can produce a wide variety of tones via gentle tapping. I had the chance to play around with one a year or two ago and I found that they’re surprisingly loud and surprisingly easy to approach, though making anything other than a very basic tapping rhythm takes skill. I found that I was drawn to playing around with it but anything beyond a very very basic rhythm sounded really awful. Skill and talent are the differences.

I really enjoy hearing people busking for dollars or pocket change. I’ll almost always throw a dollar in the jar for someone playing an instrument on the street somewhere because they just add a certain flavor to the moment.

This guy? I’d definitely drop a dollar or two in his jar if I heard him playing somewhere. That’s just amazing.

5. E.O. Wilson on humanity’s problem

“The real problem of humanity … we have Palaeolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and godlike technology.” — E. O. Wilson

This, I think, sums up some of the modern difficulties that humankind is having.

Our emotions were developed during an era in which lifespans were short and civilization was nonexistent as humans were small tribe hunter-gatherers. We apply those emotions today in a world where lifespans are much longer, most humans live in cities, and we do things that have profound and lasting impact on our environment.

All around us, technology is accelerating while our emotions remain in those ancient days on the steppe. Is it no wonder that so many people are unhappy? Is it no wonder that so many people are angry? We’re not emotionally prepared for much of what the modern world is like.

6. Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin

I love the beginning of this book:

The imaginary horizontal lines that circle the earth make sense. Our equator is 0°, the North and South Poles are 90°. Latitude’s order is airtight with clear and elegant motives. The earth has a top and a bottom. Longitude is another story. There isn’t a left and right to earth. Any line could have been called 0°. But Greenwich got first dibs on the prime meridian and as a result the world set clocks and ships by a British resort town that lies outside London.

It was an arbitrary choice that became the basis for precision. My father knew a family named Wolfawitz who wanted to go on vacation but didn’t know where.

It hit them. Take a two-week road trip driving to as many towns, parks, and counties as they could that contained their last name: Wolfpoint, Wolfville, Wolf Lake, etc.

They read up and found things to do on the way to these other Wolf spots: a hotel in a railroad car, an Alpine slide, a pretzel factory, etc.

The Wolfawitzes ended up seeing more than they planned. Lots of unexpected things popped up along the route.

When they came back from vacation, they felt really good. It was easily the best vacation of their lives, and they wondered why.

My father says it was because the Wolfawitzes stopped trying to accomplish anything. They just put a carrot in front of them and decided the carrot wasn’t that important but chasing it was.

The story of the Wolfawitzes’ vacation was told hundreds of times to hundreds of customers in the small restaurant that my mom and dad ran in Greenwich Village. Each time it was told, my dad would conclude that the vacation changed the Wolfawitzes’ whole life, and this was how they were going to live from now on — chasing a very, very small carrot.

The carrot wasn’t that important, but chasing it was. I can’t think of a better way to describe my feelings toward goals. It’s the journey that matters, not the destination. Set a big goal for yourself and you’re going to change some things in your life, and it’s those things that change that matter, not the big goal itself. Change enough things and the goal just becomes a matter of course.

7. Benjamin Franklin on persuasion

“If you want to persuade, appeal to interest, not to reason.” – Benjamin Franklin

Logical arguments work well internally, when you sit down and think things through on your own. They have a great role to play in books, where open-minded people are devoting time to understanding an argument.

They don’t work so well in the real world where you’re interacting with people in real time. People are giant balls of emotion, and it is through tapping into that emotion that you’re really able to persuade people.

This is actually a big part of how I write articles that are intended to persuade people to take better financial charge of their lives. I usually strive to hit a few emotional chords in the article that hopefully will hit home with people so that they can feel what I’m talking about, not just think it. (I do both, of course.)

8. Stephen Colbert connects Chance the Rapper, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Lord of the Rings

‘The Late Show’ host Stephen Colbert breaks down how Chance the Rapper’s “Favorite Song” feat. Childish Gambino are connected to J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”.

Why did I enjoy this so much? It’s about finding patterns, something I’m going to touch on again before the end of this article.

I enjoyed this because it demonstrated deep connections between 19th century stage musicals, 20th century literature, and 21st century rap. It’s that type of connection of ideas across a wide variety of areas that is the source of a lot of great ideas and connections that not only enhance appreciation of the individual works and the connection, but often spur one’s own ideas that riff on that connection.

These kinds of connections are one of the sublime joys in my life.

9. Yo-Yo Ma: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

From the description:

Why did Laurence Olivier return so often to Shakespeare’s Othello? Why did Ansel Adams keep photographing the Grand Canyon? Obsessed or awestruck, artists revisit great inspirations because they believe there is yet another story to tell – about life, about themselves.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma brought his great inspiration, and in turn part of his own life story, to an enthusiastic audience packed around the Tiny Desk on a hot summer day. Ma is returning, yet again, to the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach, a Mount Everest for any cellist. He has just released his third studio recording of the complete set and is taking the music on a two-year, six-continent tour. Ma’s first recording of the Suites, released in 1983, earned him his first Grammy.

Ma has played the music for 58 years and along the way it’s become something of a practical guide to living, pulling him through hardships and celebrating times of joy. “It’s like forensic musicology,” Ma told the Tiny Desk audience. “Embedded in the way I play is actually, in many ways, everything I’ve experienced.”

The undulating “Prelude” from the Suite No. 1 was the very first music Ma ever played. He was four years old. The soulful “Sarabande” from the Sixth Suite has served dual purposes, Ma explained. “I’ve played this piece both at friends’ weddings, and unfortunately also at their memorial services.” And the exuberant “Gigue,” from the Third Suite, with its toe-tapping beat, reminds us that Bach was far from a stuffed wig. Such is this sturdy, versatile and benevolent music, offering a full range of the human condition.

And then there is Ma. Certainly one of the most brilliant cellists of modern times, he’s also a thoughtful, curious humanitarian, with an endless thirst to understand, celebrate, and connect disparate cultures of the world.

He’s also a true mensch. As soon as he arrived at our office to play, Ma unpacked his cello – a famed 1712 Stradivarius – and immediately handed it over, with his bow, and said, “Here play something.” It didn’t matter that I’d never held a cello. It was just another one of Yo-Yo Ma’s warm and welcoming gestures, another way to open up music to anyone and everyone.

This is amazing to listen to, both the music and the life lessons in between the performances.

10. Brene Brown on the Photoshop era

“It’s in our biology to trust what we see with our eyes. This makes living in a carefully edited, overproduced, and Photoshopped world very dangerous.” – Brene Brown

What we see isn’t the full picture. It’s often a mix of what we want to see and what the people showing us things want us to see. Usually, the other people want to show us things that make them appear good, while we have our own self-doubts. That’s not a good mix.

Don’t believe every detail of breaking news. Don’t believe the interpretations of that breaking news from talking heads. Unless you have to make a meaningful decision based on that news, wait until the facts all come out and cooler heads prevail.

Don’t believe that the lives of people you see on social media or reality television are the glossy perfection that they’re showing you. Those pictures are no different than a Penn and Teller stage act.

Rather, believe in yourself. Learn real, meaningful things that can actually change your mind. Make your life as good as you can.

11. The Algorithmic Trap

This is an article by David Perell about the idea that vacation planning today is often done by algorithm, where people select the well-lauded experiences using tools like Trip Advisor and thus miss out on quirky and serendipitous moments that are the magic of traveling to a new place.

One sentence stood out to me:

Algorithms are great at giving you something you like, but terrible at giving you something you love. Worse, by promoting familiarity, algorithms punish culture.

People use algorithms as a time saver to find good experiences, because algorithms are great at finding things that other people have given high ratings to. However, things other people have given high ratings to rarely translate into things that you love. They just translate into things that are pleasant.

Our family had a restaurant in our area that we loved. It was in a weird location, a bit out of the way of the usual places where people went looking for food. When we’d go there, there would always be a few people in there, but it was never packed. It never had a ton of ratings on Trip Advisor and thus never made it onto their lists of top eateries in the area. Sadly, it closed up shop about a year ago.

How do you find such places you love when traveling? I don’t know, but I do know that they’re generally not found by looking at Yelp or Trip Advisor lists. The best way I’ve found really great things is by talking to locals that I’m friendly with. Those have produced some of my best travel experiences, like the weird brewpub/restaurant that Sarah and I found on our tenth anniversary getaway together that, again, doesn’t even seem to be in business any more, but exists fondly in both of our memories.

12. Aaron Swartz on curiosity

“Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. What people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.” – Aaron Swartz

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the best ideas I’ve ever had were ones where I was able to take one element I learned in one environment, another element I learned in another environment, and perhaps a third or a fourth or a fifth, all from different places, and combine them into one overarching idea. Those combined ideas were powerful and often led to a personal or professional or financial breakthrough for me.

Those ideas were only able to be born because I am a lifetime learner. I am constantly reading and learning and absorbing new things from all sorts of different topics and sources. Reading a book is great, but being able to integrate it into ideas from many other books on many other subjects is so much better.

Be curious. Learn about things. Try new things. See how things fit together. You will fail a lot, but at the same time, you will be constantly rewarded in doing so.

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