Inspiration from Claude Monet, Henry David Thoreau, 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. Claude Monet, Red Boats at Argenteuil (1875)

Whenever I look at a painting, I want it to make me feel something, whether it’s an emotional tug or a sense of awe or something else. A lot of paintings leave me feeling nothing at all, so it’s actually special when I get a feeling from a painting.

Monet’s paintings, of which this is a great example, consistently make me feel one thing. I have a feeling of the warmth and the fresh air of a late spring afternoon. I don’t know what it is about his paintings or why they evoke that sensation, but many of his paintings do just that.

As I gaze at this, I can almost feel a breeze on my cheek and the warmth of spring sunlight on the back of my neck. I can almost smell new growth in a garden. I can almost hear people moving about, talking amongst themselves and perhaps laughing, as you would expect on a warm late spring day. It comes to life.

It takes an exceptional ability for someone who has been gone for nearly a hundred years to transmit those sensations via paint on a canvas.

2. Bullet Journal

I made an offhand mention of bullet journals in a reader mailbag a few months ago, noting that I had experimented with it and wasn’t sure if I was going to stick with it. Over the last few months, though, I’ve had a huge rebound and now I use it basically every day.

For those unfamiliar, Bullet Journal simply refers to a free system for taking notes in any notebook you might have. It provides a pretty simple and very clever way of recording all of the various thoughts and materials that you might want to record over the course of a day or week or month.

It isn’t perfect, but the basics of the system has helped me to keep track of more of my thoughts than ever before. I am becoming a deep believer in the idea that most of our truly valuable thoughts bubble up to the surface in a moment and, if we don’t record them somehow, they fade away. Any system that makes that recording easier is something I’m interested in trying and this is a pretty good way of doing just that.

3. Susan Colantuono on the career advice you probably didn’t get

From the description:

You’re doing everything right at work, taking all the right advice, but you’re just not moving up. Why? Susan Colantuono shares a simple, surprising piece of advice you might not have heard before quite so plainly. This talk, while aimed at an audience of women, has universal takeaways — for men and women, new grads and midcareer workers.

The lesson here is a great one, I think, and it applies to everyone in leadership.

A good leader is usually defined as being made up of a ton of different traits, but Colantuono argues that just one trait stands above the others – business, financial, and strategic acumen – and everything else just supports it. In other words, the core of any leader is being able to come up with a plan that makes financial sense and then executing it. Everything else just differentiates between leaders. In other words, things like people skills, while useful, are secondary.

The leader is the person with the goal in mind and the plan to get there. When problems come up, people turn to that person to help guide them to the goal, and they do that naturally because someone stepped up to the plate with a plan. Everything else is simply an add-on to that core idea.

4. Walt Whitman, Beginning My Studies

Beginning my studies, the first step pleas’d me so much,
The mere fact, consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love;
The first step, I say, aw’d me and pleas’d me so much,
I have hardly gone, and hardly wish’d to go, any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time, to sing it in ecstatic songs.

I’ve discovered over the past several months that I deeply value those first few hours where you’re learning a new skill. That sequence of learning something new, trying it for the first time, tinkering with a few variations on it, then succeeding at your first real attempt at creating something or putting together a new idea.

It’s an invigorating feeling. I love it.

That process eventually leads to the “valley of death,” though, where you work and work and work at it and you don’t seem to improve much at all. For me, that’s where new interests often go to die.

Then I return to a fresh beginning and the joy of learning something new happens all over again.

5. Tweedy – Summer Moon

Tweedy consists of Jeff Tweedy, lead singer of the bands Uncle Tupelo and Wilco, and his son Spencer Tweedy. It’s a father-and-son project, in other words.

The joy of creating something new with your child is an incredible one. My favorite experiences as a parent have involved the process of making new things with my children, whether it’s art projects or giant LEGO cities that take over half of the living room or something else entirely.

The process of collaboration is beautiful on its own, but when you mix in a healthy parent-child dynamic, it becomes something entirely richer.

6. Henry David Thoreau on deliberate life

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

Our lives are sometimes insanely complex and chaotic, filled with endless distractions and demands on our time. In all of that noise and bustle, it’s hard to actually think sometimes. It is really easy to just follow along with whoever is yelling the loudest.

I don’t like that. It leaves me feeling pretty empty at the end of the day, particularly when those loudest voices start to lead me away from the things I know to be true.

My solution is to simplify and live as deliberately as possible so that I know the reasons behind the things I believe and the things I choose to do. Sure, it takes more time to do things. Sure, it often leaves me without taking a firm stand on whatever current event is hogging the spotlight (because I haven’t given the issue any deliberate thought).

In the end, though, I feel very sure about the small number of things that I hold to be true and that I truly value in my life. It’s a “simpler” life, perhaps, but it feels richer and deeper to me.

7. Exit

This short film is essentially a campfire story. An old British man with a stiff drink in his hand leans back in his chair and tells a tale. The way it unwinds, though, is brilliant.

This film would have been a wonderful segment on The Twilight Zone or something similar, but it manages to become even a little more than that. It’s not actually frightening at all – there’s nothing that jumps out of the shadows, nothing violent or terrifying.

Just a man telling a little tale.

I think I’m going to do something like this as a campfire story the next time I have the chance.

8. John F. Kennedy’s “moon” speech at Rice University, September 12, 1962

An excerpt:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

That sentence gives me shivers.

We chose to go to the moon, not because it was easy, but because it was hard. What are we choosing in society today that is hard? Do people ever consider new ideas, or do they just knock them down because they’re different and uncomfortable? Do we all work together on great things, or do we find farcical petty differences to keep us from working together when we agree on the vast majority of things?

We went there because a great goal organizes and measures the best of our energies and skills. What are we doing today, as a people, that organizes and measures the best of our energies and skills? We shout at each other from the rooftops. We make the words that describe the political beliefs of others, words like “conservative” and “liberal,” into slurs that demean the person’s entire worth. We find more and more differences by which to separate ourselves, giving us an excuse to avoid working together. We only work together on large goals when we’re paid to do so.

We need another space race. No, I’m not saying that we should try to send another man to the moon. We need some sort of enormous goal that will draw us all together again, working toward one big thing. We need a union of public and private interests, like NASA and the aeronautics industry in the sixties, heading toward a result we can all be proud of. More importantly, we need a journey where we learn countless things along the way.

Who will stand up for this? If someone will, I will happily follow.

9. Various Artists – God Only Knows

I’ve listened to the 1966 original more times than I can possibly count. It can still trigger a flood inside my head: sad, but somehow still lifted up and supported at the same time.

Somehow, I never really thought about this song as being sung by a bunch of different voices and how that could change the song. The right approach to a song – a different singer, for example, or a different tempo – can completely alter the mood and the meaning, like Johnny Cash covering Hurt, for example.

It works here. When I listen to that old Beach Boys song, I feel, as I said above, sad but somehow lifted up. When I listen to this newer version, it feels far different. It feels uplifting, as though people are truly praising something that has brought joy into their lives. What changed? The arrangement does a little bit, and there are obviously many different voices singing here. The song itself doesn’t really change much at all, but it feels completely different to me.

It’s that amazing shift that can happen when you change a few of the specifics. It’s true in life, too – a happy event can become a sad one (and vice versa) just by changing a detail or two.

10. Old pocket notebooks

While this video does have just a touch of promotion for the Field Notes brand of pocket notebooks (due to the person in the video being the cofounder of Field Notes), the focus of the video is on old pocket notebooks, particularly the kind that used to be distributed to farmers for free by seed companies as promotional material in the middle of the 20th century.

Why do I like this so much? For starters, I find pocket notebooks to be a wonderful thing. I always have one on me. More than that, I find the pocket notebooks that others have used, particularly those from the past, to be an amazing artifact of their lives. Pocket notebooks get filled up with so many incidental notes that you can begin to understand the things they thought about and how their lives went. Beyond that, these old pocket notebooks are just beautiful on their own.

An aside: I really do like Field Notes. They make a great sturdy pocket notebook. They’re a bit expensive, I think, but they work incredibly well. I love receiving them as a gift.

11. Seven Minute Workout

I’m not particularly sold on the “Seven Minute Workout” as a life changing tool for physical fitness. However, I am sold on it as a way to get your blood pumping and your mind moving when you’re in the middle of a workday.

I’ll often do this exact workout when I’m taking a break from writing, right here in front of my desk. It only takes seven minutes, but when I sit back down, I am breathing a bit faster and my blood is pumping.

Like magic, I find that I’m able to focus and produce work much more effectively after doing this. Lately, I’ve been doing it two or three times a day during break times.

Is it perfect. No. You’re not going to get into amazing shape with a seven minute workout. But it works for what I want out of it.

12. Nicholas Kristof on having a positive impact one person at a time

From the description:

You know this arose for me, this research arose when I was writing for my column for The New York Times about Darfur back in 2004. And I was going to villages that had been burned out, talking to people who were survivors of massacres and it was frustrating me that I couldn’t get people to pay more attention to this. Meanwhile at that very same time here in New York City there was a red tailed hawk called Pale Male that had been kicked out of its nest in Central Park and New York was all up in arms about this homeless hawk. And I thought how is it that I can’t generate as much passion about hundreds of thousands of people being slaughtered as people feel for this hawk.

Also, from the description:

And it turns out that our engagement with a cause – it’s not about numbers, it’s not about classes of victims. It’s really about two things. First if all its emotional and it’s with individuals that we have evolved, we are hardwired to feel a certain amount of empathy and connection but with one other person whom we see and we can relate to. Not with 100,000 people half a world away. And the other thing is that we want to feel like we’re having an impact so we want some kind of a positive arc. We want to see a different being made. And so when aid organizations talk about five million people at risk and make it sound terribly depressing, they’re precisely hitting the buttons that turn people off.

If you want to reach people and really make a difference, you need to break it down into small pieces. Big things, like saving a million dollars, often feel like something we can’t touch. Little things, like choosing to not buy a magazine at the checkout lane, is something small that we can control.

Yet it’s from those little things that big things grow up.

That’s why my focus is on today and the little actions I can take right now. The big vision often seems insurmountable, but the little choices seem like things I can easily take care of.

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