Inspiration from E.B. White, C.S. Lewis,The Avett Brothers, 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. E.B. White on enjoying life versus improving life

“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” – E.B. White

That quote is spot-on accurate, and it also is true when you turn it inward. Often, we have a stark choice between improving ourselves and enjoying ourselves, too, and it’s rare to be able to do both.

We go to work to improve our financial state and, sometimes, ourselves, but it’s not that often that we actually enjoy ourselves in the process. On the other hand, most of the leisure we take on in our lives does a great job of helping us enjoy the world… but it doesn’t do much at all to improve the world.

To make things even harder, it’s often true that if you commit yourself to more effort to improving yourself and improving the world, you often discover that there’s much more to enjoy in the world and that you have more energy and ability to enjoy all of it. Yet, that means less enjoyment time in the now. Think of studying to try to earn an A in a class, for example, or spending several hours cleaning up a park in your neighborhood.

This, to me, is one of the real challenges of modern life. How do you balance improving the world/yourself with enjoying the world/yourself? If you give too much to enjoying the world/yourself, you sacrifice the ability to do so in the future as you’re not giving ample time and energy to building a better world, building skills, or building a career. On the other hand, if you give too much to improving the world/yourself, you’re not enjoying life.

White really expresses the challenge of that balance well. Every morning, when we roll out of bed, we have to choose between those things, and it’s never easy.

2. Omnifocus

After reading about my trials and tribulations with various free to-do list software packages, an extremely kind reader purchased a copy of this brilliant piece of software for me. The standard version is a $40 expense, and it’s another $40 if you want a mobile version, so it’s not something that had ever been on my radar up to this point. I focused on free solutions to this problem instead.

Now I wish I hadn’t.

Omnifocus is far and away the best to-do list manager on the market, at least for my needs. It absolutely nails everything I want to do – project creation, subtasks, flexible views, and so on.

The only caveat is the price… but here’s the catch. Most of the other to-do list services I’ve used – namely Todoist and Remember the Milk – have a “pro” mode that does cost money, and to have a feature set that’s anywhere close to Omnifocus (and still doesn’t match it), you have to pay for a year’s worth of their “pro” mode. A couple of years of that and you might as well have purchased Omnifocus.

Freemium software can be really good, but sometimes the best solution is to just pay for what you need. On the other hand, sometimes paid software doesn’t really match your needs to begin with, which is why it’s usually a good idea to give highly rated software a spin if they offer a trial version. I didn’t do that with Omnifocus because I didn’t want to pay the cost. Now that I realize that other options often had a higher long-term cost for their full versions, I regret not jumping on board sooner.

3. Harbhajan Singh Khalsa on the behavior of others

“If you are willing at look at another person’s behavior toward you as a reflection of the state of their relationship with themselves rather than a statement about your value as a person, then you will, over a period of time cease to react at all.” – Harbhajan Singh Khalsa

I think we’ve all experienced it. You’re out and about and someone is needlessly negative toward you. Someone yells at you. Someone is critical of you out of the blue.

That kind of thing can sting. Sometimes it makes you angry. Sometimes it really hurts. Sometimes the comment digs deep and stays with you for a while.

Don’t let that happen.

The truth of the matter is that an angry person on the street is often angry at something that has nothing to do with you and is just looking for a target to blow off steam, and so they turn something completely unnecessary into an angry moment. Sometimes people are deeply dissatisfied with their own lives and don’t know how to process it, so they turn that dissatisfaction into incredibly negative commentary of others. Sometimes, people are struggling with mental or physical ailments you don’t see. Sometimes people are just having a bad day.

Those things aren’t your fault, and the comments that they produce toward you aren’t rational. They actually have almost nothing at all to do with you – I mean, you do happen to be there, but the negativity isn’t a reflection on you in any way.

So just ignore it. Let it be. It means nothing, other than that the angry or negative person is dealing with something in their own life, and it’s not something you can help with. So just walk on.

4. Astro Teller on celebrating failure

From the description:

“Great dreams aren’t just visions,” says Astro Teller, “They’re visions coupled to strategies for making them real.” The head of X (formerly Google X), Teller takes us inside the “moonshot factory,” as it’s called, where his team seeks to solve the world’s biggest problems through experimental projects like balloon-powered Internet and wind turbines that sail through the air. Find out X’s secret to creating an organization where people feel comfortable working on big, risky projects and exploring audacious ideas.

The core idea here is this: a failure is completely fine as long as you learn something valuable from the failure that you can apply to your next project or attempt. It is 100% okay to fail.

Why doesn’t the entire world work like that, then?

The big reason is that the business that Teller is describing has a lot of margin for failure. A large profitable company like Google can afford a $5 million project ending in failure and not skip a beat, whereas a smaller company or one with tighter restraints might not be able to tolerate that kind of failure.

The same goes for day-to-day lives. Some people can tolerate those kinds of failures in their lives because they’ve put in the time and effort to build up a big emergency fund. They have resources that will keep things going if they fail. Others don’t have it, so they can’t afford failure.

To me, this is a great argument for living way below your means and putting money in the bank. That way, in a little while, you can take a big risk… and if it fails, you won’t fall apart and you’ll ideally learn some valuable lessons from the failure.

5. Mia Birdsong on success

“I’m tired of the story we tell that hard work leads to success. Because that story allows those of us who make it to believe we deserve it, and by implication those who don’t make it don’t deserve it.” – Mia Birdsong

Hard work is a crucial ingredient in success… but it is not the only ingredient in success. Far from it.

Take the person who has nothing versus the person that has $20 million in the bank. Which one is more likely to launch a successful restaurant? While the person with nothing might be able to win out if they have an incredible work ethic and the other one is lazy, the reality is that the person with the cash is most likely to wind up on top here. That person has resources, while the other person does not.

Hard work is vital. So is money in the bank. So are relationships. So is your reputation. So is your plan.

A person with a great work ethic and the best idea in the world might fall flat on their face because they didn’t have a great reputation, they didn’t have good relationships, and they didn’t have money in the bank. A person with a mediocre idea and a mediocre work ethic might succeed because they had those things.

Hard work is a big key, but it’s not the only key.

6. The Avett Brothers – Ain’t No Man

I’ve made no secret of my love for The Avett Brothers. Their music has inspired me constantly through the last ten years of my life.

I’ll be honest – I did not like this song at first. It did not click with me at all and left me feeling pretty disappointed about their musical direction.

But, as with countless other songs by them, the song found its way into my head and then, eventually, my soul. It wormed in deep. I found myself humming it and thinking about it and then, before long, playing it on repeat.

That’s what good music does. It burrows deep inside of you and pops out when you least expect it. The Avett Brothers do that consistently for me.

7. C.S. Lewis on integrity

“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” ― C.S. Lewis

I have a love-hate relationship with our family dog.

I did not want a dog in the first place. I still don’t want a dog in our home. I don’t want the responsibility of caring for one. I don’t want the smells or the stains. I definitely don’t want the barking, as I value a quiet home during the day. I don’t want to have to interrupt work to convince a dog to quiet down or to take him on a walk, which is something that’s been foisted on me as part of this package.

Most days, it’s just me and the dog alone. I find him really frustrating at times, especially when he starts barking at a dog that’s being walked near our home. I don’t want to have to stop walking to let him out.

This could build a lot of negative feelings over time, and I’ll be the first to admit that there are days when I get really frustrated with this. It’s a responsibility I didn’t want that was just handed to me.

But I do let him out in the back yard a few times a day. I do walk him. I do make sure he has food and water. I do play with him – he loves to play a game where I stomp on the ground with one foot and then he’ll actually chase that foot for a while.

And, as I write this, the dog I didn’t want is curled up by my foot.

If I didn’t have integrity, I might treat the dog differently. I wouldn’t be cruel to him, but I could see myself putting him in a kennel in the garage or something like that, with food and water available, but far enough away that I couldn’t hear his barking and didn’t have to deal with him. That wouldn’t be any different than what many people do with their dogs during the work day.

But here’s the thing: because I do this, I genuinely think this dog has a happier life, and because of that, he plays much more joyfully with my children when they come home from school. He also barks far less than when we first adopted him.

Integrity plays a role. The things you do when no one else is around really do have an impact on your life when others are around.

8. Aeschylus on success without envy

“Few men have the natural strength to honor a friend’s success without envy.” – Aeschylus

Sometimes, it can be really hard to admire the success of others. You see someone else achieving success – especially when you’ve seen that person really mess up in the past – and you can’t help but wonder why you didn’t get that success.

For starters, success is partially luck. It’s also the result of a wide mix of traits and character attributes. Your friend likely has some character attributes – positive ones – that you may not have. Perhaps your friend is easier in social situations than you are. Maybe they have a great work ethic if they can direct it toward something.

It’s a sign of great character if you can simply step back and be happy for your friend when they do achieve success.

9. Humans Need Not Apply

This, right here, is my number one concern for the future. As technology improves, more and more and more and more jobs that humans used to do are going to be done by machines, until it reaches the point that only highly skilled humans in a very small number of fields will actually have meaningful work to do.

Imagine, if you will, a world where there are lots of jobs available, but only about 10% (or less) of the people on earth actually have the capabilities of doing those jobs. What happens then?

It’s a question we don’t like to think about, but it’s a very, very important one, because it’s coming.

Here’s the reality: the devil finds work for idle hands to do. If you have a large percentage of the world’s population without any opportunity to work, there’s going to be a lot of unrest, and we’ll end up knocking ourselves back from many of the benefits of life.

A much better approach, I think, is basic income and an encouragement of the arts. That keeps people who perhaps aren’t wired well for the narrow technical fields that will be needed to be able to find positive ways to have an impact in the world – and keep the others, the malcontents, from breaking everything.

10. Khleo Thomas on slights

“If they don’t know you personally, don’t take it personal.” – Khleo Thomas

This touches on the quote from Harbhajan Singh Khalsa above, in that if someone out of the blue says something negative toward you, it often has very little to do with you. Thus, it doesn’t make much sense to take it personally.

Most of the time, when someone I don’t know fires off some negative thought toward me, I assume that it has far more to do with them than it does with me. Over the years, I’ve built up a pretty decent capacity for telling when there’s genuine criticism and when someone is venting – and it’s usually venting.

The trick is not letting it bother you. Negativity is going to happen. It’s a part of our world. Don’t let it seep inside and poison your inner garden.

11. Adam Grant on the surprising habits of original thinkers

From the description:

How do creative people come up with great ideas? Organizational psychologist Adam Grant studies “originals”: thinkers who dream up new ideas and take action to put them into the world. In this talk, learn three unexpected habits of originals — including embracing failure. “The greatest originals are the ones who fail the most, because they’re the ones who try the most,” Grant says. “You need a lot of bad ideas in order to get a few good ones.”

While this video definitely touches upon the idea above that failure is a normal and healthy part of eventually achieving success, it’s not the only ingredient that Grant identifies as being part of a successful creative process.

One of them is procrastination. Grant points out that many people come up with their best ideas under pressure, and it’s something I’ve noticed to an extent, too. Actually, what happens under pressure is that I usually use the first good idea I have and then start actually executing that idea. Without the pressure of procrastination, I’m likely to discard that idea and wait for an amazing one.

For me, the real lesson here is to do something. Take that good idea and give it a shot. Don’t wait around for the perfect idea because it may or may not ever come and life will pass you by while you wait. Instead, take action on the good idea now.

12. Bertrand Russell on stupidity

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” – Bertrand Russell

I often tell people that I know far less today than I’ve known since I was an infant. That’s not entirely true. It’s not that I’ve forgotten or unlearned a bunch of things. It’s that, more than ever before, I know how little I know compared to the vastness of human knowledge and experience that others have. The knowledge that I possess just scratches the surface.

Because of that, it becomes much harder for me to make blanket statements about other groups and to apply a blunt negative approach to them. I don’t know how a lot of people live. I don’t know what experiences they’ve had or what they’ve learned in their life or how they feel. All I can know is my own experiences and what I’ve learned and how I feel, which might not overlap with them too much.

Because of that, I move more and more toward a sense that the laws of the land should be non-obstructionist. They should penalize situations where people harm others, but they should offer tons of space for people to do their own thing. What someone else does independently of me is their own choice and does not impact what I choose to do with my life. That ends when they try to directly harm me or to directly harm something that I share with them (like the environment).

What frustrates me about the world is when people who know nothing about what they’re talking about come in and demand certain nonsensical changes and won’t even have a rational discussion about the changes they propose. If you point out a hole in it, they either lock down and ignore you, respond with taunts or other attacks that have nothing to do with the issue, or endlessly repeat the same two or three unfounded talking points that they know about the issue.

The reality is that every single human endeavor is imperfect. They all have holes in it. I’m the last person to know what the “best” solution is, but I can see that even the things I support have some “holes” in them. The difficulty comes when people disavow that their preferred ideas have flaws and won’t even talk about it.

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