Inspiration from Confucius, Benjamin Franklin, Blaise Pascal, 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. An icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean

From the description:

10 hours video of Arctic ambience with frozen ocean, ice cracking, snow falling, icebreaker idling and distant howling wind sound. Natural white noise sounds generated by the wind and snow falling, combined with deep low frequencies with delta waves from the powerful icebreaker idling engines, recorded at 96 kHz – 24 bit and designed for relaxation, meditation, study and sleep.

Please adjust the audio volume to your taste.

I came across this video the other day and decided to play it in the background while I worked. I ended up having one of the most productive, clearest thinking days I’ve had in a very long time.

I don’t know whether it was the audio alone, or whether the audio was one of many factors that came together to make things click. All I know is that things clicked hard and this audio was running in the background the whole time.

I’ve been playing this video in the background quite a lot ever since then, when writing or reading something or studying. It’s been wonderfully conducive to my ability to focus on the task at hand and come up with great ideas and learn new things.

Give it a try. When you need to get some work done or you really need to focus on something, like a book or something you need to study, turn on this video and turn the volume down to a level where you hear it but it’s not distracting you, and get to work. See if it helps.

This video is just one in a series of similar videos from the same channel, which you can see here. I think these are going to become a regular part of my workday.

2. Ta-Nehisi Coates on libraries and classrooms

“The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates

This quote comes from Coates’ wonderful book Between the World and Me, a book where I expected to see differences and instead I saw similarities. I saw a scared kid trying hard to not fall into the traps all around him while growing up. I saw a maturing young man whose mind is suddenly opening to ten thousand new ideas at once and feeling completely topsy-turvy in the flood of new ideas but still wanting to soak up everything. I saw a father uncertain about what to teach his child in an uncertain age.

The world needs more books like this, more portraits of how we are all similar and how we are all different at the same time, and it’s when we tie ourselves together with those similarities and learn from those differences that we all become better people.

This quote really stuck out above everything else because it so beautifully expresses how I feel in a big library. There are so many ideas to explore that I feel like a starfish being swept around in a tidal wave. There’s more to explore than I’ll ever have the time to dig into, but that doesn’t mean I don’t dream of it.

3. Laura Vanderkam on gaining control of your free time

From the description:

There are 168 hours in each week. How do we find time for what matters most? Time management expert Laura Vanderkam studies how busy people spend their lives, and she’s discovered that many of us drastically overestimate our commitments each week, while underestimating the time we have to ourselves. She offers a few practical strategies to help find more time for what matters to us, so we can “build the lives we want in the time we’ve got.”

The most powerful strategy I’ve ever found in terms of finding time for the things that matter and building the life that I want is that I just drop the things that don’t resonate with me. If it doesn’t have personal meaning to me, I don’t do it. If it’s a responsibility, I try very hard to find meaning in it.

So, what does that actually mean? Well, for example, I really don’t get much out of watching television. I do enjoy occasional television series and I’ll watch them in a “binge” with my wife, but in terms of watching television every day, I just don’t do it. It’s usually just one episode of something on Netflix late in the evening with my wife until we finish a season, then I don’t do it again for a few weeks or a month. I don’t get value out of a lot of what’s on television, so I just don’t give it my time or energy. (That doesn’t mean you can’t get value out of what’s on television, just that I personally do not.)

I don’t get value out of having a perfectly neat house, so I do housework that has value for me and don’t worry about the things that don’t have value. I’ll straighten up, but I won’t scrub the floor until it bothers me.

Don’t give your time and energy to things you don’t really care about. Instead, do your absolute best to give it to things that you do care about. You’ll never regret it.

4. Confucius on questions

“The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life.” ― Confucius

Sometimes, it’s hard to swallow our pride a little and ask a question. I know that I often feel dumb when I’m asking a question out of genuine ignorance.

The thing is, that sense of feeling “dumb” passes pretty quickly. Almost always, the person that knows the answer is thrilled to answer your question and then suddenly you know the answer as well. You now have another piece in the wall of your knowledge and you’re better off for it.

If you give into that urge to be prideful and not ask the question, you’re just begging to be lost regarding everything that follows. You got to hold onto your pride in that one single moment, a moment that everyone will forget three minutes from now, but in exchange, you’re missing out on a piece of information that would help you understand life better.

Don’t go that route. Ask the question. Swallow a bit of pride. You’ll never regret it.

5. My Morning Routine

I’m unabashedly a morning person, and I find that having a strong routine in the morning makes a huge difference when it comes to having a really successful day. If I really nail it in the AM hours, the entire day ends up feeling really productive. I often feel like I need to “keep it up” and thus my sense of having a great day often rests on the back of having a great morning.

Because of that, I obsess a little (well, more than a little, if I’m honest) about my morning routine. I tweak it. I try different approaches. I add things (like mindful meditation) and remove things (like excessive caffeine) to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

I’m always on the lookout for new ideas and new things to plug in and try in my morning routine, and that’s exactly what My Morning Routine is. It’s simply a database of people’s morning routines. I love going there and just digging through a dozen (or two) routines, just to see if there’s a new angle or idea or approach I haven’t thought of that I can try.

My Morning Routine has pushed me to moderate my caffeine in the morning (some is good, a lot is bad) and counterbalance it with green tea to take some of the edge off. It’s helped me figure out better ways to order exercising and meditating and doing focused work. It helped me to discover the pure joy of drinking a bunch of water when I first wake up. Plus, the interviews are great.

The site has really inspired me to tinker with myself and improve myself.

6. Epictetus on the primary task of life

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4-5

The entirety of good and evil in your world resides within you. You can only control the decisions you make, so it’s up to you to choose good options or choose evil options. You can only control your own judgments, so it’s up to you to decide what’s good and what’s evil.

Nothing else is under your control. You can’t control what other people do. You can only control how you respond to it, and you can only control what you do.

Make sure that your own actions and your own thoughts and your own responses angle toward good, or else it doesn’t make any sense for you to yearn for a better world. If you aren’t willing to make a better world using the things you can control – your personal thoughts and actions – why should you expect the world to become a better place?

7. Marconi Union – Weightless

A friend of mine recently told me that he falls asleep to the same song in a loop every night. This is that song. It turns out that Weightless by Marconi Union is considered to be the most relaxing song ever produced, to the point where it’s suggested that you don’t listen to it while driving because it can induce sleep.

This song is undoubtedly relaxing, and it’s helped me feel quite relaxed in the evenings before when I need to wind down after an exciting day.

Just this past weekend, I put the kids to bed on Saturday night only to find that my wife had fallen asleep on the couch. I felt like I was wired up to ten and should do something, but I also knew I had to be awake and alert and ready to go in nine hours. So I sat in my chair, put on my headphones, closed my eyes – I was still feeling rather amped up, mind you – and I fell asleep before this song ended. I actually woke up in the chair two hours later and staggered off to bed.

Now, my intent was just to calm myself down, but the effect was a lot stronger than that. I’ve listened to it in bed twice now when I needed to go to sleep quickly and I wasn’t feeling sleepy and it helped every time.

Believe it or not, there exists a ten hour remix of this relaxing song. I wonder if my friend might play that loop all night long.

8. Benjamin Franklin on apologies and excuses

“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” – Benjamin Franklin

If you make a mistake, apologize for it. Point to your own personal faults, because it is those faults that caused you to make that mistake. Don’t point to others. Don’t point to circumstance. You’re apologizing because you made a mistake. Own it.

If you’re not willing to authentically apologize for a mistake you made, then you’re effectively not admitting to the mistake at all. If you’re simply tossing blame to someone else or something else, then you’re not admitting to any sort of error, either. You’re just passing the buck.

If you want to earn respect in this world, don’t pass the buck. You’re going to mess up. Own it when you do. Work to fix your own mistakes and improve yourself so that the mistakes don’t repeat. You’ll earn a lot of respect for doing so and be far better off in the end.

9. Sisonke Msimang on taking action on a story that moves you

Anyone who pays attention to the world will eventually hear some stories that really touch their heart. Stories of survival, of endurance, of courage, of bravery, of love, of tragedy, of struggle. Different people are touched by different things.

The thing is, when a story resonates with you, that means it’s coming very close to some values that you hold extremely tightly. Those core values are what really, really matter for you. They’re an essential part of your life.

Pay attention when that happens. Think about what exactly in that story is resonating with you so strongly. Then, when you start to figure it out, take action. Let that core truth lead you to a new place in your life.

10. Blaise Pascal on the virtue of man

“The virtue of man ought to be measured, not by his extraordinary exertions, but by his everyday conduct.” – Blaise Pascal

Your true character isn’t based on what you do at the exceptional moments in your life. Most of us try to step up and be heroic at those exceptional key moments.

No, your true character comes from what you do on normal days. It’s not how you treat others in special moments, but in normal moments. It’s not how you step up under extraordinary circumstances, but the most ordinary of circumstances.

Your virtue is what you do on a typical Tuesday, not what you do when everything is on the line. Everyone steps up to exceptional behavior when everything is on the line. What matters is what you’re like on an average Wednesday.

11. Momentum

Momentum is a really amazing habit tracking tool that’s built entirely around the idea of “chaining” together days, an idea I’ve talked about on The Simple Dollar a lot of times.

The idea is that if you want to build a strong new habit in your life – to create a new “normal” – you need to do it for a lot of days in a row. Many days. Depending on the habit, it might take as many as 180 days to make it normal.

Furthermore, there are some career steps that require you to really stick with it and give daily effort to make it happen. For example, if you want to be a writer, writing every single day is essential.

That’s the whole idea behind Momentum. You simply define a particular task you want to do every day and then check it off in this app when you finish it. The app is about as unobtrusive as humanly possible for checking things off, though you can set it to pester you and remind you of the task.

After you start going with it, it starts to show you your lasting progress in the form of long rows of green boxes. It’s much like the whiteboard that I normally use in my office for this kind of tracking, in which I look at long rows of Xs. The only difference here is that with Momentum, I can take the whole thing with me.

I love it. It just clicks. It’s exactly the kind of daily habit tracking I’ve been looking for, with that kind of gentle momentum push that I want. The best part? It’s free.

12. Joel Zimmerman on popularity

“I was the least popular at my school. The less popular you are, the more time you have to do your own thing as opposed to trying to fit into everyone else’s thing.” – Joel Zimmerman

Joel Zimmerman is perhaps better known as the DJ and producer deadmau5, who is currently one of the highest paid electronic music producers in the world and has received six Grammy nominations for his work. His success didn’t come from trying to fit in with everyone else. His success came from doing his own thing.

I’ve read this quote to my own children. I’m far more interested in them doing their own thing and figuring out what they care about than trying to fit into everyone else’s thing. It’s only through doing your own thing that you find out what you’re truly good at and what you’re truly passionate about, and those are the true tickets to both joy and success in this world.

I wasn’t particularly popular either when I was in school. I spent a lot of my time reading and learning about the world. It took a while, but eventually I found a joyous life for myself, one that I would have never found if I spent my life trying to fit into everyone else’s thing.

You shouldn’t, either. Find your own thing. Then, once you find it, find other people who are into that thing. Start with yourself, though, and you’ll always find happiness.

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