Inspiration from Kaia Kater, Jane McGonigal, Billy Bragg, 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. Ralph Waldo Emerson on being yourself

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

I often have this sense that much of the modern world exists to try to shape all of us in certain ways. Marketers want us to want particular products and to buy certain things. News producers try to evoke emotional responses in us to sway our opinions and views.

In a world that theoretically values individualism, I often feel as though we are all being pushed in very similar directions, to become very similar people. The things that we argue vociferously about are actually tiny differences in the big scheme of things. We all accept so many of the core elements of what it is like to live in the modern world that the differences between us that seem so huge are actually very tiny.

It is hard to be yourself in that world. It’s hard to even find yourself sometimes, let alone let it all out.

I’m finding, more and more, that there is some great power in disconnection. Turn off the computer, the cell phone, the television. Spend time just with yourself, or just with other people who are also consciously disconnecting, and see what there is. See what you think. See what matters to you without all of those hints and nudges about what others think should matter to you.

2. The Radiant Child

This is a documentary about the life of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who came to prominence in the 1980s as one of the prominent artists in the neo-impressionist movement. A surprisingly good description of Basquiat’s work comes from Wikipedia:

Basquiat’s art focused on “suggestive dichotomies”, such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience. He appropriated poetry, drawing, and painting, and married text and image, abstraction, figuration, and historical information mixed with contemporary critique.

His art, to me, takes a number of elements that seem very simple and even crude and childlike on their own, but combines them together into something profound and thoughtful. When I see his work, my initial reaction is often of underestimation. I see very simple elements – individual elements that could be produced by lots of people. As I look, though, bigger themes come out. It’s the combination of the simple elements in the purpose of a broader idea is what really makes him amazing.

This documentary of his work, directed by Tamra Davis, is really well executed and is easily the best summary of his work that I’ve seen or read. I saw it for the first time on PBS in 2011, but I failed to record it (and actually missed a portion of it). I am extremely glad that I found it again.

3. Antoine de Saint-Exupery on work and longing

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

People ask how I can write on the mechanics and psychology of personal finance every day, but the secret is that most of the time, that’s not really what I’m writing about.

Budgets and 401(k)s and frugal tips – those are just tools. What personal finance really is all about is figuring out the really big things in life that your heart desires, thinking about them and seeing them until your heart longs for them, and then using that dream to pull yourself through the challenges that others aren’t quite willing to match.

I dream of spending an entire summer with Sarah, riding around from national park to national park, camping in each of them, while we’re still young and healthy enough to do so and without a real worry in the world. I dream of having independent children who don’t need me in their life, but sometimes want me there.

It is those dreams that pull me into personal finance. It is those thoughts that convince me to pick up the tools I need to make personal finance work for me. It is those visions that convince me to do the best I can to keep my marriage strong, build independence and self-reliance in my children, and preserve what wealth I have.

That’s the sea I long for.

4. Adam Alter on why our screens make us less happy

From the description:

What are our screens and devices doing to us? Psychologist Adam Alter has spent the last five years studying how much time screens steal from us and how they’re getting away with it. He shares why all those hours you spend staring at your smartphone, tablet or computer might be making you miserable — and what you can do about it.

Why would I share this on a website, you might ask? And how is this possibly “inspirational”?

For me, the research presented here – and other studies like it – have convinced me that I need to spend a significant chunk of time each day completely free of any type of screen. That includes my phone, my work computer, the television, and everything else.

Over the last several months, I’ve moved myself to a daily routine of having at least three hours free of screen time. I spend that time going on walks or bicycle rides, reading books, playing board games with friends, making food… very “analog” things. My cell phone is completely off, as is my work computer, and they’re stored away out of sight and out of mind.

I genuinely think that this change has done wonders for my mental well being.

In fact, I went on a weeklong screen-free period this summer. During that period, I didn’t really notice my mood raising, but afterwards, when I found myself again working in front of a screen and regularly using my phone, I could feel that the screen time definitely wasn’t a net positive in my life. It definitely brought advantages, but it brought subtle but strong disadvantages as well.

Take a break. You’ll be glad you did. The world itself, the one outside of your screen, just might inspire you.

5. 1 Second Everyday

I’ve been using this clever little app for a while to record one second of video each day that captures some key essence of what that day was about. The app then allows you to stitch those seconds together into a video of your life. So, for example, if you recorded one second a day for a month, you’d have roughly a thirty second clip of one second shots of each day, and if you recorded for a year, you’d have a six minute summary of your year.

Not only have I found this practice to be very enjoyable and the videos produced to be wonderful, it gradually becomes really obvious what things are important to me. My clips are loaded with bits that include my wife and my children, along with natural settings, books, and other specific hobby interests (often with friends).

I capture that stuff because that’s the stuff that means something to me. This app doesn’t produce some video for mass distribution (unless you were intentionally creating something to be shared that way). It creates something closer to a video diary for personal consumption. It’s a great way to reflect on your life and see what really matters to you.

6. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry – Tiny Desk Music Concert

From the description:

Earlier this year, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry set off on a journey. They boarded a train in Chicago, bound for Los Angeles. Each time the train stopped for more than 20 minutes in cities like St. Louis and San Antonio, they’d grab their guitars, hop off, find the waiting room and record an old railroad song. The result of this journey is an album called Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad.

Bragg has been weaving folk and punk with protest music since the late ’70s, when he first started busking around London. You can hear his passion for American songwriters such as Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly on this record. Henry is an American singer and songwriter with 13 albums of his own. He’s also produced so many great records for others, including Rodney Crowell, Lisa Hannigan, Bonnie Raitt — and Bragg himself.

This concept record could be seen as a nostalgia trip, but both Bragg and Henry will emphatically say that it’s not. These songs and this journey celebrate the modern railroad as a major economic engine and a still-vital form of transportation. The songs are filled with mythic poetry and the metaphoric romance inherent in train songs, but the vitality in the performances keeps the songs current. You can hear that behind my desk as well as you might in a rail station.

One of my best friends joked that this album, Shine a Light, is like a checklist of things I like. It’s firmly in the folk and Americana genre, which is my favorite flavor of music. Billy Bragg is involved, one of my favorite musicians. The theme of the album is the classic American railroad.

Unsurprisingly, I love it. This music has been on heavy rotation at my work desk for most of the summer. Their version of Rock Island Line is particularly wonderful.

This type of music – folk, alt-country, Americana, whatever you want to call it – makes me feel connected to the world in a very deep way. Other flavors of music trigger all kinds of emotions and thoughts, but this is the type of music that comes closest to emulating how I feel connecting with new people and exploring new places.

7. F. Scott Fitzgerald on the passage of time

“I didn’t realize it, but the days came along one after another, and then two years were gone, and everything was gone, and I was gone.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

About five years ago, I wrote a short essay for a parenting site about my then kindergarten-aged son and how one of the highlights of my day was when he would come home from school (the bus stop is right outside our front door) and immediately run up the stairs to find me. He could not wait to tell me about his day at school.

I lamented then that he would grow older and he wouldn’t rush up those stairs like that every single day after school. The thing is, though, he still does, at least some days. On other days, he does his homework or does something with his little sister or little brother.

The thing is, most days after school, at least one of them still runs up to tell me about their day. They want to tell me about something crazy that happened on the bus or something they learned about.

Why do they do it? My best guess is that I just completely stop my work and listen to them with my full attention. I ask them questions about it. I usually follow them downstairs and make an after school snack for them. I’ll usually sit in the same room with them as they’re doing homework and read a book while they do their homework and occasionally answer questions.

To put it simply, the reason my son still runs up the stairs four or five years after I figured he’d stop is that I give him some of myself, day after day. It pays off.

I’m writing this article early in the morning on the day my two oldest children are supposed to arrive home from summer camp. My goal is to be finished with a few days’ worth of writing in advance so that I can be completely in the moment at their camp closing ceremony and when they show me their cabins and introduce me to the friends they met at camp. We’ll go home, have meals together, play a game or two together, and visit some other family members over the next few days.

When you give of yourself, it is repaid. It might not always be repaid tomorrow, or the next day, but it is repaid. It might not be repaid in ways that you ever directly see, but it is repaid.

Give of yourself to others, especially those you love. Don’t worry about what you’ll get out of it. Just give. You’ll find, slowly and steadily, that things are given to you in return.

I do not view this quote as sad, though it may have been intended to be. Instead, I view it as a reminder that life will change, and what I do today shapes what tomorrow will be like. I will blink and five years will have passed. What did I do today to make that future the best it can be?

8. SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully by Jane McGonigal

SuperBetter is a wonderful book about turning life’s challenges into a game. The concepts of the book are stuck in my head these days, and I’m exploring the strategies she outlines here for self-improvement as I write this. I have no doubt that this will inform future posts.

So, why mention it here? SuperBetter is one of those books that comes along that flips some switch in your head. It makes you address elements of your life in a different way than how you addressed them before, simply because it’s a better way for you.

It’s why I write, honestly. The stuff I write about won’t click for everyone, and the voice I use (I try hard to stick to an earnest Midwestern tone with what I write most of the time) isn’t right for everyone. However, I know that it really clicks with some people.

The thought that a person can write down their thoughts and ideas carefully enough that it can shift the thinking and behavior of someone else is endlessly inspiring to me. So, here, I’m doubly inspired – McGonigal’s book seems to be directly impacting my life, and the writing itself inspires me to do better (SuperBetter?) with my own words.

9. Benjamin Franklin on action over words

“Well done is better than well said.” – Benjamin Franklin

Actions speak louder than words. Actions speak louder than promises.

What commitments to others do you have on the table right now? What commitments to yourself do you have on the table right now?

Those commitments mean little if they’re not paired with actions. All of the budgets and the promises in the world add up to almost nothing if they’re not paired with doing something.

The world runs on action. The bright future that you want will only be borne through action.

10. Kaia Kater – Paradise Fell

From the first few notes on the banjo and that opening line, paradise fell and the tenements grew, I fell in love.

She was born of African and Caribbean descent in Montreal, grew up in West Virginia for a while, and plays a mix of bluegrass and Canadian folk music with lyrics that stretch into areas, particularly the types of personal narrative, that are new and fertile ground for music of that style.

In short, I can’t stop listening. This is from her most recent album, Nine Pin, which is great from beginning to end.

11. Warren Buffett on making money while you sleep

“If you don’t find a way to make money while you sleep, you will work until you die.” – Warren Buffett

Do you make money when you sleep?

If you’re asking yourself how that’s possible, it’s simple. Do you have investments? Do you own things that grow in value over time with no additional effort from you? Do you have money in the bank that earns interest? Do you have stocks that earn dividends? Do you have properties that earn rent? Do you own things that appreciate in value?

You should be spending some of the money you earn from working on those things, because without them, you will keep working and working and working and working, without end.

12. Tim Ferriss on defining your fears instead of your goals

From the description:

The hard choices — what we most fear doing, asking, saying — are very often exactly what we need to do. How can we overcome self-paralysis and take action? Tim Ferriss encourages us to fully envision and write down our fears in detail, in a simple but powerful exercise he calls “fear-setting.” Learn more about how this practice can help you thrive in high-stress environments and separate what you can control from what you cannot.

This is a really good practice, one that’s surprisingly effective at cutting through some of the fears you have in life.

Basically, just imagine the things you fear actually happening, then think about what you’d need to do to get your life back on some sort of track that you’re happy with. Obviously, some of the biggest fears make returning to your current life impossible, so you’re looking for how to return to a life you’re content with, not necessarily your current life.

Now, what can you do today to make those “getting back on track” steps as easy as possible? What can you do right now so that, if those worst case fears come to pass, you can return to a good life as painlessly as possible?

That’s fear setting. It’s really useful. It causes you to fear the worst case scenarios a lot less than before simply because you see that they’re recoverable, and it also helps you to take action to minimize the impact of those scenarios.

Give it a try. You’ll be glad you did.

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