Inspiration from Seneca, Austin Kleon, Emily Dickinson, 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. Austin Kleon on how to keep going

Summary, from “Whether you’re burned out, starting out, starting over, or even if you’ve had success beyond your wildest dreams, that question always remains: How to keep going? This is a list of 10 things that have worked for me.

1. Every day is Groundhog Day
2. Build a bliss station
3. Forget the noun, do the verb
4. Make gifts
5. The ordinary + extra attention = the extraordinary
6. Art is for life (not the other way around)
7. You are allowed to change your mind
8. When in doubt, tidy up
9. Demons hate fresh air
10. Spend time on something that will outlast them”

Few things click with me and inspire me more is finding advice from someone whose life experience overlaps mine in a number of ways, they share what they’ve learned, and I find a mix of things that click perfectly with my own experiences along with some ideas I’ve never even considered.

So, for example, I have a “bliss station” (my office), and a big part of my writing is recognizing that “demons hate fresh air” (I constantly look at my bad traits), but I struggle greatly (or don’t even consider) the other things that Kleon discusses here.

That alone gives me some food for thought. Why do I not do X, Y, and Z? Would adopting them be valuable? What would my own list of ten things to get through a struggle be like? If that isn’t inspiration, I don’t know what is.

2. Marcus Aurelius on love and opinions

“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” – Marcus Aurelius

For too long in my life, I worried a ton about what other people thought about me. Did they like me? Did they think highly of me? Eventually, I came to realize that there was honestly not very much I could do to really change the opinion others held of me. They often built that opinion based on moments where I wasn’t “on” and wasn’t trying to put my best foot forward.

What I learned instead is that, if I constantly applied the maxim of treating others as I would like to be treated, I generally got that kind of treatment in return. What do I want from others? Basic hygiene and clean clothes are nice. Kindness to others is nice. Treating others like people with dignity is important. A willingness to listen is nice. A helping hand when I need it is nice. So I try to do those things as much as I can.

Things that don’t matter to me: small talk, false niceties, unkept promises. I don’t bother with those things. If I don’t think I can really do something, I don’t say that I will. I don’t make small talk very well and often jump straight to more meaningful conversation. That’s just who I am and it’s how I wish others would act toward me.

It’s a hard transition, but it’s a really worthwhile one.

3. Plane Miraculously Flies To Safety After Sudden Engine Failure

From the description:

This incredibly lucky pilot missed a potentially fatal crash, after the engine of his biplane cut out during a routine maneuver, sending the aircraft plummeting down to the ground head first, before turning it back on in the nick of time.

Practicing a series of spins and loops above the ground in Coral Springs, Florida, pilot Chad Barber quickly finds himself in a spin for a different reason, as a steep incline during an attempted ‘pull, push, humpty’ suddenly results in the deafening sound of a dead engine.

The 26-year-old aviation enthusiast – who was attempting to thrust the plane into a vertical line – was left in a state of disbelief when he saw the propeller had stopped spinning, as the aircraft began plummeting towards the ground nose first.

Admitting the engine of his ‘Pitts Plane’ has never cut out for him before, Chad begins to level the vessel in an attempt to buy some time and begin a process of troubleshooting to re-engage the engine.

This is an incredibly exciting video to watch, simply because you can feel the tension growing as the plane’s engine stays off and it gets closer and closer and closer to the ground.

Upon watching it a few times and sharing it with my kids, I came to realize that another reason this video clicked so well with me is that it shows a person keeping cool under very intense pressure. That guy’s life is on the line and the G-forces from the quick drop of the plane are affecting him, yet he keeps his cool and tries the strategies he knows to get the plane started again.

Keep cool under pressure. It’s always a good strategy.

4. Cicero on gardens and libraries

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” – Cicero

A garden provides food to nourish the body and an outdoor environment in which to relax. A library provides knowledge and ideas to nourish the mind and soul. A lot of contentment can be found in just those two places.

I know that I get a ton of personal value from time spent in nature. I love going on hikes and working in the garden. I feel peaceful and relaxed, even if I’m exercising my body, and it sometimes feels like a mental “reset” of sorts.

Similarly, I absolutely love to read. I literally block off two hours a day for reading, nothing else. Few things make me more excited and engaged than digging into a good book and feeling a new idea click into place in my head.

Yeah, a life that has a garden and a library in it is a pretty good life, Cicero.

5. The Broccoli Tree: A Parable

From the description: Some thoughts on what can be lost, and what can’t be, when we share what we love. This was a video produced, edited, and inspired by Seth Radley.

When you keep something beautiful and positive and amazing for yourself and don’t share it with the world, you not only reduce the amount of joy in the world, you also keep the figurative bird in its cage, not allowing it to flap its wings and be all it can be.

Not only is this insightful in terms of sharing the beautiful things you discover with others, it’s also insightful in terms of parenting. There is often a desire in me to be overprotective of my children, to shield them from the world and keep their childhood preserved in a secret garden. A much better approach, as I’ve come to realize in recent years, is to prepare them with the tools they need to become excellent citizens in the world and then send them out there on the winds to make the world better and share their beauty.

Keeping something beautiful for yourself limits the value and joy it can give to the world.

6. Francis Bacon on superstition

“The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses.” – Francis Bacon

We are constantly looking for patterns in life, things that we can use to understand things better and make good choices. Our desire to find patterns is often a good thing and results in us making great connections and then making great choices in a variety of places.

The problem comes when we think we see a pattern when one doesn’t exist. We think someone doesn’t like us because we met that person when they were tired. We think a particular idea is cruel because our first interaction with it was from the mouth of an awful person, or because we saw that idea used to its worst end rather than its best.

I’ve found that it’s a good idea in my life to not make major decisions based on a small number of things, and to look for more evidence before making a negative conclusion.

7. Ryan Holiday’s notecard system

This article describes how author Ryan Holiday organizes ideas. Basically, he’ll read a book or an article and fill out some number of index cards, each of which depicts a key idea or quote from that source. He then organizes these cards by topic for future reference.

This is a nice system and it’s really useful when laying out ideas on a table, but I actually use Evernote for the exact same thing. With Evernote, all of the idea cards don’t take up any space and I can apply multiple “tags” to each idea so I can effectively file them in different groups.

I usually take notes by hand when I’m reading a book, then when I’m done, I’ll wait a few weeks and then go back through the notes, extracting anything and everything that rings true or rings powerful to me, turning those ideas into individual notes. As time goes on, this set of notes has become quite large, and it’s become a very useful resource for almost everything, whether it’s personal areas like parenting or professional topics. I turn to it all the time.

8. Poetry in America

Poetry in America, “created and directed by Harvard professor Elisa New, is a new public television series and multi-platform digital initiative that brings poetry into classrooms and living rooms around the world.”

Why am I interested? The public television series, which starts this Sunday and already has the first episode publicly available, is one of the best programs I’ve ever seen on the value of and interpretation of poetry. Here’s that first episode, focused on the poem I cannot dance opon my toes by Emily Dickinson:

It’s just amazing stuff, and the trailers for upcoming episodes show amazing promise, too. You can watch a trailer for the full series or previews for each upcoming episode. The first one was great – I can’t wait for more.

9. Seneca on long walks

“It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze.” – Seneca, On Peace of Mind

Spring is slow in coming here in Iowa. Most days have a high merely in the 30s or 40s Fahrenheit, with nighttime temperatures still dropping into the teens. The ground still looks cold and barren and I don’t want to go outside without bundling up.

I am literally counting the days, though, until I can burst from my front door and go on a long walk in any direction I choose. I can’t wait until I can sneak off on a Friday afternoon and go for a hike in a nearby state park, or block off a Sunday to do the same with my wife and my children.

Few things recharge me more than time spent walking outside, preferably in nature. I love every single aspect of it – the noises of nature, the feeling of my body exerting itself, the smell of the environment, the flood of natural colors and natural light. It’s incredible. It’s one of the biggest simple pleasures in my life.

10. Secretariat winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes

From Wikipedia:

The 1973 Belmont Stakes was the 105th running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York held on June 9, 1973. Facing a field of five horses, Secretariat won by 31 lengths, the largest margin of victory in Belmont history, in front of a crowd of 69,138 spectators. His winning time of 2 minutes and 24 seconds was an American record for a mile and a half on dirt and has not been broken.

For the first half of the video, this looks like a close horse race, but for the second half, Secretariat just pulls away, length after length after length. You think that the lead can’t get any bigger… and then it does… and then it does again… and then again. By the end of the video, the camera literally can’t keep Secretariat and the second place horse in the same frame, so the camera operator just gives up.

I get goosebumps whenever I watch this performance. It’s one of those rare moments in history where you can see a truly exceptional performer be perfect at just the right moment to give a truly exceptional performance. No matter whether you love horse racing or don’t really care that much, you can’t help but be blown away by this.

The thing is, each length that separates Secretariat from the horse behind him isn’t all that much. With each pace, he’s only gaining just a little bit. But he keeps going and going and going and going, gaining a little and a little and a little until it’s a lot, an almost unbelievable lead.

There’s a lot to learn from that. It’s not about a huge difference. It’s about being just a little bit better at the little things and then repeating them over and over and over.

11. Ayesha Siqqidi on who you should be

“Be the person you needed when you were younger.” – Ayesha Siqqidi

This, along with the more general goals to treat others as I would like to be treated, is a central principle in my life. In as many lives as I can, I want to be the person I needed at various points in my life, even up to now, and be the person I think I will need later on.

Again and again, I find that acting this way is the best thing that I can be doing with my time and energy. It rarely costs me anything to act in that way, but it almost always provides a huge multiplication in value for others. If they pay forward even a fraction of that value, or even a fraction of the people I have tried to help pay me back even a fraction of what I’ve given them, not only will I be supported when I need something, I will have made the community around me a far better place.

Yes, some people are always going to take and take and not give back. My experience is that those people are never happy, because nothing is never enough for them. Rather than being angry about it, I usually feel … sad, I suppose. The world has far more abundance than I can ever possibly use, and it would terrify me to feel like there wasn’t enough of the things that actually matter to go around.

12. Johan van Hulst

I did not know the story of Johan van Hulst until recently, upon reading his obituary in the New York Times. His story is one of those that makes you realize the kind of deep goodness that’s possible in people.

In 1943, he ran an operation in Amsterdam that involved pairing young children who had been marked to be sent to concentration camps with families that had children of similar physical description, then smuggled the children to those families. The families would then claim the children as their own, which worked because van Hulst aided with any necessary papers. He orchestrated some very clever smuggling tactics to get the children from the main clearing site for Jewish children out into the Amsterdam community and into the arms of host families in the countryside, and then he would work subtly with a couple of partners to edit records, removing the names of the smuggled children. Pretty much every child rescued in this way put van Hulst’s life at risk. Through this process, which he was able to continue until late 1943, he was able to rescue between 600 and 1,000 children from being executed.

As his tactics were being uncovered in late 1943, he personally escaped into the countryside, taking a dozen children with him personally.

What were his reflections on what he was able to do? He doesn’t view himself as a hero. From the NYT article:

“I was at the center of a particular activity,” he told the Dutch newspaper Het Parool two years ago. “It’s not about me. I don’t want to put myself in the foreground or play Resistance hero. All I really think about is the things I couldn’t do — the few thousand children I wasn’t able to save.”

May we all do something even a fraction as heroic as van Hulst at some point in our lives.

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