It’s one of the great frustrations of my life that I can’t be reading at all times. I have a job, a loving girlfriend, and students, two of which are more-than-valuable uses of my time. Luckily, in the modern world, books are not the end-all-be-all of passing down wisdom.
There, I said it. I say that as someone who loves to read, who has shelves and shelves of books. Unfortunately, we can’t always be reading. We have to shop for groceries and commute. Sometimes we don’t have time or energy to jump into a whole book. That’s where these beautiful essays, videos, and sound bites come in. Most of them take less than five minutes to digest.
These delicious pieces of wisdom have stuck with me, and I re-consume each one at least once a quarter. They’ve served me well as I’ve tried to keep my ship on course. I hope they inspire you as well!
I discovered this last year, to my absolute delight. One of the comedic kings of Monty Python, lampooning the idea of political and religious extremism in a way that is so relevant it could have been written yesterday.
“What we never hear about extremism is its advantages! Well, the biggest advantage of extremism is that it makes you feel good! Because it provides you with enemies. Let me explain. The great thing about having enemies is that you get to pretend that all the badness in the world is in your enemies, and all the goodness in the world is in you! Attractive, isn’t it?”
This clip is (unfortunately) timeless. Cleese makes us laugh, then reveals that we’re the butt of the joke. I wish this clip could be broadcast on every TV screen in the world, twice a year. He captures the essence of human silliness so perfectly. A beautiful reminder to try to avoid the easy trappings of extremism.
This is a spoken-word essay in the style of a graduation speech, delivering some of the most beautifully phrased advice I’ve ever heard. It’s called “Sunscreen” because the speaker says that the one piece of solid advice they can offer is “wear sunscreen.” The rest, he informs us “has no basis outside my own meandering experience.”
“Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise, politicians will philander, you too will get old, and when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble, and children respected their elders.”
This piece blows me away every time, and I always take something new from it. There’s a reminder here to not be so obsessed with the things we can’t change.
Remember: “worrying about the future is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.”
My father was a high school football coach for almost twenty years. Over that time, he acquired probably 30 plaques/trophies/hats, and all of them sit in the basement in a box, gathering dust. I’m sure Jerry Seinfeld’s do too.
This speech is a great reminder to not take the world and people’s opinions too seriously. Seinfeld accepts an award and uses his speech to crap all over the idea of awards and award ceremonies.
“Your whole career as a comedian is about making fun of pretentious, high-minded, self-congratulatory B.S. events like this one. The feeling in this room of reverence and honoring is the exact opposite of everything I have wanted my life to be about.”
I love him for this. This is how I feel whenever I go to meetings at work or see an award on the wall of a hotel. Why? Why are there so many awards? Who creates them? Why do they mean anything?
Awards and accolades aren’t important. That’s not why we create! We create because it’s a labor of love. Anything else is the icing on the cake.
This short story first crossed my path in a creative writing class in college. It’s “Memento Mori” phrased in the most beautiful way I’ve ever seen, a comment on story structure, and advice on life. I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s the most powerful page-and-a-half I’ve ever read. I’m only going to quote the first words of the story because I don’t want to accidentally give anything away:
“John and Mary meet. What happens next? If you want a happy ending, try A.”
I promise this is worth your time. Whenever I reread it, I’m reminded of the power of the middle of my own story, the hardest bit to do anything with.
Every day, we are faced with choices. Will we choose to fight for ourselves? Or will we be lazy and apathetic? Will we choose to try to be virtuous? Or will we give in to vice and anger?
This one-minute-twenty-second clip will rouse you to conquer the world. Every time I watch it, I want to go fight monsters and my own fear.
“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 the best of our energies and skills.”
What challenges matter to you? What goal will serve to organize and measure the best of your energy and skills? What challenges are you willing to accept? What are you unwilling to postpone?
This clip gets me asking the right questions every time.
Vipassana is fairly well known by now, and this TED Talk is one of the speeches that helped bring it into the mainstream. Seeing reality as it is is one of the core tenets of Vipassana, and Buddy Wakefield invites us to do just that with this twenty-minute poem.
“The idea is to stop holding on with your neck so tight. To let your head climb back down through your throat and into your body, so you can see just how good you look when you’re not comparing yourself to anything. Dear TED, pretend that inside your skin you’ve got a friend who’s willing to give you everything you’ve ever wanted in exchange for all you’ve ever been.”
You’re enough. How do I know you’re enough? Because you are all you’ll ever have to work with. So do the work!
The first time I heard this, I replayed the whole thing right after I finished. Now I re-listen to it every few months. It’s the only downloaded podcast episode on my Spotify that I never delete. The interview is too wide-ranging to assign a single quote that does it justice, but here’s my favorite one:
“Working hard to beat the competition stops me from thinking creatively to make all concepts of competition obsolete.”
This is to be studied. Terry’s story and the way he tells it are lessons in vulnerability. There are quite a few moments where he’s crying, talking about the things he’s done wrong (and had done to him).
It’s also a lesson in the power of redemption, and in how to address toxic masculinity in yourself. You might be crying along with him as he describes how the Revenge he craved and finally got didn’t fulfill him at all. A powerful reminder of the fact that we will not, cannot always be good, but we must always try to be.
This may be the least inspiring item on this list, but it’s certainly the funniest. It makes you laugh and then go “huh…” Dylan Moran rips apart modern self-help culture in this bit.
“Those really moronic little books you get now, how to release the inner you, or find the 95 habits of totally effective toss-pots you don’t want to talk to you in the first place. Or release your potential. Now that’s a very, very dangerous idea. You should stay away from your potential. You must absolutely leave your potential alone. You’ll mess it up! It’s potential, leave it!”
I don’t agree with everything he’s saying. However, the spirit of this piece is, to me, the most inspiring on this list. Stop consuming self-help. Stop criticizing others. Get off your ass and do something.
My Dad showed me the Rocky movies when I was in high school, and I have a powerful connection to them. This speech is in the sixth Rocky movie, Rocky Balboa. It’s not the best of the movies, but this speech by itself is worth watching over and over again. Rocky has agreed to a comeback fight, and his son hates the idea. He thinks he’s going to be pushed even further into Rocky’s shadow. That’s where this clip starts.
“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean, and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep movin’ forward. How much you can take, and keep movin’ forward. That’s how winnin’ is done! Now if you know what you’re worth, go out and get what you’re worth! But you gotta be willing to take the hits! And not pointin’ fingers saying you ain’t where you want to be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that!”
This reminds me so much of stoic philosophy. We cannot control the world, only how we respond. And we can respond by getting up every time we’re knocked down, and moving towards the prize.
I believe I’ve saved the best for last. Cheryl Strayed used to run a small advice column called “Dear Sugar” on The Rumpus. You can buy a collection of these wonderful and wide-ranging essays in a book by the same name. The title essay, Tiny Beautiful Things, starts with someone asking her ‘what advice would you give your younger self?’ She responds by telling several stories from her own life.
If you read this, prepare for a wild ride. She talks about some of the most messed up things that happened to her in her life, and it is definitely NSFW.
“One hot afternoon during the era in which you’ve gotten yourself ridiculously tangled up with heroin, you’ll be riding the bus and thinking what a worthless piece of crap you are when a little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She’ll offer you one of the balloons, but you won’t take it because you believe you no longer have a right to such tiny beautiful things. You’re wrong. You do.”
That quote always brings tears to my eyes. No matter how down we feel, no matter how much self-loathing traps us, we are never beyond redemption.