When I did the post about my favorite quotes last summer (which got great feedback btw – thanks!), I figured it would be the only one I would do. But I’ve collected so many more great quotes since then that I simply cannot resist sharing them with you.
So without further ado, here are thirteen quotes spanning over 2400 years that have made me rethink how I view life and why.
“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all you desire.”
– Seneca (Roman Stoic Philosopher)
This quote, perhaps more than any other, hits at the heart of the human condition. Our desires are boundless. We always want something more. A bigger house. A better job. A hotter partner. More excitement. More money. It’s never enough. But when it comes to things we fear, we shrink away oh so easily. Whatever it is we fear – public speaking, flying, high places, intimacy, or our mother-in-law – we do everything we can to avoid it or destroy it. We don’t want to get to know it. We make the fear bigger than life itself and ourselves tiny by comparison. But what would happen if we lived our lives in reverse? What if we looked fear in the eye and faced it every day? What if we tempered our desires and made do with less? Would we not be happier by needing less and fearing less? Would the world not be a better place?
“Everyone wants to tell you what to do and what’s good for you. They don’t want you to find your own answers, they want you to believe theirs.”
– Socrates (a classical Greek philosopher credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy)
The moment you don’t know what you want, someone is going to hire you to do what they want. Schools, society, and employers – they all talk a good game about creativity and empowerment, but at the end of the day, what they want is obedience combined with a decent level of ability. Their system is already in place, and they want you to passively accept your role. None of them teach or encourage you to question the status quo, to leave a trail where none was left before. To truly be a master of your own fate and find your own path, you have to find your own answers and you’ll never be able to do that by listening to others.
“The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means.”
– Ursula K. Le Guin (American author of novels, children’s books, and short stories)
The phrase “the end justifies the means” is the rationale behind many of the most horrendous things mankind has ever done. Almost invariably, it means that you’re about to do something appalling – to deny someone empathy, fairness and compassion – but you’re willing to close a blind eye to it because the promised payoff is too sweet or important to pass up. But when you add it all up, a life built on ends rather than means is cold and hollow. The people who love you do so not for what you have achieved but for how you lived your life. You can write a check for a house, a holiday or a prostitute, but you can’t write one for friendship and love.
“The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer someone else up.”
– Mark Twain (influential American author and humorist)
The conventional wisdom is to focus on yourself when you are depressed. You know, the need to “look after number one”. But while that’s a great tactic to recharge your batteries, it’s a poor one for making you feel better about yourself. If you want to feel better about yourself and life, your best bet is to look around you for those who need more help than you do and then figure out a way to help them. Helping someone else not only takes your mind off your problems, it increases your self esteem and your sense of self worth. It’s the definition of a win-win. Here’s a fantastic example of someone who did exactly that.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”
– Peter Drucker (Austrian-born American management guru and author)
Culture is the learned way of doing things by a group of people – its best practices, so to speak. When you try to create change, you are inevitably going to challenge the status quo in some way. No matter how great your plan is, some people in your group are going to feel threatened or afraid and will resist you. The same is often true on an individual level, as we can modify the quote above to read “habits eat resolutions for breakfast”. The key point is that when attempting change of any kind, you need to have a plan for dealing with internal resistance first.
“The world is changed by your example, not your opinion.”
– Paulo Coelho (best-selling Brazilian lyricist and novelist)
It’s hard to believe by the amount of noise out there, but the world doesn’t actually need another opinion or sideline critic. What the world needs are people who are inspired and lead by example. In other words, people who have come alive. You’re not going to change the world with your opinion alone. You need to act. You need to lead. If you really want to make a positive impact on the world, your best bet is to keep your mouth shut and let your opinion shine through your actions. Or, as Socrates put it, “Let him that would move the world first move himself.”
“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”
– Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (German field marshall in WW1)
So many people spend crazy amounts of time preparing the perfect plan to reach their goal. But as soon as they begin the actual work – the moment the rubber meets the road – they inevitably realize that not everything is as they expected and that their plan is flawed. Life is simply too complex to ever be perfectly reduced to a theory. Success, therefore, isn’t about having the perfect game plan, marketing strategy or seduction technique – it’s about having a plan that is good enough to start, then being flexible enough to tailor it according to the actual conditions you encounter.
“The only thing standing between you and your goal is the bullshit story you keep telling yourself as to why you can’t achieve it.”
– Jordan Belfort (the Wolf of Wall Street – an American author, motivational speaker, and former stockbroker)
History has shown us that successful and unsuccessful people do not actually vary greatly in their abilities. However, where they do vary is in their desire to reach their potential, to work harder and longer than others. The uncomfortable truth is that the majority of all those who fail are not actually defeated, they simply quit. And that’s great news, because it means you control your own destiny, no matter what your circumstances happen to be.
“An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”
– Winston Churchill (Prime minister of the United Kingdom during WW II and widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the 20th century)
Don’t fool yourself; being favorable and agreeable with others by default isn’t kindness. It’s an act of emotional manipulation designed to elicit approval and cooperation the same way discounts and convenience manipulate us to purchase products. Sure, it works and it’s why people and companies do it, but it will never generate an ounce of loyalty or authentic relationships. Standing up for what you believe and being prepared to stand apart may be painful and lonely in the short term, but it’s the only path worth traveling when all is said and done.
“Money only buys two things: lavish self-deceptions and comfortable suffering.”
– John DeVore (satirist, writer and editor)
Sure, all things being equal, having more money is probably better than having less money, but having more money does not equal having more happiness. You can be homeless and happy and you can be a billionaire and miserable. Most of us spend our lives chasing happiness, thinking it’s a fancy car in your garage, a shiny diamond on your finger, or a long string of numbers on your bank statement. It’s an incredibly persistent hallucination, but it’s still a hallucination. In the words of Viktor Frankl, happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue. Your happiness is between your ears. It’s a state of mind, a choice. The real question for you to answer is why chase something that you think might make you happy when you can just choose to be happy, right here, right now with who you are and what you have?
“Without commitment, you cannot have depth in anything, whether relationship, a business or a hobby”
– Neil Strauss (a seven-time New York Times best-selling author and journalist)
It’s deceptively easy to fall into the trap of avoiding commitment, because committing to something means closing doors you might someday wish to enter. Essentially it’s a fear of the opportunity cost that keeps you wondering if there might be a better option out there or that you might regret the whole thing in a few weeks. The problem is that you will never know without committing to it first. You don’t know how good you can be or how great something can get without commitment. Commitment is hard because it requires sacrifice. That sacrifice is saying no to all the other things you could have chosen instead, and it’s only through that sacrifice that you can experience the best things life has to offer.
“Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”
― Mark Twain (still regarded an influential American author and humorist, 3 minutes later)
Two Mark Twain quotes in one post? Fuck. Yes. Anyway, for some reason it’s incredibly tempting to tell someone they’re wrong when they’ve written something stupid or that you disagree with (funny how often it seems they’re one and the same, isn’t it?). We tell ourselves we’re doing it to educate the other person, to right a wrong, but we both know that no matter how many holes you poke in the other person’s rationale, the chances of him eventually agreeing with you are minimal. So save yourself the trouble. Not only is it impossible to correct everyone you disagree with on the internet, most of them will simply disagree with you anyhow. Besides, who’s to say you aren’t the stupid one?
“The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but it is fear.”
– Gandhi (the preeminent leader of the Indian independence movement in British-ruled India)
When you trace any negative behavior back to its root cause, you will find that it always starts with fear. When we don’t deal with the fear itself, that fear finds a way to come out in other ways. We become hostile and intolerant, we procrastinate, we avoid things, we lie and we cheat. Fear seems so real, so urgent and so strong that it’s easy to forget that fear only exists in our minds. It’s impossible to point to any physical thing or cut open a body and point to an organ and say “that right there is fear”. Of course, danger is real and we were given fear as a tool to help us avoid putting ourselves in needless danger. But fear is not the same as danger. Fear is fundamentally a choice. Don’t let fear close doors around you, isolate you or prevent you from taking action. So unless you happen to be in a wild jungle or the middle of a war zone, you’ll do well to remember that fear doesn’t prevent death – it usually prevents life.