When I read a book, I’ll remember the broad strokes of the story or, in the case of non-fiction, the main thrust of the message. But it’s rare that I’ll remember the details of a minor character, or the intricacies of a professional development sequence.
Every so often, however, I’ll come across a book passage that makes me sit up straighter in my chair, grab my highlighter, and “dog ear” the page. It’s a message so powerful that it stays with me long after I’ve finished the book. It’s profound and remarkable when it happens. And it only seems to occur when the circumstances are right: which is when a powerful message reaches you at a time in your life when you’re ready to receive it.
This is not a post about legal marketing or attorney business development in the purest sense. It’s more a message about how to draw inspiration, grow, and prosper as people and professionals from the world around us. I, for one, find that it’s often how you spend your time outside of work that dictates how successful you become at work. And there are few more beneficial activities than reading great books.
According to J.K. Rowling, “Something very magical can happen when you read a good book.” From children’s books (which is the most pervasive genre in my house these days) to fiction to nonfiction, all types of books are filled with “sticky” inspirational quotes that stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.
Here are eight of my favorites (with a bit of commentary about how they have impacted my thinking and my life):
- “Get busy living or get busy dying.” Stephen King, The Shawshank Redemption
Ours is a world of limited resources – the most finite of which is time. And time is not on your side. It marches on relentlessly and you can’t get it back. That’s why it’s critical to figure out your goals and start acting toward them, no matter how scary the journey. Urgency is the most powerful antidote for regret.
- “If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something good.” Neil Gaiman, Make Good Art
Fear of failure stops us from doing so many things, such as quitting a job, starting a business, or having a difficult conversation. We tell ourselves that we will take action “when the time is right.” But the only time that is ever right is right now. Waiting for the fear to go away is a hopeless strategy – it never will. At some point you have to be more afraid of settling than you are of chasing your dream and failing.
We also tell ourselves that we don’t take action because we lack confidence. But confidence is not what is required, courage is. In fact, when pushing boundaries, almost no one is confident. The courageous few do something anyway. Soon, as Gaiman explains, you come to realize that fear is not to be avoided, but to be embraced. You grab fear by the throat and never let go.
- “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!
This passage brings to mind a quote from entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker Jim Rohn. Rohn often speaks of life’s possibilities, and once said, “If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.” The point is that life will push you around if you let it. We’re too often on cruise control, mindlessly going through our days. Achievement requires intention and action. Without both, you’ll either stand still, or wander aimlessly. As Dr. Seuss and Rohn make clear: it’s only by acting with intention and purpose that life’s possibilities can become a reality.
- “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden
No one is perfect, and in any event, perfection is not something to aspire to. What makes each of us special is our humanity and fallibility; it’s our rough edges, not our smooth, perfect lines. As Steinbeck explains, we must first accept our own imperfections before we can attain contentment. A life spent chasing perfection is one doomed for dissatisfaction and disappointment. Embracing who we are, warts and all: that’s what leads to a good life.
- “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.” Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist
It’s funny how life works: people who get “lucky” and achieve great success in business and in life are almost always the ones who conjure the biggest dreams and work tirelessly to realize them. Of course, as you might have guessed from the scare quotes, luck has nothing to do with it.
- “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re freed to do anything.” Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
I’ve never “lost everything” but I have experienced loss. Tuesday was the fifth year anniversary of my dad’s passing, and with the benefit of perspective I look back at that moment as a transformational one in my own life. Not only did it bring to the surface the reality of my own mortality, but it fueled me to honor his legacy by living more in accordance with his values. One month after his passing, my wife and I learned that she was pregnant with our twin girls. We knew that the introduction of two new little ones into our family would involve some “loss” in terms of our time and freedom, but instead of focusing on what we would lose, we used the occasion to consider what we could become. This put us on a path that ultimately led us to move to a place we love, and transform our business into one that fits within the lifestyle we desire, not the other way around. Loss can lead to opportunity if you let it.
- “Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” Jack Kerouac, On the Road
My wife and I spent much of our pre-child life together with our heads down, focused on advancing in our careers and growing our business. Looking back, we should have traveled more, seen more, done more, and had more adventures. Now that our kids are a bit older, we’re trying to make up for lost time. My wife is more of a wanderer by nature, and I’m trying to follow suit. Insights like this from Kerouac help our desire to live a rich, meaningful life full of new experiences.
- “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this.” Henry David Thoreau’s Journal
This quote comes from Thoreau’s journal. It’s a timeless reminder to not live for the future, nor dwell in the past. You never know what tomorrow will bring (or even if there will be a tomorrow), and you can’t do anything to change what happened yesterday, so you might as well focus on all that is great and possible about the present moment. You only get one shot at life – make the most of it.
I hope you enjoyed, and perhaps were inspired by, this review of the insights of some of the most provocative and thoughtful minds in modern history. I’ve found that no matter how tough life gets, there’s always wisdom and encouragement that can be found in great books that can help me to get back on track. Life is short. And at times it’s hard. But there’s no escaping the fact that the only way to tackle it is head-on, with purpose and intention. After all, it’s the bumps in the road that make life’s journey worth living.
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