Today I want to share the story of the single best piece of advice I've ever received, and it might surprise you. We’re talking expert-level advice here, real pro stuff. The kind of stuff that you only hear once or twice in your life, because it’s that powerful.
Back in my senior year of college, I was preparing to attend an undergrad philosophy conference, where I would be presenting a paper. I had never done this before, and was afraid for the level of skepticism that I would be put up to. I'd done speeches before, those aren't any bother. You just have to talk and let people listen. But at a conference, you don’t just have to speak, you have to speak before a bunch of your peers. You have to speak before people who know exactly what you’re talking about and are going to call you out on every little minute detail. You have to speak before people who are going to talk back, because debate and discussion are part of the routine. Here’s the piece of advice one of my close friends gave me: “Dude, just act like the conference is a weight, and lift it.”
“Huh?!” you might be thinking. That’s not very profound at all. That’s pretty awful advice actually. And you’re perfectly right. It was a joke, and it certainly wasn't intended to be taken seriously. But that simple, stupid phrase had a huge effect on me all the same. It got me to edit that paper, it got me to go to that conference, and it got me to present without any more fear. Why is that? As I see it, there are two lessons to be gained from this story.
The first is that, of course, everything is mental. Oftentimes, we rationalize away our fears by finding external reasons onto which we can attach our misgivings, but the reality often is that we simply don’t want to do things, independent of the phenomena attached. In reality, the only thing standing between you and victory is yourself. Once you commit to actually doing the thing in question, you find that it’s a lot easier than you made it out to be in your head. There was nothing to worry about all along. Even if there was, often times the worrying about it is worse than the actual event itself.
Learning to be open to possibilities allows you to avoid fearing them, and to take the most out of your life. Of course, this is an equally stupid command, because it says nothing about how to learn to be open, which was always the harder part. It’s a long and difficult journey to do such a thing, and we can never truly be open - there’s always going to be something you’re afraid of doing, no matter how unimportant it seems to others. But when your mindset does properly line up with the task at hand, the task is always simple. Presenting a paper at a conference becomes as easy as… lifting a weight. Even the most grueling of work can become fun, so long as you align your mindset with the time, and great men and women are often precisely the people who learn to take pride in their work and do it only because they enjoy it.
To some, lifting weights might be boring, bothersome, grueling. For me, it’s a beloved hobby that I've spent many years doing. Were myself and one of these hypothetical people both to lift weights, I would clearly do it a lot more easily and with less mental difficulty. But training your mind to accept the physical act of lifting is just as much a part of the process as training the actual body. Learning to be open to an activity can require years of practice before it gets easy for you. Thus, newer activities are more likely to be difficult for us, while practiced ones will be much more easy. Practicing the things you have mental difficulty with is the best way to dispel that difficulty, to open your mind to that possibility.
The second lesson I've derived from this story is that inspiration can come from literally anywhere. Inspiration doesn't often derive itself from the inherent values of the inspiring object (though of course it can be inspiring on its own), but rather from a unique and random effect of simply being in the right place at the right time. Anything can inspire you, so long as it happens to work in the instant. Later on you might find that inspiration drab, dull, boring, yet at the time it did the trick. Trying to find that same inspiration again later in the same place is equally foolish, because it’s unlikely that the same inspiring object will manage to work twice. In short, inspiration is like a flash of lightning which rarely strikes the same location again.
Since inspiration can be so powerful, we put a premium on it. We sell it in articles, books, tapes, four easy payments of $19.95. We derive it from religion, ideology, art, and anywhere else it can be found. But since inspiration is a deeply personal experience, it cannot be universally shared. Religion may try to put a monopoly on inspiration, but it's not something that can be controlled. The best piece of advice I've ever received is unlikely to have any effect on you, the reader, simply because inspiration is a unique experience. Likewise, anything that’s inspired you in the past is unlikely to inspire me. Trying to package it in the way motivational speakers and religious leaders do is ultimately bound to fail.
Remember the last time you went to a motivational seminar. You sat through the event, nodding your head at every word, agreeing with everything the speaker said, perhaps getting a little emotionally involved in some story or another - and then you went home and forgot about it. Motivational materials often fail for precisely this reason: because they were never really designed to work. Since motivation is unlikely to be directly transmitted in this way, the motivation speaker is no expert at his/her craft (except perhaps as a salesman/woman), but rather is simply grasping at straws the same way the rest of us do. Even the most divine words can seem banal in the mind of someone who simply isn't in the right place to accept them, and to the contrary we can see videos of people on TV getting extremely worked up about something that inspires almost no interest in us.
What does this mean? Well for one, looking for motivation is probably proof that you aren't going to find it, and the harder you look the harder it’s going to be to find. Inspiration is something that comes on its own, irrationally, whenever it feels like it, probably whenever you need it most. If you’re searching for it, it’s going to flee. If you let it come to you, it’ll be there. I've always advocated going with the flow, allowing the world to guide your course of action rather than attempting to master it. Well, here’s more evidence in favor of that, as I see it. Don't search for inspiration, but rather open yourself up to the possibilities inherent in the world around you.
The best piece of advice I've ever received was a joke, but that doesn't make it any less potent. What’s the best piece of advice you've ever received? Probably something equally ridiculous, but also equally as effective.