Learning from Smart People

I can learn much from him.

I seek out those recognized as smarter and wiser. Studying Gandhi or other heroes inspires me and provides an example of how to live. But they aren’t the only ones I learn from.

Everyone is smarter than me in some way.

***

I start with how I see myself.

Sometimes I act as though I have no flaws
Yet I alone do give myself applause

Why yes, I am well above average in that skill. What? You ask for data to back that up? Don’t be ridiculous. It’s obvious.

All the other drivers on the road are idiots. Am I the only decent one out here today?

Mistakes? Other people make them, but not me.

Yes, I am a master of self-delusion. This is one of the reasons You Are Not So Smart is one of my favorite websites. Each post keeps me humble, helping me understand my shortcomings.

Accepting your faults is not about lowering how you see yourself. Your value is undeniable. Don’t surrender that.

But realize you have something to learn. Put yourself in the place of a student.

See others differently. Instead of viewing them as inferior to you, see them as people worth paying attention to. Then you can learn from them.

***

Many of my greatest teachers are not obvious ones. But they have wisdom to share if I pay attention.

Although the quickest glances will not show
He is the greatest salesman that I know

Old man river, he sings, more than slightly off key. If you buy a Streetwise magazine, I will not sing, he follows with a grin.

On the street corner near the Art Institute, a man sells Streetwise, a magazine that helps the homeless. Many vendors stand in one place holding the magazine out, hoping for someone to notice them. Not this man.

He paces back and forth along the intersection, engaging with the stream of pedestrians.

He smiles. He tells funny jokes. He gives people trivia. He makes people laugh.

I sit and watch him as he sells his magazines. He teaches me that the key to business, and to life, is human connection. He teaches me that success comes from putting yourself into your work and affecting people.

I bet he sells more magazines than anyone.

Behold the artist of the railway line
Making sure his train always runs on time

Doors close, and the train takes off. Buildings fly by as the conductor pushes the ‘L’ to its limit. There’s a connecting train at the next station, and he’s doing everything he can to catch it.

Our train glides into the station. The connecting train sits with the doors open. We caught it.

Have a nice day, everyone, says the conductor.

He is the artist of run 813 – giving his heart and soul to his work. Whenever I catch his train, it makes my day.

He teaches me the power of courtesy – greeting people, holding doors open, and thanking his passengers. The little touches are easy to do, but have a massive effect.

He teaches me to be helpful. It’s not his job to announce what’s happening with the delay, but everyone appreciates it.

He teaches me that it’s not the job description that matters – it’s the attitude you give to your work. Train conductor is not a glamorous work, but he makes it so.

Thank you for riding the red line today. Have a wonderful weekend.

I know a man with a dog and a hat
It is so nice with him to pause and chat

I step out the back door of our building on my way to run an errand. A man passes by, walking with his dog. He pauses and says hello. We chat for a few moments, discussing the beauty of the day.

He teaches me to acknowledge and appreciate the moments of beauty around me. If it is a beautiful day, say so. Enjoy it.

He teaches me to be friendly and kind. Human interaction makes life wonderful.

He teaches me to walk – to get away from the confines of my apartment and enjoy the fresh and beautiful air.

I continue on my way with a smile.

With kind farewell he sends me on my way
I’ll be sure to return another day

Good to see you again, buddy. How are you doing today? He makes me feel welcome.

He’s the owner of Morse Fresh Market, the neighborhood grocery store. I am more than happy to shop here.

He teaches me to greet everyone – to make people welcome.

I watch as he interacts with his staff and goes throughout the store. When one cashier is struggling with a lot of groceries, he comes over and helps. He picks up the empty shopping baskets and returns them to their place by the door. He treats everyone with respect.

He teaches me how to lead. Don’t ask someone to do something you’re not willing to do yourself. Lead by example.

Although her main job is to cut my hair
The tales she tells makes me glad to be there

Passing by the old, squeaky barber pole, I take my seat in the comfy chair. The barber greets me with her big and welcoming smile.

A trim, please, I ask.

As she cuts my hair we exchange stories. I laugh at the funny photos on the mirror. Lose weight fast, get a haircut, says one of them. She tells about the big meals she’s going to cook for the holiday weekend. We joke about her bright pink wig. She wears it just to be silly.

She teaches me to enjoy work. Have fun. Don’t be too serious.

When the cut is done, she offers a hot towel. The warmth feels good no matter how hot it is outside.

She teaches me to pay attention to the details – to do the extras that make people feel special. Be nice to people. Be helpful. They’ll pay you back in abundance.

The haircut is a good one.

There are so many smart people around
Their fine examples speak with wisdom sound

Like success, wisdom comes from unexpected places.

***

What about you? Who are some of the people you’ve learned from?

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I can learn much from him. I made this photo in South Africa.

Hurry, Hurry Has No Blessing

Worth savoring.

Haraka, haraka haina baraka – hurry, hurry has no blessing.

Such a simple proverb, but it speaks to me. Slow down, enjoy life, and be patient. Rushing brings little gain.

I need that reminder often.

***

Although I wish to slay this cold of mine
I know the only magic cure is time

This past weekend, I noticed my impatience. Sick with a nasty cold, all I wanted was for it to go way. No rest, no enduring it – I wanted it to disappear. But I had little choice.

My frustration didn’t help things. Instead of distracting myself from my cold, I dwelled on it. Negativity became my focus. And I felt worse.

The light at last turns green and I race off
Only to reach the next one with a stop

Driving is another place for impatience. I’m fortunate to live in a city with good public transit, but I still have to drive from time to time.

Hey, who do you think you are to cut me off? How dare you?

Yellow light? Speed up, I’m going to make it into the intersection before it turns red. Oh great, now I have to wait at the next light.

Get out of my way, slow car in the express lane. I want to shave two minutes off my trip.

I have so much to learn.

I demolish the foods so sweet and fine
I eat them as fast as my old canine

Then there is food. My speed may originate from my days in boarding school – where we would rush through our meals so we could have more time playing before curfew. But that’s probably just an excuse.

I hurry through my dinner. Each bite is another step in the race to finish. And what for? Rarely do I have anything urgent to do afterwards – nothing deserving my rush.

I miss out on the chance to savor each magnificent bite – and when my wife cooks, each bite is indeed magnificent. I lose the chance for gratitude – I am so blessed by my abundance. I give up the simple joy of eating.

When I was younger, my brothers and I gave my dad a hard time for being the last to finish his meal. Now I see that he was, as he almost always was, the wiser one.

I hurry on with unrelenting pace
Striving to learn to walk with patient grace

Such impatience at times – robbing me of my energy and attention. And for no gain. Is there any benefit to my hurry?

Haraka, haraka haina baraka.

I want to have patience. I want it now.

***

But I learn. Slowly, but steadily, I gain the virtue of patience.

With every single punch and kick I make
Patience is something that I cannot fake

Taekwondo teaches me. In going to train every week, in the hours of repetition and instruction, I learn. Patience is an active process.

I have to choose it. The moment I let go of my decision, when I stop paying attention to my pace, my patterns become rushed and my technique poor.

After each movement, I pause. My technique is complete. Only now can I move on to the next one.

Beyond the choice, patience takes effort. I still have to keep going over my pattern, even though I’ve done it one hundred times before. I still have to repeat the basics. Patience is hard work.

I continue. The practice is my success.

I’m learning from the wisdom of my wife
To choose the way of patience and not strife

My wife teaches me. In living and spending time with her, in the day to day matters of life, I learn. Patience sometimes requires a reminder.

She tells me to slow down. When I get anxious to move on, she encourages me to wait. When I walk too quickly, racing ahead to some unknown place for some unknown reason, she lightly pulls me back. Stay. Enjoy where you are.

Sometimes things happen that do not seem fair
Like going to your car and finding air

Unexpected annoyances teach me. Not long ago, the car I was borrowing got towed for sitting behind our building while we dropped off our luggage. It was unlucky and unfair. I was upset.

Patience lets you deal with emotion. When the flush of anger comes, sit with it. Feel it. Acknowledge how you feel. Move on. Rushing into a reaction helps no one.

As I sat with my anger for the tow company, I saw that responding harshly and hastily would accomplish nothing. They still had the car. I was still going to have to pay the fine. I calmed down and went to get the car.

Although in small portions the words come out
They compile to produce a large amount

Writing teaches me. In showing up every day, in writing at least three pages worth of words, I learn. Patience produces greater works.

After eight months of my practice, I’ve written over 200,000 words. The small actions compound.

I wrote yesterday. I wrote today. I will write tomorrow.

I learn so much from watching what you do
For your wise guidance I must say thank you

You teach me. In reading your wisdom – both here in the comments or elsewhere, in watching how you live, I learn. So I ask you, what have you learned about patience? Who are your teachers?

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Photo: Worth savoring.

A Letter to Myself – and Maybe to You Too

Will you start a fire?

Have you ever had a day where you didn’t get anything done? It wasn’t that the task at hand defeated you. It was that you didn’t even pick up your sword to fight. Instead of connecting or creating, you idled.

I had one of those nights a few weeks ago. In my frustration at the time wasted, I wrote myself the following letter. Maybe it applies to you too.

***

I want to ask you a simple question. Are you content with things as they are?

Because you’re sure acting like it. You act like you don’t care if you ever move on and go live abroad. You act like you don’t care about the projects before you. You act like you don’t care about giving the world your best.

Tonight you accomplished absolutely nothing positive. Most of it was negative actually – mindless consumption. You didn’t connect with anyone. You didn’t do any writing. You didn’t learn a skill. You didn’t even do anything fun.

You say that you want to have an extraordinary life. You say you want to make a difference in the world. You say you want to shake it with hope. You say you want to fight for humanity. Then why don’t you do it?

Your words are empty. At least they are right now.

What do you really want? Do you want the Bright Army to succeed? Then breath it every single moment of every single day. Do you want to complete a manifesto? Then finish the outline and ship it. Do you want to have the option of different work someday? Then go test something out.

You said recently that now is the best time. I agree. It is the best time. So why do you waste it?

I say this not to tear you down. The place you are in today is far above where you were even a year ago. No, I say this to push you. I say this to wake you up. Wake up. The work is just beginning. Don’t falter now. Don’t abandon all you have built so far. Don’t waste the platform you’ve established.

Because that platform is big.

It is built from relationships. Sarah, Kirk, Sarah, Frances, Connie, Regine, Rex, Mom, Dad, Jeffrey, Matthew, Grandpa, Grandma, and countless others stand in support.

It is built on knowledge. Through books like The Art of Non-Conformity, Path of Least Resistance, Linchpin, The Personal MBA, How to Win Friends and Influence People you have understood things in a new way. Through courses like the Empire Building Kit you’ve seen what is possible and the steps required to get there.

It is built on hope. From the shadows of November you have seen what could be. You have seen life.

Use that platform.

So I ask you again. Are you content with the status quo? Or do you want to push on to something greater, something remarkable, and something that matters. Do you want to partake in your personal legend? Will you take the quest?

If you do, then choose to. I know you have chosen before. Those choices have been the source of great progress. But here’s the thing. Every day you have to choose again. No, every hour you have to choose again. No, every minute you have to choose again. It is not a one time act but a continual process. It’s a journey.

If you do, then do it. Do the work. Feel the fear and do it anyways. You have vast resources at your command. Command them. You have the wisdom of pain and suffering. Use it. You have the company of heroes. Enjoy them.

I know this appears to be simple. It is. But behind it is unimaginable challenge. The theory is straightforward, but the practice is difficult. That is life though.

And so we return to tonight – to this moment. The evening is spent and wasted. Nothing can get it back. Yet there is another side to it. All the failures of the evening are also past. The consequences of lost work will still manifest themselves upon the present, but that is within the realm of your control.

You control the present. You decide how to respond. No matter what happened before, good or ill, the control is still within your hands.

And so I urge you, my dear friend, live. Deep within, I suspect you still treasure your quest. Your story still echos in your heart. Rekindle that fire. Let it burn.

I am reminded of something you once told me: “People are like matches. Most let their lights burn, however brightly, for a time and then fade away. But the great ones ignite a fire.” Go ignite that fire. What are you waiting for?

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Will you start a fire? I made this photo in Torit, Sudan.

What Values Would You Give Up?

Even a baboon won't give up his values.

In my final months in Kenya, the teachers at Rift Valley Academy gave us an exercise. They handed us nine small sheets of paper and told us to write one of our values on each of them. So we did.

They then proposed a question. If, on our way out of the room that night, someone demanded we give up three of them, which values would we give up? Since some of the values were duplicates or were just written down to be silly, this was pretty easy. We tossed the three aside.

Again they asked us a question. If, as we walked out of Centennial Hall after graduation, one of them required us to give up three more values, which ones would we surrender? This took a bit more thought, but was still doable. We now had three left.

Then it got hard. They asked us a final question. If, as we passed through the campus gates, they forced us to give up two more values, what would they be? But each of the remaining three was important. We didn’t want to give them up.

After much deliberation, we slowly put two more aside. Only one value remained, and we were left silent. “Never forget,” a teacher said, “how hard it was to give those values up. Someday, your circumstances will challenge you to do so. Remember how important your values are to you. Don’t surrender them.”

I have since forgotten many of the details of that night. I don’t even remember what value I kept in the end. But the lesson, I remember well.

Values define us. They drive our actions and guide our thinking. When things are tough, don’t give them up.

What of me? What values do I hold onto? There are five essential ones:

Love

My greatest wish for the world is that there would be more love. So important is that desire that it is the central purpose of the Bright Army. There are two particular components of love worth noting.

The first is a recognition of value. When we love someone, be it God, your neighbor, a friend, or ourselves, we acknowledge and celebrate that they have worth. And since I believe that everyone is of value, everyone is deserving of love.

The second piece is an outpouring from within. Like a spring that bubbles up to overflowing, so is love. It comes from our best selves and benefits all that it touches.

Generosity

Generosity is a manifestation of love. Things like money are a common form of generosity, but I can offer far more. I want to give the world my best. You deserve it. Writing, work, relationships, smiles, and this website are some expressions of that generosity.

In addition, I want to inspire other people to give. Everyone has a gift to offer the world, and it saddens me when such talents are ignored or cast aside. That includes you. I hope you give what you have to offer.

Gratitude

I am extremely privileged. Many cannot even dream of having the education, income, and opportunities that I have. I am grateful for them. People love and respect me – especially my lovely wife Sarah. I’m thankful for that. Dwelling on the blessings puts insignificant things in perspective, brings me joy, and makes me responsible.

From all that I have been given, much is required. That’s a great honor. And so I strive to appreciate and thank people for what they do for me. “Thank you” may be one of the most powerful phrases in all of language. Also I want to use the opportunities that I have to benefit others. Living a life that gives back is the best way to express my gratitude.

Purpose

I don’t want life to happen to me, but I want to happen to life. It’s too short to waste. And so I seek to act with purpose.

The first way is to have an overarching vision for my life. I want my life to be intentionally meaningful. Spending time thinking about who I want to be and establishing goals for the future are some ways that help me do this. Then I act on those thoughts and make those goals happen.

The second area touches the everyday. All activities should contribute to my broader vision or add value in some way, either to others or to myself. Writing, building relationships, learning, thinking, helping others are some important ways of doing this. But so are things like sleeping and relaxing. My aim is to be intentional with how I use my time.

Freedom

While I accept that I will always be dependent on people – and that’s a good thing – I am still my own person. Likewise, others are their own person as well. That’s why I value the freedom of personality, freedom of action, and freedom of others.

Freedom of personality means that I decide who I want to be. As a human being, I have a fundamental and unique value. I am who I am and not anyone else. It’s up to me to determine my values and attitudes toward life.

Out of that comes the freedom to choose my actions. That is a responsibility to myself and who I am. And as the one who made the choice, I openly accept the consequences that come from it.

As much as I value my own freedom, I treasure the freedom of others. They are valuable too. I seek to avoid actions that limit other people’s freedom. For example, I am able to slander anyone I want – it’s free speech after all – but doing so takes away their freedom. Also, I strive to do things that increase the freedom of others – especially those that have little or none to start with.

***

Those are my values. What about you? What values will you never give up?

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Even a baboon won’t give up his values. I made this photo at Baboon Cliff in Nakuru, Kenya.

A Declaration of Intent

HFLK - Love, Peace, and Yogurt

All people have fundamental value. Such value is not given by status or wealth, but by nature of being human. And when we live out of that value, life is richer, more beautiful, and full of love. When we live out of that love, we honor the story of our humanity.

The human story is priceless. And yet, we waste it. We toss it away like a piece of rubbish. We have so much to offer the world. And when we do, not only do we live better lives, others do as well. But we don’t. Why?

I’m not willing to put up with the idea that we can’t. The consequences of our non-action are too catastrophic for that. Because we waste our opportunity to live the human story, millions can’t. We take away the choice of others because of our own choices. That’s not acceptable to me.

It makes me mad. Not an impulsive and flashy anger – it’s deeper than that. This is an anger that compels me to act. It demands that I do something to right the wrong that I see.

But it isn’t all anger and energy. It’s a deeps sadness too. I’m hurt to see so many people live lives that are broken. Tears fill my eyes when I see the consequences of our poor decisions, of my poor decisions.

For I’m just as guilty. My lifestyle hurts others. And so my anger and sadness point, to some extent, to me. That’s unacceptable. I choose to change.

And if I can change, so can others. If I can figure out how to live a life of humanity, so can everyone. If I help myself understand, I can help others to understand – I can help you to understand.

And so,

To all men, women and children…
To the orphan, the refugee, and the widow…
To the poor, the rich, and all in between…
And to you…

I declare love.

The Bright Army is not an army of violence and hate, but of hope and love. Love underwrites its mission. It seeks to:

Learn and explore what it means to see the world through the eyes of humanity

What does it look like to live a life through the eyes of humanity? What does it mean to see others – to go beyond just looking at them? How does one live a life full of constant joy and gratitude? What are the rituals that we can set up in our lives to make this attitude a default?

My experience in Kenya provides a good foundation to answering such questions. And I count myself privileged to have witnessed such tremendous humanity – even in the face of poverty and oppression. It was beautiful. But now I want to go deeper.

To do so requires intentioned study. I will study individuals who have modeled a lifestyle of humanity, research thinkers who ask similar questions, and converse with those who live that story in different ways. But learning is more than just knowledge. It requires a process of application and practice. I intend to do that too.

Help others to live and celebrate the human story

Moments of joy and acts of love are something to be cherished – something to celebrate. I want to celebrate them. Part of that is recognizing them and pointing them out. It’s about highlighting the stories and honoring those people in them.

But the best way to celebrate is to be active, to share the human story with other people. For in giving to others, we so honor the gift we have been given. In helping others to live it, we live it as well.

Make other people matter

Living in humanity is all about people. In particular, it’s about making people matter. Everyone deserves dignity and respect. We all share the same humanity.

One such people group deserving focus is the poor. So often their stories are untold. They are unseen, even though they make up the majority of the earth’s population. I want to make them seen. I want to make them matter.

There are several ways of doing that, and the first is telling their stories. Stories, when told in a certain way, give dignity to their subjects. They put a face on those that so often are just lumped into a large number. Besides giving dignity, stories enrich our lives as well. They connect us to other human beings and make us part of something bigger.

The second way is exploring methods of seeing and helping the poor. I am not referring to the often used approach of throwing money at them and claiming to have all the answers. Rather, I seek a methodology of listening and understanding and humility.

The last and most essential way is forming relationships. So many people know about the poor. So few know them. That is a loss to us. And so I want to get to know the poor. I want to see the world through their eyes.

These principles also apply to other people in our lives – friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors. Telling stories, listening, and building relationships are at the heart of the human story. They convey significance.

***

While these goals are simple, there is a lot behind them. They don’t always come easy, but they are worthwhile. They make this great adventure worth undertaking.

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I made this photo at Hope for Life Kenya. They offer food and job training to orphans and unemployed youth in Nakuru, Kenya.

Fighting for the Human Story

Hope for Life Kenya

It’s the kindness of a stranger. Like when a man journeying to a distant land sees another, lying bleeding on the roadside. And though the other, by all measure of race and nationality, ought to be his enemy, the man leans down with a touch of compassion. He dresses the wounds with his fine linen and carries him to the nearest town. From him flows a river of love and generosity.

It’s the look between lovers. Like when a couple, sitting alone in the morning stillness, chance a glance at each other. Eyes meet. And in that moment, which stretches to eternity, all of life and beauty is exchanged. It bears depth: a thousand hurts and ten thousand forgivenesses, a thousand tears and ten thousand smiles, a thousand fears and ten thousand hopes.

It’s the reunion of brothers. Like when two men who have been torn apart by war and strife are joined again. In an instant, the pains of separation, hurts from deep injuries, and scars born of imprisonment and torture fade away. In their place come tears of joy which fall upon the ground as a blessed rain.

So are the stories, rich and beautiful. And though they have not necessarily happened to us, they are still ours. They call to us, speaking to our humanity. In them is hope, joy, and love. They are the human story.

If only we lived in that story more often. Would not our lives be as beautiful as the dawn, as warm as a cup of chai, and as rich as the noblest of kings? Yet, we often choose not to.

It’s bad enough that our own lives are worse off. Sadly, the costs don’t end there. Our choices deny the choice of others. Because we don’t live the human story, others can’t.

Because we don’t, children become slaves. From an early age, thousands upon thousands are forced to labor in the most dark and desolate places on earth. They risk burning, cutting, crushing, and death for wages that many would consider a rounding error.

Because we don’t, war ravages community. Deep bonds give way to mistrust. Fear replaces fellowship. Death takes the place of life. And even as the fighting ends, painful wounds remain. Their scars bear fruit to strife and hate for generations.

Because we don’t, men lose their dignity. Humanity stripped away, they become, in the eyes of the world, far less even than an animal. Forced to beg for crumbs and pennies, their talents go wasted. Their art, a gift to the world, is cast aside like a rare gem in a rubbish heap.

And so it comes back to us. The question is ours: which story will we choose? It is a choice after all.

  • We can choose hope or we can choose fear.
  • We can choose love or we can choose indifference.
  • We can choose joy or we can choose dispair.
  • We can choose the human story or we can ignore it.

My hope is that we will choose the human story. I think it’s a better story. I think it’s worth fighing for. Here’s some of what that looks like:

Fighting: Everything worthwhile requires effort. So it is with the human story. At times it is unnatural. Living in it goes against the grain of many powerful structures in our society. And so we must be active. Being passive won’t change anything.

Human: The human story is all about people. It is one of relationships and community. It’s about making people matter.

Story: Stories show us how to live and connect us with other human beings. Sadly, many of them are cast aside. Because their owner is too poor or too insignificant, we ignore them. That is a loss to us. So many of them are beautiful and deserve telling.

***

Fighting for the human story is a continual process. It’s a journey. And that journey is at the heart of the Bright Army.

I hope you will join me on it.

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The photo was taken at Hope for Life Kenya. They offer food and job training to orphans and unemployed youth in Nakuru, Kenya.