9 Short Quotes That Changed My Life and Why

Like a lot of people, I try to collect words to live by. Most of these words come from reading, but also from conversations, from teachers, and from everyday life. As Seneca, the philosopher and playwright, so eloquently put it: We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application—not far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech—and learn them so well that words become works. In my commonplace book, I keep these little sayings under the heading “Life.” That is, things that help me live better, more meaningfully, and with happiness and honesty. Below are 9 sayings, what they mean, and how they changed my life. Perhaps they will strike you and be of service. Hopefully the words might become works for you too. “If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.” —Nassim Taleb This little epigram from Nassim Taleb has been a driving force in my life. It fuels my writing, but mostly it has fueled difficult personal decisions. A few years ago, I was in the middle of a difficult personal situation in which my financial incentives were not necessarily aligned with the right thing. Speaking out would cost me money. I actually emailed Nassim. I asked: “What does ‘saying’ entail? To the person? To the public? At what cost? And how do you know where/when ego might be the influencing factor in determining where you decide to go on that public/private spectrum?” His response was simple: If it harms the collective, you speak up until it no longer does. There’s another line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Caesar, having returned from the conquest of Gaul, is reminded to tread lightly when speaking to the senators. He replies, “Have I accomplished so much in battle, but now I’m afraid to tell some old men the truth?” That is what I think about with Nassim’s quote. What’s the point of working hard and being successful if it means biting your tongue (or declining to act) when you see something unfair or untoward? What do you care what everyone else thinks? “It can have meaning if it changes you for the better.” —Viktor Frankl Viktor Frankl, who was imprisoned and survived three separate Nazi concentration camps, lost his wife, his parents, job, his home and the manuscript that his entire life’s work had gone into. Yet, he emerged from this horrific nightmare convinced that life was not meaningless and that suffering was not without purpose. His work in psychology—now known as logotherapy—is reminiscent of the Stoics: We don’t control what happens to us, only how we respond. Nothing deprives us of this ability to respond, even if only in the slightest way, even if that response is only acceptance. In bad moments, I think of this line. It reminds me that I can change for the better because of it and find meaning in everything—even if my “suffering” pales in comparison to what others have gone through. “Thou knowest this man’s fall; but thou knowest not his wrassling.” —James Baldwin As James Baldwin reflected on the death of his father, a man who he loved and hated, he realized that he only saw the man’s outsides. Yes, he had his problems but hidden behind those external manifestations was his own unique internal struggle which no other person is ever able to fully comprehend. The same is true for everyone—your parents, your boss, the person behind you in line. We can see their flaws but not their struggles. If we can focus on this, we’ll have so much more patience and so much less anger and resentment. It reminds me of another line that means a lot to me from Pascal: “To understand is to forgive.” You don’t have to fully understand or know, but it does help to try. “This is not your responsibility but it is your problem.” —Cheryl Strayed Though I came to Cheryl Strayed late, the impact has been significant. In the letter this quote came from, she was speaking to someone who had something unfair done to them. But you see, life is unfair. Just because you should not have to deal with something doesn’t change whether you in fact need to. It reminds me of something my parents told me when I was learning to drive: It doesn’t matter that you had the right of way if you end up dying in an accident. Deal with the situation at hand, even if you don’t want to, even if someone else should have to, because you’re the one that’s being affected by it. End of story. Her quote is the best articulation I’ve found of that fact. “Dogs bark at what they cannot understand.” —Heraclitus People are going to criticize you. They are going to resist or resent what you try to do. You’re going to face obstacles and a lot of those obstacles will be other human beings. Heraclitus is explaining why. People don’t like change. They don’t like to be confused. It’s also a fact that doing new things means forcing change and confusion on other people. So, if you’re looking for an explanation for all the barking you’re hearing, there it is. Let it go, keep working, do your job. My other favorite line from Heraclitus is: “Character is fate.” Who you are and what you stand for will determine who you are and what you do. Surely character makes ignoring the barking a bit easier. “Life is short—the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.” —Marcus Aurelius Marcus wrote this line at some point during the Antonine Plague—a global pandemic spanning the entirety of his reign. He could have fled Rome. Most people of means did. No one would have faulted him if he did too. Instead, Marcus stayed and braved the deadliest plague of Rome’s 900-year history. And we know that he didn’t … Continue reading 9 Short Quotes That Changed My Life and Why