Once you truly understand that success, happiness, and life balance come from living in harmony with timeless principles—and you determine that you want those things—you can decide to make the search for principles a life quest. You can seek to discover the wisdom of the ages and apply it to the challenges of today.
Consciously making the decision to seek and live by wisdom puts you on the path. It gives you the openness that comes with being a seeker of wisdom and truth. Faced in the direction of wisdom, then, there are several things you can do to move along the path.
As we mentioned in Chapter 2, one of the most high leverage things you can do is make a daily commitment to study the “wisdom literature” created by poets, philosophers, leaders and other wise men and women involved in this quest throughout the ages. This will center you and put you in tune with wisdom. It will increase the quality of your decision making throughout the day.
What we’re suggesting is that you spend a few minutes every day with some of the best books, stories, thoughts and ideas from around the globe and throughout time. But don’t just read them; engage with them. Ponder over them. Look beyond the ideas themselves and into the values they reflect. Consider how you might apply them in your own life. Begin to collect and focus on passages or thoughts that are particularly meaningful to you.
We encourage you to take a few minutes now and read the “wisdom literature” excerpts on the following pages. Ask yourself: “If I were to spend even a few minutes each morning interacting with such ideas, what kind of difference would it make in the quality of my decisions throughout the day?”
There are more things to do than we ever shall get done; there are more books to read than we ever can look at; there are more avenues to enjoyment than we ever shall find time to travel. Life appeals to us from innumerable directions, crying, “Attend to me here!” In consequence, we litter up our lives with indiscriminate preoccupation. We let first come be first served, forgetting that the finest things do not crowd. We let the loudest voices fill our ears, forgetting that asses bray, but gentlemen speak low. Multitudes of people are living not bad but frittered lives—split, scattered, uncoordinated. They are like pictures into which a would-be artist has put, in messy disarray, everything that he has chanced to see; like music into which has been hurled, helter-skelter, every vagrant melody that strayed into the composer’s mind. Preoccupation is the most common form of failure.
—Harry Emerson Fosdick
Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of nonessentials.
The consumption society has made us feel that happiness lies in having things, and has failed to teach us the happiness of not having things.
One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.
—Yoruba Proverb (Nigeria)
Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
—The Holy Bible
Tsekung asked, “Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life? Confucius replied, “It is the word shu—reciprocity: Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.”
— The Analects of Confucius 15.23
Into the hands of every individual is given a marvelous power for good or evil—the silent, unconscious, unseen influence of his life. This is simply the constant radiation of what man really is, not what he pretends to be.
—William George Jordan
Parents can only give good advice or put children on the right paths. The final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.
The world is not a playground; it is a schoolroom. Life is not a holiday, but an education. And the one eternal lesson for us all is how better we can love. What makes a man a good cricketer? Practice. What makes a man a good artist, a good sculptor, a good musician? Practice. What makes a man a good linguist, a good stenographer? Practice. What makes a man a good man? Practice. Nothing else . . . We do not get the soul in different ways, under different laws, from those in which we get the body and the mind. If a man does not exercise his arm he develops no biceps muscle; and if a man does not exercise his soul, he requires no muscle in his soul, no strength of character, no vigor of moral fibre, nor beauty of spiritual growth. Love is not a thing of enthusiastic emotion. It is a rich, strong, manly, vigorous expression of the whole round ...character . . . in its fullest development. And the constituents of this great character are only to be built up by ceaseless practice.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
If you love others, but they do not love you in return, reexamine your own love. If you would bring peace and order to men, but disorder ensure, reexamine your own wisdom. If you are ceremonious with others and they do not return it, reexamine your own reverence. If your deeds are unsuccessful, seek for the reason in yourself. When your own person is correct, the whole world will turn to you.
A lot of people learned during the war how scarcity can sharpen perceptions and heighten enthusiasm. Once, flying home from blacked-out Britain, my plane landed briefly in Iceland, and somebody handed me an orange. I hadn’t seen an orange for over a year, much less tasted one; but for a long time I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. As we roared on to Greenland over the steel-gray sea, I sat there and stroked that orange and smelled it and held it up to the light to admire its color. In the end, I did eat it. It was sensational; I’ve never had an orange like that one since. I really loved that orange, and perhaps because I loved it I learned something from it.
I learned that sometimes, when you’re feeling jaded or blas , you can revive your sense of wonder by saying to yourself: suppose this were the only time. Suppose this sunset, this moonrise, this symphony, this buttered toast, this sleeping child, this flag against the sky . . . suppose you would never experience these things again . . .
To be elated at success and disappointed at failure is to be the child of circumstances; how can such a one be called master of himself?
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, under- standing, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.
—Anne Morrow Lindbergh
A blind man, being stopped in a bad piece of road, meets with a lame man, and entreats him to guide him through the difficulty he got into. How can I do that, replied the lame man, since I am scarce able to drag myself along? But as you appear to be very strong, if you will carry me, we will seek our fortunes together. It will then be my interest to warn you of anything that may obstruct your way; your feet shall be my feet, and my eyes yours. With all my heart, returned the blind man; let us render each other our mutual services. So taking his lame companion on his back, they by means of their union traveled on with safety and pleasure.
Observe how all God’s creations borrow from each other: day borrows from night and night from day, but they do not go to law one with another as mortals do . . . The moon borrows from the stars and the stars from the moon . . . the sky borrows from the earth and the earth from the sky . . . All God’s creatures borrow from the other, yet make peace with one another without lawsuits; but if man borrows from his friend, he seeks to swallow him up with usury and robbery.
—Midrash, Exodus Rabbah 31.15
What I like about experience is that it is such an honest thing. You may take any number of wrong turnings, but keep your eyes open and you will not be allowed to go very far before the warning signs appear. You may have deceived yourself, but experience is not trying to deceive you. The universe rings true wherever you fairly test it.
—C. S. Lewis
It is a trite saying that one half the world knows not how the other half lives. Who can say what sores might be healed, what hurts solved, were the doings of each half of the world’s inhabitants understood and appreciated by the other?
What a man dislikes in those above him, he must not bring to bear on those beneath him. What he dislikes in those beneath him, he must not bring to the service of those above him. The treatment which he dislikes from his neighbours on the right, he must not give to those on the left. The treatment which he dislikes from his neighbours on the left, he must not give to those on the right. This is what is meant by the Way of the Measuring Square.
—The Great Learning, x, 2 (Chinese)
The diameter of each day is measured by the stretch of thought—not by the rising and setting of the sun.
—Henry Ward Beecher
I don’t know who, or what, put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer “Yes” to someone or something. And from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self- surrender, had a goal.
—Dag Hammarskj ld
If I had only . . . forgotten future greatness and looked at the green things and the buildings and reached out to those around me and smelled the air and ignored the forms and the self-styled obligations and heard the rain on the roof and put my arms around my wife
. . . and it’s not too late!
Most people measure their happiness in terms of physical pleasure and material possession. Could they win some visible goal which they have set on the horizon, how happy they would be! Lacking this gift or that circumstance, they would be miserable.
If happiness is to be so measured, I who cannot hear or see have every reason to sit in a corner with folded hands and weep. If I am happy in spite of my deprivations, if my happiness is so deep that it is a faith, so thoughtful that it becomes a philosophy of life—if, in short, I am an optimist, my testimony to the creed of optimism is worth hearing.
The human soul is like a mountain reservoir. Quietly and slowly, away from the multitude, it fills and renews itself with strength, purpose, faith, courage, energy, speed, initiative. Then it pours down through the world and moves the mills of trade like a Niagara!
—Edward Earle Purinton
We think in secret; it comes to pass.
Environment is but our looking-glass.
Now stop and consider: How do you feel after reading these timeless thoughts and reflections? A little stronger? A little more “together”? Think about it: If you were to read and digest material such as this for a few minutes every morning, would it improve the quality of your decision making throughout the day?
We believe it would. After sharing this experience with people in seminars around the globe, we’ve seen how it can significantly reduce levels of stress. People feel “calmer,” “more peaceful,” “more connected.” They often make comments such as:
“I can’t believe how long it’s been since I read something like this.”
“I can’t believe the difference I felt.”
“I feel reminded of what’s really important in life.”
Reading wisdom literature is a high leverage Quadrant II activity. It has great benefits. And it doesn’t take that much time. In fact, it’s like spending a few minutes at the gas pump—it gives you the fuel you need to travel effectively another 300 miles down the road.
One of the most treasured practices of my life is the daily study of wisdom literature—most often, the sacred literature of my own faith. Each time the circumstances in my life have changed—another baby, another writing project, another move—I’ve had to fight to create sufficient order in my life to allow it. But it has been one of my greatest sources of peace. It’s empowered me to be more patient, more kind, more loving, more focused, more capable in handling the challenges of the day.
I remember one morning when I had an important project that had to be done by 8:00 a.m. As I walked into my study at 6:00, I looked at the project on my computer desk and then at my reading for the day on my writing desk. I was sorely tempted to dispense with the reading and get right into the project. But deep inside, I felt I really needed to put my reading first. So I did. I spent about 20 minutes “centering” for the day, then I attacked the project with gusto. I forced myself to work quickly and I didn’t even look at the clock until I was nearly through. When I did look, I couldn’t believe it! It was only 7:30! What had seemed like a good two or three hours of work had been done in one hour and ten minutes.
Due to the travel that comes with my work, I spend many hours driving in cars and flying in planes. Over the years, I’ve learned to use this time to listen to some of the many classic and inspirational works that are available on cassette tape and CD. This enables me to transform what would otherwise be less useful time into a quality investment in learning. In addition, I find there’s a different flow, an added perspective, that comes from listening instead of reading. I’ve been amazed at the influence these things have had on my thinking over time.
Taking even a few minutes a day to expose our minds and hearts to the great thoughts of civilizations throughout time gives powerful perspective to the challenges of the day. To find wisdom literature, you can check your local library, bookstores, or the Internet for titles that represent the best thinking over the centuries. We’ve included a concise bibliography for further study.
Fosdick, Harry Emerson. Twelve Tests of Character. Harper and Brothers, New York and London, 1923.
Drummond, Henry. The Greatest Thing in the World and Pax Vobiscum. The Gold Medal Library, London and Calcutta, pp. 29–30.
Frankl, Viktor E.. Man’s Search for Meaning, First Washington Square Press Printing, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1985, p. 86.
Mencius. The Sayings of Mencius. Translated by James R. Ware. New American Library, New York, 1960, p. 100.
Gordon, Arthur. A Touch of Wonder: A Book to Help People Stay in Love With Life, Jove Edition, Jove Publications, New York, 1978, p. 171.
Aesop’s Fables. Illustrated by Ernest Griset, with text based on Croxall, LaFontaine, and L’Estrange. London: Cassell, Petter, Galpin, p. 372.
Lewis, C. S. Surprised by Joy. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955, p. 177.
Prather, Hugh, Notes to Myself, reprint edition, Bantam Books, New York, 1983.