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12+1 Thought-Provoking Quotes I Keep Thinking About

Ralph Waldo Emerson hated quotes. The American essayist would much rather hear your own thoughts than listen to you recite someone else’s. But what are you supposed to do if you come across a quote so profound, it makes you want to go live in a cave and reflect on it for the next ten years? Here are the most thought-provoking quotes I would take on such a meditation retreat. Including one by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

1. Becoming Civilised

The person who first flung a word of abuse at their enemy instead of an arrow was the founder of civilisation. For the word is the substitute for the deed, and perhaps the only one.

Sigmund Freud, quoting an unknown English author

Freud’s quote highlights the importance of learning how to speak and write persuasively. Insults may be the lowest form of disagreement. But they’re still preferable to violence.

2. Misunderstood Rejection

If you go to a Zen teacher and you approach him in the traditional way, the first thing he will do is to say: “I haven’t anything to teach. Go away!”

“Well,” you say, “what are these people doing around here? Aren’t they your students?”

“They’re working with me, but unfortunately, we are very poor these days, we don’t have enough rice to go around to make ends meet.”

So you have to insist to be taken in. Every postulant for Zen training assumes immediately that the teacher has given him the brush off in order to test his sincerity. In other words: “If you really want this thing, you gotta work for it.”

That isn’t the real point. The point is that you got to make such a fuss to get in that you cannot withdraw gracefully after having made such a fuss to get in. Because you put yourself on the spot. And you define yourself as somebody needing help or as somebody with a problem who needs a master in order to be helped out of the problem.

Alan Watts

This is one of my favourite thought-provoking Alan Watts quotes. More than anything, Zen seems to be a practical joke. A joke designed to make you realise that you are the creator of most of your own suffering. Paradoxically, you need to learn a lot to finally realise: Your Zen teacher really didn’t have anything to teach.

3. Becoming Succesful

It’s remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.

Charlie Munger

In this thought-provoking quote, the legendary investor makes the case for strategic thinking and negative knowledge. The former is about not falling for quick satisfaction. The latter is about all the other things you know you shouldn’t do. The difficult part is to be consistently average over a long period of time.

4. Truthfulness in Writing

If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Writing is commonly hailed as the best way to learn how to think for yourself. At the same time, it gives us the illusion of control. However, writing truthfully will inevitably lead you to places you did not expect. It’s only a matter of time until your ideas will run counter to prevailing narratives.

5. Free Thought

He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them.

But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations.

He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Where do our opinions come from? The idea of motivated reasoning suggests they start out as gut feelings for which we then seek validation. This makes engaging with those we disagree with a necessity. Only then can we truly know where we stand on an issue.

6. The Nature of Evil

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Great fiction doesn’t limit itself to illustrating the fight between the good guys and bad guys. Great fiction portrays those aspects in both, the hero and the villain. The question is not whether we are capable of heinous acts. The question is what it would take for us to take a dark path. And how we should live our lives in order to avoid it.

7. Eternity

High up in the North in the land called Svithjod, there stands a rock. It is a hundred miles high and a hundred miles wide. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to this rock to sharpen its beak.

When the rock has thus been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by.

Hendrik Willem Van Loon, The Story of Mankind

In his 1921 children’s book, Dutch-American historian Hendrik von Loon beautifully captured the feeling of eternity. Rarely have I read an explanation of time so vivid and clear yet so utterly incomprehensible.

8. Intelligent Life

Let me give you a fascinatingly disturbing thought.

If you look at our closest genetic relative to human beings, the chimpanzee. We share like 98% plus identical DNA. We are smarter than a chimpanzee.

So let’s invent a measure of intelligence that make humans unique. Let’s say intelligence is your ability to compose poetry, symphonies, do art, math and science. Let’s make that as the arbitrary definition of intelligence for the moment. Chimps can’t do any of that. Yet we share 98.99% of DNA.

The most brilliant chimp there ever was maybe can do a little bit of sign language. Well, our toddlers can do that. Toddlers.

So, here’s what concerns me deeply. Everything that we are that distinguishes us from chimps emerges from that 1% difference in DNA. It has to. Because that’s the difference. The Hubble Telescope, that’s in that 1%.

Maybe, everything that we are that is not the chimp is not as smart compared to the chimp as we tell ourselves it is. Maybe, the difference between constructing and launching a Hubble Telescope and a chimp combining two finger motions as sign language, maybe that diffeenece is not all that great. We tell ourselves it’s a lot. Maybe it’s almost nothing.

How would we decide that? Imagine another lifeform that’s one percent different from us; in the direction that we are different from the chimp. Think about that! We are 1% different and we’re building the Hubble Telescope, go another 1%. What are we to them? We’d be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence. […]

So I lay awake at nights wondering whether we as a species are simply too stupid to figure out the universe that we’re investigating.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

This thought-provoking quote by the enthusiastic astrophysicist is all about perspective. Seemingly marginal genetic differences can have a vast effect. It gives us a glimpse into all the things we don’t even know we don’t know.

9. False Victories

Don’t get wrapped around tactical competition. Think strategic all the time.

If you’re competing against me, I will have you in tactical fights all day long. I will put tactical things out there to distract you and fight you. And I put some minimum amount of resources against your whole deal and make you think you’re achieving this big victory — and you’re not! I will be watching you take damage, I’ll be watching you waste resources, I’ll be watching you expend leadership capital while I’m putting money in the bank. I’m putting money in the bank and I’m gonna win.

I am going to win.

Jocko Willink, Jocko Podcast #266

If you ever needed a push to prioritise long-term thinking over short-term wins, here it is. It shows how our petty short-sightedness can easily be exploited by a formidable opponent.

10. Strategic Heaven

Strategy is the only answer. This is not some dry academic point of contention, or me trying to sell more books. You can read plenty of other books on strategy. It is actually a matter of grave importance, the difference between a life of misery and one of balance and success. Strategy is a mental process in which your mind elevates itself above the battlefield.

You have a sense of a larger purpose for your life, where you want to be down the road, what you were destined to accomplish. This makes it easier to decide what is truly important, what battles to avoid. You are able to control your emotions, to view the world with a degree of detachment.

Robert Greene

Robert Greene hammers this point home, albeit from a strategic perspective. A bad habit is best replaced with a better habit. Avoiding “tactical battles” is a Sisyphean task if — at the same time — we’re not driven by “a larger purpose” in life.

11. Choosing Happiness

Happiness is a choice you make and a skill you develop.

The mind is just as malleable as the body. We spend so much time and effort trying to change the external world, other people, and our own bodies — all while accepting ourselves the way we were programmed in our youths.

We accept the voice in our head as the source of all truth. But all of it is malleable, and every day is new. Memory and identity are burdens from the past preventing us from living freely in the present. […]

A happy person isn’t someone who’s happy all the time.

It’s someone who effortlessly interprets events in such a way that they don’t lose their innate peace.

Naval Ravikant

Reminiscent of Zen, angel investor and philosopher Naval Ravikant suggests that most of our suffering is in our very minds. Could you sit where you are right now, reflect on the things that are bothering you, and interpret them in such a way that you feel grateful and happy?

12. Silence

The pupils of the Tendai school used to study meditation before Zen entered Japan. Four of them who were intimate friends promised one another to observe seven days of silence.

On the first day all were silent. Their meditation had begun auspiciously, but when night came and the oil lamps were growing dim one of the pupils could not help exclaiming to a servant: “Fix those lamps.”

The second pupil was surprised to hear the first one talk. “We are not supposed to say a word,” he remarked.

“You two are stupid. Why did you talk?” asked the third.

“I am the only one who has not talked,” concluded the fourth pupil.

Source: Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

This Zen story should stand on its own, which is why I will not comment on it in any way shape or form. Promise.

BONUS: True Greatness

The heroic soul does not sell its justice and its nobleness. It does not ask to dine nicely and to sleep warm. The essence of greatness is the perception that virtue is enough. Poverty is its ornament. It does not need plenty, and can very well abide its loss.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

This is one of the thought-provoking quotes by quote-critic Ralph Waldo Emerson that prompts a deep question about our understanding of virtue: If we knew we’d never receive praise or appreciation for a good deed, would we still do it?