Do you remember your favorite books from when you were a kid?
I had a collection that I read until the spines were creased white and the pages needed a full roll of scotch tape to hold them together. My favorite group of books that were always ready to offer a respite from that day’s troubles. Filled with stories and characters that shaped my outlook on life as much as any mentor or experience.
Now there’s an active debate about whether adults should read children’s books. Some people feel these treasures from our childhood should remain there. They think they’re not appropriate for “adults” to read.
Which is ridiculous. If the hallmark of a great story is to weave meaning into a single, engaging narrative, then children’s books accomplish this as well as anything else.
And few books accomplish this better than one of my absolute favorites, Norton Jester’s 1961 classic, The Phantom Tollbooth. Which, yes, is also a children’s book.
It tells the story of Milo, a bored little boy struggling to find meaning in the world, who finds a magic tollbooth in his room and is magically transported to a fantasy Kingdom of Wisdom. From getting lost in the Doldrums where thinking and laughter are against the law to fending off demons in the Mountains of Ignorance, Milo braves a number of thrilling challenges, learning lessons and that are as relevant now as they no doubt were when he was introduced to the world a half-century ago.
In all, it provides a timeless, and increasingly timely, guide on the value of being an open-minded and thoughtful adult. All disguised as a children’s book.
And while most of the lessons that Milo encounters aren’t new ideas, they serve as excellent reminders towards leading a life of curiosity and presence. But it’s often these reminders which helps us recognize the right course. It’s these reminders which keep our values at the forefront of our mind and leverage them in our decision-making.
With that, below are my favorite reminders from Juster’s classic on embracing curiosity, learning, and the elusive skill of making the most of every day.
And I challenge anyone to say these are limited to children.
On Living in Expectations
“‘What kind of place is Expectations?’ inquired Milo, unable to see the humor and feeling very doubtful of the little man’s sanity.
‘Good question, good question,’ he exclaimed. ‘Expectations is the place you must always go to before you get to where you’re going. Of course, some people never go beyond Expectations, but my job is to hurry them along whether they like it or not.'”
Do you know someone who’s always telling you what they’re going to do, yet never takes that first step? They’re going to publish the next great novel but haven’t written a word. They’re going to run a marathon but haven’t exercised in a year.
They’re living in Expectations. Content to settle for possible. Unwilling to face the challenge of their limitations.
Expectations are safe. But they only become worthwhile when they’re paired with action.
So start your journey. Take that first step. Psychologist George Miller knew what he was talking about when he said, “The crowning intellectual accomplishment of the brain is the real world.”
On Cherishing Our Time
“‘What are you doing here?’ growled the watchdog.
‘Just killing time,’ replied Milo apologetically. ‘You see——‘
‘KILLING TIME!’ roared the dog – so furiously that his alarm went off. ‘It’s bad enough wasting time without killing it.'”
Time is our only true finite resource. Despite that, we treat it with reckless abandon. Giving it away and wasting it as we never would any more tangible resource.
We drift through our days with the belief that our time is unlimited. And we’re conditioned to believe that anything of unlimited quantity must be low value.
But in the immortal words of Annie Dillard, and a line I quote all too frequently, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our nights.”
Drifting through days leads to drifting through life. Because how we do anything, is how we do everything.
On Avoiding Pomposity
“Today people use as many words as they can and think themselves very wise for doing so. For always remember that while it is wrong to use too few, it is often far worse to use too many.” – Faintly Macabre
Especially wise advice to remember for anyone who’s sought the legal or academic career paths.
But beyond that, remember that the goal is always to communicate, not confuse. Good information informs. Good questions quest.
No one’s ever impressed by someone who uses conversation as a means to boost their own ego. And few people enjoy talking to someone who uses twenty words when five will do.
As Albert Einstein once put it, “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”
On the Gift of Changing Perspectives
“’What a silly system.’ The boy laughed. ‘Then your head keeps changing its height and you always see things in a different way? Why, when you’re fifteen things won’t look at all the way they did when you were ten, and at twenty everything will change again.’
‘I suppose so,’ replied Milo, for he had never really thought about the matter.
‘We always see things from the same angle,’ the boy continued. ‘It’s much less trouble that way.’”
Do you see the world differently today than five years ago? Do you expect your views to make similar progress over the next five?
Today’s culture often views changing your mind as a weakness. We hold debates where changing your mind is synonymous with losing. We research alternative opinions for the sole purpose of disproving them, never objectively considering their merits.
And we look on those who don’t share our own perspectives as irrational and illogical. Yet we often forget that our own views and values have changed drastically over time.
Are we angry with the version of ourselves that saw the world through a different lens five years ago? Is it any different to be angry with those who see it that way now?
On Not Worrying About Where You’re Not
“Being lost is never a matter of not knowing where you are; it’s a matter of knowing where you aren’t – and I don’t care at all about where I’m not.” – Alec Bings
Maybe today didn’t go as you expected. Or recent events didn’t unfold as you hoped. But on the long arc of life, we’re often surprised over which events bring positive outcomes and which yield regrets.
In the words of Orson Welles and one of my all-time favorite quotes, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
Stop worrying about where you aren’t. Appreciate where you are.
On Presence over Productivity
“As you know, the most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between, and they took great pleasure in doing just that. Then one day someone discovered that if you walked as fast as possible and looked at nothing but your shoes you would arrive at your destination much more quickly. Soon everyone was doing it. They all rushed down the avenues, and hurried along the boulevards seeing nothing of the wonders and beauties, of their city as they went… No one paid any attention to how things looked, and as they moved faster and faster everything grew uglier and dirtier, and as everything grew uglier and dirtier they moved faster and faster, and at last a very strange thing began to happen. Because nobody cared, the city slowly began to disappear. Day by day the buildings grew fainter and fainter, and the streets faded away, until at last it was entirely invisible. There was nothing to see at all.” – Alec Bings
There’s no shortage of productivity tips and habit hacks to maximize our daily output. There’s almost always a way to get things done faster and cram more tasks into your day. But what’s the trade-off?
Perhaps a better question is, what are you willing to trade for your increased productivity? Are we all ready to start walking with our heads down starting at our shoes to arrive more quickly?
What about staring at our phones?
As we jump from one task to another, as we worship at the altar of productivity, we slowly degenerate into busyness.
And while busyness will give us a feeling of importance, it rarely leads to a fulfilling life. As Seneca advised over 2000 years ago, “There is nothing the busy man is less busy with than living.”
On the Importance of Balance
“’He only likes unpleasant sounds,’ volunteered Tock.
‘Ah, yes,’ she sighed; ‘I keep forgetting that many people do. But I suppose they are necessary, for you’d never really know how pleasant one was unless you knew how unpleasant it wasn’t.’”
We all know people who’ve grown up without struggles. Those fortunate few who’ve never had to endure the challenges of a difficult life.
But that same group misses out on the opportunity to build real strength. They’ve missed the chance to take real pride in both their struggle and their accomplishments.
Life needs balance. We get stronger by breaking down our muscles and then rebuilding through recovery. We appreciate the positive when we also have some exposure to the negative.
On Jumping to Conclusions
“‘You’re on the island of Conclusions. Make yourself at home. You’re apt to be here for some time.’
‘But how did we get here?’ asked Milo, who was still a bit puzzled by being there at all.
‘You jumped, of course,’ explained Canby. ‘That’s the way most everyone gets here. It’s really quite simple: every time you decide something without having a good reason, you jump to Conclusions whether you like it or not. It’s such an easy trip to make that I’ve been here hundreds of times.’
‘But this is such an unpleasant-looking place,’ Milo remarked.
‘Yes, that’s true,’ admitted Canby; ‘it does look much better from a distance.'”
Just as we’re expected to have an opinion on every subject, we’re pushed for the immediate solution to every problem.
In each case, we get a superficial understanding, jump to a conclusion, anchor it to our identity, and then defend it to the death.
But we forget that this isn’t a pleasant place to be. The easy answer and shallow understanding rarely bring a fulfilling solution.
Take the time to truly understand. Stop jumping.
On the Importance of Asking Questions
“‘Why, did you know that if a beaver two feet long with a tail a foot and a half long can build a dam twelve feet high and six feet wide in two days, all you would need to build Boulder Dam is a beaver sixty-eight feet long with a fifty-one foot tail?’
‘Where would you find a beaver that big?’ grumbled the Humbug as his pencil point snapped.
‘I’m sure I don’t know,’ he replied, ‘but if you did, you’d certainly know what to do with him.’
‘That’s absurd,’ objected Milo, whose head was spinning from all the numbers and questions.
‘That may be true,’ he acknowledged, ‘but it’s completely accurate, and as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong? If you want sense, you’ll have to make it yourself.'”
I really just love this dialogue. Likely due to my obsession with asking questions.
As someone who views the ability to ask good questions as the hallmark of the ability to offer effective advice, the importance of a good question cannot be understated. Krista Tippett captured it perfectly, “Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet.”
Take the time to make your questions worthwhile. Because while it’s relatively easy to spot a wrong answer, it’s much more difficult to spot wrong questions. Unless, of course, it’s regarding the relative beaver size needed to build Boulder Dam.
On the Importance of Making Mistakes
“You must never feel badly about making mistakes, as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do for being right for the wrong reasons.” – The Princess of Pure Reason
An oft-preached yet rarely followed suggestion. We tell people to learn from every mistake but if we’re honest with ourselves, know that we struggle to follow this advice.
Mistakes are difficult to take. Rejection sucks. No one likes to hear “No.”
But “No” is often just the first step. As Chris Voss writes in Never Split the Difference, “‘No’ is the start of the negotiation, not the end of it. We’ve been conditioned to fear the word ‘No.’ But it is a statement of perception far more often than of fact.”
So get over it. Because to quote Debbie Millman, “I don’t think rejection is ever final until you stop trying to succeed.”
On Learning to Learn
“‘But there’s so much to learn,’ he said, with a thoughtful frown.
‘Yes, that’s true,’ admitted Rhyme; ‘but it’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.'”
Some people learn facts. Others learn skills.
One is taught in school. The other is rewarded in life.
I’d say choose wisely, but it doesn’t seem like much of a choice.
In the words of memory expert Jim Kwik put it, “Knowledge is not power. Knowledge is only potential power. It only becomes useful when we’re actually applying it and taking action on it.”
On Taking that First Step
“‘But I could never have done it,’ he objected, ‘without everyone else’s help.’
‘That may be true,’ said Reason gravely, ‘but you had the courage to try; and what you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do.’”
Start with one step. However small or insignificant that step may seem, take it. Then another. Each step in the right direction reaffirms our identity. And gives the finish line a little more clarity.
Each step keeps us moving forward. It wards off complacency. And keeps us from settling.
Each step brings us closer to our goal. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.”
On Challenging the Impossible
“‘That’s why,’ said Azaz, “there was one very important thing about your quest that we couldn’t discuss until you returned.’
‘I remember,’ said Milo eagerly. ‘Tell me now.’
‘It was impossible,’ said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.
‘Completely impossible,’ said the Mathemagician, looking at the king.
‘Do you mean—‘ stammered the bug who suddenly felt a bit faint.
‘Yes, indeed,’ they repeated together; ‘but if we’d told you then, you might not have gone—and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.’”
How many challenges do we avoid because the odds seem stacked against us?
Every major breakthrough is impossible… until, of course, it isn’t. If we held ourselves back from these seemingly impossible challenges, life wouldn’t be nearly as exciting.
Don’t let the illusion of impossible keep you from making it possible.