Inspiration and Motivation: Why you need both.

Throughout history creative people from all domains have described the inspirations and muses that have helped fuel their creative fires. The historical record shows that energy for achievement and creativity can come from anywhere, but especially from people, nature, and the mosaic of lived experience. Arguably it helps to intentionally build inspiration into your daily environment, especially, in this moment when one’s highest aims can so easily be obscured through distraction and the daily grind.

While inspiration seems like a fuzzy concept, conjuring up images of Instagram memes and cat posters (no offense cat people), in recent years, psychologists have developed a more sophisticated idea of inspiration (1) that illuminates both the why and the how of inspiration at work. For example, in 2014, Oleynick et al published an article in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience entitled “The scientific study of inspiration in the creative process: challenges and opportunities.” In it they characterize inspiration as possessing three distinct components: evocation, transcendence, and approach motivation.

In their view, inspiration is not initiated voluntarily by the individual; instead it is evoked in an episode by a stimulus object: e.g., art, music, architecture, nature, people etc.

“During an episode of inspiration, the individual gains awareness of new possibilities that transcend ordinary or mundane concerns. The new awareness is vivid and concrete, and it surpasses the ordinary constraints of willfully generated ideas.” (Sounds good to me!)

After experiencing the transcendence of the ordinary, “the individual experiences a compelling approach motivation to transmit, actualize, or express the new vision.” In short, inspiration has a trigger and a target. The trigger is the transcendent episode and the target is the concrete expression.

While the experience of inspiration itself is initiated by an external trigger, and not by simply willing ourselves to be inspired, we all have the ability to put ourselves in situations (think morning and nighttime rituals, daily practices etc.) where the opportunities for inspirational episodes can happen more frequently. We have the ability to rearrange our offices and living spaces, plan and take visits to museums and art exhibits, attend live music shows, read biographies of resilient human beings, and to walk, run, swim or paddle out in nature. The key is to reflect on what it is that FOR YOU that has the potential to deeply stir your emotions, enliven your mental faculties, and awaken your “approach motivation”, and then to give yourself opportunities — read schedule time — when magic could happen. Maybe it will and maybe it won’t but giving yourself more regular opportunities does increase the odds some transcendence might happen.

I have a triggering exercise related to inspiration that I learned from a performance coach in 2005, which I have used with hundreds of people in workshops and classes. Here’s the exercise, (which I complete along with participants almost every time I give it because I always get something out of it).

Inspiration to Action

  1. Make a list of ten people who inspire you.

2. List the qualities of each individual that inspires you (from personality to character traits). 2b. Look across the lists for overlaps and patterns.

3. Write two paragraphs describing how your life would be different if you manifested more of these qualities on a daily basis?

Two points I like to make:

First, my hypothesis is that the qualities on your list represent attributes that are already present within you. Why else are you drawn to them? Of course, it may appear to be just the opposite, you are drawn to things you feel you are lacking, but just for one moment consider that these may be defining qualities of your own character, albeit in seed form.

Second, is the point my performance coach made regarding the two paragraph reflection. His simple advice: “Start acting that way now.”

While I’m a believer in the power of inspiration, I also believe that inspiration can be overrated. (Unless you don’t have any!) As a public speaker and workshop leader, providing inspiration can be a first step in a process and a plus, but inspiring people ranks much lower on the priority list than equipping them, i.e, it’s far more valuable to co-create with individuals and teams ways to increase productivity, scale innovative culture, lead change, creatively solve problems etc… than to fire them up without making sure they’re prepared with tools for the challenges of the journey ahead.

Ironically, it’s one of my inspirations Michael Jordan who showed me that there was a source of fuel available to me beyond inspiration, what I have come to think of as motivation. I first tapped into this idea while watching Jordan’s speech at his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. If you’ve never seen it you simply have to watch:

In his speech Michael spends most of his time talking about the people who fueled his success. And though he mentions his parents and a few colleagues like Scottie Pippin, he spends most of the speech calling out the people who tried to stand in his way. The speech is noticeably ungracious. (For a contrast watch Shaquille O’neill’s recent Basketball Hall of Fame inauguration speech.) I realized after watching that I was missing something that is hugely important. By focusing so much on inspiration and positivity I was missing out on a great inner resource: the energy available to me in overcoming the obstacles put in my path by ignorant or downright obstructionist individuals.

Listening to Michael, I saw that instead of shunning the negativity coming at me I could embrace it and transform it into serious motivation.

Like Michael Jordan, we all have people who knowingly have set themselves up as obstacles on our paths. And, what I love about Michael is the way he answered those challenges: he let his game do the talking. Yes, his trash talking was legendary and part of his strategy, but you never saw any negative emotion from him unless he was working over a ref. or defending a teammate. Other than that he was all business. He didn’t resort to whining to the media or anyone else, instead he elevated his game and won. What an example.

You will always have haters (unless you’re not doing anything). There are always going to be people who would rather throw bricks then build houses. We all face trolls, fear mongers, gossipers, bullies, whiners and complainers, the small minded who are afraid of other's success, who can only shine by dimming other people’s light, those who use their positions of authority to intimidate rather than build up, who block raises and promotions because they only want to be surrounded by sycophants rather than people who care and add value. So what are you going to do? Join them? Become a complainer? A hater?

My advice is to let your own excellence do the talking for you. You can’t argue with results. You can’t argue with winning. Be like Mike and then call them out in your retirement speech!

  1. Oleynick, V. C., Thrash, T. M., LeFew, M. C., Moldovan, E. G., & Kieffaber, P. D. (2014). The scientific study of inspiration in the creative process: challenges and opportunities. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 436.
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