The Science of Inspiration (and How to Make It Work for You)

Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time like dew on the tip of a leaf.

Image Credits: Xian Griffin

Inspiration is fickle and difficult. We all strive for those bright “Aha!” moments, whether we work in a creative or logical field.

For most of us, it usually occurs at the most inopportune times; never when we’re searching for it. To Archimedes, it happened in the bathtub. Newton experienced it while wandering an apple orchard. Arthur Fry: church. Each encountered an epiphany, that powerful moment of spontaneous insight. Archimedes shouted Eureka! upon realizing how to calculate density and volume; to Newton came the law of universal gravity; to Arthur Fry, Post-it notes.

But the question is, does it always have to be random like this?

Can we find inspiration instead of waiting for it to occur?

In 2003, two psychologists at the University of Rochester, Todd Thrash and Andrew Elliot, set out to conduct the definitive study of inspiration using psychology.

The entire research study was an impressive undertaking, and, by the end, the researchers had two very important results.

· A psychological scale that could be used to measure inspiration.

· A list of over 30 personality traits with data to show whether these traits cause inspiration to occur.

They tested over 30 different traits; some were directly related to inspiration, others not at all. And they found that only 3 traits are required to remain inspired to do anything in life.

· Openness to Experience

· Self-esteem

· Creative Enjoyment

Openness to Experience

In their conclusions about this trait, Thrash and Elliot wrote, “These findings suggest that inspiration is facilitated by receptiveness.” Openness is certainly not an easy trait to develop.

Openness to Experience is one of the Big Five personality characteristics identified by psychologists. The Big Five are the characteristics that reflect the biggest differences between people in the way they act.

Openness to Experience is the degree to which a person is willing to consider new ideas and opportunities. Some people enjoy the prospect of doing something new and thinking about new things.

Other people prefer to stick with familiar ideas and activities. As you might expect, high levels of Openness to Experience can sometimes be related to creativity. After all, being creative requires doing something that has not been done before. If you are not willing to do something new, then it’s hard to be creative.

Individuals with a high level of openness have a general appreciation for unusual ideas and art. They are usually imaginative, rather than practical. Being creative, open to new and different ideas, and in touch with their feelings are all characteristics of these people. Individuals who score lower in openness on a career test are generally more closed-off, resistant to change, and analytical.

And it is not difficult to start being more open; try some new food, learn a new language, take a different path to office every day. The possibilities are endless.

Always remember Inspiration always happens when you learn and put in the time and effort to do something new.

Self Esteem

Inspiration comes more frequently to people with high self-esteem, and that makes sense: with high self-esteem, you’re less likely to set artificial limitations on your own abilities or be inhibited by what other people might think.

And there are multiple ways to lead a life of high self-esteem.

Celebrate your strengths

We are much better collectors of our shortcomings than our strengths,” according to Ryan Duffy, a psychologist in Pasadena, California. Duffy helps his clients hone in on their strengths and abilities by writing them down.

If you’re having a tough time coming up with your list, name one strength each day, he said. Start with something basic like “I’m a kind person,” said Duffy. “Typically, lists evolve as the script loses its strength, and people recognize they are intelligent, and creative, and powerful, and articulate, and so on. Sometimes, we can’t see ourselves until we clear the weeds,” he said.

In a nutshell, enhance your strengths, propagate them and use them in every possible way.

Create a Support System.

Distance yourself from people who bring you down, said Joyce Marter, a psychotherapist. Instead, Instead, “Surround yourself with people who accept you and believe in you,” she said.

Always remember negativity breeds negativity. If you want to stay inspired, create a motivating and collaborating atmosphere around you where ideas can be nurtured.

Forgive yourself and move on.

You can never forward if you mind stays in the past. Past regrets can prevent us from practicing self-acceptance. Forgive yourself, and move on.

Whether it’s about something you’ve done or a personality quirk that resulted in a social faux pas, it’s important to learn from the mistake, make efforts to grow, and accept that you can’t change the past.

And whenever the tinges of remorse resurface, remember these words “I cannot change the past but I am changing the present” and move on.

And Lastly, Creative Enjoyment

Perhaps the best definition of creative enjoyment was given by the eternal Bruce Lee.

“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

What is it to “be water”?

When water is flowing, like in a stream or a river, it’s difficult to stop. You can try and push it back but it will slip around you and continue on its way. Like all currents, it finds the path of least resistance automatically and follows it without effort or hesitation. If there is even the slightest crack or weakness it will find its way through and keep going.

In more simple Terms, Go with the flow.

And we have all experienced this, sometime or the other in our lives.

We start cooking our favorite dish and before we know it, several hours have passed. We spend an afternoon with a book and forget about the world going by until we notice the sunset and realize we haven’t eaten dinner. We go surfing and don’t realize how many hours we have spent in the water until the next day when our muscles ache.

We’ve all felt our sense of time vanish when we lose ourselves in an activity we enjoy.

Once we find our flow in any task and enjoy doing it again and again, we are bound to be stay inspired always.

There are several ways to get into the flow. Some of the ways can be.

Choose a difficult task (but not too difficult!)

Take on tasks that we have a chance of completing but that are slightly outside our comfort zone. Every task, sport, or job has a set of rules, and we need a set of skills to follow them.

If the rules for completing a task or achieving a purpose are too basic relative to our skill set, we will likely get bored. Activities that are too easy lead to apathy.

If on the other hand, we assign ourselves a task that is too difficult, we won’t have the skills to complete it and will almost certainly give up — and feel frustrated and give up.

The idea is to find a middle path, something aligned with our abilities but just a bit of a stretch, so we experience it as a challenge.

Have a Clear Goal

According to a study by Boston Consulting Group, when asked about their bosses, the number one complaint of employees at multinational corporations is that they don’t “communicate the team’s mission clearly,” and that, as a result, the employees don’t know what their objectives are. What often happens, especially in big companies, is that the executives get lost in the details of obsessive planning with no final goal in place.

Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, encourages us to use the principle of “compass over maps” as a tool to navigate our world of uncertainty. In the book Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future, he and Jeff Howe write, “In an increasingly unpredictable world moving ever more quickly, a detailed map may lead you deep into the woods at an unnecessarily high cost. A good compass, though, will always take you where you need to go.”

What Joi essentially means here is it’s important to reflect on what we hope to achieve before starting to work, study, or make something. While the path to achieve the same might not be clear or straightforward initially, it helps if you have the end objective in mind before you start to reach that objective more creatively and efficiently.

Don’t Flow Alone.

Researchers from St. Bonaventure University asked students to participate in activities that would induce flow either in a team or by themselves.

Students rated flow to be more enjoyable when in a team rather than when they were alone. Students also found it more joyful if the team members were able to talk to one another. This finding was replicated even when skill level and challenge were equal.

A final study found that being in an interdependent group whilst in flow is more enjoyable than one that is not. So, if you want to get more enjoyment out of an experience of flow, try engaging in activities together.

This beautifully echoes Christopher Peterson’s conclusion that creativity can be summed up in three words.

“Other people matter “.
About the author-:
Ravi Rajan is a global IT program manager based out of Mumbai, India. He is also an avid blogger, Haiku poetry writer, archaeology enthusiast, and history maniac. Connect with Ravi on LinkedIn, Medium and Twitter.