Joanna Hughes :
Thomas Edison once said, "Genius is one part inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." And while there's no discounting the tremendous value of the latter, the former is what sets the wheels in motion. Here's a closer look at inspiration, along with tips for finding inspiration of your own.
What Is Inspiration?
"Inspiration is a much-used, domesticated, amorphous and secular word for what is actually a revolutionary, countercultural and spiritual phenomenon. But what exactly is inspiration? What are we talking about when we use that term?" asks New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks in a recent piece on the topic.
He goes on to establish some core characteristics of inspiration. For starters, the rules of normal logic don't apply.
Rather, Brooks writes, "[Moments of inspiration] feel transcendent, uncontrollable and irresistible. When one is inspired, time disappears or alters its pace. The senses are amplified. There may be goose bumps or shivers down the spine, or a sense of being overawed by some beauty."
Inspiration is also inherently active, continues Brooks. "There's a thrilling feeling of elevation, a burst of energy, an awareness of enlarged possibilities. The person in the grip of inspiration has received, as if by magic, some new perception, some holistic understanding, along with the feeling that she is capable of more than she thought," he insists.
Other aspects of inspiration, according to Brooks? It's not driven by self-interest, it's not earned, it's out of our control, it "does not happen to autonomous individuals," and it's impermanent and mercurial.
Concludes Brooks, "Most important, inspiration demands a certain posture, the sort of posture people feel when they are overawed by something large and mysterious. They are both humbled and self-confident, surrendering and also powerful. When people are inspired they are willing to take a daring lark toward something truly great. They're brave enough to embrace the craggy fierceness of the truth and to try to express it in some new way."
Meanwhile, psychologists Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot deconstruct inspiration into three core parts: evocation, transcendence, and approach motivation.
Given the "definitional ambiguity" involved with capturing the true essence of inspiration, perhaps the best way of putting it is, "You'll know it when you feel it."
The Inspiration Imperative
All of which begs the questions: If inspiration only accounts for one percent of optimal output, then why is it so important both in school and at work?
Contends Scott Barry Kaufman in Harvard Business Review, "Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations. Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way we perceive our own capabilities."
Without inspiration, we'd all be butting our heads up against the same challenges day after day. Inspiration gives us both the means and the motivation to rise above, be creative, grow closer to our goals, learn from others, and achieve enhanced well-being.
Tips for finding inspiration
Anyone who's ever tried to force inspiration knows that it's easier said than done. But this doesn't mean you need to sit back and wait for it to strike, however.
Writes leadership communication expert Kristi Hedges for HBR, "Fortunately, inspiration is not a static state of mind but a process that we can cultivate. While we can't force ourselves to be inspired, we can create an environment that's conducive to inspiration."
In other words, while may not be able to call for inspiration and expect it to come, we can take steps to open the door to inspiration, as shared by Hedges:
1. Make a move.
Waiting for inspiration to strike may lead to a life of waiting. While feeling stuck is normal, it's also not productive. Says Hedges, "But inaction is your enemy in this effort. Inspiration doesn't just happen while we're at our desks returning emails. Don't wait for a flash of insight to strike before making any changes. The field of cognitive behavioral therapy shows that our behavior affects how we think and feel. When we do different things, we feel different feelings."
Perhaps Jack London put it best in advising, "Don't loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don't get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it."
2. Stay in learning mode.
Just because you achieve expertise in a particular area doesn't mean you've learned all you can learn. In fact, this mindset can lead to something called "earned dogmatism" and a close-minded outlook. Instead, commit to ongoing learning by developing an "inspiration routine."
Suggests Hedges, "There are lots of ways to gather [fresh experiences] - take a class, read a book, attend professional gatherings, travel. It's best to pick one that works for you and then structure your time to integrate these actions into your routine. You might commit to traveling once every six months or take a few hours every Friday morning to read articles and books or set a goal to meet three new people in your field each quarter. Bill Gates was known for having a twice-yearly think week, spending full weeks away from his office, reading and mapping new ideas. For most professionals, this isn't possible but devoting even a couple hours a week to perspective-expanding activities will help you stay engaged and interested."
3. Expand your social network.
Spending time with the same people every day may be comfortable, but it can also lead to stagnation. In spending time with new people-particularly those who are involved in different activities than you are-you grow closer to new ideas and insights.
4. Limit your choices.
While open-mindedness is a necessary attribute of aspiration, too many choices can be immobilizing. Suggests Hedges, "We can boost our motivation by narrowing down our options, making it easier to act on them. We like to know we have a plan and are working toward it. If you feel stuck, try writing down all of your options and selecting the three you're most excited about in order. Then allocate time to work toward your top choices."
One last thing to keep in mind? We've all heard the adage "practice makes perfect," and cultivating inspiration is no different: The more regularly you practice inspiration, the easier finding it will become.
(Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family).