The secret to inspiration

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4 min read

Inspiration is not only a performance driver but also helps people to be creative, innovative, and motivated. But what are sources for inspiration and how can you foster them?

Before we dive into the how, where and why of our topic, it's important to set a definition of what I am talking about, when I talk about "inspiration". I think we can all agree that this is in general a very abstract term, so definitions and meanings can differ from person to person. So, how will I use the term in this article?

Definition: what does inspiration mean?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, inspiration is simple:

"Someone or something that gives you ideas for doing something."

As such, inspiration is usually a source or trigger of a thought, action or other development within us. Artists get inspired by muses, by other art or their own lives. People get inspired by heroic acts of other people or by rousing speeches. Music, prose and poetry and other art can inspire us to see ourselves and our environment from a different perspective.

In short: inspiration is something that acts as a generator of change.

However, it's important to note that this change is usually:

  • unplanned
  • positive
  • intrinsic (meaning that inspiration can't be forced from the outside and instead grows from the inside)

Inspiration does not act as something that's being forced upon you or even as something that you can force yourself. It's rather an experience, a sensation or something else that opens up new ideas and possibilities.

This aligns with the three key ingredients of inspiration as coined by Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot (Inspiration as a Psychological Construct).

  1. Inspiration is evoked (cause and effect).
  2. Inspiration motivates to act on it.
  3. Inspiration transcends normal human agency and preoccupations (which means it involves a sudden clarity or epiphany).

What "inspires" inspiration?

Thrash and Elliot conducted different studies to see what usually correlates positively with inspiration (and what doesn't). So what supports an inspirational environment and what doesn't?

  1. Approaching vs. avoiding

It seems quite logical that an attitude of being open and approaching an experience, a sensation or something else is more aligned with inspiration than avoidance behaviors. After all, despite the fact that inspiration itself can't really be forced, it can be stifled if you close yourself off to new influences.

  1. Achieving vs. competing

The wish to accomplish something is often related with inspiration. It's no surprise, if you found this article and are currently reading it, you're doing so because you want to be inspired more often.

Interestingly, competitiveness can stifle inspiration. For example, people can be inspiring but only if you aspire to be like them and don't try to be better than them.

  1. Optimism vs. pessimism

An optimist attitude aids inspiration and pessimism usually hinders it. As an occasional pessimist myself, I know that pessimism can have advantages to identify challenges but only if it connects with the optimism that there will be a solution. This means, that you need to understand that identifying problems is a good thing but it's only inspiring if you don't just stop there and continue to look for solutions.

  1. Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation

Interestingly enough, extrinsic motivations are not closely related to inspiration. This should be especially important for any leadership types, mentors, and managers because it means:

You can't force people to be inspired by you.

That's hard to hear if your aspiration is to be inspiring. But it also frees you from the weight of "being inspiring". You really can't control it, it's other people whose intrinsic motivation leads them to inspiration - through you or other things.

  1. Engagement vs. detachment

It's important to mention that this should not be confused with extrovert vs. introvert personalities. A person who thrives in social situations and gains their energy from human interaction is not automatically someone who engages with other people, viewpoints, and experiences. In fact, the occasional extrovert could very well be detached if they focus more on themselves than other people.

Engaging with new things and with people rather means that you are not just open for things and people but want to interact with them, get to know them and create relationships with them.

Being detached, usually means that you don't have any interest. In a sense, it's a more passive state of avoidance. You don't actively avoid something but you're also not invested. However, inspiration needs engagement and investment, because it's like a spark - it needs energy, a push or a pull from the outside, to manifest.

  1. Skill vs. Surface know-how

A very interesting point in the study was that highly skilled people can often get more inspired than others. That doesn't mean that only academics or professional experts can gain inspiration. It rather shows that inspiration comes through knowledge and experience.

Knowing how things work might not be crucial for inspiration but it usually gives you many more opportunities to be inspired. This aligns with being open and engaged, pro-actively seeking out knowledge.

In short: ignorance does not inspire.

Remember that Picasso didn't start out painting the way he is best known for. In fact, early works of his are highly realistic paintings that over the years turned more abstract. Picasso's skill and familiarity with art techniques inspired him to create his own style of art.

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by Juliane Waack

Juliane Waack is Editor in Chief at DIGITALL and writes about the digital transformation, megatrends and why a healthy culture is essential for a successful business.

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