What is inspiration? In large part, it’s the driver of our well-being, creativity, and productivity. It’s what allows us to transcend normalcy and limitations. In cognitive psychology, it’s the way we approach problems and produce new, creative ideas due to “a sudden insight or leap in understanding.” It’s the process of being stimulated to do something — an internal or external spark to start a process of action, which then links us to the full force of other processes, including motivation, which is another topic entirely.
It can feel like a mystery at times — something transcendent that just, well, happens. And while there is a certain magical quality about it, inspiration is not entirely outside your control! Much like a chemistry experiment, you can combine two elements (your existing knowledge and perspective with the information you’re receiving in real time) to get a reaction and, voila, a brand new compound: inspiration!
Before you start experimenting, there are ways to help you “open the door” — general ways to be and things to do to cultivate inspiration.
Next, being inspired requires us to tap into our own personal formula — to find the element that will react with us. Some may need to go on a bit of a journey of discovery first. For those who have a sense of what’s important to them already, it’s about recommitting to their goals and reinforcing why those goals are important.
A few potential elements of inspiration are connection to a mission, connection to personal contribution (“I’m making a difference”), and connection to a story. You can also think of them as islands from which you can build little bridges. You may live on one island more than another, and that’s OK; however, realistically, you probably need to commute between or at least visit all three.
1. Connection to a mission
If you’re this person, altruism — or a connection to some form of the greater good — is likely important to you. It’s not as much about your role in the process but about how others will benefit from your work; this could be a client, other team members, your community, etc. Your inspiration comes from hearing all about the desired results and visualizing the positive outcomes — to dream about what could be. For example, if the goal is to clean up litter, this person will be inspired by talk of how the world and its people will benefit if we clean our cities and waterways. Overall, your inspiration centers on the “other” or something “greater.”
2. Connection to a personal contribution
This person wants to know exactly how they can contribute. They find inspiration from their role in the process of change or growth. So, if the goal is to contribute to curing cancer or putting a man on the moon, the person who is connected to a personal contribution may be more inclined to hear the big picture vs. putting it in the frame of helping a person. It’s not that this person doesn’t care for the “other,” but that they’re more inspired by their role in helping them.
3. Connection to a story
Humanity loves a good story, and we remember them. You might even call it an evolutionary trait. Stories engage the emotional centers of their brain and teach us how to solve problems, passing knowledge down and across generations. Think about any underdog — real or fictional — that inspires you to action. Here, inspiration comes from telling a personal story, a people story — putting names to faces — or a symbolic story.
Once you are familiar with what it takes to be inspired (and know your own personal formula), you can have a real conversation with your team about what inspires them. This dialogue is vital and cannot be skipped; it determines the delivery of your message, whatever that message may be.
Notice how none of this needs to be confined to in-person interaction. As society adjusts to a new normal, individuals have some adjusting to do, too. This past year has opened up a conversation around the value of remote, virtual collaboration — its pros and cons, as well as opportunities for inspiration. In-person, we exchange energy, exude charisma, and share a certain spark, but online, there is no replacement for curiosity, communication, continued interest, and clarity — it’s non-negotiable. Virtual inspiration requires you to think about these things.
Before COVID-19 and the boom of virtual work, some of us would have agreed that it’s best to leave inspiration to an in-person setting whether that’s one-on-one, in a small group at the office, a crowd in an auditorium, or at the dinner table. Now, after more than a year of universally-made adjustments, we know that it’s entirely possible to inspire and be inspired online or in-person, and some people even prefer virtual.
There will always be a piece of inspiration that remains a mystery. Ancient civilizations assigned it to some divine entity that would come and visit when it willed. Even now, if you do all the right things — open the door to inspiration, cultivate it in yourself, go looking for it, and evoke it in others — there will still be moments when it hits without warning and feels almost, for lack of a better word, divine. Cherish those moments, but don’t rely solely on them — never stop doing what you can to create it yourself.