What is inspiration and where does it come from?

Inspiration is one of those terms that everyone uses but no one seems to be able to describe without calling it something else. To some, being inspired means feeling motivated to act. To others, it means feeling creative. To others still, it means having an idea and feeling a sense of urgency to realize that idea. Everyone knows what it means to be inspired: the feeling transcends logic, its an uncontrollable sensation that seems like an inarguable call to action. It amplifies your senses and seems to slow down time itself to allow you to work. And when its over, as fast as it came, its often gone. Everyone pretty much agrees that when inspired, you have to use it or lose it. Some say it defies logical or scientific explanation. But if some people see inspiration as motivation, others as creativity, others as urgency, none of that actually answers the overarching question of what inspiration actually is. If its a mix of all three, then it by definition can’t be an independent sensation: it would just be a big bundle of feelings. But creatives and professionals know that one can feel creative and motivated under an urgent deadline and still not feel inspired. Creatives have fetishized it as well; poets and writers have for years described inspiration using terms like transcendent, transformative, intrusive, evanescent and glowing. While all of that is nice, it is inherently subjective and therefore rather unhelpful. Describing what a thing feels like is different than describing what a thing is. So it begs the question: what exactly is inspiration?

Academics and businesses have taken many a stab at answering this question, most of which have been depressingly cliché – images of cat posters that communicate messages like “You can do it!” come to mind as some of the worst examples of cookie cutter corporate patronization. But amidst the uselessness, a few gems have arisen. One is from the clinical perspective. Psychologists Todd Thrash and Andrew Elliot argue that inspiration has three stages: first, it is evoked spontaneously without intention. Second, it transcends our current thoughts by often providing a moment of clarity, awareness and perspective. Third, it involves ‘approach motivation’, a sensation that leads an individual to transmit, express or actualize a new vision or idea. According to these psychologists, inspiration has to involve both feeling inspired by something and acting upon on that inspiration.

Thrash and Elliot used this theory to develop the “Inspiration Scale”, a tool that measures the frequency with which a person experiences inspiration in their daily life. They found that those who were more frequently inspired shared certain traits: they were more open to new experiences, accepting of alternative views and reported higher levels of absorption in their work styles. Additionally, they were not more conscientious than others: this showed that inspiration wasn’t something you could control. Rather, it happened to you and couldn’t be willed (sorry, cat posters). Inspired people also had a rare combination of being motivated to master work but were not competitive in its outcomes, meaning they were much more intrinsically motivated by the subjective value of creation than extrinsically motivated by the objective value of achievement. Finally, inspired people also reported having high levels of important “psychological resources”, such as belief in their own abilities, self-esteem and optimism. These resources were also found to be replenished through inspiration, meaning that inspired people were found to be more likely to be inspired again in the future.

Elliot and Thrash had a few other findings that were equally interesting: they identified that being inspired can serve as a springboard for genuine creativity, and that people who were frequently inspired saw themselves as more creative than those who were not as frequently inspired. They also identified inspiration and creativity as being linked, but that neither one was causal to the other – both involve seeing possibility beyond constraints, meaning that creative people may be inspired and inspired people may be creative. Neither one is guaranteed to lead to the other.

Although it cannot be willed into existence or forced, the research above did highlight that people with certain traits experience inspiration more frequently – this means that identifying and supporting these traits within oneself may lead to one feeling inspired more often. The Harvard Business Review compiled this research in 2011 and developed a series of recommendations for people that could help foster inspiration in their work. They defined inspiration as a “random and surprising interaction between your current knowledge and the information you receive from the world”. They highlighted that being knowledgeable would allow one to make connections more easily between new and known information, and that being open to new experiences and perspectives was equally essential. Dismissing new perspectives was a surefire way to be less creative or inspired – as was ignoring small victories or being terrified of failure. Ensuring successes were recognized is a final great way to get creative juices flowing – it helps to provide the empowerment and self-confidence booster that can help lend some extra juice to a future creative wave.

Ultimately, being personally inspired seems to require one to be open-minded to new perspectives and possibilities, accepting of oneself and others and to be open to the idea of failure. And although it may seem annoying to try and dissect a feeling as empowering and awakening as inspiration, it warms the heart of this columnist to note that in this case, the business professionals, psychologists and poets all describe inspiration using the same language and tone. It may be random and uncontrollable – but being inspired does appear to be one of the few fundamentally human wonders that we can all enjoy together.

As a final note – this is the 100th blog post published on this website. Thank you to all of the regular readers and followers for supporting this site through the years. Here’s to 100 more!