The role we play in being inspired

We’re most inspired when something fills the gap between what we know and what we don’t. Too often we lie to ourselves about what inspiration is and isn’t, much to our creative detriment.

Inspiration is, at its core, an enlightenment; the process of being exposed to something which connects the missing piece—or pieces—for us; between the known and unknown. Because of this, for any of us to be inspired requires two things:

  1. Some pre-existing level of knowledge or perspective

  2. Curiosity, or a drive to learn more

Despite this, we often, instinctively, mislead ourselves into believing the entirety of inspiration—or being inspired—has everything to do with what we don’t know and little to do with what we do. Our natural inclination is to miss that first part of the puzzle: some pre-existing information, perspective, or state.

We mislead ourselves about what inspiration is and how it works because we either like believing it’s more happenstance than it is work, or because we simply don’t understand its complexities. We want to believe inspiration is all about raw emotion and feeling, instinct and fortune, outside factors the universe may or may not deliver to us. When we think of inspiration as something outside our control, it takes the pressure off us.

Even professional artists, designers, or entrepreneurs, use a lack of inspiration as an excuse for why the project has been started, or finished, or why we struggle to come up with a new idea. Inspiration is an easy thing to blame in any of these situations: it’s often abstract, feely, vague and cloudy. If we’re not doing our best work we can put our hands up in the air and proclaim: “I’m just not inspired.”

In this frame of thinking—the most common perception—inspiration is entirely outside of us.

There isn’t anything critically wrong with thinking of inspiration as an external driver for having great ideas or feeling motivated, but if we take a minute to dig into what exactly inspiration is and how it works—and why we need to work with it rather than wait around for it—we set the stage for bringing inspiration into our work rather than waiting, or hoping, for it to strike.

What exactly is inspiration?

Thumb through any dictionary and you’ll likely find a succinct description: inspiration is the process of being stimulated, to do or feel something.

In science circles, inspiration is sometimes referred to as “spontaneous conceptualization,” a spontaneous and seemingly instantaneous singularity of thought. What was unknown is combined with the known in an instant. If this doesn’t invoke images of a lightbulb suddenly turning on overhead, I’m not sure anything else will.

We can be inspired by a talk, which spurs us to make a change in our work. Or inspired by the words in a book or blog post, which causes us to feel elated and enlightened or energized. We can look out at a beautiful sunrise or sunset and feel inspired to try and celebrate the little things in our lives more often. Or we might find a person who inspires us in some way: to do something different or better.

In creative work inspiration is often a deliberate tool used to provoke creative ideas or new work. In art, inspiration drives the business, causing the creator to act and produce or tinker and experiment.

Long ago in ancient Greece or Rome, inspiration was thought of as a gift given by the gods or muses. A divine ability only a select few—“geniuses”—were capable of possessing. The reason for this prominent belief is easy enough to understand: inspiration felt outside oneself.

It’s far easier to believe something we didn’t know a second ago but suddenly now know was the result of something outside ourselves than it is to believe our brains are the keepers of more than our consciousness is privy to.

So the Greeks believed in the all-knowing muse, and the muse would not visit everyone, nor the same person as they desire. Rather: inspiration was elusive, rare and valuable. It was not something you could generate on-demand, but required another—a muse, a woman, a god—in order to occur. This notion—of inspiration being external from ones self—has remained with us as a society even long after the old Greeks and Romans vanished.

In 19th century England poets and writers believed true inspiration could only come from poets, as they were the ones who were in-tune with divine voices. Today many Christians believe inspiration comes from a Holy Spirit, while writers and artists might think of inspiration as being driven by external chaos—or divine fury—as the celebrated author Ralph Waldo Emerson once did.

No matter how we look at it: inspiration is an energy. It comes swiftly and leaves us feeling euphoric or changed somehow. But the reality is inspiration is a difficult concept to explain and understand. The more we inch closer to revealing its secrets, the more uncertain we become about what we actually understand about it—and our brains. So we fallback to the belief that inspiration comes entirely from an external source of some kind. Muse, god, spirit, poet, or something else.

And really this belief, to think of inspiration as something outside ourselves, is almost instinctual. We aren’t necessarily taught to notice when we’re lacking in some area (though it may have been pointed out for a select few of us when we were younger), we simply detect and observe when someone has something we don’t: an idea, a trait, knowledge, intelligence, talents, or something else. And when we accomplish something we didn’t think we could, or when we become exposed to a thought or idea we hadn’t realized before, we feel as though that influence was something entirely outside ourselves. I am not capable of naturally doing something like this, we tell ourselves, so something else must have propelled me to do it.

What causes inspiration?

In their look into analyzing creativity—titled “Assessing highly‐creative ability”—researchers Rob Cowdroy of the University of Newcastle in Australia and Erik de Graaff of Delff University of Technology share the story of how black holes were first discovered and the role inspiration played in that event.

The story is short: in 1993, Stephen Hawking and Roger Penfold were able to compile research they had conducted on how black holes are generated and persist, a concept that radically changed how we once thought about the universe around us. Of the story, Cowdroy and de Graaff write:

“To cut a long story short, Penfold’s idea of black holes in the universe was entirely intuitive: it did not come directly from any conventional process of deduction or rational analysis; it came to him spontaneously and unexpectedly (he was in a pedestrian refuge waiting for a break in the traffic) and was entirely consistent with the spontaneous conceptualization at the source of many great creative works (vide Mozart’s spontaneous conceptualization of his requiem). Penfold’s concept presented an important new bridge between the General Theory of Relativity and quantum mechanics. This first stage of the discovery of black holes was therefore both a significant piece of science research and an inspired (spontaneous) concept, and therefore was creativity at the highest level in the taxonomies of creativity.”

Penfold was able to intuit a theory for proving the existence of black holes… by watching traffic go by.

It’s important to look at what happened from his point of voice. Whenever we observe states—such as being uninspired then suddenly inspired—we should look at the variables that change. In Penfold’s case what took him from being uninspired to having some idea for how black holes are formed was that observation of the traffic flow around him and realizing the pattern that emerged.

What Penfold—and Hawking—lacked up until that moment was the perspective of patterns of movement light takes. Someone else, somewhere else, could have had the same epiphany. But the same observation would not have the same impact as it did on Penfold had he not already been thinking about light, gravity, and the relationship between the two. Once that knowledge was rattling around in his skull, all it took to formalize a theory of black holes was Penfold waiting for a break in traffic.

This is not an unusual pattern.

We see examples of this same type of event occurring repeatedly in cases where someone feels inspired. Most famously: the story of Archimedes and his discovery of measuring the density of an object using bath water, in which Archimedes—upon realizing his discovery—purportedly ran out into the streets naked shouting “Eureka!”

In any case what leaves these scientists, writers, inventors, and laypeople feeling inspired is the sudden revelation of an insight or idea, previously undisclosed. The revelation comes not from some otherworldly entity, but instead simple observation: the pattern of traffic in a busy street or the way the water in a bath tub rises when you lay into it.

So yes: when we feel as though something is missing, when we feel as though inspiration comes from outside of us, that is true.

But the missing thing isn’t necessarily a divine gift or an unusually high IQ; the missing thing is typically knowledge, observation, some data point. Even some notable Romans—Persius, Ovid, and Propertius—believed inspiration was not delivered by any type of external muse, but rather a well developed process which could invoke inspiration.

In art we often say that one style inspired another, one artist inspired the work of another. What does that mean in this context? It means the artist was able to connect what they knew (painting) with what they didn’t (creating more vibrant art, for example). They were inspired by being exposed to information—a perspective, a way of creating—they may not have considered before.

In other words: what we lack is not necessarily the abilities others have, the intelligence they’ve been born with, nor the blessing of some otherworldly power. What we lack more often than not is simply knowledge.

How do we get inspired?

If knowledge is all that keeps us from being uninspired—stuck on a problem or in a process—and inspired, the way to “get” inspired becomes much more straight-forward.

What caused Einstein to write his theory of relativity, or Picasso to paint the Girl Before A Mirror, or Steve Jobs and Woz to come up with the idea for Apple computer, is that they knew something you and I didn’t. They uncovered a bit of knowledge, or insight, that others overlooked or weren’t looking for in the first place. Or they experienced something only they could, having been in the “right place at the right time.”

Viewed under this new light, inspiration is not as random as you or I might think. Before inspiration can occur we must be prepared for it.

Looking at a work of art without understanding the nuances of the form, or what it represents, can leave you feeling less than inspired. Many people who were on the verge of a discovery failed to see it because they were focused on something else. The mathematical inventions of history could not have been predicted—at least synthesized so well—by a person who didn’t first understand the basics of math.

We cannot be inspired by that which has no relation to us. If the inspiration has nowhere to “stick” in our minds, it doesn’t become inspiration; it simply becomes trash art, or just another experience, or something we fail to understand.

“Insights shift us toward a new story, a new set of beliefs that are more accurate, more comprehensive, and more useful.”

That’s a quote from Gary Klein in his stellar book Seeing What Others Don’t.

When we have some foundational knowledge or experience—when we can look at the inspirational source and understand it in some capacity—we make room for what it presents and can then be “inspired.”

This is strikingly true for even the more emotional side of inspiration. When we look out at a beautiful sunset and feel that “inspired” feeling, the connection we’re getting is that of how mundane the rest of the day is compared to that limited-time sunset.

But, again, more often than not we don’t embrace this notion. We instead accept that inspiration is an event entirely outside our control. And while it’s true we don’t have to prepare to be inspired: if we want to be inspired more often in our lives what we must do is prepare.

Steve Jobs—love him or hate him—understood this point. He famously quipped on it by saying:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things.”

All good and well, what do we actually do about it? If we want to get more inspiration in our life, how do we go about it?

In their book Creative Confidence, Tom Kelly and David Kelly give us a path forward:

“Interact with experts, immerse yourself in unfamiliar environments, and role-play scenarios. Inspiration is fueled by a deliberate, planned course of action.”

The thing is this: in order for inspiration to be truly “inspiring”—to compel us to act or move or feel deeply—it can’t be spoon fed to us. When we’re told the solution to a problem the process of discovery is lost. Nobody wants to solve an already completed puzzle. Or consider reading. Part of what makes a book so tantalizing is the fact we don’t know or understand the words on all of its pages until we’ve read it ourselves. The same is true for inspiration.

We have to put in the work: burying ourselves in the landscape, ruminating on the problem, writing or doodling or otherwise investing in the up-front work, then creating a plan to expose us to things that will help bridge the gap between what we know and what we don’t know. And often these inspirations will come from the least likely places. Our problems at work might be resolved by playing tinker toys with a child, or our lack of feeling energized may be resolved by exposing ourselves to those with lazier habits than we have. We won’t know until we build the foundational part of knowledge or perspective, then engage in new and different ways with the world around us.

Ultimately inspiration is outside of our control. But we can do things to invite it. In-fact: we should seek to do and think and act in ways that invite inspiration, not just wait around for it to come to us.