Why looking for inspiration is bullshit

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How many hours of your week would you guess is spent looking for inspiration?

I think when I first started designing logos, some nine years ago, about 70% of my time was spent looking for designs to inspire me. I would load up design websites or go to the local bookstore (back in the days when those were still a thing) and spend hour after hour looking at the work of other logo designers.

And I’ve realized something lately about that time spent seeking out inspiration: it’s a waste.

Think about it.

You’re going to get more from simply messing around and tinkering with your work then spending time looking for inspiration.

Searching for inspiration is a lot like seeing a fork in the road in front of you but not taking any steps to actually move.

On the other hand: when you’re doing the work (whether you think it’s good and progressing you, or whether it ends up being a complete waste of your time) you’re actually getting movement. And that movement is what often tells you whether or not you’re heading in a good direction.

Even if the work you do without feeling inspired turns out to be garbage – those quick sketches, the rough drafts of a thousand scrambled words, the rough recording of you playing melodies to yourself – you’ll likely end up knowing, at the very least, what direction to not go in. And that, in itself, means you’re heading in the right direction with your work.

Who knows, maybe the result of all that messing around will even be something more than you anticipated, something more aligned with what you were hoping to end up with in the first place.

But spending time looking for inspiration, browsing websites or reading books or actively seeking to get lost in the creative work that somebody else has already created… that seems like wasted time, since you’re not actually exploring your own handy work.

If only I had spent those countless hours actually doing design work instead of browsing websites and scanning the pages of books, maybe I would have become a better designer faster. I could have doubled or even tripled my portfolio, my work catalog, and my knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.

Inspiration certainly has a place in creation. You’ll find yourself occasionally exploring or purposefully wasting time one afternoon when something strikes you as inspirational. That’s good, that’s positive inspiration.

Even when you’re not thinking of your craft, you’re going to encounter inspirational things.

But the difference between those occasional instances where you stumble on inspiration vs. the times you spend seeking out inspiration, at least in one of those scenarios you’re on “free” time, when you don’t necessarily have to be working. The other scenario is you wasting time. Burning hours.

I’ve learned over the years that one critical difference between those who successfully do creative work for a living and the amateur is that the professional knows when they are procrastinating with the excuse of: “I’m looking for inspiration.” They simply don’t do it. There is no excuse.

If you find yourself often looking for inspiration, you may have a procrastination problem. In those instances it isn’t necessarily that you are uninspired, more of the fact that you may not know what to work on. Your best bet in such an occasion? Remind yourself of what you’re trying to do, then try doing it.

What you’ll find when you ignore that desire to seek out inspiration (particularly when you shouldbe working), when you just get started – by writing, drawing, sketching, dancing, playing the instrument, getting to work – is that you really didn’t need inspiration at all.

What you needed was momentum. And the best way to get momentum is to move something: the pen across the paper, your feet, the strings of a guitar, your fingers over the keys.

I will add one disclaimer here though, when I think seeking out inspiration instead of starting on the work is ok: that’s when you’re just starting out in a new practice.

If you’re new to drawing, or writing, or a musical instrument, or whatever, and you don’t have a lot of experience to pull from, then I think it’s ok to spend a little bit of your working time exploring and seeking out inspiration. How else are you going to know where to start? But don’t let that seeking phase get the better of you. Your job isn’t to seek out inspiration. Your job is to create, and the only way to master creating is to try.

So the next time you feel a sudden urge to look for inspiration on what it is you’re doing, when you should – instead – be creating: fight the urge. Sit down and do the work. Move.

Even if what you create ends up being crap, at least you have a direction to go in and personal experience to draw from next time.