“We are influenced by drives to which we have little access, and which we never would have believed had not the statistics laid them bare.” – David Eagleman.
No matter where you look, you’ll discover that a crucial part of living a creative life involves being inspired in some form or another. Either being inspired to act or being inspired by something. Despite its prevalence in the creative culture, inspiration is a peculiar subject to try and understand.
Of course inspiration is a very real phenomenon. It’s likened in some psychological studies and historical literature as another type of emotion, akin to ecstasy or sadness. Ample anecdotal evidence indicates that inspiration can provide a positive state of mind and propel or encourage more creative behaviors and experimentation in those who are struck by it. For some individuals a lack of inspiration can lead to lethargy, even depression.
To really understand where inspiration comes from and how it impacts us, we must look at it through the lens of where it unequivocally resides (no matter its source or how it makes us feel): all inspiration lives within the mind. We can study inspiration in the contexts of psychology to grasp at it.
To this day, unfortunately, the mind continues to be a very mysterious device. As David Eagleman states in his 2011 book Incognito: inspiration is often the result of drives to which we have little awareness. Or, to put it another way, as designer and author Eric Karjaluoto once wrote: “The problem with inspiration is that it’s random, which leads you to focus your hope on outside influences you can’t rely on.”
Eagleman and Karjaluoto make a fair point: as much as we want to feel inspired, the sudden flash of insight or energy we get from inspiration often eludes us. We’re left feeling unmotivated and without insight more often than we’d like in both our lives and work.
There is hope for understanding some level of what inspiration is and how it works in the mind, however. We have a solid amount of research at our fingertips for better understanding how to live more inspired lives. One study of recent note was conducted by Tobin Hart in 1998. Aptly titled: “Inspiration: Exploring the Experience and its Meaning,” Hart worked with 70 participants to understand the experience of inspiration. What they found can be summarized simply enough:
“Inspiration can not be willed into being, but it can be cultivated through the influence of set and setting.”
In his study, as well as research into the historical literature on inspiration, Hart uncovered four parts to a pattern of inspiration that allow us to cultivate the right settings for it to strike. Whenever an experience of inspiration occurred, Hart learned, the process was almost always the same: a pattern of inspiration. Hart gives us the four parts to the pattern of inspiration as follows:
1. Find connection
Before any inspiration can occur, we must feel some sense of connection to the work and world immediately around us.
The mind performs this type of emotional connection almost constantly, naturally for us. To again quote David Eagleman, from his book Incognito: “Brains reach out into the world and actively extract the type of information they need. The brain does not need to see everything at once…it only needs to know where to go to find the information.” Studies have gone on to shown that the mind, when left with a gap of information, will magically fill it with whatever available information it has. We see serendipitous patterns and connections everywhere because that’s how our brains tend to work.
However, there are things that get in the way of feeling connected, as you may know all too well. Stress, fear, and exhaustion limit our ability to create a feeling of connection. Rather than feeling like the world is setting us up for insight, we feel like it’s bearing down on us in an attempt to crush our spirits.
To have a feeling of connection requires a sense of openness, relaxation, calmness, a sense of wonder. Having a child-like curiosity in play, the longing to explore the world through imagination, or the peace that can come from a long walk, are all prime examples of setting the stage for connection and, ultimately, inspiration.
2. Become open
Hart identified that once an individual feels connected to the work and world around them, they become open to new possibilities.
Psychologist Art Markman defines openness to experiences as: “The degree to which a person is willing to consider new ideas and opportunities.”
Once we begin to feel a connection we open ourselves up mentally, physically, and emotionally; creating a natural drive to engage ideas as they appear. And the world is so vastly complex that ideas are nearly always around us, if we merely open ourselves to them. We know this because all great discoveries were not new discoveries, they were merely new ways of seeing what already existed.
Here, too, we run into obstacles on our path to experiencing inspiration. Ego, a lack of awareness, or (most notably) fear, keep us closed off and un-open to new ideas or possibilities. To overcome those obstacles we must embrace naivety, the possibility of being wrong, and our perceived limits. IDEO founders David and Tom Kelley give us this bit of advice, from their book Creative Confidence:
“Start with a growth mindset, the deep-seated belief that your true potential is still unknown. That you are not limited to only what you have been able to do before.”
3. Embrace clarity
If we’re connected to the world around us, and if we’re open to the ideas it presents, we will experience what Hart describes as a “distinct phenomena.” Clarity. The “flash” part of inspiration that feels like a sudden light switch being flipped or a shock of lightning to the brain.
Clarity occurs when we are both connected and open. To get to this point in the pattern of inspiration, we must first have perceived connection to the world around us and openness to what it might present. In other words: we can only experience clarity when we’re we’re paying attention.
And this, Hart explains, is the real crux of what it means to experience inspiration. The phenomena of clarity is a sudden insight or revelation brought about by our ability to connect with and remain open to the world, patiently waiting for it to uncover itself to us. Designer and writer Christopher Simmons elegantly explains this lesson by saying:
“If you look at the world both critically and with wonder, there are lessons to be learned everywhere. Every object, experience, relationship, environment, phrase—everything—has locked inside it an insight it wants to share.”
All it takes is connection, openness, and time. But the pattern of inspiration is not done just yet.
4. Utilize your energy
Once clarity occurs, the inspiration carries with it a type of motivation or, as Hart explains, energy: “A dramatic shift in emotional as well as physical energy.”
The lull before the flash of insight can be viewed as a battery cell that is energizing before the spark, ready to fuel what may come next.
It’s the energy that we get from being connected, open, and aware of the moment of clarity, that enables us to live the experience of inspiration fully. Without the energy, Hart describes, it is not inspiration but some other understanding that we have experienced.
Here, however, we begin to set ourselves up for disaster. Fueled now by the energy of insight, we must carry it through self-doubt, critique, and further fear in order to see what our clarity can become. Sometimes that means remarkable inventions or discoveries, other times the energy merely turns into a scribble idea on a crumpled up paper or a less-than-ideal day dream.
But we cannot let the times when inspiration fails us prevent us from continuing to feel connected and open to the world, attentive to the clarity we may experience. To do so is to snuff out the flame that fuels inspiration to begin with.