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.

Lessons on creativity from my parents

Growing up, I don’t think there was anything my parents did—or didn’t do—to impact my creativity. At-least not directly.

In-fact: “creativity” was an unfamiliar word to me until I got my first job! I hadn’t really heard people reference creativity until I was working alongside self-described “creatives” in the design industry.

But there were elements of my childhood that have absolutely impacted my perception of creativity, and my ability to think creatively.

Isn’t it funny how we’re tremendously impacted by things in our lives we don’t realize until much, much further down the line?

My father was a surgeon.

Meticulous with his hands, analytical in how he processed problems and situations. It wasn’t surprising for me to come home from school and find my father in the driveway with the family car in pieces. He’d take it apart by hand and lay all the parts out around him as he worked.

Every screw, plastic cap, and metal panel laid on the concrete driveway. My father’s hands would be covered in grease and glue, cuts and scrapes. He’d have sweat on his brow and dirt all over his jeans.

When asked what he was doing there in the driveway, he’d explain there was a squeaking sound when the window was being rolled down, or that the radiator hose was old and leaking, or something else he was investigating or trying to repair. Rather than taking the car into a professional mechanic my father figured he’d save a few dollars and do the work himself.

Everything is easier once you start,”he’d tell me. “Once you start taking something apart it’s easier to see how it all comes together.”

Or, to use another quote from a source I am not quite sure the source of:

Don’t let your fear of breaking things keep you from trying new experiments, that’s how you learn about the real world.

Just because we might not know how a car works doesn’t mean we’re incapable of repairing it ourselves when something breaks. The fear we face at the outset is often just an acknowledgement that we’re on the bridge between not knowing something and knowing it.

My father’s example showed me that most complex things are really comprised of many small, simple things. If I ever wanted to better understand something all I needed to do was really look at all of its parts.

My mother was a school teacher.

She understood the importance of education, of building knowledge and expanding our perspectives of the world around us.

When my parents divorced my mother found creative ways to keep her children entertained. She didn’t have much in the way of money, but she did have exercises and games she could give to me and my brothers and sisters.

I remember cupboards full of colored paper in the home: all different shapes, sizes, and colors. We couldn’t afford every new toy or form of entertainment, but we could afford paper and glue.

My mother taught me that imagination can do a lot, much more than nearly any other part of our brain’s processes. To quote Albert Einstein:

Imaginationis more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imaginationembraces the entire world”

A secondary part of what I learned from my mother was making due with what you’ve got. If we didn’t have money to buy art supplies, we’d whiteout an older work of art. Or use a brown paper bag, or paper plate, or old clothes, as the canvas.

I learned I should never feel limited by what I don’t know or what I don’t have. Instead I can get crafty by looking at the world around me and what I do know or do have in order to do more.

Growing up, I never really thought about these lessons.

But as I reached adulthood and began finding my own way in the world I began to understand just how impactful these lessons from my parents were.

Creativity requires us to jump into unknown situations: to uncover new and novel ideas. It requires us to be open to possibilities and embrace the fact we simply don’t know everything there is to know. But it also requires us to try anyway: to paint when we don’t know how, to write when we might be wrong, to tinker and experiment and press forward even when we feel limited.

Finding inspiration in the tiniest of details

You’re looking for the next thing – the next line to your book or poem, the next clip for your video, the next word for a tweet, the next chord to a song – and nothing is coming to mind.

Creative block feels like a dead end, like there’s nowhere to go from here.

But what if, instead of stopping in our tracks when we reach the block, we focus on the details of what’s in front of us now? Magnify what it is we’re working on to see the details and expose them as the very thing that comes next.

Undoubtedly the best thing about magnification is that it’s nearly infinite.

Nathan Manire looked at the details of our skin, with the tiny dots of pigmentation, and zoomed in on them to create stunning dot portraits.

Then there’s photographer Ian Ruhter who looked at the relatively small size of today’s cameras and ended up turning a truck into a giant, mobile camera for producing large, wet plate photos while traveling.

Ian’s photos focus on the details, because of their large size and the difficulty in both capturing and printing them. The details are what matter to Ian and his team.

Or take artists Andy Miller & Andrew Neyer, who wanted to focus on the details of the tools used to create art rather than the art itself. So they created a great 24 ft mural in a studio and then invited people to color the mural themselves with 5 ft markers.

The result was that zooming in on the markers (and then zooming back out to make the magnified markers life-size) created a fun and inspirational piece of artwork. Watch the video to see how it all came together.

Whatever your work is: if you’re feeling stuck, look at the details. Zoom in and magnify them. Whatever you find there can help you to get unstuck and keep working. Go!

What influences your creativity?

While writing my next creative ebook I’ve begun to explore the question of what influences creativity?

Today, there’s still a large gap in what we know about creative thinking and how it works. We know that creativity is the creation of new ideas in the brain, and that creativity is heavily influenced by everything around us (even the most minute, subtle things).

But there’s more to the picture behind creativity than you might be aware of.

Three key elements make up creativity: a problem, environment, and willingness to explore.

If you look at any creative solution or invention in the past dozen decades alone, you’ll undoubtedly notice that each of these aspects are evident. A problem is initially what spurs creative thinking, the pursuit of a solution is undoubtedly the single most powerful cause of idea exploration. You’re less likely to explore new ideas for the world around you if everything is working perfectly (which, of course, it isn’t). Creativity is therefore influenced by the problems and issues in your life.

Environment, in this case, is broken down into three subsections: first, your historical environment influences your creativity by giving you access to technology and pre-existing ideas that can help guide your new ideas. To quote Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From“If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.”

The second breakdown of environmental influence on creativity is an environmental awareness which allows you to understand the ideas and technology that could pose solutions for your problem. This aspect is commonly referenced as “imagination,” where your understanding of the technology and ideas around you influences what you believe to be possible (or impossible).

Lastly, the third deconstruction of environment as an influencer of creativity is one in which failure is acceptable. A hospital is not an environment that exactly welcomes failure, while a classroom ‒ on the other hand ‒ is a prime environment for failures and the opportunity to learn from them in order to get things right.

This brings us to the last element of what influences creativity: a willingness to explore (and fail!). You can have a problem in your life, you can be a part of an environment that provides potential – albeit unseen – solutions to your problem and grants you the wisdom to implement those solutions or to learn from your failures while trying, but if you don’t have the willingness to explore those options, none of that matters.

Each of these three aspects are what heavily influences creativity in your life. If you’re not feeling creative today – or if you’re simply curious about how to be more creative – look around you and see if each of these are represented in your life. If one or more elements are missing, see what you can change right now to get them into your day.

Searching for true inspiration

If you are an artist the last place you should look for inspiration is in a museum or art gallery.

If you are a musician you should avoid listening to mainstream music or music of your same genre when trying to find inspiration.

If you’re a web designer searching for creative inspiration, the millions of web galleries that exist online today should be the very last place you look for ideas.

The problem with artists looking in museums or musicians listening to current music or web designers searching through web inspiration galleries or you looking where you feel you should for creative inspiration, is that you end up looking only at what already exists.

By looking at what has already been created in your industry or your field of hobby you are not inspiring your creativity, but rather increasing your knowledge of what already exists today. Where’s the creativity in that? Those works of art or musical compositions or web designs already exist, you can’t find inspiration to be creative if you’re only looking at things that have already been created. You canfind inspiration to be creative outside of these realms however.

Rather than searching in the places you feel that you should for inspiration, try looking in places that you wouldn’t originally think to look.

An artist can be greatly inspired by architecture in a small town, for example. A musician can find inspiration in nature or other cultures. A web designer can discover inspiring ideas for a new website from poetry readings. It’s in these new and unexplored areas that true creative inspiration can be found. It’s from outside your initial perspective that you can find the insight you need to create something new or useful or both.

Avoid searching for inspiration in places where you will only find what has already been done. Instead, spend your time searching for inspiration in new avenues, new cultures, and outside of your own experiences.

That’s how you find true creative inspiration.