6 Ways to Inspire & Motivate the Sceptic
I call it “Sneaky Inspiration”
I have a complicated relationship with inspiration,* probably because my thresholds are so high.
* And by inspiration, I am referring to the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something—especially something creative.
When someone proclaims that something is inspiring—“Come and Be Inspired” or “So-and-so is SUCH an inspiration”—I can’t help but cock my head, place my arms akimbo and think: ‘Oh. Really?’
In the same way that being told “this will make you laugh” is a great way to get my arms crossed. “Ha. We’ll see.”
I feel bad about it, so I feign interest so as to not offend. But I’ve come to be very sceptical of bold claims to inspiration. I’m dubious about anyone or anything that touts themself/itself as inspiring—be it a movie, anecdote, speaker, conference, holiday, or whatever.
And I’m even more sceptical of inspirational advice.
But: Sneaky Inspiration
Now we’re talking.
I’ve come to learn that I need for inspiration to sneak up on me. To slip past my sceptical defences, and catch me by surprise.
And, given that the majority of folk who read these musings are possibly likewise-inclined, I thought I might share some of my more reliable ‘sources’ of inspiration. These are the fountains and wells to which I draw upon.
Now, before I tour you through my main wells, let’s remember: inspiration is a personal thing. There’s no magical formula. This is not advice. What might work for me might be dreadful for you.
The type of inspiration that works for me, exists in the peripheries. The moment I think I have it reliably figured out, it becomes formulaic and predictable—and therefore stops working.
Righto, good. Caveats be damned.
I want to be backstabbed by inspiration.*
And here's how I do it.
* I’m referring to the rogue’s sneak attack—the thing that catches you completely by surprise.° Except in this instance, it’s an act of benevolence that is able to slip through my guard. “Ah, inspiration! You delightfully capricious nymph. You got me again!”
° To enhance your chance of being backstabbed by inspiration, venture beyond the well-lit path.
1. Worthy books (physical)
There’s something so special about the depth offered by a good book.
When reading beyond the first few chapters—and presuming you’re not reading a book that’s full of padding—you get exposed to delightful nuances in the author’s thinking. The time required to be properly immersed in a good book is partly the reason why they are so inspiring. Your defences are naturally lowered as you are drawn further into the web of the author’s reasoning.
For example, Antifragile remains one of the most inspiring books I’ve read in the past few years, precisely because I gave it the time to get immersed in the author’s perspective. I know it has vexed those who have attempted to skim it.
But that’s the thing—reading a good book is a serious time commitment. It’s a borderline luxury, and we’re all very busy.*
2. Worthy reads (digital)
Reading on screen doesn’t have quite the same feels as their physical counterparts. The digital landscape is also so full of garbage and distraction—it’s natural to have your guard up.
Here’s how I navigate through the noise.
- I use GetAbstract’s compressed knowledge to help me decide if a book might have some merit.*
- I then buy the book on kindle, and scan for the popular highlights. If these are appropriately provocative enough to warrant a deeper look, I’ll give the book a week. It’ll become my companion on flights and evenings away from home.
- After the week, I then decide if it is worthy to buy in its physical form (for a deeper read).
3. Time in contemplation
This is the closest thing to a meditation practice I seem to have these days. In the spirit of hobonichi* I try to dedicate time each morning to contemplate. I journal, as a means of processing my thoughts (ala morning pages). I often do this digitally (with the Day One app), but journalling aside, sometimes I find inspiration with the simplest of ingredients: blank paper + pen + time.°
* Japanese for ‘almost everyday’, and the most wondrous daily planner you’ll ever use.
° At a cafe with a decent filter.
At a more meta-level, I recommend a decent peppering of sabbaticals throughout your life. Some of these might be mini-retreats for perspective, others might be longer ‘breaks’ from work.
4. Rare conversations
We just had a weekend together with the Jaxzyns (like-minded pioneers and travel buddies who work in the field of strategic comms and employee experience). Amidst the champagne, whisky and good times came those rare conversations that simply cannot be engineered in advance. All we can do is create an environment in which such conversations are more likely to manifest.
This is partly why I advise some teams to occasionally go out to a fancy restaurant for a long lunch together. The shift in context combined with time immersed in multiple perspectives can serve as a precursor to new, rare and meaningful conversations—which, in turn, can inspire new pathways to progress.
5. A really good event
As with inspiration, my relationship with events is complicated.
I speak at a lot of events. I also attend events too. I see patterns.
Things become predictable. Conventional wisdom gets injected with another round of botox, to be paraded as some new truth by supposed authorities. “Ah, this again.” Or—great thinking becomes buried in a deluge of content. PowerPoints and agendas become engorged to the point at which potentially powerful points miss the point entirely.
But yes—my threshold for quality is quite high. And this frequently does me a disservice.
I remember attending an event in New York once, only to be quietly dissatisfied by the opening set of speakers. Predictable, self-absorbed, safe, polished, unoriginal.
So what did I do? I went and ate Eileen’s cheesecake and bought magnificent blazers in Soho at a ridiculous exchange rate.
Later, that evening, alone in my hotel room, I checked the twitter feed for the event, where it quickly became evident that I had missed out on some pretty extraordinary sessions. The quotes people were tweeting were delightfully contrary, and hinted at a deeper meaning and contemporary relevance to which I wasn’t party/privy to.
Up until this point, I didn’t even realise I had inspiration-fomo.
And so I found myself reconciling to the fact that “the videos will be online later—I’ll just watch them then.” But in my heart (and mind) I knew that nothing beats the power of actually being at a really good event.
Chris Anderson—the curator of TED—describes it well:
“… She clears her throat and begins to speak. What happens next is astounding. The 1,200 brains inside the heads of 1,200 independent individuals start to behave very strangely. They begin to sync up. A magic spell woven by the woman washes over each person. They gasp together. Laugh together. Weep together. And as they do so, something else happens. Rich, neurologically encoded patterns of information inside the woman’s brain are somehow copied and transferred to the 1,200 brains in the audience. These patterns will remain in those brains for the rest of their lives, potentially impacting their behaviour years into the future…”
Excerpt from the opening of TED Talks.
Ah. That collective gasp—the literal inspiration, en masse—followed by immersion in context, and a diverse mix of thoughtful people to have meaningful conversations with. These are all precursors to new thinking and inspiration. Oh my, yes.
6. Something unexpected, not on this list
Ah, the final source of Sneaky Inspiration that I’m currently unaware of—the Absolute Surprise. The inspiration that strikes when you least expect it. There’s no way prepare for it—the only thing we can try to do, is be somewhat open to it.
This means widening our gaze—to not be so narrow in our focus.
Pablo Picasso was said to have quipped that “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” This reeks of common sense—but I wonder if it might be distracting us from other opportunities? What about the gaps between the work? The space of pointless pursuits and goal-less progress? I’d argue that, for anyone pioneering beyond the default, we equally need to step outside the context of our work, to find inspiration in the overlooked.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
Where are your wells? How do you find inspiration without discarding discernment?
The above list is a good snapshot of where my current (known) wells lie. My job is to ensure I frequent them regularly (mixing them up where needed), lest I succumb to bitter irrelevance. This means prioritising the nourishment of the mind (which also means looking after the health of the body).
You might be a bit more inclined to extraversion, and so your main wells might be found in networks and gatherings. It might be live music, time in the wilderness, or strolls in the city. Or maybe you are genuinely inspired by things that claim themselves so. In any event—great!