As a LinkedIn survey of July 2013 summarizes: “We get major inspiration hits when we are expressing ourselves, becoming more self-aware and pushing ourselves to achieve new levels of capability. Both requir a ton of self-expression, self-awareness and growth to succeed.”
The LinkedIn survey reveals that we actually become more inspired with age. This is an inspiring thought in itself, because in a sense it means that we all grow as we age. Amongst the most inspiring professions are those that deal with the arts, education and helping others to realize their potential.
And “If you want to be inspired consistently in your career, you need to find ways to constantly grow and help others do the same. It is that simple and that hard.”
In day to day work, the understanding is that performance = competency * effort. However, this is not the same with activities that involve invention and innovation. Increasing the rate of effort does not necessarily produce more ideas. In fact, it may have the opposite effect by raising the levels of stress and anxiety. Scientific studies have demonstrated how rewards can actually harm the inspiration that drives creative performance. * (See below)
Creative ideas that have the potential to develop into discoveries, inventions and innovations are correlated with other factors, and one of the most important is definitely inspiration. But what is inspiration exactly? First, what is ‘inspiration’ in terms of a dictionary definition?
Putting aside the ‘divine’, and staying in the human domain, definitions includ:
- the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions (to a high level of feeling or activity)
- the agent or source of influence or stimulation, such as a flash of inspiration that prompts action
It is recognised that inspiration typically comes from a state of being or experience, that we may be able to anticipate and recognise, such as deep relaxation and meditation, nature or art, human behaviour and uplifting stories, and again the sudden flash of an insight that can arise from a new perspective, piece of information, knowledge or understanding.
Openness to experience precedes inspiration. People when inspired experience more clarity and awareness. And at the same time we may feel more relaxed and confident, as if anything might be possible and the obstacles seem less imposing or constraining.
The feeling of achievement can fuel inspiration as well as being the result of inspiration. Even small accomplishments can trigger inspiration and thus make inspiration a virtuous circle.
From a semantic point of view, there are conditions that are conducive to inspiration, that create a feeling of transcendence, tranquillity, transparency, transmutation and transversal thinking. The “trans” gives the idea of crossing, connecting, blending, and becoming something else through contact with something harmonizing, elevating, and educational or enriching.
From a philosophical viewpoint there is also the sense of synergy and synchronisation, the feeling of oneness and wholeness when things feel complete, fitting, adapted, suitable and appropriate; somehow circular and cyclic, or otherwise expansive and infinite; the sense that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and beyond the scope of understanding, the feeling that the potential to develop wisdom is perhaps endless.
Furthermore, inspiration can repose upon internal sensations of equilibrium, equanimity, but also can engender excitement, agitation, nervous tension, exuberance and even euphoria. And these feelings can move one way or the other to release inspiration; thus, we are confounded by a contradiction between reassuring continuity, but also the stimulation that comes from change.
Ultimately, therefore is a hormonal reason underlying inspiration. Thus, apparently, inspiration could have a purely physical as well as a purely psychological substance. Psychologically, under hypnosis and with suggestion we can attain a sensation of inspiration. Physically, the hormone dopamine drives the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment we obtain from achieving an objective. The hormone serotonin contributes to feelings of well-being, inner-contentment and well-being, whilst oxytocin is associated with sentiments of trust and attachment.
Consequentially, and realistically, ‘managing’ inspiration must have implications for the quality of work and for work quality, because it is a basic and intrinsic part of the human experience. We feel better, we work better and we produce better results in creative tasks when we are inspired.
What message can we take away as managers, organizers and leaders?
- Inspiration can create emotions of exuberance and euphoria, whilst organizations are wary of emotion, preferring logical analysis, cool-headed decisions and rationality in action. Use words such as passion that has positive connotations and make sure that it has meaning, by accepting that passion is made up both of moments of inspiration, and of desperation.
- Be understanding and supportive about the rhythms, the changes in energy levels; be prepared to mitigate the troughs and to smooth the progress and turbulence over the high peaks.
- Recognize that different people have different sources and patterns of motivation; in general action-oriented, relation-supporting, ideas-centred or process-driven, but more specifically according to moods, values, lifestyle situation, habits and experience.
- In further detail, in which situations are people most like to be inspired; start of the day or end of the day, inside or outside, in the city or in the country, amongst people or solo, and for what kind of task or circumstance?
- Be conscious that inspiration is aspiration, not perspiration; in other words inspiration is “pulled” by dreams and ambitions, by vision and by passion, and not “pushed” by punishment or “forced” by monetary rewards without the feeling of self-realization and attainment.
- Create an environment that is attractive, aesthetic, stimulating or relaxing depending upon the kind of inspiration which you would like to create. Ensure that meetings and shared work areas enable, rather than discourage inspiration.
- The best way to find out what inspires people could be to ask them. Then you can help them to realize their aspirations, by appealing to their intrinsic passion and motivations.
As a rule, inspired people have more desire to master work and are less competitive. Inspired people aspire towards higher performance, beyond ordinary achievement, as well as achievements that are more creative an uplifting than routine and mundane. And if people are able to be inspired and to manage their inspiration, with or without outside help, then it promotes their well-being.
* Quite evidently ‘inspiration’ is not the same as what we understand by ‘motivation’; although the theory of motivation inclines us to believe that many people misunderstand the application of motivation. Suffice to say, that studies, such as the marshmallow challenge demonstrate the extent to which there are internal ‘motivators’, including inspirations and aspirations, and there are external ‘de-motivators’, which are basically due to the absence of a necessity, such as sustenance and reward or recognition.
The field of motivation is one area where the theory ought to be more respected, because it is much more practical and useful in practice than the various misconceptions and ideologies that people develop about motivation. i.e. If you pour cash down throats, it doesn’t stoke innovation, it chokes it. (It can even encourage the wrong kind of innovation, the one that invents the numbers.)
Try our motivation exercise to explore the phenomenon of motivation in project teams.