“It was very inspiring!”
Whenever I hear that comment about a book, training or self-development material I know one thing: It was bloody worthless!
What the phrase “It was very inspiring” really means is this: “It changed nothing in my life, it didn’t help me in any actual way, but I did feel nice for a moment.”
I mean, what does “inspiring” even really mean?
- Letting you see things from a different perspective for a moment – Cool, so what? What further steps did you take? Getting a chance to look from a different perspective is pleasurable, since it gives you a dopamine kick – and dopamine, among its other roles, is one of the pleasure hormones. But if this kick does not come with a realistic and practically implemented action plan, there’s no real difference between “inspiration” and a bit of cocaine, or some other substance that influences the body’s dopamine metabolism. Sure, it’s pleasurable – but not necessarily healthy or productive.
- Motivating to action – Inspiration-based motivation, occurring through short, intensive bursts of activity, is actually one of the worst things that can happen to a person. Why? Because after the few hours or days of activity, when the inspiration has been completely used up, the person is stuck with nothing. What then? Read another book? Go to another seminar? That costs both time and money. And in the meantime, you’ve probably started doing some things. Told people you’d be doing them. Perhaps started marketing stuff, or booked something. This, again, costs both time and money. But more than that, it costs you credibility, and once you lose that, it is much, much harder to regain.
Sure, people will forgive you for failing once or twice; for declaring you’d do something and then not doing it. We’re all human and everyone can understand that these things happen. Until they happen one time too many, always to you, always with the declarations and leaving things half done. Unfortunately, I know a LOT of people in the self-development community who work in such “inspired bursts”, and some of them have become namesakes for being an unreliable person. This is a real problem over the long term, because who’s going to bother booking a training program that they know will be cancelled? Who’s going to get excited about a book that will never be written? Who will engage in a project when they know the project leader is going to skip town in a couple of weeks, running after their new toy, their new inspiration?
- Motivating to take a risk – True, sometimes risk-taking is good. And you probably won’t succeed without taking any risks. Stories (inspiring, aye!) of success are full of people who took the risk, bet it all and came out victorious. That’s got to work, right? After all, you don’t hear stories of people who took the risk, bet it all and failed so miserably that they could never get back up again?
Only, well…would you buy such a book? Would you pay to attend a seminar about people who failed? (I would, and I value the few books available on the issue far more than most books about success, because only by combining this kind of data can you get a full view of the situation. Of course, I am the guy who tends to be known for having the critical, rational perspective, so my tastes might not be popular.)
A seminar about failure wouldn’t be very inspiring, would it? Especially if during the seminar you find out that the very same strategies attributed to successful people were also used by the people who failed. In fact, many of them failed strictly because of these “successful’” strategies!
If you toss a coin enough times you are guaranteed to get ten heads in a row. That’s just pure probability in action. Every couple of years you’ll get someone who wins the lottery’s main prize more than once; again, by sheer coincidence. If we have enough players and they play long enough, it’s pretty much guaranteed that such situations will happen from time to time. (Similarly, with enough attempts you can find people who have bad luck after horrible luck after worse luck, time and again, just by coincidence.) There’s a popular (and inspirational!) self-development idea that there is no such thing as luck or bad luck. But that’s just wishful thinking. True, you can help your luck, and increase your chances, but you will never have full control over it. Like it or not, probability does influence us. A lot. Inspiring slogans might make people forget this simple fact and take risks that are both ill-considered and unnecessary.
My point is don’t just “reach for your dreams”, be well prepared before you reach for them, or else your dreams might just become your nightmares. Don’t believe me? Take a look at Gordon Ramsay’s television show Kitchen Nightmares. Many of the contestants on that show came about simply because people dreamed about having their own restaurant and opened one without the faintest idea of what they were doing. But they were inspired and motivated to “seize the day” and “realize their dreams”. And their dreams turned sour, oh so quickly afterwards. Other famous chefs and restauranteurs, like Anthony Bourdain, tell the same tale.
- Providing an idea for a piece of art, a book, an invention – This is perhaps the only field where inspiration might have some value. The thing is, in order for inspiration to work here, you first need a lot of preparation, which is based on perspiration, not inspiration. Experienced writers tend to write independently of inspiration, just writing a certain amount of text every day. Most of the greats have earned their stripes by being professionals, writing scripts, serialized stories in magazines and other routine work. This type of writing may not be glamorous. Often, it is tedious, but most important, it is regular, hard work with plenty of opportunities for good feedback. The same applies to other kinds of artists, scientists and the like. Once you’ve built the right foundation, inspiration may have some merit. The thing is, people try to look for inspiration first, and then maybe, just maybe, consider developing some skills. It just doesn’t work that way.
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No solution which has to be reapplied on a regular basis can be considered an actual solution. If you need to pump up your confidence every time you need to do something then you’re not confident at all. If you need to keep on watching motivational videos and attending seminars then you’re not motivated at all. That is just a lousy mental addiction. Real motivation doesn’t mean you always want to do stuff, it means that you always do what needs to be done, even when you’d really rather not. It’s the same with inspiration. If you always need inspiration to work, then what you’re working on is probably not worth doing at all – at least not for you, not at this moment in your life.
Okay then, but what about my under-achieving brother, bored aunt, weird cousin, annoying neighbour? They read that popular inspirational book and it really changed their lives!
Well, are you really sure that it was the book that caused that change? Maybe there were other reasons, and the book was just something that fit nicely into the story they were weaving about their lives, so they attributed their changes to the book?
Perhaps I’m too much of a sceptic, but I strongly doubt the power of a single inspirational book to really change someone’s life. I believe that a book that contains a detailed, specific action plan might cause such a change – if the program is really good and if the reader puts a lot of effort into making it work. But an inspirational book? Let’s just say I have a different take on that issue. I believe that your weird cousin (or whoever we’re talking about) was at such a point in his life where, on some level, he really had had enough. As such, it really didn’t matter what “inspired” him, because that inspiration was just an excuse, a rationalization needed to change the situation that was really, really bothering him. As such, he could’ve been inspired by a pile of cow dung on the meadow. While out on a walk he could notice it, grab his head and shout, “My whole life is a pile of shit!” And then he would run home to change his life. Would we then claim that your cousin was inspired by dung? No, we would look for something else, something more plausible, like an inspirational book or seminar.
Come on, Artur, were you never inspired by anything?
Of course I was. I’m often inspired to write articles (which I’d write anyway, if I didn’t have inspiration; I’d just pick a different topic). I also have a lot of things that inspire me. Whenever I hear, “Wander, my friends!” from the Battlestar Galactica sountrack, I just want to stand up straight and salute. I’ve been inspired after many a book, film or game. But then… there were other things to do, and the inspiration – she flew away.
Which tends to be why I prefer perspiration, just working hard on whatever I want to achieve. No, it’s not as emotionally pleasant and engaging – but it helps you get better and more permanent solutions. Inspiration works mainly to satisfy the emotional hunger, the desire to feel a certain way, but it offers no practical solutions. That may not sound inspirational, and it is unlikely to improve your mood, but perhaps after reading this text at least some of the people addicted to inspiration will realize that there are easier and better ways of fulfilling emotional needs. And that solving real issues is best done by real effort and hard work, without the need for any “inspiration”.
You have to be so careful with prescriptive methodologies because individuals are mind blowingly complex and unique.