We live in a culture saturated with evaluation.
In school, we learn to take tests. We take the tests, and depending on the outcome, either feel really smart or really stupid. We then prepare for college entrance exams. And then graduate entrance exams. And then occupational entrance exams. Then on the job, we are constantly being evaluated, evaluated, evaluated. With all this evaluating, we have little time left for inspiration. We have little time left to explore the full range of possible roles in life, and see which really activates us.
In a culture obsessed with measuring talent, ability, and potential, we often overlook the important role of inspiration in enabling potential.
Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations. Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way we perceive our own capabilities. Inspiration may sometimes be overlooked because of its elusive nature. Its history of being treated as supernatural or divine hasn’t helped the situation. But as recent research shows, inspiration can be activated, captured, and manipulated, and it has a major effect on important life outcomes.
Inspiration has three main qualities. Psychologists Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot have noted these core aspects of inspiration: evocation, transcendence, and approach motivation.
- Inspiration is evoked spontaneously without intention. People are usually inspired by something, whether it’s an inspiring role model, teacher, or subject matter. Which is all the more reason why we ought to create the conditions for inspiration.
- Inspiration is transcendent of our more animalistic and self-serving concerns and limitations. Such transcendence often involves a moment of clarity and awareness of new possibilities for oneself as well as others. As Thrash and Elliot note, “The heights of human motivation spring from the beauty and goodness that precede us and awaken us to better possibilities.” This moment of clarity is often vivid, and can take the form of a grand vision, or a “seeing” of something one has not seen before (but that was probably always there).
- Inspiration involves approach motivation, in which the individual strives to transmit, express, or actualize a new idea or vision. According to Thrash and Elliot, inspiration involves both being inspired by something and acting on that inspiration.
Inspired people share certain characteristics. Thrash and Elliot developed the “Inspiration Scale,” which measures the frequency with which a person experiences inspiration in their daily lives. They found that inspired people were more open to new experiences, and reported more absorption in their tasks. Openness to experience often came before inspiration, suggesting that those who are more open to inspiration are more likely to experience it. Additionally, inspired individuals weren’t more conscientious, supporting the view that inspiration is something that happens to you and is not willed. Inspired individuals also reported having a stronger drive to master their work, but were less competitive, which makes sense if you think of competition as a non-transcendent desire to outperform competitors. Inspired people were more intrinsically motivated and less extrinsically motivated, variables that also strongly impact work performance.
Inspiration was least related to variables that involve agency or the enhancement of resources, again demonstrating the transcendent nature of inspiration. Therefore, what makes an object inspiring is its perceived subjective intrinsic value, and not how much it’s objectively worth or how attainable it is. Inspired people also reported higher levels of important psychological resources, including belief in their own abilities, self-esteem, and optimism. Mastery of work, absorption, creativity, perceived competence, self-esteem, and optimism were all consequences of inspiration, suggesting that inspiration facilitates these important psychological resources. Interestingly, work mastery also came before inspiration, suggesting that inspiration is not purely passive, but does favor the prepared mind.
Inspiration is not the same as positive affect. Compared to the normal experiences of everyday life, inspiration involves elevated levels of positive affect and task involvement, and lower levels of negative affect. Inspiration is not the same state as positive affect, however. Compared to being in an enthusiastic and excited state, people who enter an inspired state (by thinking of a prior moment they were inspired) reported greater levels of spirituality and meaning, and lower levels of volitional control, controllability, and self-responsibility for their inspiration. Whereas positive affect is activated when someone is making progress toward their immediate, conscious goals, inspiration is more related to an awakening to something new, better, or more important: transcendence of one’s previous concerns.
Inspiration is the springboard for creativity. Inspired people view themselves as more creative and show actual increases in self-ratings of creativity over time. Patent-holding inventors report being inspired more frequently and intensely than non-patent holders, and the higher the frequency of inspiration, the higher the number of patents held. Being in a state of inspiration also predicts the creativity of writing samples across scientific writing, poetry, and fiction (as judged by a panel of fellow students) independent of SAT verbal scores, openness to experience, positive affect, specific behaviors (e.g., deleting prior sentences), and aspects of the product quality (e.g., technical merit). Inspired writers are more efficient and productive, and spend less time pausing and more time writing. The link between inspiration and creativity is consistent with the transcendent aspect of inspiration, since creativity involves seeing possibility beyond existing constraints. Importantly, inspiration and effort predict different aspects of an activity. Individuals who exerted more effort writing spent more of their time pausing, deleted more words, wrote more sentences per paragraph, and had better technical merit and use of rhyming in poems, but their work was not considered more creative.
Inspiration facilitates progress toward goals. In a recent study conducted by Marina Milyavskaya and her colleagues, college students were asked to report three goals they intended to accomplish throughout the course of the semester. They then reported on their progress three times a month. Those who scored higher on the Inspiration Scale displayed increased goal progress, and their progress was a result of setting more inspired goals. Therefore, people who were generally more inspired in their daily lives also tended to set inspired goals, which were then more likely to be successfully attained. Importantly, the relationship between inspiration and goal progress was reciprocal: goal progress also predicted future goal inspiration. As the researchers note, “this suggests that goal progress and goal inspiration build on each other to form a cycle of greater goal inspiration and greater goal pursuit.” Finally, inspired individuals reported experiencing more purpose in life and more gratitude.
Inspiration increases well-being. In another study, those who were exposed to Michael Jordan’s greatness experienced higher levels of positive affect, and this increase in positive affect was completely explained by their score on the Inspiration Scale. This inspiration was not transitory though, predicting positive well-being (e.g., positive affect, life satisfaction) three months later! Inspiration was more strongly related to future than to present satisfaction. The extent to which inspiration lasted was explained by self-reported levels of purpose and gratitude in life.
These findings show that inspiration matters a lot, which may cause someone to feel pressure to become inspired and helpless to do so considering the evocative and spontaneous nature of inspiration. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert rightly expresses this concern in her inspiring TED talk. I agree with Gilbert that one should not put pressure on oneself to become inspired. These key scientific findings suggest that inspiration is not willed– it happens. Knowing this should free you from the pressure to make inspiration happen.
This does not mean that inspiration is completely outside your control. Contrary to the view of inspiration as purely mythical or divine, I think inspiration is best thought of as a surprising interaction between your current knowledge and the information you receive from the world.
There are things you can do to increase the likelihood of inspiration occurring. Research shows quite clearly that preparation (“work mastery”) is a key ingredient. While inspiration is not the same as effort, effort is an essential condition for inspiration, preparing the mind for an inspirational experience. Openness to experience and positive affect are also important, as having an open mind and approach-oriented attitude will make it more likely that you will be aware of the inspiration once it arrives. Small accomplishments are also important, as they can boost inspiration, setting off a productive and creative cycle. Another incredibly important, and often overlooked trigger of inspiration is exposure to inspiring managers, role models, and heroes.
To become personally inspired, the best you can do is set up the optimal circumstances for inspiration. As a society, the best we can do is assist in setting up these important circumstances for everyone. An easy first step is simply recognizing the sheer potency of inspiration, and its potential impact on everything we do.
It’s time to shift from a culture of evaluation to a culture of inspiration.
This article was adapted from Kaufman's talk at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival.