I have a complicated relationship with inspiration*, probably because my thresholds are so high.
*By inspiration, I am referring to the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something – especially something creative.
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.
*I imagine you to be of the pioneering, forward thinking and curious sort, quietly dissatisfied with mediocrity, predictability, stagnation and the status quo.
Now, 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 by Nassim Nicholas Taleb 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*.
*Independent magazines mitigate this somewhat, providing a diversity of articles that can be savoured in pockets of time. Current favourites include: The Alpine Review, Offscreen, New Philosopher, Monocle and Drift.
We can’t afford to commit to a book that’s a dud. But nor do we want to prematurely dismiss something as a dud without giving it a good chance — lest we succumb fully to our own cognitive biases. This is where digital helps.
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 tablet, 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).
Right now, I have Kevin Kelly’s new book The Inevitable (and it’s on track for a physical incarnation). I own several copies of Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse, and Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy is set to become a classic in our home. Dangerlam [Jason’s colleague, illustrator Kim Lam] managed to pilfer it for a buck at our local secondhand bookstore, but this doesn’t stop it from a physical re-reincarnation. Books aside, I tend to meander on the interwebs.
I pursue folly. My journeys often start in familiar places — medium.com* and getpocket.com, primarily – but then I follow a non-linear pathway down the rabbit-hole, following the threads and breadcrumb trails that connect great articles, until I figuratively stumble across inspiration. Something surprising and unexpected: new thinking that stimulates my own, inspiring me to explore further.
*As far as internet reading goes, Medium is fantastic. The signal-to-noise ratio is nowhere near as bad as it could be.
Such worthy reads then get captured into Pocket for deeper reading (and sharing with you in these articles). Pocket is like your own curated magazine, and excellent when you make time to contemplate.
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 (google 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**.
**At a cafe with a good pour-over happening.
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*.
* I’m not sure if I’ve been alive long enough to comment, but I suspect these are an almost essential luxury on the quest to enduring relevance.
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, jaxzyn.com). 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 Special 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!
The more we are inspired by fresh thinking, the more we can expire stale thinking.
Dr Jason Fox is the bestselling author of ‘The Game Changer’ and ‘How to Lead a Quest: A Handbook for Pioneering Executives’, and in 2016 was awarded Keynote Speaker of the Year. Jason is speaking at our annual conference Movers and Breakers in Hamilton Island this October. Find more details here.