Set the Stage for Inspiration

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

Scientists tend to be a stoic bunch—in the lab, head down, working hard. At least that was my experience as a grad student and early on as a postdoc. You could go to the lab at any time, day or night and there would be somewhere between 5–30 people working.

I think this culture of working constantly is still prevalent in academia. What we learn in our early days as scientists is hard to unlearn. It may also ring true for people in science and tech outside of academia. In many places, it is reinforced by work culture in general. Folks here in the US are notoriously bad at taking vacation.

Studies show that by sacrificing our breaks from work, both daily and extended, we may be sacrificing our health, well-being [1] and the very inspiration and creativity we need to solve the challenges we face at work.

Research on inspiration as a measureable psychological construct hit the map in 2003 through research by Todd Thrash and Andrew Elliot [2].

They found that inspiration was characterized by evocation, motivation and transcendence. Although inspiration was something that that seemed to happen to study participants, and not something they could willfully manifest, it did favor the well-prepared.

In the study, work mastery and creativity were antecedents of inspiration, suggesting that inspiration is not purely passive, but rather that active engagement with objects or ideas exposes you to evocative influences that contribute to inspiration.

But you have to be receptive to it. If you don’t recognize an inspiring event, then it may as well never have happened. Openness to experience, positive affect, optimism and self-esteem all preceded inspiration, and the authors suggested that positivity improves breadth of attention and thinking, essentially allowing for exposure to those evocative influences that trigger inspiration [2].

Okay, you might be thinking, “So I had a moment of inspiration. What good is that?”

Once inspiration hits, it leads to greater work mastery (you get this on both sides of your inspirational moment) and absorption, suggesting a long-term motivational impact and increased focus. Inspiration was also linked to enhanced creativity, and a boost in perceived competence, self-esteem and optimism—they called this transcendence of constraints in thinking and behavior and enhancement of the self [2]. Yes, please!

And we get even more openness to experience because of our moment of inspiration. Sounds like the perfect positive feedback loop to me!

Thrash and colleagues also explored inspiration specifically related to creativity [3]. They set out test whether inspiration is a motivational state that moves us to go beyond just coming up with ideas by driving us put those ideas to use.

It is just my luck that they looked at the effects of inspiration in the writing process, including scientific writing. Brilliant!

The conclusions of each of their studies are [3]:

Study 1—getting creative ideas and being inspired are distinct and getting creative ideas comes before inspiration.

Study 2—inspiration predicted the creativity of scientific writing and effort predicted technical merit; peaks in inspiration predicted peaks in creativity and troughs in technical merit.

Study 3—inspiration predicted the creativity of poetry.

Study 4—inspiration predicted creativity in fiction writing.

Overall, openness and positive affect predicted creativity of ideas, and inspiration predicted efficiency, productivity, and use of shorter words (love it!) [3]. Inspiration motivates you to put your creativity to good use (by writing something) and if measured by economy of words (fewer, well-chosen words), helps you write better.

Let’s not forget the implicit warnings from the findings above:

1. Getting creative ideas may come before inspiration [3], so don’t wait for inspiration to come up with, document and begin working on your ideas!

2. Effort, not inspiration, predicted technical merit in scientific writing. And peaks in inspiration predicted more creativity, but less technical acuity [3]. Scientific research, writing, teaching, inventing—it is still hard work and the inspired moments only take you so far. You still need to put in that dedicated time and effort.

Do one thing every day that scares you.

—Eleanor Roosevelt

Or at least makes you look around, take a deep breath, notice, and be present right where you are. Something that scares you doesn’t have to be as intense as base jumping from a bridge into a river gorge, or whitewater rafting or visiting a country for the first time where you don’t speak the language and have no idea how you will communicate (although that last one might be amazingly effective [4]). It can be as simple as moving slightly out of your comfort zone, like trying a new restaurant or starting a conversation with someone on the bus or train.

New experiences change your brain and lead to formation of new neural connections. You notice more, because you need to, whether it is to find your way when taking a new route to work or to learn the culture and customs in a new place you are visiting. When you get stuck in the same daily routine, you stop seeing the details, and your cognitive flexibility and creativity may suffer [5,6].

If you are trying to find creative ways to explore scientific questions, teach others, or develop novel solutions through engineering or inventing, being open to new possibilities is critical. How can you be creative and explore new ways of thinking if you are not willing to do something new?

How to cultivate inspiration

If you you have nutrient depleted soil, the seed you plant may not grow. And if it grows, you may end up with a stunted or sickly looking plant. What if it is the same with inspiration?

How can you stack the deck a bit to make inspiration more common in your life?

1. Put your phone in a drawer (and leave it there, at least for a while). AKA be present. Maybe there is a post on mindfulness in our future …

2. Do something you have never done before—even if it is a little crazy. New environments put your senses on high alert—sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch—you notice more. And you are forced to think differently and see things from a new perspective. If you’ve noticed it (whatever it is), you’ve opened yourself to the possibility of being inspired by it.

3. Take a vacation—it is worth far more in your job performance and career development than you think!

4. When you are in the middle of that new experience, dive in! Don’t just look around, participate. Jump out of the boat, jump off that rock, it’s the little wonders [7] that inspire. Live with your arms wide open [8] and be there to take it all in.

Now get out there and explore!

[1] Robinson, A. Four reasons to take a vacation. Psychopharmacology and Substance Abuse Newsletter, July 2017.

[2] Thrash, T. M., & Elliot, A. J. (2003). Inspiration as a psychological construct. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 871–889.

[3] Thrash, T. M., Maruskin, L. A., Cassidy, S.E., Fryer, J.W., & Ryan, R. M. (2010b). Mediating between the muse and the masses: inspiration and the actualization of creative ideas. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 469–487.

[4] The Science Behind How Travel Boosts Creativity—Arcido Blog.

[5] Dajani, D. R., & Uddin, L. Q. (2015). Demystifying cognitive flexibility: Implications for clinical and developmental neuroscience. Trends in Neurosciences, 38, 571–578.

[6] Chen Q, Yang W, Li W, et al. (2014). Association of creative achievement with cognitive flexibility by a combined voxel-based morphometry and resting-state functional connectivity study. Neuroimage 102 Pt 2: 474-483.

[7] Little Wonders—Rob Thomas

[8] Arms Wide Open—Creed; Okay, I apologize (sort of) for the cheesy Creed video. But, come on, arms wide open—it’s kind of perfect!

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