Inspiring Yourself — and Your Team.
I’m always surprised at just how much time I can waste on Twitter and Hacker News. You know the story — It starts harmlessly enough as a quick scroll between tasks at work. Next thing you know, you’re in a marathon of reading, bookmarking, re-tweeting, and upvoting/ liking. Think about that. Social media has expertly cracked our mental stimulation code, leveraging instant gratification to keep us glued to the screen. It’s so effective that when we close the app and return to the real world, we immediately feel its absence.
What if work felt that effortless and gratifying? Rather than being interrupted by the next craving of social media dopamine, can professionals nourish a pool of internal inspiration that propels them toward their goals rather than down their feeds? Perhaps at the height of the attention economy, that’s easier said than done. Let’s take a closer look.
External Stimulation vs. Internal Inspiration
There’s a difference between a cup of coffee and ambition, and it isn’t trivial. Both might make it easier to power through our days, but coffee is external, reliably does what you expect it to after centuries of experimentation by humans and wears off quickly, while ambition is internal, tougher to craft and lasting. Building your career on ambition seems far more likely to lead to enrichment and success than relying mostly on coffee to work through the tedium.
This is the difference between external stimulation and internal inspiration. When the coffee wears off, ambition is the impetus to push through, get it done, and exceed all expectations. It’s how you grow professionally and personally, even when it requires patience, sacrifice, and stretches of work that feel below your potential.
Think about how you feel when you’re inspired. Work is more enriching, productivity is effortless, and innovation feels possible. But when you aren’t inspired, it all goes down the drain. Everything becomes tedious, simple tasks become uphill battles, and you just want to return to sources of instant gratification such as social media.
If you think about the next ten years of your life, which of these options would yield the best results? Inspiration, of course. It’s squarely at the center of professional life, which means it should be a chief concern of every employee and employer. This begs the question — how much control do individuals and leaders have over inspiring themselves and those around them?
It seems safe to say that if we organize our lives around meaningful relationships, enriching hobbies, and a rewarding profession, then we’ll be more inspired than otherwise. But this is hardly as well formed or actionable as opening up an app to get an immediate hit of external stimulation. If you find yourself in an unmotivated, fatigued, or cynical frame of mind, try to reconnect yourself with a sense of inspiration.
For some people, finding a well-defined goal might work best. Whenever you feel your spirits waning, just remember what it’s all for — to rise through the ranks, to get a deeper understanding of your field. For others, sustained inspiration may come from more ambiguous goals — to create something that doesn’t exist, to improve lives, to revolutionize a business, to shake the status quo around you.
Whichever method speaks to you, finding a way to remind yourself what you’re working toward becomes key to sustaining inspiration. That’s where it might help to get creative. I’ve often wondered — What if there was a fast-paced, digestible place for hits of inspiration rather than hits of external dopamine? Maybe we can’t stay inspired all day, but we can increase how many spikes of inspiration we experience. Can we fight fire with fire by creating our own “inspiration feeds?”
It could be worth an experiment. I’ve found that foundational measurable skills that span many of your goals can act as stepping stones or inspiration feeds. For example, to a fresh computer science student in college, typing fast is one of the simplest but highest ROI activities to ramp up on. Getting good at typing feeds into other goals such as crafting large scale projects such as compilers tirelessly or excelling at programming competitions.
Since my career involves managing and hiring teams, I’ve had to think a lot about the role inspiration plays in group settings. The first thing that becomes clear is just how palpable an individual’s inspiration can be on those around them. Whether it’s coming from leadership, employees, or an interview candidate, that positive presence can go a long way.
That’s why, as I’m sorting through candidates, finding someone with a strong internal drive for the project at hand is an excellent sign. Not only does it show their commitment to the work, but it can be infectious and encourage inspiration in the rest of the team. To that end, finding the types of people who will thrive in your company’s culture is key.
It’s also important to ask your existing team what parts of their job are the most inspiring. What parts are the least? What could change to remove tedium and increase enrichment? How can we shake up the status quo? If a leader knows the unique paths to inspiration that each team member — including their own — and runs projects accordingly, I’d consider them a success.
Also published here.