Inspiration v. motivation

Listening to a Science Friday segment about New Year’s resolutions, I was struck by the answer to a caller who wanted to know what guest John Norcross thought about the difference between inspiration and motivation. (In this context, being inspired to make/keep a resolution, and being motivated to do so.) I was so struck I went back to hear Norcross’s answer again. Here it is:

Inspiration is short-lived. It’s typically emulating other people, and it’ll push us for a week or two. But inspiration begins to extinguish quite quickly. And as Henry Ford once said, after that it’s 90 percent hard work. Inspiration may get us started, but it never keeps us going. And that’s where motivation works.

And motivation doesn’t come in a bottle. Motivation is, scientifically speaking, a series of small behaviors.

He goes on to talk about how motivation entails tracking progress of the behavior change in question, rewarding yourself as you hit milestones, and the like. I don’t know if he’s relying on research when makes these distinctions, or not.

Anyway the reason this struck me is that I think there’s an awful lot of emphasis on “inspiration” in the marketing/design world of ideas. When I hear talks (more often via some online venue than in person) from this or that guru (and this includes people who call themselves “motivational” speakers, actually), their point always seems to be to inspire the audience. People are always asking me about inspiration, and conferences seem to revolve around inspiration, and basically inspiration seems to be a venerated concept.

Similarly, people are inspired by Obama’s call for change, but are they (we) motivated to follow through and do something real, something difficult? Inspiration is enough to submit your idea to Change.gov, but it’s probably not enough to actually change anything. People with ideas are a dime a dozen; people who execute are rare. I don’t know about you, but when I look at my to-do list, I wonder where I fall on that continuum — will I be motivated to get things done this year, or merely inspired to add to add to my list?

Anyway, I guess I wonder if all the inspiration offered by gurus is a bit of a disservice. It’s like a jolt of caffeine; it won’t last. (It’s another variation of the instant-ness problem I wrote about the other day, maybe.) You’ll feel briefly like you’re on a new path, but it fades. You get pumped up and “inspired,” and then before long you’re right back where you were … needing “inspiration” again.

That’s good news for the guru industry. It may not be good for anybody else.