The Myth about Inspiration

I was just talking to my friend over the phone. One of the things we spoke about was how we often find it hard to do something simply because we lack the inspiration.

We all have moments like that. Something needs to be done, but the inspiration is so lacking that we find it hard to start.

However, one thing that I’ve come to learn over the past year is this: the whole I-need-inspiration-to-get-started-on-my-work-or-else-it-will-turn-out-crappy is nothing but a MYTH! Yes, that’s right. A myth! It’s a myth no different from one of those Homeric poems where the bart (a poet) needs to be “inspired” by the muses, so that he is able to sing a divinely-inspired poem.

I do believe that sometimes, we do get those “Eureka!” moments which drives us to get the thing done. However, we’re usually too euphoric during those moments to realise the bad points of our work. In those moments, our work looks nothing less than divine. That’s why we’ve come to believe that this inspiration is necessary to get things done and to have it done perfectly well.

Sure enough, sometimes they are indeed perfect. But, as cynical as it sounds, I’ve learnt – quite painfully – that those “perfect” works aren’t so perfect after all, especially when you return to review it a year later.

We do get inspirations, but inspirations only go so far as to give us a rough idea on what, how and where to get things done.

The problem is that we often hold an over-romanticised notion about what an inspiration is. It’s not enough that an inspiration provides us with some ideas on what and how to start. No, this over-romanticised notion usually demands a special feeling which makes us feel ready to get the work done. As a consequence, not only are we too dependent on that feeling because of the lack of confidence in ourselves, but inspiration only goes so far as to provide ideas, not feelings! Those feelings come from other sources.

Before proceeding further, I think it would be useful to clarify the situations where “inspiration” is usually sought for. I may be mistaken, but judging from my own experiences and those of my friends, we usually go in search of inspiration whenever we do things that require a little creativity – drawing, writing, painting, video-making, song-writing, cooking, designing, etc. Things that are (more or less) fixed don’t require any inspiration – why would they? We just have to follow the book (or some other rule or guide).

As for things where we need to come up with something new, or to jazz up something old, that’s where we need ideas, that’s where we need inspiration! But that’s also when we need motivation! After all, coming up with something new can be rather daunting (at least in our minds). That’s why it’s very easy to refrain from getting started, and wait for that “inspiration” to come to us.

It’s the perfect excuse for procrastinating whether we aware of this or not!

The truth is that we don’t really need this “inspiration” to get started, nor do we need that to ensure that the work comes out well.

If we are so in need of an inspiration to get started, it may be a good sign that we are far from perfecting our craft. The Greeks have a special word for craft. It’s techne, which means both the science and art of something. For example, music is a techne (craft) because there is both a science and art to it. Everything that involves creating something is a techne. In our contemporary times, we rarely think of our creative works as a kind of craft because our culture has taught us to categorise only the things involving hands and tools as a craft, i.e. works that literally require some kind of hand-crafting. So we look at carpentary as a craft, but we don’t usually look at writing as a craft. We consider metal-works as a kind of craft, but we don’t usually look at cooking as a craft.

To the Greeks, all these things are a kind of craft. But for us, we don’t and that is sometimes why we have this problem with inspiration. We are not so highly skilled in our craft of writing or designing, or whatever it is that we want to do, that we just wait for that seemingly right moment where things seem to fall nicely into place. The problem? We don’t know how to repeat that if we ever need to.

When I first began Chinese calligraphy, I always waited for (or tried to conjure up) feelings of “inspiration” before starting. Those were the moments where the calligraphy words seemed to turn out well. But I could never repeat the result or get whatever it is that I wanted to achieve.

Later on, I learnt from Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, when he compared the similarities between a craft and virtue, that a person is skilled in either one when he is able to repeat the same thing over and over again. An unskilled person may, by chance, create something really awesome, but he will never know how to repeat that same thing again. Furthermore, a skilled craftsman is able to intentionally create an error. The unskilled person? He probably makes errors half the time!

If I’m only able to do things well under those special moments, and yet I’m unable to intentionally do it,  it just means one thing – I’m unskilled!

After doing some serious calligraphy practice (with a training booklet), I was able to intend something and get it right. My Chinese calligraphy still isn’t that great, but compared to the past, I can at least get the desired effect without worrying about having the right “inspiration”, or the right “moment”.

When we realise that we do have some skill in us, we regain some confidence, and we find it less daunting to get to work. Our craft, be it writing, cooking, designing, etc., may not be perfect, but it’s practice that makes perfect. If we always sit and wait for “inspirations”, we won’t get the opportunity to practice and improve our skill.

But what if I don’t have the luxury to practice? What if this thing must turn out well or else my life/job is on the line?

Well, at least doing something is more productive than stressing out over it, waiting for an “inspiration”.

Usually, when we get started on something, we begin to take that idea which inspiration has bestowed on us, and we start to unpack it, thereby becoming more sure of what we want to do. But we usually refrain from doing just that because that fear – the fear of failure – is what prevents us from getting started. The assumption is that when everything is clear in our minds, and it looks good, that’s when we can start working on it, otherwise it’s going to be a waste of time and resources. And so, we sit, waiting for the very “inspiration” which would solve the problem immediately.

But the reality is far from this!

It’s only when we begin working on the thing, when we begin planning on paper (or something), that we begin to develop the idea, to unpack it, and make all the neural connections with other ideas, which eventually produces that clear and detailed plan which seems to have a greater feasibility/success.

The point is this – inspiration will only go so far as to give us an idea on what, how and where to start. But that’s usually all that inspiration will give. The rest is really up to us. We just got to stop worrying about its success, and start working on it. The more we practice, the better we get. That’s all there is to it. The dependency on this over-romanticised notion of “inspiration” usually comes from a lack of skill or the fear of failure. It makes the task seem so daunting that it appears to be incredibly difficult. At that moment, we sometimes feel so helpless that we want nothing but a miracle to solve the problem.

But no miracle will happen unless we stop that procrastinating wait for an “inspiration”, and start doing something about it. That’s where we begin to unpack the idea which inspiration has given to us. The more we unpack and make the connections with other ideas, the more confident we get, and the more motivated we are to get to work! And the more we practice, the more confident we become of our own abilities. Eventually, when we master that techne, we will soon come to discover that there really is no need for an “inspiration” to do things well. We have the skill in us, and we know exactly what needs to be done.

I’ll end off with some inspiration from Scott Adams. In his book, “Stick To Drawing Comics Monkey Brain”, Adams begins by listing all his successes. He ends the long list of successes by saying that it seems as if his life has been nothing but one big success. Everything he does seems to be a success. But that’s only because he’s been listing only the successes on that one page. In fact, you can do that too! Try listing all the successes you have achieved. If you showed that to others, you’d look like a very successful person too!

Anyway, Adams goes on to say how that’s because he didn’t list the numerous failures that accompanied those successes. Failures are numerous. Nonetheless, he’s able to have that long list of successes because he never stopped trying. The more you do, the more you will produce things that aren’t so great. But you will also produce more things that are fantastically great. And unless we make it a point to try, our sample size will remain low, and the number of successes will be quite limited as well.

This is also why I try to write entries on a daily basis. Not only do I want to practice and master the techne of writing, but I’m pretty sure that amongst the numerous entries I’ve written, some of them will turn out great, while some won’t. But the point is to stop waiting for “inspiration” and get writing. That’s how we succeed in life, and that’s how we get things done.

So, what are you waiting for? Let’s get started! =)