Why Inspiration Matters

(photo credit jwhairybob)

I taught a course at Stanford all about the psychology of personal change. There is a ton of research dedicated to understanding why people succeed (or more likely, fail) to maintain diets, begin exercising regularly, quit smoking and more.

One paper published by researchers at Harvard and Dartmouth looked at 119 people’s self-reported stories about successful or failed life change experiences. They examined various elements of these stories and coded the content for things like whether “major suffering” or “moving to a new location” or “received help” played a role in stories of success or failure. Consider some of these:

  • Critical / focal event: 59.4% (Change) vs 9.1% (No Change)
  • Crystallization of discontent: 57.8 (Change) vs 12.7% (No Change)
  • Change from negative to positive affect: 75.0% (Change) vs 9.1% (No Change)

Some of the most important factors that can make or break a change is transformative moments where people realize how much pain and frustration certain behaviors cause and reorient their mindsets from how hard change will be to how much positivity it will bring. In other words, people change when they get inspired.

James Prochaska is a professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island and has authored some of the most influential papers on behavior change in the past quarter century. He has articulated a theory of change that involves 5 separate stages.

Precontemplation (not even concerned about changing) to Contemplation (considering whether to attempt to change) to Preparation (gathering the resources / plans necessary to make change) to Action (actively attempting to change behavior) to Maintenance (continuing with the new, better behavior and avoiding relapse)

What causes someone to move from one stage to another? I believe that often, it’s when you get inspired by an external event. When you see your friend go from being out of shape to running a 5k or read an article about an 80 year old woman finally getting her college degree or see a TV interview with a first-time entrepreneur who’s business is growing profitably, you get inspired.

Those moments of inspiration are what drive you to really think hard about getting back into running, start researching online courses to take and fire up your text editor to keep plugging away at that side project. When you hear stories of other people triumphing over adversity, over internal struggle and their own fears and doubts, it lifts you up and makes your obstacles seem a little smaller.

I believe that inspiration is a key part of a successful change effort. So you can imagine that I was a little peeved to read this article by Jim Taylor called “Why Inspirational Talks Don’t Work“. He leads with this:

Have you ever listened to an inspirational talk, for example, The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch? Have you ever read an inspirational book such as Born to Run? Or watched an inspirational film like Hoosiers? How do you feel after? Well, inspired, right? What a great feeling! You’re fired up and ready to take on the world. You’re brimming with confidence. Your eye is on the prize and, by gosh, that prize is yours!

Then something rather deflating happens. You wake up the next morning and the inspiration is gone. You’re still the same old you. And you may even feel worse about yourself because, after the previous day’s inspiration, your failure to take even one small step towards your goals is all the more glaring.

What’s the problem here? He assumes that no one did anything after being filled with inspiration and confidence. “You’re the same old you.” Except that if you had taken that opportunity to tackle some portion of your change efforts – or to move from one stage to the next – then you are most certainly in a better place. Jim assumes that everyone who gets inspired immediately turns around and does nothing with that inspiration.

Yes, of course you have to do something. But the point is, most people KNOW what they have to do but they still have trouble doing it – often because they find the task too daunting or they keep making excuses for not starting. After engaging in an inspirational event/material, you are in a heightened state where things feel less scary and the impetus to begin is present.

Go talk to one of the hundreds of people inspired to start (or restart) running because of Born to Run. Or the millions of basketball teams who have bonded over Hoosiers before their championship game. Or just chat with ClicClickBang, who posted this on The Last Lecture youtube video:

I was never taught by this guy. I never even knew this guy until he was dead.

I heard his book on tape when I was on a road trip, and I had to pull over for a long time to stop and decide whether I was to listen to the last disc or not. I just didn’t want to hear this guy stop talking. I wish that I had been fortunate enough to meet this amazing man face to face. This man made me rebuild my life.

Rest in peace, Randy Pausch. I owe you my life.

While he isn’t specific about how Randy Pausch helped him rebuild his life, I don’t think it was because he just got puffed up with inspiration one day and then deflated the next day. I would venture to guess that the video sparked the beginning of a long road of action, struggle and triumph.

What’s Jim’s take on all this?

The truth is that you, and millions of other people looking for inspiration to change their lives, have been hoodwinked by the “inspirational-industrial complex,” a multi-billion dollar industry. Why, you ask? Because the inspiration that comes from other people is manufactured from the outside. This “synthetic” inspiration simply can’t last long because when the source of the inspiration (i.e. the talk, film, or book) is gone, its shelf life is very short.

Ah – it’s the old “corporations are evil” trick. If companies are making billions of dollars from selling you something, it must be bad. I agree that self-help gets a bad rap from stuff like The Secret and late-night infomercials but that doesn’t make the core product bad. Perhaps lots of people get inspired and do nothing. Lots of people try to join gyms or start diets or enroll in smoking cessataion course and fail as well. That doesn’t mean that working out, eating healthier or quitting smoking is bad. Just that those things are hard. Jim’s advice?

If you want real inspiration … look deep inside and see if you can find it in you.

Thanks for the help. What happens if I don’t find anything after looking deep inside? Does it mean I have no chance of succeeding in my change efforts?

At the end of the day Jim Taylor sells books, coaching and speaking engagements. I have no problem with the fact that he is part of this “inspirational-industrial complex”. I suspect that in the end, he’s making this controversial statement to gain attention and perhaps find some new clients. But there are people who whole-heartedly agree with his argument, particularly the “synthetic” nature of inspiration. The argument is weak. You know what else comes from the outside and doesn’t last long? Eating food, taking showers and cleaning your room. You need to keep doing it to experience the effects and that’s ok.

Inspiration is an crucial part of the human experience. Whether you find it from a close friend or from listening to passionate speaker, you should never feel embarrassed about seeking inspiration to spark your change efforts – knowing that it’s part of a greater process that will take time, effort and strategy. We need it as much as we need food, water and shelter and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Inspiration Matters.


If you’re feeling inspired and looking for some concrete steps to tackle a new change in your life, feel free to check out some of the articles I’ve written on this topic:

Finally, The Last Lecture and Born to Run are both truly great and highly recommended. Hoosiers is a classic but as a former NCAA athlete and watcher of inspirational pre-championship-game films, I’d have to go with either Miracle or 300. Just saying.

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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