Inspiration Considered Harmful
Inspiration, my old nemesis.
I’ve been reading Seth Godin’s blog for years. I respect the man: he’s prolific and insightful. He often talks about art, about creating and shipping your art. The term is not limited to “art art” as it’s commonly understood (music, paintings etc.), though it can certainly be about that, too. Art, as Godin defines it, is that which you are compelled, perhaps even driven to create or otherwise realize. It’s your skills and inclinations combined with your will, it’s their persistent application to give you purpose and create something meaningful. His precise definition is probably different, but this is how I’ve interpreted the gist of it.
I was reminded of the topic of inspiration after reading a recent blog post of his, What you waiting for? In it, he asks the reader:
I’m not asking in the usual hectoring, pushing sense of asking you to hurry up and get started.
I’m genuinely, rhetorically curious. What, exactly, are you insisting will happen before you start shipping your art?
Years ago, I would have answered “inspiration”, with the assumption that getting started was just a matter of finding The Big Idea, and successful execution would magically follow. Not any more.
Godin’s writing is very compelling at its best, very effective at rousing those fleeting “Goddammit! I, too, am going to strive for greatness from now on!” emotions. I say fleeting, because to me, Godin is like a particle accelerator that produces Inspirationium, an unstable, imaginary superheavy transuranium element that, once synthesized, decays rapidly in a matter of seconds.
With and without the help of Seth Godin and other inspirational figures on the Internet, I’ve been inspired all my life. Yet almost nothing has ever come of those inspirations. Each time they disappear as quickly as they came. The cycle is excruciating: every inspiration sparks that tiny hope of great things to come, each time that hope quickly dies anew, and each time I come out feeling depressed at my inadequacy. Having been through this so many times over the course of the past decade, I’m tempted to just label inspiration harmful to people who lack the capability to act upon it, for whatever reason. It gnaws at their happiness, sometimes even their sanity. Dim complacency would be preferable.
With art being a combination of skill and will, the two must complement each other. In my case, they don’t. I’m a passable software developer, but I have no real passion for it, nor the will nor the patience to extensively apply myself in that area beyond doing it as a day job to earn a living. As a result, I will almost certainly never build a non-trivial commercial software application on my own. I also have some skill in listening to people, empathizing with them and analyzing their problems, but I’m not the least bit interested in training to be a proper therapist, where I could put those skills to use in a way that could be construed as my art.
No, my will is in short term hedonism, useless distractions and entertainment. Any meaningful alternatives inevitably run into a brick wall of boredom, low self-esteem, discouragement and a desire for more immediately gratifying stimuli. My art ever eludes me.
As for Godin’s question, with each passing year, one potential answer to it grows more likely to be the correct one: I just don’t have art in me, period. My skills and my will are not converging in a way that would allow my art to manifest itself. No amount of inspiration over the years has gotten me any closer to discovering my art, let alone shipping it.
I’m probably not alone in this. I suspect that the productivity cultists and lifehackers–perpetually obsessed with optimizing their workflows and eliminating distractions–are people who hopelessly chase after success and try to realize their imagined hidden potential (which I cynically assume many or even most of them probably just don’t have), all the while completely missing the forest for the trees with their focus on irrelevant miscellany instead of the fundamental root causes of their everlasting failure to self-actualize. I just assume that unlike them, I’ve realized the futility of it all.
If you are able cultivate an inspiration and turn it into something real, I wish you plenty of it. If, like me, you are unable to do it, I hope you are spared of inspiration to spare you the pain.