What Is Inspiration?
For decades, Anders Ericsson has reminded us of the value of hard work. The Florida State psychologist did the research that led to the so-called 10,000-hour rule. In his informative new book, "Peak," he and co-author Robert Pool downplay the importance of native-born genius (even in people like Mozart) and emphasize the importance of deliberate practice — painstaking exercises to perfect some skill.
Anybody who has observed excellence knows that Ericsson is basically right. Dogged work is the prerequisite of success. Yet there are some moments — after much steady work and after the technical skills have been mastered — when the mind and spirit take flight. We call these moments of inspiration. They kind of steal upon you, longed for and unexpected.
Inspiration is a much-used, domesticated, amorphous and secular word for what is actually a revolutionary, countercultural and spiritual phenomenon. But what exactly is inspiration? What are we talking about when we use that term?
Well, moments of inspiration don't quite make sense by normal logic. They feel transcendent, uncontrollable and irresistible. When one is inspired, time disappears or alters its pace. The senses are amplified. There may be goose bumps or shivers down the spine, or a sense of being overawed by some beauty.
Inspiration is always more active than mere appreciation. There's a thrilling feeling of elevation, a burst of energy, an awareness of enlarged possibilities. The person in the grip of inspiration has received, as if by magic, some new perception, some holistic understanding, along with the feeling that she is capable of more than she thought.
Vladimir Nabokov believed that inspiration comes in phases. First, he wrote, there's the "prefatory glow," the feeling of "tickly well-being" that banishes all awareness of physical discomfort. The feeling does not yield its secret just yet, but a window has been opened and some wind has blown in.
Then, a few days later, Nabokov continued, the writer "forefeels what he is going to tell." There's an instant vision, the lightning bolt of inspiration, that turns into rapid speech, and a "tumble of merging words" that form the nucleus of a work that will grow from it over the ensuing months or years.
Inspired work stands apart from normal life. In the first place it's not about self-interest as normally understood. It's not driven by a desire for money or grades or status. The inspired person is driven intrinsically by the work itself. The work takes hold of a person.
Inspiration is not earned. Your investment of time and effort prepares you for inspiration, but inspiration is a gift that goes beyond anything you could have deserved.
Inspiration is not something you can control. People who are inspired have lost some agency. They often feel that something is working through them, some power greater than themselves. The Greeks said it was the Muses. Believers might say it is God or the Holy Spirit. Others might say it is something mysterious bursting forth deep in the unconscious, a new way of seeing.
Inspiration does not happen to autonomous individuals. It's a beautiful contagion that passes through individuals. The word itself comes from the Latin inspirare, meaning "to breath into." One inspiring achievement — say, the space program — has a tendency to raise the sense of possibility in others — say, a little boy who dreams of being an astronomer. Then the one who is inspired performs his own feats and inspires others, and so on down the line.
Inspiration is not permanent and solid. It's powerful but ephemeral, which is why so many people compare it to a gust of wind. And when it is gone people long for its return.
The poet Christian Wiman wrote that inspiration is "intrusive, transcendent, transformative, but also evanescent and, all too often, anomalous. A poem can leave its maker at once more deeply seized by existence and, in a profound way, alienated from it, for as the act of making ends, as the world that seemed to overbrim its boundaries becomes, once more, merely the world, it can be very difficult to retain any faith at all in that original moment of inspiration. That memory of that momentary blaze, in fact, and the art that issued from it, can become a kind of reproach to the fireless life in which you find yourself most of the time."
Most important, inspiration demands a certain posture, the sort of posture people feel when they are overawed by something large and mysterious. They are both humbled and self-confident, surrendering and also powerful. When people are inspired they are willing to take a daring lark toward something truly great. They're brave enough to embrace the craggy fierceness of the truth and to try to express it in some new way.
Yes, hard work is really important for achievement. But life is more mysterious than just that.
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