Inspiration, insight and internal drive

I often use stories from my own PhD experience to illustrate a point.

One such story is the time when I almost quit my PhD. I didn’t quit, and I ultimately succeeded, but this is not the point of the story.

The point is that when I thought seriously about quitting, I realised that failing to get a PhD wouldn’t be so bad. Although I didn’t know what I would do if I walked away from my PhD, I knew it would be OK. It was this insight, that the failure I had been so afraid of wasn’t such a big deal, that allowed me to go back to work without fear.

I also made deliberate and very specific changes to some of my habits, making sure I put meticulous care into my experiments, and giving myself time to think whenever things went wrong (rather than rushing experiments, then finding excuses to check email when I got frustrated).

“I feel so inspired”

Whenever I share this story, I always get comments and messages saying things like, “I read your story about how you wanted to quit but you never gave up. I feel so inspired!”

I know that these comments are meant to be complimentary, but I don’t want to be anybody’s inspiration. My message is not “if I can do it, you can too”, because I don’t know if you can. You are a different person, working under different circumstances with different resources.

Some people should quit, some people will fail, and if you read my posts or my book and think they are inspirational, I appreciate the sentiment, but you haven’t got the point yet.

Insight vs inspiration

Inspiration is superficial- all it really says is “someone overcame a difficult problem- so can you”. Insight requires asking why the problem existed in the first place, how it was overcome, and what action can be taken to solve or avoid similar problems in the future.

Insight is much more difficult to achieve – as it involves digging down into fundamental principles – but is also much more useful when applied.

An example

Let’s say you hear an inspirational story of someone overcoming difficulties you can relate to. What happens next? Perhaps you get emotionally fired up and you throw yourself back into the work with renewed enthusiasm. Hey, if they can do it, you can too; you just have to believe!

Without insight, renewed enthusiasm will not help. If you are approaching the work in a fundamentally flawed way, you’re likely to feel worse if that renewed effort doesn’t produce the desired effect. And so your enthusiasm fades, you go back to twitter, you watch a few TED talks, searching again for that lost inspiration…

For inspiration to have any lasting effect, it has to be followed by the question, “what do I need to do or change in my approach in order to achieve the same?” If the changes make you more effective, then you are more likely to retain your enthusiasm.

So inspiration can work when combined with insight, but I think there is a more powerful combination.

Inspiration vs internal drive

The problem with inspiration is that it relies on something external, on somebody else’s achievement, on somebody else’s story. If you have to look for someone else’s example when you run into difficulty, what are you going to do if such an example isn’t available? Give up? Check email?

No, what you need is internal drive; the determination to write your own story, rather than follow someone else’s, and the belief in your own ability to cope with whatever happens. It’s about how you view yourself, how you make decisions and how you take responsibility when things go wrong.

If you have that drive (and you do, if you look hard enough) then when you read a story of success you can look beyond the superficial, inspirational aspect because you don’t need it. Instead you can look for the deeper insights you can take, adapt and apply to your own work.

So please, don’t call me inspirational; it’s not what I’m trying to be, and inspiration is not what you need. I would much rather be called insightful.



See also: searching for inspiration?


14 thoughts on “Inspiration, insight and internal drive”

  1. Hi James, Your insights into PhD work are helpful and appreciated. Thank you.

    Can you answer an important question for me? Does the PhD thesis research area you chose for your PhD study set in stone the course of your post doc research as an academic? For example, I have a sports nutrition thesis relating to the dental effects of various carbohydrates in sports beverages but I have interests in other areas of nutrition and sports that are not sports drink or dental related. Can I branch out into these areas in my future post doc academic research or am I forever tied into areas close to my PhD thesis?

    • You aren’t necessarily tied to one area- though it depends what transferable skills you can bring to other projects.

      One of the best ways to broaden your experience is to collaborate with others, and to discuss other people’s research regularly.

  2. I can really relate to what you’re talking about here, and thank you for your articulation on the topic. Your words are empowering to me. I too don’t like the phrase “If I can do it, so can you!,” however well-intended it is. I appreciate your clearly pointing out that it’s been and is always our responsibility and ability to change things, if things are not working out. I’ve been putting off making a final decision on staying or quitting my PhD (I’m writing all up now after collecting and analyzing data in field of Education). This is very helpful. Thank you James.

  3. I liked your article a lot . it differs between self motivation and outer motivation . I am a very enthusiastic person . but was always outer motivated (I was getting most of my motivation and support from friends and family) , but after reading “the 7th habits of the highly effective people” I became self motivated . and I have to say that self motivation much deeper and more powerful than outer motivation!
    when you are self motivated you can easily motivate the others , just like you did in this article , thanks πŸ™‚

  4. Thanks for your post, I laughed when I read it – I really appreciate honest words. I also wondered how to integrate inspiration with insightfulness? I truly believe we need both, internal drive and outside inspiration. I’ve watched A LOT of Ted talks in my PhD time because of my internal drive, I wanted to learn something. Once the learning was “done” – the “insight” came. I’m not sure if this makes any sense to you but I hope you know what I mean. Essentially, I believe insight and inspiration are not exclusive.

    • OK, so you watched TED talks for inspiration, which you say gave you insight- what did you do with that insight? Did you apply it to your own work?

      I didn’t say that inspiration and insight are exclusive. I said that in order for inspiration to have any lasting effect, it has to be followed by the question, β€œwhat do I need to do or change in my approach in order to achieve the same?” I think this answers your question about how to integrate inspiration with insight.

      You say we need external inspiration- now I agree that new ideas can be sparked by other people’s work (and creativity often stems from combining other people’s ideas), but this is not what most people mean when they say a story inspires them. Usually they mean inspiration as motivation, which is so fragile compared to inner drive. I think once people realise they don’t need external inspiration they’ll be in a much stronger position.

    • stop looking for motivation externally- it exists within you already, look inside yourself!

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