Inspiration, insight and internal drive

February 26, 2015

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:
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