Motivation and Inspiration: Is There a Difference?
In our hyper meme-ified world, there’s rarely a motivational or inspirational saying that doesn’t end up in our Facebook feed. Here’s a sampling of some of the classics:
- To be a champ, you have to believe in yourself when nobody else will.
- Nothing worth having comes easy.
- Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
- Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t.
You might even have some of these sayings framed on your wall with the accompanying photo of an eagle soaring across a cloud-smattered sky. And we don’t blame you. After fighting your way through morning traffic, spilling coffee on your new tie and realizing you forgot your phone, you need a little inspiration. Or is it motivation?
While the concepts of inspiration and motivation might seem interchangeable, the two words have very distinct meanings. That meaning may not be important to the average person, but understanding the nuances between the two words isn’t just about semantics; it’s about understanding the relationship between what you want to accomplish and how you get your team to accomplish it.
Motivation is Something That Comes from Within
Have you ever met someone who was truly motivated? What did you notice about them? One thing probably stood out to you – their seemingly endless well of determination and belief in their goals. Both of those factors come from within a person. You look inward to find the idea catalyst to drive your outward life.
This past August, the world converged on Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The men’s marathon took place on the final day of competition. Galen Rupp, Jared Ward and Meb Keflezighi represented the United States in the race.
Keflezighi had won silver several Olympics ago and was the only runner in the group with a medal. The day was rainy and wet. The runners took off and after a few miles it was obvious that something was off about the normally steady Keflezighi.
About halfway through the race he threw up, and then he did it six more times. Somehow, he finished the race in 33rd place. Rupp won bronze and Ward finished sixth.
As Keflezighi approached the finish line, he slipped and fell on the wet road. Before standing back up, he pounded out a few push-ups, got to his feet and crossed the finish line amid the cheers of a boisterous crowd.
After the race, the veteran runner explained what happened.
“About halfway through, I threw up. I think I did it seven times during the race. But you know what? There are no excuses. This is the best of the best,” he said.
Meb’s race was the perfect example of motivation instead of inspiration. He wasn’t looking to something outside himself to push him to the finish. He didn’t wait for another runner to come and console him in order to get to the finish line.
He knew the stakes of the race, he knew his body’s limits and he knew he had to finish the race at all costs. That is a prime example of motivation. His strength came from within.
Think about that in relation to your workplace. Sometimes reward systems are great for motivating employees, but in our current workplace environment, employees tend to value space – breathing room to build relationships, let their creativity flow and gain a certain level of meaning and significance from what they’re doing.
In 2009, TED Talk speaker Dan Pink gave an excellent presentation on the science and sociology behind motivation:
Inspiration is Something That Comes from Outside Oneself
There’s a scene in Ron Howard’s epic movie Cinderella Man where the protagonist, tough-as-nails New Jersey boxer Jim Braddock, is fighting his way to a title bout when he meets his match in a younger, stronger boxer.
In the middle of the bout, his opponent unleashes a monstrous right that catches Braddock flush on the face. The crowd rises up in shock; they can’t believe Braddock is going to fall to the mat.
A strange thing happens, though. Braddock doesn’t fall, although his mouthpiece tumbles across the floor and comes to rest amid the chaos.
The grisly fighter has flashbacks to the effects of the Great Depression: his hungry kids, an empty milk rack, and, finally, the image of an empty house after his wife is forced to send their kids to a relative’s house because the Braddocks can’t afford to pay their electricity bill.
Here’s the clip:
This is a classic example of inspiration – Braddock looked to his family’s worst times to push him to stay on his feet, keep fighting and earn a paycheck. The bout went on and, as history has it, Braddock won and continued on his journey to become the heavyweight champion.
Conclusions: Why Traditional Methods Need to Be Changed
Earlier we mentioned that today’s workforce is more concerned about value and significance than ever before. In many cases, trying traditional methods of motivation and inspiration don’t work like they did a decade or two ago.
In fact, you could even make the case that incentive programs are archaic in the sense that they’re used as motivational tools when they’re actually, by definition, inspirational tools. They’re an outside force that spurs on the individual or team.
So, take a moment to think about what your employees really need from you. How can you inspire them to greatness? In many cases, sharing your own personal battles with success and leadership can be a huge help. Transparency is of great value these days; respect is earned through relationship, not through reverence.