In my PhD methods class, our professor asked us to pick something that inspired us — it could be a song, a research article, a movie, a book chapter — make a brief presentation on it and on how it inspired us in our work. Inspiration can come from unexpected sources and feed us in non-obvious ways. This assignment nudged us into coming out about what we found exciting and how we could use it as a touchstone in our research. Great things are always great, and no matter how they may differ in detail, there is something common in their essence.
Now, what inspired my fellow students may not have inspired me, and vice versa. I recall that someone brought in an academic paper and another brought in a book of haiku. What our professor had us do was look inside ourselves to find our own sources of mental and emotional support; scholarly work is seemingly endless and often tedious, so being able to boost yourself by calling forth your own inspirational touchstones can be life-saving and morale-boosting.
I submitted the following YouTube videos of two artists performing immaculate work. Watch them now, and I’ll talk about what I found — and still find — inspiring about them.
Let’s start with the fact that I picked two performing artists — not sports figures (don’t like sports) nor writers (though I fancy myself of the writerly persuasion). I have always loved performers of all stripes — dancers, jugglers, musicians, magicians, etc. These are people who have the courage to think they can entertain us, to show us something we’ve not seen before. You could call it hubris, or you can call it confidence. I would call it a belief and faith in their own skills and abilities.
Inspiration #1: If you believe you can, you can.
These are examples of the power of mastery. These are guys whose skills have been crafted, honed, protected, nurtured and sharpened over many years of deliberate practice and creating and performing songs and dances so that they can do what you saw over and over again, flawlessly. (There are other recordings of Jorgensen playing “Ghost Dance” and all of them are played at that fast tempo and sound pristine.) I’d call this the “iceberg principle” of success, except that I’m sure someone’s already called it that. How many hundreds of hours of work did it take to conceive and execute those 3-4 minutes of diamond-sharp perfection?
Inspiration #2: Even Fred Astaire had to put in the hours to become Fred Astaire. Getting good doesn’t happen overnight. It takes work. To echo Cal Newport’s motto: Be so good they can’t ignore you.
My banjo teacher has me say the syllables “e-ven” with every pluck of the string, and I am to keep saying it even if my fingers fumble through a particular passage. The goal is to keep the rhythm until I can collect myself and jump back into the song. As he puts it, “The other musicians aren’t going to stop if you lose your place and start the song over. They’re just going to keep playing.”
Lookit how fast Jorgensen is moving those fingers! The pace doesn’t stop and the rhythm doesn’t slow down if he’s having an off night. No matter how fast and frantic the music gets, he’s calm, relaxed, poised. Jorgensen and Astaire are not just in the flow, they’re controlling the flow. And they make it look easy because they’ve put in the work that makes the hard look easy.
In life, we don’t have a band behind us pushing to keep the beat. But we have calendars and commitments to others and the seasons, among other pacesetters. Life doesn’t pause until you have time to catch your breath. You have to breathe while playing like mad.
Inspiration #3: Work hard, keep practicing, and you can set the tempo (and look cool doing it). Eventually, it’ll all look easy to anyone who hasn’t done the work.
I have these two videos in a YouTube playlist called ENERGY! I return to these videos periodically when I’m flagging or in the doldrums. No matter how many times I see the videos in that playlist, I never tire of them. They always seem fresh. Many books and movies that were touchstones in my youth have not survived with me into adulthood, but these videos (and all the other books and music and DVDs that stock my shelves) have stayed with me for years.
Inspiration #4: Truly inspiring things stay evergreen; you can grow old with them and they will always have lessons to teach.
Finally, looking at these inspiring videos makes me feel like I want to create something as fun, as beautiful, as energetic, and as inspiring. And that, for me, may be the commonality among all inspiring things I hold close. I won’t be able to play the guitar or tap dance like these guys, but I can attack what I want to do — a short story, a blog post, a business, a PowerPoint presentation — with energy, spirit, discipline, and (I hope) humor. These inspiring things teach me that that the audience or the customer will never see all the hours I put into the work. But if what I create connects, I want it to be a show-stopper.