Inspiration vs Motivation

Wisdom of Crowds

Are we inspired to action or motivated to act? Do we feel one more than another? If I go to an Inspirational talk, will I get anything done? Are motivational posters worth the investment?

“Hey, what’s the difference?” I asked to each and every person I saw.

“Perspiration?” a couple of people answered, confusing the Edison quote about genius.

“I don’t know, what?” somebody replied, thinking it was a setup to a joke.

“Where the hell’d you come up with that question?” my father asked. But then he said, “Inspiration is personal. Motivation is physical.”

And I wrote it down. I wrote them all down.

Internal vs External

This seems to be the actual debate. I knew that already because I’m the studious sort – id est I have the internet and compulsively check it for the answer to all of life’s “I wonder…”s. If you pop the question into the www machine, you get article after article telling you that Motivation is an explicitly external, driving force, while Inspiration is an explicitly internal, pulling force. Motivation is effort. Inspiration is effortless. Some say that motivation is fleeting and inspiration everlasting, while others say the polar opposite. Added to this is the fact that half the people I spoke to seemed to quote nearly verbatim the lines about external vs internal while others flipped it completely backwards, insisting that Inspiration comes from without and Motivation from within.

What’s going on here? Why can’t we agree? Why did I find almost identical imagery when searching for pics to use in this article? It’s starting to feel like a “There are 2 different kinds of people in this world,” joke. And none of it feels right to me. Nothing I’ve heard has quite clicked into place.

Rooting It Out


According to Etymonline, Inspiration comes from inspirare, a Latin word with the figurative meaning “to excite, to inflame.” Literally, it means “breathe into.” If you’re the flame, the inspiration is the wind feeding you gusts of oxygen. “Inspiration” was first used circa 1300 in the religious sense to mean the “immediate influence of God.” You, the mere mortal, would wander around in your animal skin doing animal things if it weren’t for the Consciousness (capital C) breathed into you. The idea to do something more than eat, shit, and sleep.

A flame doesn’t burn from within. It’s a reaction. Literally. It needs fuel and air “breathed” into it. I chose a light bulb to represent Inspiration. A light bulb without electricity is just glass and filament (or whatever sorcery comes together to make LEDs). And you, the human, are just specialized meat with a dash of personality. A vessel into which inspiration pours, not the source of inspiration itself.


Latin. Motus. Moving. Motion. From Merriam-Webster, Incentive. Drive. Motives. Reasons for doing. A fire’s motivation is to consume the fuel. A light bulb’s motivation is to shine brightly using that electricity flowing through it. Your human motivations… What are they? To minimize discomfort in some way? To maximize pleasure? To protect loved ones? To garner praise and adoration? Who knows? But it’s inside you, certainly. When we listen to motivational speakers, are we looking for new motives to pursue? Are we’re looking for access to a power source that keep us going?

We certainly can be given reasons. We can be spurred to action when confronted with consequences. We can be reminded of our motives and inspired to act upon them.

The Confusion

In the end, I think we’re all probably saying the same thing. Here I am looking for where Inspiration and Motivation originate, and the rest of the world seems to be thinking about where we see the evidence of each.

Inspiration comes from without to act upon us internally. It’s a penetration. A fertilization, the product of which is an idea or feeling which grows inside of us. It’s an inhalation of fresh air. It’s the light suddenly burning bright and banishing the shadows encroaching all around us.

Motivation, on the other hand, is an exhalation. It’s source is from within, and we make it external. We are driven to act. We are motivated to do. To become. Etc.

In this way, I believe that one cannot exist without the other. We cannot exhale without first inhaling, and vice versa. That which spurs us to act upon our motivation is inspiration. Were we flames and inspiration the gust of air, motivation is the fuel itself that we are burning. For a light bulb, Inspiration is the electricity and Motivation the filament. Our minds are soil, Motivation the seed, and Inspiration the sun itself. Everything we do from there is growth.

In Summation

I’m digging these agricultural metaphors lately. If your mind is the soil, you have to make sure you keep it fertilized. You have to keep the water and nutrients flowing (healthy diet/exercise), and you’ll need a good source of carbon dioxide (information/education). And, of course, you have to keep the tree in the sunshine (don’t cut yourself off from the world if you want to have a big, solid oak. Or you might find that you grow better in the shade. Or you might find that you’re okay as a house plant. You’re still gonna need at least some sun). As your seeds of Motivation grow, make sure you keep the weeds out. The weeds are anything stealing resources from your Motivation tree. These are the Distractions. If you aren’t careful, you can let those Distraction weeds get bigger than the tree itself! Then you might just have to till everything up and start over. If you do, I hope whatever you’re trying to grow is still in season, or you might have to settle for something else.

Engage The Hofflebrock

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