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  • Sarah Rose

What is the Difference Between Inspiration & Motivation?

[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]

On the heels of my last ultra marathon, a coworker asked me what motivates me to run far. I didn't have an answer, or at least, not a succinct one. The reasons I run are sundry and always changing. For physical health yes, but mental health as well. For community. To challenge myself. To catch that illusive runners high, to feel strong and empowered in the only body I'll ever have. But ultra marathons are a world away from simply running a few days a week, and I thought hard about what initially drew me to them.

When I was in high school, I read a book called Born to Run about the Tarahumara tribe of indigenous people who live in the mountains of Mexico. They are notorious for running extremely long distances with minimal footwear, and when I read about hundred-mile races I thought to myself, "I'd like to try that someday." After running in college for Bradley University (in Peoria, IL), I moved to California and discovered trail running. As I slowly dipped my toe into the world of ultra running, I discovered a group of people who were both gritty and inspiring. In the fall of 2017, I sat at the finish line of Kodiak, a 100 mile race in Big Bear CA, and watched exhausted, elated runners cross the finish line one by one, some of them running for over 24 hours. Seeing other people conquer such an extreme goal inspired me to chase that goal for myself. I've done a couple 50 milers and a couple 100k's so far, and I'll be returning to Big Bear next month to tackle the 100 miler that initially grabbed my attention. I don't think I am motivated to run ultras; I'm inspired. There is an important difference.

Sam Taggart, founder of Door 2 Door Experts, clarifies, “Motivation is a push factor. It’s an outside force that is compelling you to take action, even if you don’t necessarily want to. Inspiration, on the other hand, is more of a pull or driving force. It’s something that comes from within that gets us to proactively give our best effort. When someone is inspired, they’re with you for the long haul.”

Motivation and inspiration are almost opposites. To motivate is to incite, induce, compel, or incentivize. It's a bit coercive: buy my product or you'll be ugly; join my church or you'll go to hell; pass this test or you'll fail the course; follow this diet or you'll get sick. Motivation is a standard leadership tactic, and it attempts to change others behavior for one's own benefit. The underlying emotion of motivation is often fear, or the avoidance of failure. Seeking success is very different than avoiding failure.

Inspiration, on the other hand, means to fill with enlivening or exalting emotions, to animate. Lance Secretan says that inspiration is an act of love, an act of service, or a gift. While motivation changes other's behaviors for one's own benefit, inspiration is given to others without any benefit to the self. Motivation isn't inherently wrong, it's just different.

"Inspiration is motivation linked to purpose"~Mark Sanborn

There is an easy way to tell if you are motivated or inspired. When inspiration is present, you are naturally motivated to do something and can achieve all the necessary steps required to complete a task or reach a goal. In this way, inspiration is closely akin to what is colloquially called "self-motivation." We often resort to relying on motivation rather than inspiration in order to be continuously productive. Culturally, we are motivated but not inspired. We are motivated to work at jobs we dislike because we need to pay rent, or our mortgage or student loans. We are inspired to pursue hobbies we love or projects that have no tangible or monetary value to other people. Motivation is what enables us to "keep up" with others, compete with them, or measure ourselves against them. The thing that motivation misses though, is meaning, engagement, or satisfaction. Don't we all know someone who is wildly successful financially, but internally exquisitely miserable?

Research from the American Psychological Association reveals that finding meaning in one's work is ultimately a far greater predictor of engagement, satisfaction, career growth, and decreased absenteeism than any other factor. This is true even of "undesirable" industries or occupations. We run into problems though, when we expect to find meaning from anything outside ourselves. Ascribing meaning to something, like a job, that you don't really find meaning in, is simply an act of constructing motivation to find some semblance of success in order to feel important, or worthy, or some other similarly idiotic pursuit.

I am not motivated to run, because I'm not searching for some outside factor or reward to keep me going. If that were the case, I would have stopped running a long time ago. An interviewer once asked me what motivates me, and I told him my motivation is innate. What I could have said, is that I'm not motivated. I'm inspired.

P.S. "Avoiding failure is different than seeking success." Watch a Tedx talk on the psychology of self-motivation, by Scott Geller, HERE. Read about "ordinary" people who changed history HERE.


Sarah Rose