Go For It!!

Inspiration. Motivation. Ambition. Similar words with different connotations. We’ll look at the impact of all three on loving your work, pursuing your passion, finding your true calling. First up:  inspiration.

Larry Smith is an economics professor at Waterloo University in Ontario, and a career inspiration meister. As of this writing, his combative, tongue-in-cheek TED Talk “Why You Will Fail to Have a Great Career” has been viewed 6.5 million times.

Larry Miller TED

Here’s the Amazon blurb for Prof. Smith’s book No Fears, No Excuses:  What You Need To Do To Have A Great Career:

Larry Miller Book“This book captures the best of his advice in a one-stop roadmap for your future. Showcasing his particular mix of tough love and bracing clarity, Smith itemizes all the excuses and worries that are holding you back—and deconstructs them brilliantly. After dismantling your hidden mental obstacles, he provides practical, step-by-step guidance on how to go about identifying and then pursuing your true passion. There’s no promising it will be easy, but the straight-talking, irrepressible Professor Smith buoys you with the inspiration necessary to stay the course.”

Scott Barry Kaufman is another inspiration meister, and his own weather system. His website says he’s a “psychologist at Barnard College, Columbia University, exploring the depths of human potential.” These are his books. He wrote the following in a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Why Inspiration Matters.”[1]

“In a culture obsessed with measuring talent and ability, we often overlook the important role of inspiration. Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations. Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way we perceive our own capabilities. Inspiration may sometimes be overlooked because of its elusive nature. Its history of being treated as supernatural or divine hasn’t helped the situation. But as recent research shows, inspiration can be activated, captured, and manipulated, and it has a major effect on important life outcomes.”

Sound like fun, doesn’t it? Inspiration throws off the restraints of normal and mundane, and replaces them with a world of new possibilities. No wonder it has a “history of being treated as supernatural or divine.” Truth is, the brain hormone dopamine is what’s behind all that punch and pizzazz. Dopamine makes the unreasonable, unlikely, and impossible worth doing. It’s the crowd chanting “go for it!” and the roar of approval when you wave the field goal unit back to the sideline. We get a rush of it when we bust out, try new things, take risks. George Bernard Shaw wrote the dopamine manifesto in his Maxims for Revolutionaries:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

I wrote the following about inspiration in another context:[2]

Reason only works in the bright light of hindsight, and by definition, new is what hasn’t yet been. Therefore reason doesn’t know anything about it, doesn’t understand it, can’t explain it, and definitely can’t trust it. If reason is going to create at all, it looks at where we are and how we got here, then projects its conclusions into the future, reverse engineering what worked in the past so we can do more of the same in the future.

We call people who operate that way realists.  They can cite facts, data, track records, past performance. We credit them with being more in touch with reality than daydreamers and visionaries. We trust them to not lead us astray.

Each of us has that realist’s voice inside us. Do something new? No way. It’s not reasonable.

Inspiration isn’t impressed. It wants idealists:  unreasonable people who don’t give a rip about reverse engineering. Inspiration buys what Einstein said about imagination being more powerful than knowledge. It pushes boundaries, asks us to believe what’s irrational, illogical, impossible, even irreverent and heretical.

Doing any of that is hard and unpleasant and of uncertain outcome, which is why we usually choose to be reasonable and adapt ourselves to the world. We keep our day jobs, hedge our bets, cut our losses, try to be prudent and practical…

And so status quo goes safely on, and we keep living our reasonable lives until one day inspiration comes along and turns us into unreasonable people who want the world to adapt itself to us, and who are prepared to give ourselves to the dangerous ways of mania to make that happen.

Inspiration wants response, not reason. It hooks our hearts, then reels us in. Inspiration isn’t just thrilling and fun, it’s also unrelenting, insisting, demanding… even violent if we leave it no other choice. If it weren’t, nothing creative would ever get started. Or finished.

Dopamine-powered inspiration will get you moving, alright, but we talked about “the dangerous ways of mania” in a prior post and will go there again next time, when we consider motivation.

[1] Harvard Business Review (Nov. 8, 2011).I tried to provide a link, but it wouldn’t work. Google “Harvard Business Review Scott Barry Kaufman Why Inspiration Matters” and it will come up.

[2] Life Beyond Reason:  A Memoir of Mania, available here as a free download.

Working With Passion [2]

I’m wild again
Beguiled again
A simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.

From the Broadway show “Pal Joey,”
Rodgers and Hart

(Click here or on the image below to treat yourself to the silken sound of Ella Fitzgerald.)

Ella Fitzgerald

The ManagementSpeak argument for working with passion is that disengagement is expensive and risky:  it compromises products and services, generates client and customer dissatisfaction, stirs up co-worker resentment and mistrust, impairs leadership judgment, exposes the firm and the people in it to ethical and legal hazards.

The Compassionate ManagementSpeak (if there is such a thing) argument is that disengagement wears down human beings: it makes us unhappy and unproductive at work, and sours the rest of life.

The Working With Passion Remedy is that we need to fall in love again — with work, to be sure, but if we do, we’ll probably also fall in love again with being alive. The company wins, and so do the people in it.

jokerTrouble is, there’s a joker in the deck:  the part about love. Love involves an unpredictable mix of brain and body hormones that generate its familiar delights and dark sides. This article from Harvard[1] catalogues the hormonal progression from lust to love to long-term bonding:  testosterone, estrogen, vasopressin, dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin. The dynamic blend of these volatile hormones accounts for both delight and disaster. Not only that, but falling in love can “turn off regions in our brain that regulate critical thinking, self-awareness, and rational behavior, including parts of the prefrontal cortex. In short, love makes us dumb.”

The Dark Side of Dumb includes addiction and bipolar disorder — both of which involve a condition known as “mania.” According to the Mayo Clinic, mania is characterized by:

  • Feeling abnormally upbeat, jumpy or wired.
  • Increased activity, energy or agitation.
  • Exaggerated sense of well-being and self-confidence (euphoria).
  • Decreased need for sleep.[2]

There’s more, but if we’re desperate, just that much makes us think what’s not to like? It sure beats the usual drudge. What have we got to lose?

A lot, actually. Passion turns us into high risk takers at best, delusional risk takers at worst. We go to a workshop (like the ones I used to lead), we take a vacation, go on a retreat, read a self-help bestseller… and we get a hormonal jolt of inspiration. It feels good — way better than business as usual, in fact so good that no amount of warning (I also gave plenty of those in my workshops) can deter us from taking the plunge.

I’ve done it myself:  I was in the grip of it when I made my bumbling exit out of law practice. I wrote a book about that experience, and here’s what I said about mania:

When we’re in [a state of mania], life has a heightened sense of meaning and purpose, serendipity and synchronicity rule the day, and everything in and around us is an amazing unified oneness – perfect, whole, and complete. It’s the place where auspicious connections are easily made, where imagination makes visions and dreams come true.

Neuroscientists locate that state of mind in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. That’s where the brain tells us all is well, where all of our perceptions come together into a meaningful whole, in a happy stew of the right hormones and chemicals in the right balance to make us feel really, really good.

Compare that to the opposite state of depression, where all is disjointed, fragmented, without meaning or purpose, where social bonds are severed and life is a random walk of disintegration, where the most basic life activities are burdensome, and fruitfulness is a pipedream.

But watch out, the neuroscientists tell us:  you can have too much of a good thing. Get the wrong mix in your neurotransmitter soup, and your natural high can be replaced with delusion, hallucinations, paranoia, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette’s Disease, addictions.

Not the prettiest list.

That’s why mania is plutonium for the for human soul:  powerful almost beyond measure, equally suited to creation or destruction, and tricky to control once we let it loose. But dark side or not, mania is why we dream big dreams, and the bigger they are, the more mania we need. If we want to make our dreams come true, we risk mania’s dark side.

atomic bomb

“Mania is plutonium for the human soul.”

Love risks mania, so does working with passion. Both create, both destroy. That doesn’t mean don’t go there, just keep your eyes open if you do. I don’t regret my personal Working With Passion Remedy, you might not regret yours either.

But then again, you might. And now you’ve been warned.

You also hear about finding your calling or purpose in your work as a cure for the disengagement blues. We’ll talk about that next time.

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I tell my mania story in Life Beyond Reason:  A Memoir of Mania. It’s available as a free download here, or you can get it inexpensively in print or digitally from Amazon here. I’m currently writing a sequel about how I’ve been learning to make mania safe and sustainable.

[1]Love, Actually: The Science Behind Lust, Attraction, And Companionship,” Katherine Wu, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences website ( Feb. 14, 2017).

[2] For more on mania, see also this article from Psych Central.