The Difference Between Inspiration and Motivation

When it comes to creating long-term change, you'll need to rely on more than an initial spark of excitement.

This is the time of year that professional coaches are inundated with requests for coaching conversations. Folks want to know how someone like me can help them achieve their goals. It’s easy to set goals and create a plan to execute them. It’s easy to download an app or hire a coach that promises to keep you accountable. So why do most of us fail miserably year after year? And is there a better way to go about achieving our goals? The answer is yes, and the author of one of my favorite and timeless children’s books, The Little Prince, puts it best:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast endless sea.”

—Antoine De Saint-Exupery

In my work with clients, whether one-on-one or in groups, we always begin with deep and focused conversations that allow them to create a vision — not just goals — for their future. It’s not unusual, and in my experience, far more common, to not even know what that vision is. We confuse vision with goals, and in our hurry to start “doing,” we begin the hustle anew and soon realize that nothing’s changed but a day on the calendar. Data shows that for most of us, deciding on a New Year’s resolution motivates us for no more than three weeks, and February 1st of the new year will look suspiciously similar to that of a year ago.

Before you hate me for being a downer, or yourself for all the times you’ve repeated this pattern, let me tell you that I speak from experience. I’ve been in that place of setting goals and slowly sacrificing them to the unconscious hustle of my everyday life, for more years than many of my readers. I had the false belief that motivating myself sufficiently would help me achieve the goals that were so clearly important to me. Over time, with the benefit of hindsight and a great professional coach, I learned that motivation is a fair weather friend — and although I can count on it for a day, a week, or a month, I can’t count on it for much longer. The problem with motivation is that it is most often externally generated. It’s easy to commit to a weight loss plan when we’ve bought our ticket and booked the hotel for an upcoming vacation in Mexico with our fabulous new flame. Motivation feels like a superpower as we do the work and feel good about our results. But what happens when travel is canceled (as we witnessed in 2020), or the new flame is not burning so bright anymore? What happens when external circumstances change — as they do — but only 100% of the time? Motivation disappears, seemingly overnight, leaving behind its favorite goodbye gifts, shame, and guilt.

For most of us, we continue to double down on this false formula by making shame and guilt our engine for motivation to achieve our goals. Most of us know intuitively that negative feelings never produce positive actions, but we still insist on this.

Just stop. 

There is a better way, and it’s not more difficult, but it is different than what most of us have learned, and it takes a deeper commitment to slowing down and stepping out of the “doing” more often than we are comfortable.  Consider fueling your long-term goals from inspiration rather than motivation. Motivation is always externally created, and we can be motivated by something positive, but also from a negative place. I often come across clients who continue to take action that goes completely against their own beliefs and desires, because they don’t want to face their partner’s anger. They are certainly motivated to keep the peace which is a temporary goal, but are no closer to achieving their stated and far more important long-term goal of being in a safe and connected relationship.

Motivation will get us to learn and to do all the “right” things for a while.  But we need a better source to fuel our actions if we are going for the gold medal in life. If we want to move from functional to vital and optimal in our health, relationships, and work, we need to access a different source. I believe that source is inspiration.

Inspiration, like motivation, can come to us from an external source, but it doesn’t have to. And even when it does, it still sparks a small fire inside us that now belongs to no one but ourselves, and nothing and no one can take it away. When I’m inspired by a child’s playfulness, an old man’s wisdom, my client’s courage, the beauty of nature, a line in a poem that I’ve read a thousand times but never noticed before, a deep conversation with my coach, or the multitude of other experiences that surround me daily (if I pay attention), what I do with that initial spark of inspiration belongs to me entirely. I can build a bonfire that blazes to the heavens or I can let it die out. That’s my choice and there is so much power in that choice. Inspiration may come from anywhere — and believe me, there is no shortage of inspiring people and events in this world — but once it touches our heart and imaginations, what we do with it is entirely and powerfully up to us.

In this new year, experiment with shifting from motivation to inspiration to fuel your actions. This is a life-changing practice that over time, will have you achieving your goals from clarity, commitment, and ease which are the building blocks of inspired vision.  

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