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How to Tell the Difference Between Motivation and Inspiration


Do you ever watch high-achieving people and think to yourself “How do they do that? How do they fit that much into a day?  What do they have that I don’t have?”  I don’t care how successful you are in your personal and/or professional life; there is someone who does it better, faster, and more often.

I’m always interested in what makes people excel at what they’re doing.  We tend to think of someone’s professional life first when identifying high achievers, but I would argue succeeding in other areas of life are just as important, if not more.  Is Bill Gates more successful than Mother Teresa?  Is Michael Jordan more successful than a single mother who raised four kids and put them through college?  

After thinking about this for a while, I started to hone in on two words:  motivation and inspiration.  Sometimes I use these words interchangeably to describe what moves people to succeed, but I’m not sure it’s appropriate.  I found definitions of these words that support this position:  Motivation is to provide a cause or reason to act.  Inspiration is animated or imbued with the spirit to do something.  I don’t know about you, but that definition of inspiration sounds a whole lot more, uh … inspiring than the meaning of motivation.  I don’t want to simply be provided with a cause to act.  I TOTALLY want to be imbued with the spirit to do something!

Digging deeper, I believe motivation is more often than not related to accomplishing a task or something for our own sake.  Inspiration may be similar, but leans toward creating things and impacting other people.   Both words contain an element of “prodding” toward an end or goal.  We are nudged, or shoved into action.  The difference may be more of a reason to do something when motivated, as opposed to a desire to do something when inspired.  I’m motivated to mow my yard because it will turn into a jungle if I don’t.  I’m inspired to serve at the homeless shelter after visiting there.  These two examples may be oversimplifying it, but I feel like one involves a stirring in our soul and the other does not.  This may not always be the case, but the harder I look, the more I believe it to be true. 

We are motivated to work so we can pay our bills.  We are inspired to work so we can create something that affects others’ lives positively. 

We are motivated to win a competition for a prize or the sake of winning.  We are inspired to win a competition by thinking how that victory might resonate with others.

We are motivated to succeed in numerous ways for nothing other than our personal satisfaction.  We are inspired to succeed when we know that success has broader, more meaningful repercussions. 

My step-father is a great example of this.  As of this writing, he is 74 years old and gets more done in a day than anyone I know.  He has been a pediatrician for over 45 years and still works full time.  He plays the piano for his church every Sunday and any other occasion he is asked to do so.  He and my mother are involved in several ministries in their church, their community, and on mission trips.  He’s an all-around handyman and wonderful cook.  He taught himself to be fluent in Spanish years ago (and now we have to watch movies with Spanish subtitles so he can continue to improve.)  On top of all this, he’s a prostate and kidney cancer survivor who mentors others going through the same struggles. 

My step-father is a high achiever in every facet of his life.  When I watch him run circles around most everyone else on the planet, I am amazed.  Looking at the definitions I presented above, I have no doubt the catalyst for all he does is inspiration.   His chosen profession is solely committed to the well-being of children.  His musical ability directly affects others’ faith lives and social lives.  His ministry work is totally selfless, other than it makes him feel good to help others.  Even his second language has been an invaluable tool in his work life by helping non-English speaking patients and parents.  He is spirit-filled and constantly inspired to be useful, productive, and generous.    

When I read the definition I presented for inspiration, I cannot help believe when we are pushed with a spirit to do something; it can be more significant and meaningful in our lives – and the lives of others.   

Humanitarian Sri Sri Ravi Shankar said “Motivation is external and short lived.  Inspiration is internal and lifelong.” 

We may need motivation to get things done sometimes, but inspiration will spur us to make this world a better place.



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