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Nothing I Say Is Inspiring

A lot of my morning time is spent reading. The first 60-90 minutes of every day are spent perusing countless articles while consuming infinite cups of coffee. Fortunately, I read quickly so I am able to consume a significant amount of material within that period of time.

Since the majority of that reading is done on a digital platform, however, everything I read becomes a data point that is then used to push ads back at me for products and information that, mathematically, I should find interesting. Occasionally, those algorithms are frighteningly accurate, such as when I mention, out loud, that I need more socks and suddenly there are ads for socks in all my news feeds. Most the time, however, the algorithms miss the mark, feeding me ideas and concepts that I’ve either already exhausted or find boring and unimportant. The most common of those ads are for websites that want to sell me 300 new writing ideas.

“Inspire your readers with these exciting topics!” they scream at me in the most uninspiring of ways. Then, they’ll try to entice me with sample writing topics such as “Spending An Hour Alone In A Forest,” or “Better Living Through Flatbread.”

What those sites assume is that I am ever at a loss for words. I’m not. I have to do a tremendous amount of self-editing to keep each of these posts under 10,000 words, which is more than anyone is ever going to read outside of book form.

They also are choosing to ignore how many thousands of articles already exists about personal experiences traversing nature or the presumptive benefits of changing one’s eating habits. We’re talking thousands upon thousands of articles written by thousands of writers trying to achieve the exact same goal: get your attention. Obviously, not everyone is going to be successful.

Inspiration is not always a pleasant experience

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Where I am most bothered by those ads, though, is the challenge that it is somehow my responsibility to be inspiring to my readers, as though this might be the only source of inspiration to enter one’s life—ever. I know what my readership demographics are and they lead me to believe quite strongly that most everyone is finding plenty of inspiration through other sources.

Being “inspirational” has never been my goal with any of my writing. Intentionally attempting to inspire or motivate other people assumes that the writer has already found inspiration or motivation through whatever they’re writing about. My problem: I am overwhelming uninspired by anything.

Okay, so that last statement isn’t entirely correct. What I should say is that I’m not inspired by the type of classical things such as a young cancer patient’s enthusiasm for a particular sports team or someone else’s bicycle trek across a continent. If those things make them happy for a short while, great, but they’re activities don’t inspire me to emulate them in any way or try to be “better” through similar methods.

On the rare occasion I am influenced to do something it is likely to occur through an extremely personal encounter that is somewhat painful. For example, I am motivated to improve the quality of my black and white imagery because of the times the legendary Horst P. Horst literally yelled at me (typically in German) for producing photos lacking depth.

While I have the greatest respect and admiration for the late photographic genius Horst posessed, my typical encounter with him was far from pleasant. Was he inspiring? No, he was frightening. Did he influence my inspiration? Yes, because his criticism was wholly correct and he could take the exact same shot and it would come out a masterpiece. He did nothing, however, that produced the smarmy feel-good emotions that we now expect from being inspired.

I’m going to indulge in a bit of brutality by stating that if one thinks they’re finding “inspiration” through a warm and fuzzy emotional experience they’re most likely going to need to be re-inspired again tomorrow. Emotions don’t last long enough to get anything accomplished. If one is looking for a warm and fuzzy experience then perhaps they would do better to find a dog and give it a hug. Dogs are wonderful and warm and fuzzy.

Being inspired isn’t something that comes and goes. Either the inspiration is there or it’s not. To help you better understand that, I want to share some things that claim to be inspiring and explain why they’re not, and then follow that with ways to find what is inspirational if one is truly up to the challenge.

Secrets of Happiness from the Oldest of the Old

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This lovely gem is a long-form ad for the book Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old by John Leland lightly disguised as an interview with Kiplinger Associate Editor Mary Kane. The goal is to inspire readers to find happiness by buying this book encouraging us to hang around old people.

Before you get all up in arms, I have no problem with one being encouraged to spend time with old people. I am an old person and I rather enjoy the company as long as one doesn’t stop by unannounced or interrupt my nap time. We old people are cool.

What I don’t appreciate, besides trying to pass off a blatant ad as an interview, is the encouragement from Mr. Leland to find happiness by making choices that include stuffing our emotions, trying to “forget” bad things that happen to us, and flat out ignoring things that caused us to feel uncomfortable. In short, what Mr. Leland encourages is finding bliss through willful ignorance and psychological avoidance.

I have always had a soft spot for the oldest among us. They have great stories from which we can learn valuable lessons. Talking with those who survived involvement in World War II was largely what shaped my fervent attitude that war is immoral and governments are not to be trusted. Old people have the ability to provide a perspective those younger than they cannot imagine on their own.

I’ve not met too many, however, who would have ever said they were especially happy. Some would have said they were content, but most offered warnings more than encouragement. Their stories were lessons learned in the hardest of ways passed along in hopes that we would not repeat their mistakes. Happiness was something they felt when grandchildren came to visit because their own existence was validated in the lives of those young ones.

There is much to learn from listening to the stories of those who are among the oldest but don’t expect to find happiness in their tales. Happiness is something one still has to discover and define for themselves.

Become A Better Photographer With This 52-Week Challenge

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Photography challenges have become a staple among amateur photographers, especially those who desperately want to quit their boring 9-5 jobs and spend their days doing something more creative. I get dozens of email and article prompts similar to this every January and I delete every one of them.

This particular article on LifeHack.com thinks that Dale Foshe’s photography challenge is sufficiently inspirational. This is the fourth year Mr. Foshe has responded to the question of, “How do I become a better photographer?” by giving amateurs this list that includes items such as: “Your inspiration this week is to simply take an amazing Black and White photograph of any subject you want,” “This week’s inspiration is Anonymous. Interpret this how you wish.” and “Work, let it inspire you this week.” Anyone else get the feeling Mr. Foshe had some problems filling all 52 slots?

Challenges like this are good at doing one thing: taking up a lot of time. They don’t actually help the average photographer get any better because they lack focus and precision. The very format keeps them from zeroing in on what a person needs to improve.

If one wants to become better at what they do, no matter what that is, there are three primary steps to follow:

  1. Don’t try to do everything. One of the biggest mistakes made when a person is just starting out in a field is trying to do everything. Stop. Focus. Figure out what you enjoy and do best and do that. Let everything else go. For example: I don’t do weddings (not often, at least). I dislike them. I don’t have a good time. So why would I try competing in that field?
  2. Know your weakness(es) and work to improve them. Rather than running all over the place with random challenges, look at specifically improving the places that provide the biggest challenges. Make it elementary: learn to put the shoes on the correct feet before trying to tie them. Start at the basics and work until that area is mastered before moving to something else.
  3. Get honest feedback from someone who knows the field a lot better than you. Getting advice from a peer or someone only marginally better is limiting because they cannot provide the difficult and honest feedback we need to improve. I was extremely fortunate to know two of the best photographers ever: Horst and Helmut Newton. Horst, as I mentioned, could be extremely abrasive in his criticism; it hurt but it moved me forward. Helmut was a touch more gentle in his approach (depending on the size of the error) but no less brutal in his honesty. People who fudge on criticism to save one’s feelings are limiting one’s growth.

When one has a passion for doing something, let that passion be the inspiration that drives one forward, not some external misdirection that cannot address specific needs. If that passion is not strong enough to provide inspiration then perhaps one needs to consider whether the passion is there at all.

Facial Exercises May Make You Look Three Years Younger

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Gretchen Reynolds wrote this piece for the New York Times of all places, based on researched published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Dermatology. In response to claims that non-medical activities such as “facial yoga” might affect one’s physical appearance, a clinical study was done to determine whether there is any validation to such claims. There is, but it is only moderate.

Three years. That’s pretty much the limit of facial restoration one can expect from performing facial exercises alone. Using some moisturizing creams might help extend the benefit a bit more, but at the end of the day if one is hoping to look 10-15 years younger then facial exercises are not going to provide the bump one wants.

Three years, and that’s the maximum mind you, means when one is 60 years old they look like they’re 57, as if there’s really that much difference. While that three-year gap might have a minimal influence when one is 30, beyond that looking three years younger is not a significant difference.

What upsets me about articles like this (and there is a ton of them out there right now): there’s nothing wrong with looking the age you are! Let’s stop with the age shaming, shall we? Take some pride in the fact we have survived multiple rotations around the sun and that our bodies might be reflective of the challenges of our journey.

People over the age of 40 are already having difficulty dealing with a youth-oriented society that devalues one’s experience and ability to contribute to the workforce in a meaningful manner. Telling us that we need to look three years younger is depressing and insulting, not inspirational. For all the talk about inclusion and accepting one for who they are, that rhetoric needs to extend to those who are being pushed out and marginalized simply because of a number. If we appear worn and haggard and perpetually tired, consider that we’ve worked hard, probably longer than those in management have been alive, and we wear on our faces and our bodies the scars, the wrinkles, and the stretch marks of having fought the battles that make today’s marvelous successes possible.

Taking The Mystery Out Of Finding Inspiration

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Being the silly humans we are, we tend to make things a lot more difficult than they need to be and finding inspiration is high on that list. When we reach the point where we’re needing inspiration, our first impulse too often finds us looking in the most ridiculous and extreme places, taking on absurd lifestyle changes, and ultimately being disappointed when those extreme measures eventually lead us right back to where we started.

Part of that difficulty stems, I am convinced, from the fact we don’t necessarily understand the word in the first place. We hear/see media tell us that something is inspiring, someone’s adventures or success is inspiring, the courage with which someone is fighting a disease is inspiring, and we falsely assume that we all should be inspired by those or similar nouns.

Considering the etymology of the word Inspiration might help a bit and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary has some potentially helpful insight:

Inspiration has an unusual history in that its figurative sense appears to predate its literal one. It comes from the Latin inspiratus (the past participle of inspirare, “to breathe into, inspire”) and in English has had the meaning “the drawing of air into the lungs” since the middle of the 16th century. This breathing sense is still in common use among doctors, as is expiration (“the act or process of releasing air from the lungs”). However, before inspiration was used to refer to breath it had a distinctly theological meaning in English, referring to a divine influence upon a person, from a divine entity; this sense dates back to the early 14th century. The sense of inspiration often found today (“someone or something that inspires”) is considerably newer than either of these two senses, dating from the 19th century.

Condense that down and what we find is that inspiration is that breath, that divine spark if one chooses to believe in such, that gives us life. Inspiration is personal, intimate, and perhaps even involuntary to some extent. When we consider what inspiration really means then it becomes much easier to understand how we might find it.

Inspiration Personalized By The Universe

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Life in the 14th century centered around religious belief and orthodoxy. One didn’t have much choice. The Inquisition was in full effect and failing to adhere to the religious tenets imposed by the Roman church was a good way to lose one’s head or be burned at the stake. In this environment, the words, “God told me …” carried a lot of weight, especially when being said by an Inquisitor. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that creative inspiration, that motivation to do something different, was attributed to the divine. To claim anything else would have been fatal.

Not everyone today feels so compelled to attribute new ideas or concepts to a divine source. If doing so helps one justify something genuinely helpful then there’s no reason to object. Whether one believes in deity or not, though, it certainly seems at times as though the universe has the ability to feed one thoughts and concepts that are inspiring.

While there is plenty of room for legitimate skepticism, explaining such things as a culmination of experience, exposure, and creativity, when such moments do come, they are always personalized. One cannot take such events and impose them upon anyone else except the person who originally experienced the moment. “Spiritual” inspiration comes with an engraved plaque that defines ownership.

For example, some might claim that Michelangelo’s statue of David was divinely inspired.  Such a claim makes sense given that the Inquisition was still in full force in the early 16th century. However, one cannot impose the artist’s allegedly divine inspiration on anyone else. No one saw the artist passing out flyers offering to teach new sculptors his “inspirational” method. There weren’t a thousand copycat statues littering Rome. Whatever spark inspired Michelangelo was unique to him.

I’m willing to admit that sometimes creative inspiration seems to arrive out of the blue. Psychologists chalk that up to an accumulation of influences coming together in a synchronized manner. Others may claim the stars have something to do with the influence. Still, others are convinced there’s a deity at work. No matter what the source might be, it is personal to the one who receives is and not something that can be spread around like soft margarine. Remember that the next time someone tries selling you a class or a book offering to teach you their “inspirational” method. Inspiration is individual, not crowd sized.

Inspiration Begins Within Ourselves

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If you taking absolutely nothing else away from what you’re reading today, please latch onto this: you are enough; you can inspire you. We don’t need to look to someone else, we don’t need some special event, we don’t even need to change our diet or buy a new wardrobe, as interesting as those things might be. Inspiration doesn’t come from watching someone else score the game-winning goal. Inspiration comes from the belief that one can score that goal themselves.

One of the biggest challenges to our lives is the notion that we are not enough. We pick up on this self-defeating attitude early in our lives and have difficulty letting go. We are told we need to be richer, smarter, prettier, fancier, dress better, have a different body shape, be a different gender, love only the right people, go to the right places, have the necessary experiences, and achieve greater success than anyone else.

All of those things are wrong. Each person is born with the very thing they need to find inspiration within themselves: breath. One doesn’t need a minimum bank balance or IQ. One doesn’t have to look a certain way, wear certain clothes, or have certain experiences. None of those things matter one damn bit. All that matters is that we breathe and the more we breathe the more opportunities we have to believe in ourselves and find inspiration not in every breath someone else takes but in every breath one takes on their own, for the benefit of their own life.

Let me spin this a more personal direction. Like many people, I have made some really stupid decisions in my life, choices that left me broke and homeless. There were times when it was really tempting to sink into a “woe is me” pity party. What allowed me to survive through those most difficult times was the fact that I never stopped believing in me and what I am capable of doing. Books didn’t inspire me. Someone else’s story didn’t inspire me. Changing my diet damn sure didn’t inspire me. I inspire me.

That doesn’t mean one doesn’t sometimes need some help here and there. Even the most successful of people, those who never seem to have a worry in the world, benefit from extensive networks of influence. Sometimes, that help is as simple as a phone call or message that confirms, “Yes, this person can do that job.” Other times, that help may be more substantial, such as a safe place to sleep or a warm meal.

Accepting help doesn’t stop us from being our own inspiration, however. This goes back to what I said earlier about identifying our weaknesses. Life doesn’t play fair and sometimes we’re saddled with illnesses that make us dependent on assistance from others. We cannot always control whether we can get out of bed on our own or walk down the street on our own. When faced with such challenges, asking for and accepting help is absolutely the right thing to do. Even then, however, every breath has the potential for inspiration.

To some extent, I suppose I’m wrong in ever saying I’m uninspired. As long as I’m breathing, there is inspiration in the most real sense of the word.

What’s important is that we don’t need to go looking to other sources for our inspiration. The extra push, that creative spark, that motivational edge, is already within us. Life is inspiration and it’s waiting for us to grab hold and change the world. Many things may influence our inspiration, from Horst to fashion to football. Nothing happens, however, until we let the breath within us take over and unleash what has been hiding inside us all along.

No one is getting their breath from me. Nothing I say is going to inspire you. I hope everyone is okay with that.

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