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Which is Better -- Motivation or Inspiration?

“What’s the secret to success?

That’s what a student is said to have asked his teacher, Socrates, centuries ago. Socrates guided his charge down to a nearby river and they waded in together. When the water reached their necks, Socrates pushed his student’s head down and held him underwater.

The student struggled frantically. He finally broke free and emerged, gasping for air. “When you want success as much as you wanted air,” Socrates said, “you will achieve it.”

That’s one form of motivation.

We sometimes use the term “tough love” to describe the process of telling the truth to someone in hopes of motivating change. And we call the ultimate version of that tough-love approach an “intervention.”

There’s another way, however. Inspiration. We don’t have to be gasping for air to become motivated. While that survival-based approach is certainly an effective technique at times, more recent evidence suggests that when people pursue something for the pure joy or love of doing it, that they are actually more effective.

When we explore how a person’s mindset drives their behavior in our book Thriving in Business and LIfe, we expand the definition of mindset to include our full mind—meaning the stimulus that’s generated by our heart-brain and our gut-brain, as well as our soul.

Leaders who understand that desperation, while temporarily effective is seldom sustainable, realize that inspiration can, in fact, be the best motivator.

Successful coaches know this. It’s not fear or ambition that lights the fire within to win, it’s players getting enrolled in a larger vision of the heart. Yes they want to win, but they are inspired to win by seeing themselves as part of something greater than their own personal success. Teams that have a consistent history of winning have expanded their idea and identity of themselves to that of a group, not merely a gathering of individuals.

For example, the Golden State Warriors, winners of the NBA Championships in 2015 and 2017, have a motto: Strength in Numbers. They have an enviable roster of superstars but their egos rarely intrude. Why? They play as a team. One night, Stephen Curry is hot (well, almost every night). The next game it’s Durant or Thompson. Then all three may have an off-night but someone from the bench steps up. Strength in numbers.

By contrast there are other teams with loads of talent where the players don’t jell. Despite their phenomenal skills, they can’t string wins together. They haven’t committed to that group vision or identity. You could say they’re not sufficiently motivated to do that, but we believe that a lack of inspiration is the real problem.

According to the Paid to Exist blog, “Motivation is about things that you think you should do or that you’re supposed to do. Inspiration is about being called to act because you’re in direct alignment with the magnetic, luminous marrow of potential that is you.”

Just reading those words is inspiring! Imagine yourself that way, as a “luminous marrow of potential.” Bone marrow produces blood cells in our bodies. The kind of marrow that author is describing produces ingredients for a thriving life. And, it’s living within us.

Here’s the real difference between motivation and inspiration: motivation is an outside force that acts upon a person to compel a result; inspiration comes from deep within and connects a person with their innate potential and helps them release it in the process of generating results.

Here’s your thriving challenge for the week.

Think of relationship where you have a responsibility to provide motivation for someone. It could be a son or daughter, could be a direct report. Drawing on the material in this blog, see if you can motivate them with inspiration this week.

Christopher Harding and Will Wilkinson

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