Motivation vs. Inspiration



Different words. Same meaning. Right? Wrong.

They can be used interchangeably – check any thesaurus and you will find inspiration is a recommended substitution for motivation and vice versa – and are meant to convey that someone is somehow stimulated or has an incentive to do something. But, consult a dictionary and it is instantly clear the words are inherently different.

Merriam-Webster offers the following definitions:


Motivation is something we try to muster when we have something difficult we need to get through and we know it isn’t going to be easy. We have to work up to it, convince ourselves that it has to be done. We’re exhausted before we even begin the task.

Inspiration is authentic. It is powerful. While it sometimes needs to be sought and discovered, it comes from somewhere deep in our soul and cannot be manufactured by our minds. Once acquired, with its divine influence, inspiration is infinitely more powerful than motivation. Though it can become misplaced temporarily, inspiration doesn’t die.

I have tons of motivation. Boatloads in fact. But, inspiration? Eh. Not so much. Sure, I am inspired in some areas of my life, in sobriety most of all. But, there are so many places where I want inspiration and only have motivation.

What prevents inspiration from revealing itself to us, especially when we want or need it most? Is it the feeling that a challenge is too big? Is it fear? Sometimes we can be so starved for inspiration, we lie paralyzed and suffocating as we struggle to pursue it. The helpless, almost hopeless, feeling is unbearable and seems never ending.

Then, just as we’re ready to give up, the light appears. “Oh, hello, Inspiration. Welcome. Thrilled you could make it. Come in and let me breathe you. Please, take off your coat and stay a while. Where have you been all my life?”

No matter how badly we want it or have convinced ourselves we need it, inspiration arrives only when we are truly ready to accept the power it bestows upon us. Unlike motivation, which is exhausting and riddled with starts and stops before we reach our goal, inspiration is energizing and constant and guiding.

It’s not motivation that keeps me sober. It’s inspiration.

I was motivated to stop drinking for a long time. It started with trying to set consumption limits. No more than a drink a day. When we’d go out, I’d set a two drink limit. Cutting down didn’t work. I then spent a few years trying a series of dry spells. I’d go a month or two here, a few weeks there, a day and half there. But there was always a reason to drink – good day, bad day, huge professional achievement, someone’s birthday, etc.

Inspiration took over for motivation when the “usual” excuses for drinking were completely trumped by daily declarations of “I’m hungover, I need a beer (or two or six),” and “I have so much going on a need a bottle of wine to slow down my brain so I can think,” and “I need to brainstorm some new ideas for this client and can’t do it without some liquid creativity.”

Staying sober also requires inspiration. There are challenges everywhere. Every day. Motivation isn’t enough. We can’t trust it. We can’t depend on it. Motivation is flaky. It’s risky. A huge gamble.

Motivation makes us resent the road to our end point. It litters the pavement with potholes and frost heaves. There’s often gridlock.

Inspiration offers an easier route, one devoid of obstacles. It may not be as exciting, but it’s much less traveled and keeps us moving forward, without incident, ultimately delivering us to our destination.

So, why do we so often choose the motivated road instead of the inspired path?

Without knowing I was writing this, a friend of mine answered the question beautifully the other day when she posted this quote to Facebook: “The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but we know a winding road comes with a better view.”

She’s absolutely right. But, I still choose to discover and harness the inspiration I need to take the most direct route. That way, once I reach my goal, I can hop on the winding road any time I want and wander just for fun. No pressure. And the view? Astonishing. Unparalleled.

I’m ending with a question and encourage readers to share their thoughts and experiences in the comments – I think it can yield a great discussion.

How do we transform from having to muster motivation to being truly, naturally, authentically inspired by something far beyond sheer motivation?

Huge thanks to the fabulous Ellen Palmer for pointing out to me the difference between motivation and inspiration. If not for her wisdom and guidance, I would not have embarked upon this journey of exploration and sought out the inspiration I need to take some important next steps toward my personal health and happiness.

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