Motivation and inspiration are both essential parts of our growth as humans and individuals. Fundamentally, they serve similar purposes and can work on some of the same issues, but they can have many differences, too. Motivation and inspiration come from different places and can work in slightly different ways.
In this guide, we’re going to explore the similarities and differences between motivation and inspiration. By the end, you should have a greater knowledge of which is best for you, where to get them, and how they relate to the higher goals and dreams you’d like to achieve.
What’s the Difference?
In the English language, we tend to use the terms motivation and inspiration interchangeably, which further complicates differentiating the two. However, they have some very clear differences between them, and once you know more about these differences, you’ll be able to pinpoint different situations where one might make more sense than the other.
To begin, let’s start with definitions. Motivation means the reason behind a person’s actions. Inspiration, on the other hand, means being mentally stimulated to act or do something, especially when that action is creative. While these definitions are similar, they come from fundamentally different places inside of us, and they come to exist for very different reasons, too.
Pulling vs. Pushing
Motivation is something that we, for the most part, cultivate within ourselves. While both inspiration and motivation come from desiring something, motivation exists as a sort of “driving force” that we use to push ourselves forward, even when we really don’t feel like doing so. We’re motivated to go to work everyday even if we dislike it, for example, for money and livelihood.
Inspiration, on the other hand, is a pulling force. Where motivation can feel tough to conjure sometimes, inspiration often feels effortless. When we’re struck by inspiration, that inspiration pulls us along with it for however long it exists. Inspiration is ephemeral compared to motivation; it can’t be created or planned for like motivation can.
Consider some examples of this phenomenon at work below:
- An individual who’s scared of driving, but who’s motivated to pass the driving exam because they don’t want to depend on public transportation or on others to take them places
- An artist who is inspired by a vivid sunset to create a new piece of art, but only finishes half of it before becoming bored
- An employee who is motivated to improve their job performance because of a peer’s promotion
- An inventor who is inspired to create a new product by a problem that a close friend is experiencing
Creating vs. Experiencing
Motivation is something that we create within ourselves. Sometimes other people help us motivate ourselves, and sometimes we help motivate others, too. However, at the end of the day, motivation is what we have left when we’re pushing ourselves to work for just one more hour, endure the sweatiness and grittiness of a hot day, or tolerate important people who drive us crazy.
We create our motivation. While seeing someone else at their motivated best can motivate us, too, motivation is all about personal power, discipline, and desire. Motivation is when we’re willing to do whatever we need to do to reach our goals and our dreams, no matter how steep the uphill climb is. That’s because the result is what’s driving us in the first place.
Inspiration, on the other hand, is simply something that we experience. Inspiration is fleeting and impossible to grasp; when we’re graced by the presence of inspiration, there’s nothing to do but go along for the ride until it inevitably leaves us again. Very rarely is inspiration enough to drive us through an entire endeavor, but while it remains, it’s a powerful force.
Inspiration is short, sweet, and a bit mysterious. Inspiration can strike us from the oddest things, prompting us to follow new flights of fancy or renew old ones when we least expect it. Inspiration often leaves parts of our lives upended in its wake, and it can unceremoniously disappear, leaving us with half-finished projects that will never be picked up again.
Resistance vs. Effortlessness
Motivation is almost always much grittier, more unpleasant, and less enjoyable than inspiration. Since motivation is something that we create within ourselves, we’re just as responsible for maintaining it as we are for creating it. If we don’t feed our motivation properly, it can disappear just as easily as inspiration can.
As such, motivation is something that requires constant attention. Fortunately for us, as long as our goals remain in reach and barring any situation-changing life occurrences, motivation usually feeds itself. For example, when we need money, we’re motivated to work hard and earn that money. If we remove the motivator, however – let’s say by winning the lottery, for example – most of us would likely quit our jobs (or at least work far fewer hours).
Inspiration, on the other hand, is effortless. Inspiration sweeps in suddenly and leaves just as abruptly, but while we’re under inspiration’s control, doing whatever we’re inspired to do can feel as easy as breathing. Inspiration is an excellent way to start something, but since it can often disappear before we’re finished, we need the motivation to get us the rest of the way. Some examples of this are:
- Feeling inspired to renovate your home and pushing through the hard work when the going gets tough
- Feeling inspired to get into a good college, but relying on motivation to keep your grades high once that inspiration has left
- Feeling inspired by a concept for a book, but still continuing with the story when the inspiration to write it has left
Nurturing vs. Searching
Motivation is a bit like a budding flower, or even a seed. Every one of us has the innate ability and potential to chase our goals and desires, to tend to our motivation and discipline until it carries us through. If we work at it enough, if we water that seed enough, it will eventually grow into the motivation that we need to cross the finish line.
Inspiration, however, is like searching for a rare flower in full bloom. While we can also wait for inspiration to bloom on its own, it’s possible to find inspiration by searching for it, too. If you’re looking for inspiration in making art, for example, there are many activities you might try to find a new source of inspiration, such as:
- Camping out in the woods to take inspiration from nature
- Browsing other types of artwork to try to bring new techniques into your own
- Meditating on what you could improve with your own artwork
- Asking for input from people you value and trust in what you could do differently
While inspiration isn’t really something we can count on, we can easily go searching for it. Going looking for inspiration in no way guarantees that you’ll find any, though, which can be troublesome, especially if you devote a large amount of time and effort to the search. Motivation beats out the inspiration here because, even though it can be difficult to cultivate, it’s essentially available on-demand.
Fleeting vs. Enduring
It’s hard to define the time span in which both motivation and inspiration are effective. While motivation tends to be longer-lasting than inspiration does, this is largely due to the immutable nature of inspiration itself. With motivation, since we’re nurturing and growing that motivation in the first place, we can stoke its fire and keep it well for much longer.
Inspiration, on the other hand, remains out of our reach in a lot of ways. Aside from searching for new sources of inspiration, there’s little other we can do to force it to hang around. If it helps, you can think of inspiration as having a mind of its own, as being separate from you, and you can think of motivation as being connected to you and dependent on how you feed it.
Inspiration is a fickle thing. For some lucky individuals, it can stay for months or even years, telling its secrets and sharing its effortless acquisition of dreams. However, inspiration is not dependable. If you expect to be able to function on inspiration alone for any period of time, you will be unprepared when it leaves and unable to deal with the aftermath.
Motivation, in this way, works as a sort of “sweeper” that follows behind the inspiration, helping you clean up and reassemble what was left behind. Motivation gives us the power to take hold of the echo of inspiration and force it to do our bidding. Even if the easy passion that inspiration provides has long since gone, motivation allows us to power through with the sheer force of will in order to achieve what we yearned so dearly for in the first place.
Power vs. Strength
Inspiration comes with an innate sense of power. When inspiration alights on us, it’s nearly impossible to resist its sway or move in a different direction. It sweeps us up when it comes over us, leaving us with little desire or option to do anything else but what we’re inspired to do.
Consider an artist that’s been inspired by the color purple. While that inspiration exists, that artist will likely not feel like coloring with any other shade of the rainbow. Half-finished paintings, new or old, will be left that way until the artist is free from the inspiration once more.
Inspiration has that undeniable sort of power over us. However, the results that inspiration brings are often worth this inability to do other things. When we’re doing work that feels effortless and inspired, our best work is often drawn out of us, too. However, when we’re motivated to do work, but really don’t feel like it, sometimes our work can be a bit lacking because we just want to get it done. We’ve all been here before.
Motivation, on the other hand, has an innate strength to it that inspiration does not. Motivation is resilient, enduring, and accessible. It’s within our reach whenever we need it, and thus, it makes us feel strong. While inspiration might make us feel like we can do anything while it’s there, when it leaves, we’re left feeling lost again.
Motivation differs significantly from inspiration in that its effectiveness is completely dependent on us. Inspiration, conversely, is tied to the strength of the source; when something inspires you, it can do so in a small way or a large way, depending on what it is and what it means to you. In this way, it’s almost completely out of our control.
Motivation, on the other hand, is within our reach and easily manipulated by us. If we need more motivation, all we need to do is remind ourselves of why we’re fighting. If overtime hours at work are starting to wear on you, remind yourself why you’re working those hours, and you may quickly find a new sense of vigor within yourself.
What are you motivated to work for? Perhaps you’re longing for a beach vacation at an exclusive resort at the end of the year, and those overtime hours are going to that vacation fund. Perhaps that extra money is going to your future child’s college fund, instead, or your future retirement fund.
Maybe it’s being put into a housing fund that you and your spouse will use to move to your forever home. Whatever the case, this source of your motivation, since it’s within your control, is the key to keeping your sense of motivation strong and steady.
Spontaneous vs. Deliberate
Anyone who’s experienced the effects of inspiration knows how spontaneous and surprising it can be. Inspiration often comes for us out of nowhere, springing from something we had no idea would affect us so profoundly. While it’s possible to search for inspiration, as we talked about above, doing so can sometimes be fruitful or sometimes be nothing more than a waste of time.
Motivation, on the other hand, springs up from the will inside of us. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” is probably a phrase you’re familiar with, and it’s a phrase that describes motivation perfectly. If you want something and you have the willpower to work towards reaching it, that’s motivation.
As such, motivation is a deliberate creation of our own minds and desires. When we need motivation, all we need to do is create it. The act of motivating ourselves is a deliberate, knowing action on our part that helps us reach a dream or a goal. Inspiration lacks this sense of deliberateness. Creating our own motivation isn’t easy, but it’s straightforward. Here are some examples:
- A single mom feeling motivated to go back to college to provide a better life for her children, even though that would mean working during the day and going to school at night
- A good Samaritan motivating themselves to volunteer to good causes even though their schedule is already full since they want the world to be a better place for their children
- A student feeling motivated to push through their studying and maintain good grades because they know they cannot lose their scholarship
We can motivate ourselves to do just about anything. It’s true that we can inspire ourselves to do just about anything, too, but the difference is that we cannot inspire ourselves on demand or with any consistency.
That’s not to say that inspiration is bad. Inspiration has many benefits, and it provides a great productivity boost when it comes to us. However, due to its spontaneous nature, inspiration is never something that should be planned for. Instead, inspiration should be viewed as a surprise benefit of sorts. It can help us significantly in our quest to reach our goals, but that quest needs to be backed by motivation for the rest of the way.
Happiness vs. Hardship
An unfortunate aspect of motivation and inspiration is that they make us feel very differently. Fundamentally, inspiration is difficult to achieve but easy to feel. Inspiration makes us feel happy, drives us forward, and almost eases the way for us. When we’re feeling inspired, things feel effortless and enjoyable. Something outside of us is pulling us forward and helping us get things done.
However, motivation is not a fundamentally enjoyable thing. Motivation is hard. Motivating ourselves to do something that we don’t want to do or don’t feel like doing can feel like running a marathon or climbing a mountain. What’s more, it can be hard to sustain motivation for long periods of time. When we’re motivated but not inspired, we can easily feel stressed, discouraged, and worried.
Inspiration exists on its own without the help of any other emotion or feeling. Motivation, however, needs to be tempered by other emotions, or else the downsides can sometimes outweigh the benefits. These tempering emotions or conditions can be things like:
- Love for someone else (or yourself)
- Certain life circumstances
Emotions or conditions like those we listed above help counterbalance the downsides of motivation. For example, when we want our children to have a better life than we did, we can feel motivated to do things like start college funds for them or help protect the environment so they can enjoy it as we did. These feelings help us persevere when just pushing through hardship starts to wear us down.
How Are They Similar?
Inspiration and motivation, though fundamentally different, share some similarities here and there, too. These similarities help us understand the differences between the two even better. In this section, we’ll go over the most important of these similarities.
Motivation and Inspiration are the same in that they can both come from anywhere. When we’re working out at the gym, we might see someone twice our age working hard at maintaining their health, and that can inspire us to work just as hard. In the same way, inspiration can strike us out of nowhere one day when a random thought floats through your head.
Motivation can also come from inside or outside of us. Where your motivation comes from depends on what you want; if you desire something for yourself, such as validation, money, or achievement, that comes from inside. However, if your motivation comes from wanting to help others, then it comes from outside of yourself.
Motivation and inspiration can help you no matter where they come from. Inspiration is difficult to control or predict, so its strength varies, but motivation tends to be stronger when it comes from outside yourself. When motivation comes from inside of you, it’s entirely dependent on whether your own principles remain unchanging or not. For example, if a childhood dream of yours is suddenly no longer your dream, that motivation is just as liable to change.
Motivation and inspiration do differ slightly in that our motivations tend to be more influenced by society than inspiration does. Inspiration tends to be far more free-spirited and nonconforming, where motivation can sometimes be triggered by the desire to conform, be respected, or be well-liked. For example, many children and teens are motivated to fit in and be popular in their formative years, but this desire often lifts with time.
Another common denominator between motivation and inspiration is that they can both be spurred on by the presence of others. Spending time in the presence of someone else who’s either motivated or inspired can pass that same effect on to you. In some cases, inspiration can even cause motivation in others or vice versa.
For example, consider a person at a company who’s been working hard to rise up through the ranks. When they finally get a promotion, imagine that that person is inspired by the importance of their new work and gets far more fulfillment out of it than they ever did before. This, then, might motivate you to work hard as your colleague did.
In the same way, an artist who’s been feeling uninspired and stagnant might find inspiration in the work of another artist who’s motivated to work through their own inspirational drought. Inspiration from an art perspective is a bit different, but still the same basic concept as what we’ve been talking about here.
The most important part of the interplay between motivation and inspiration is their ability to work together. We’ve touched on this in various places throughout this guide, but motivation and inspiration do their very best work when both come into play. Inspiration, for example, is an excellent way to get started on something new, but it may not be the best way to finish it.
This is where motivation comes in. Even when your inspiration to do something has left, it’s important to motivate yourself to get it done anyway. It might feel like climbing a steep cliff face or pushing against a brick wall, but even if the progressive steps you make are small, both the motivation and the inspiration will have been worth it.
Inspiration provides you with a type of “flow” that is difficult (but not impossible) to replicate with motivation. Even if you feel motivated to do something, your body might be tired or your mind might be distracted, making it more difficult to achieve what you want. In comparison, when you feel inspired, your entire being falls into the task like it’s the only thing sustaining you at that moment.
This is where the importance of discipline comes into play. Without discipline, it’s very difficult to sustain your motivation for the amount of time you need it for. You might be prone to the most beautiful, useful, productive bouts of inspiration that anyone’s ever seen, but unless you can finish your project before the inspiration fades, you’ll be left with half-finished projects and unfulfilled dreams.
Motivation and discipline are similar in many ways. You could even argue that they’re the same thing in many circumstances. It takes discipline to stay motivated, for example, but even when you don’t feel a drop of motivation or inspiration in you, discipline is what will carry you to the other side and help you reach your goals.
Putting your nose to the grindstone and getting to work on your dreams even when your entire being is screaming at you not to is the true power of inspiration and motivation working together.
Motivation and inspiration are very different phenomena, even though we tend to use the terms interchangeably. They have some similarities, too, in the ways they function and the ways they benefit us. However, the most essential point to be made about inspiration and motivation is how well they work together. Neither motivation nor inspiration is truly complete without the help of the other.
In order to accomplish the things we dream of and the goals we set in life, it’s important to make it so we have access to both motivation and inspiration. When we have both of these things together, we’re truly able to accomplish the things we set our minds to and reach new horizons.