Climbing the Hierarchy of Inspiration

Climbing the Hierarchy of Inspiration

SUMMARY: After Tuesday’s surprisingly-popular post on Type 2 Procrastination, I wanted to further define the difficulty of switching from “search” to “build” mode. The result is a hierarchy of inspirational sources and the role they play in the fulfillment of attaining productivity, at least as far as my emotionally-driven, imaginative, and discerning butt is concerned.[pro]: I was surprised by the popularity of my [Type 2 Procrastination][pro] post a few days ago, but in hindsight it makes sense: the desire to make a difference for ourselves and people that matter is one of our universal urges, once fundamental survival and safety needs are taken care of. And we all know that the solution that will get us further is straightforward: you have to do stuff, which takes effort over time. The process is quite clear.

For some people, this clarity carries over into action: they search for a process that they can follow, and then they execute the steps in the process. When you turn the crank, stuff comes out. The more stuff you have, the more you have to work with. Productivity ensues because the system produces real results.

But I’m A Perfectionist…

I suspect that there’s a number of us, though, who find the simple search-and-execute model dissatisfying because there are higher expectations. People who are highly imaginative, emotionally driven, and highly discerning are less likely to be satisfied with an off-the-shelf process because they run a mental simulation of the outcome before they even lift a finger. Let me break this down further:

  • By being highly imaginative, I am constantly in the world of ideas and possibilities. This is itself a pleasurable state of mind to be in, and I would gladly be here all day if I didn’t have the desire to also to be a contributor to the universe of possibility. I want to make things that other people can be inspired by. The challenge is to actively enter the state where I am ignoring new possibilities, so I can keep my attention on the one at hand.

  • By being emotionally driven, I mean that I tend to take my own emotional reactions seriously. By emotional, I don’t mean that I’m high-strung and prone to mood swings. It means that when I decide I like something, I like it whole-heartedly. And this is justification enough for me to pursue something. In other words, while I am a pretty rational and process-oriented person, I employ reason in support of my emotional preferences. Conversely, if something doesn’t reach the threshold of making me like it, then I’m not likely to expend additional thought on it unless I have to.

  • By being highly discerning, I am capable of forming my own opinions about why something works for me and why it doesn’t. So, when a new process is presented to me, I evaluate the completeness of the methodology and the details of its operation in context with the observable principles that drive its operation. I use my imagination to envision the outcome of each step, testing my understanding at every point where my curiosity is engaged, and come to a conclusion whether the process is viable. And then I check to see if I really want to do all that work to get the promised result: Will I feel better? Will I be materially better-off?

If a new process or project meets all these criteria, then I have a very good candidate for something that will add lasting substance to my life. And that is my working definition of productivity, as far as feeling is concerned. My thinking is that we want to be more productive NOT because we want to be the “fastest cog in the factory”; instead we want to be in a better place than we are now, with more control of our life direction.

It All Makes Sense, So Why Do I Get Stuck?

In Tuesday’s [post][pro], I postulated that one reason I have not felt productive is that I’ve developed “Type 2 Procrastination”, which I’ve cheekily described as an inability to efficiently convert inspiration into action. The analogy to Type 2 Diabetes is not perfect, but it provides a good framework for understanding the way we can diagnose and perhaps treat the problem. I identified two components that help convert inspiration into action: search and build. I’m talking about search in the first part of this post, but I haven’t talked about build. It’s the hardest part of procrastination busting, because this is the kind of effort that promises nothing in return. For imaginative, perfectionist, emotionally-driven people like me, the promise of something that might be good is not much of a promise, and is a more of a disincentive than anything. At least, it feels that way, and if we are not aware of this then we will let our attention go elsewhere. I think there’s a hierarchy of inspiration and productive, which erupt from the initial seed of inspiration:
  1. Identification / Recognition of the Moment of Inspiration – This is that spark where you see possibility and have identified a state of existence that is desirable. It meets a lot of your secret criteria, even ones that you didn’t know you had. You’re excited and caught up in the moment. This fades rapidly if not acted on immediately; I try to at least write something down.

  2. Discovery of Confirming Information – You are able to find SOMETHING that seems to indicate that you’re on the right path. You’re not alone! Other people have done it! There is hope. Tremendously exciting! And this feeling may last for a few days.

  3. Discovery of Enabling Process, Tools, or People – You may stumble upon it, or you may have actively searched for it, but this is the penultimate step in your journey toward productivity. Enabling Process is the “how to”. Tools are the specialized means of production that accompany the process. And people provide the support, guidance, and fellowship that help keep you motivated. And this is where most people get stuck, because there is so much material available that it’s easy to get lost seeing the sites and polishing your unused tools for the next ten year. Additionally, human fellowship is extremely addictive in itself. At some point, you need to remember that you joined for a reason: to make that thing that’s uniquely and ultimately your own. This is the distinction I was making in the [type 2 procrastination][pro] post.

  4. The First Brick – This is the moment where you must walk the path and experience it for yourself, putting what you’ve learned to the test. You can walk it alone, or you can walk it with a mentor. To return with a finished product is victory, the fulfillment of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth in your own hero’s journey. The story can end right here, having successfully identified, explored, and applied the tools to cast your first brick of personal gold. You have begun your apprenticeship.

  5. Sustained Brick Making – Having completed the first trial, you are now faced with questions: can you do it again? Do you even want to? Do you even need to? Assuming that you do want to repeat the process, you’ve achieved the first level of your productivity challenge, upon which you can build yourself to mastery and greater challenge. However, this is a potential trap as well, because you’ve cemented yourself into a box. What about the other things that inspire you? How do your other interests and talents play into your long-term desires? You may decide to repeat the process by going back to step 1. There is nothing wrong with this, but you are trading depth of mastery for breadth of capability. The nature of your productivity goals determines what is most appropriate. But I’m getting ahead of myself…


p>The gulf between step 3 and 4 is as wide as your expectations and insecurities can make it. For people who are imaginative, highly-discerning, and emotionally-driven, that gulf is as majestically diverse and varied in its perils, offering ten thousand ways to fail. But you know what? This is not the kind of failure that will kill you, and what doesn’t kill you will teach you. The people you gather in your basecamp should be the kind of people who understand the nature of what you’re trying to do, and those are the people you should listen to. So use your imagination, heart, and brain to think of ways that you can overcome the challenges. The first step is to pick something you can latch onto and complete on your own. That’s your first brick. If you’re able to come back with it you have my undying admiration; so many people never even try, or talk themselves out of pursuing what they truly want…myself included. It helps to name names the way my buddy Colleen does; putting a label on your blockages helps you get a handle on your challenges so you can strategize around them. It’s a way of boxing them up.

A second source of failure is putting faith in ill-fitted tools and advice, which leads to heartbreak and frustration. You may have mustered all the willpower in the world and prepared relentlessly to tackle that monster first brick, but your compass is off by 10 degrees and your instructions were written by someone who didn’t know you were climbing above 15,000 feet. It’s no one’s fault, in particularly, but it feels like it’s your fault. Or, you feel misled by idiots and forget that it’s also within your power to adapt. In either case, you are frustrated and feeling let-down. The way I cope with this is to try to think of the mis-step as part of the adventure, but that’s a post for another day.


  1. Matt Maresca 13 years ago

    I find that I can breeze through steps 1 and 2. Steps 3 and 4 are there when the passion is strong enough. Step 5 is where I usually get stuck. The road to mastery and ultimate success is extremely frustrating. There are so many hurdles that I always wind up wanting to turn around. It’s something I’m still learning to overcome.

  2. Qrystal 13 years ago

    “build … [is] the hardest part of procrastination busting, because this is the kind of effort that promises nothing in return.”

    You are missing some aspect of feedback in your steps.  Effort needs to be recorded, perhaps as time spent, and then you need to congratulate yourself on how the time was spent so that you are further motivated to spend more time.

    Improvement is another powerful motivator, and on your Type 2 Procrastination post I described how I’m giving myself feedback on my improvements over time:  I calculate a percent change between this week’s results and the average of the past weeks.

    What I didn’t mention there is that I got inspired to create this kind of motivation after hearing about Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us”.  (I’ve listened to a bunch of intriguing podcast interviews with him about his book, but haven’t read it.)  What he sais is that there is an inherent drive mechanism inside us that is powered by “three elements of true motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose”.  It sounds like you have purpose and autonomy, but aren’t harnessing the desire for mastery that can help pull you towards accomplishing things.  Feedback can help you see how you are doing on your way towards mastering things.

  3. Dave Seah 13 years ago

    Matt: That’s interesting…the sheer scale of the endeavor becomes overwhelming, yes? This is where I presume that there’s an indeterminate length of time that’s involved making and remaking, until you get to where you’re supposed to go. But this doesn’t sit well with me either.

    Qrystal: I left out feedback because it’s such a fundamental part of execution, and isn’t so much part of the hierarchy of inspiration I was pondering. But you’re right that it’s important because it gives one a sense of progress and provides data that you can use to make course corrections. But feedback by itself doesn’t guarantee the growth, I don’t think. I use feedback tools up the wazoo, and at a certain point I realized that they were leading me around in a circle.

    I think I’m mixing a few things together here: inspiration, desire for mastery, desire for fulfillment.

  4. Phoebe Baker 13 years ago

    I, too, struggle with procrastination. I was puzzling over your article, Type 2 Procrastination, the other day and wondering why it was that I could get some things done, but not others. I figured out that I could divide them into two groups:

    1) Finished products that others would use in their makings- supplies, and:

    2) My own finished art.

    Both groups involve time, craft, and creativity. One I had no problem turning out, the other I would take to a certain point, the point of my vision of possibility, and let the last few touches go unfinished, leaving countless pieces just hours away from being completed.

    In other words, I could imagine the possibilities, get inspired by an idea, make decisions regarding that idea to push myself to greater heights, test my limits, and see what would be the best that I could do, the most ingenious, wonderful thing I could make. Then stop, when I had figured that out and all that was left was to tidy it up, tie up loose ends, etc. Chores.

    So I figured out that I love potential.

    I have boxes of fabric, that I love running my hands through and imagining the possibilities, and glorious pieces of stained glass- just the glass. This all has potential. It is the stuff of dreams.

    I once heard a musician say she didn’t want to record any of her music because then it would be in a fixed state; unchangeable.

    Loving potential. It’s what we do.

  5. Dave Seah 13 years ago

    Phoebe: Yah, we love potential! And sometimes it’s easier just to love it than to try to convert it. I used to feel the same way about about buying new notebooks…pristine, clean, and ready to be transformed into documented greatness! And then I would never write in them. It took quite a bit of mental discipline (well, the thought that I could always buy ANOTHER notebook and NOT write in it) to start just making marks on the paper.

    Giving up potential by converting it into a reality can be disappointing. I think what helped me was coming to the conclusion that when anything happens at all, it’s a minor miracle. My cats remind me of this. How could the universe have created such a creature? Is there a REASON or obvious purpose for it? And yet, there it is. When I move a cup from the shelf to the coffee machine, that all this stuff even exists and has been shaped by countless years of history and machinery and people’s lives…it’s amazing. So I try to remember this and celebrate any action at all. Perhaps flawed compared to the ideal, but real and miraculous to be in existence and in motion. By doing, I’m paying homage to the universe.

    I don’t always think this consciously, but it’s somewhere in the back of my mind and I like knowing it’s there.