“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” – Thomas Edison
That’s a quote just about everyone’s heard. On the drive home tonight, we were listening to a Radiolab podcast entitled “Help!” One of the segments had Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, talking about how she finds inspiration. She has a bit of a weird view of it, that there are all these ideas floating around out there, and in some way, you work to earn the right to be the recipient of that idea – the one through whom it finds its way into the world.
It sounded a bit frou-frou, but the thing that I really liked about her expression was the fact that you earned the right through work. She brought up the Edison quote, though I think she mis-attributed it, but said that the thing that bothered her was that inspiration and perspiration were basically comparable things, and you could compare them percent-by-percent. Her view was that you get 99% oyster, 1% pearl, and I thought that was a pretty elegant way of expressing it.
Again, though, for me it comes back to the work.
There are certainly moments of inspiration. What I still consider my Best Idea Ever(tm) started out lying in my bathtub staring up at the ceiling. Other moments where lightning struck? Walking my dog as the sun set. 2:15 in the morning, waking up completely out of the blue. Scrambling to justify a mostly-different much-worse idea while explaining it to someone else.
These feel like moments of brilliant instantaneous inspiration. But they’re not.
(…and yes, I realize I’ve been using a lot of italics recently. Mostly because I’ve switched from *emphasis* to emphasis, since I felt the asterisks were really annoying. The italics probably are, too, but it’ll take a while to work that out of my system.)
Inspiration isn’t the beginning. It’s the end.
Or at least, it’s the end of the beginning. That moment where you get that brilliant idea? It’s a moment of synthesis – where a handful of different concepts finally fit together, where your brain’s been cranking away on something in the background and it finally is ready to present you with the result. It’s the result of semi-subconscious work that you’ve been doing.
It’s the result of flailing around with bad ideas. It’s the result of doing the experimentation. It’s the result of trying all kinds of things, of iteration, of failure, of minor successes cascading into major ones, of excitement, despair, struggle, frustration, and then finally, understanding.
You can’t get to that moment of inspiration by waiting for it to happen. It’s not a thing that floats by and waits for you to just reach out and grab it. It’s something you chase, you scramble for, you bite and claw and scratch to pull kicking and screaming out of nothing. For me, a lot of times that moment of synthesis happens when things are quiet & calm – when my brain’s had some time to relax & work things out. Sometimes it happens in the midst of a desperate struggle when I realize something’s wrong but can’t coherently express what it actually is. It happens at all kinds of different moments, and when you’re lucky, you can grab onto that idea and realize that it’s the one you’ve been waiting for. But “waiting” isn’t really the right word. Because inspiration isn’t about waiting for anything.
It’s the reward you get when you’ve put in the work.