Where does your inspiration come from?
I get asked that a lot, as does anyone in a creative field. It’s a hard question to answer, because inspiration doesn’t work the same way that, say, beer does. If you want beer, you know where to find it: Go to the store, pick it up. But creativity? Ideas? There’s no shelf to find it on.
First, some quick context.
I was a huge Star Trek fan as a kid, and Q was my favorite character. He’s an all-powerful being that seems bored and isolated by power. He can be meddlesome and destructive, but also philosophical and inspiring.
Among Q's beautiful lessons was this one, as Q spoke to Captain Picard: “For that one fraction of a second, you were open to options that you had never considered. That is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebula, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.” (Thanks to the great brain coach Jim Kwik, who reminded me of that one.)
Something about Q captured me, as I know he did for so many others. No power is ever fully satisfying, he seemed to be saying. In fact, it can be maddening.
I haven’t thought about Q in a long time, but this week, I was in Des Moines to speak at an event called CiLive. And wouldn’t you know it — John/Q was a speaker there too! I got to tell him how much he ignited my imagination as a kid, and of course I asked for a selfie:
Then John was interviewed on stage. His interviewer — who was our event host Tony Paustian, also a subscriber of this newsletter — asked that classic question: Where does your inspiration come from?
John answered like this:
“I work from project to project, and I decided early on that being in a state of being creative was really what I wanted,” he said. “That made me feel the best. So it made sense that that would apply to when I was acting or directing or what have you, but it also could apply to other things — to being with my grandson, to making a meal. As long as I stopped thinking of it as just work, and started thinking of it as the infinite possibilities, it created an opportunity for things to be fresh and to have a little bit of wonder.”
I love this answer, which I’ll boil down to this: Inspiration isn’t something you find; it is a habit you build.
I’ve found this to be true myself. People ask where my story ideas come from, and I have no tangible answer. There’s no one process. Instead, I have simply trained myself to always — always — be alert to the possibility of ideas.
Someone tells me something interesting, and I think: Is there a newsletter here? A podcast? A magazine story?
I have made it a habit of mind. It’s like I’m constantly scouting the world for things worth sharing. And that is why, as soon as John gave his answer on stage, I knew that I’d want to write it down for you.
This habit goes beyond just gathering ideas, too. For example, I’ve extended it into the way I prepare for public speaking.
We all tell stories throughout our days. We do it in conversations or in meetings. And as we do, we get a sense of which stories interest people, and which are fun to tell, and which we can refine to make even better. I came to realize that, if I paid attention to these moments a little more, my everyday life could help me refine my material. That way, there’s never anything to practice or memorize. The work happens all the time and none of the time, at the same time.
This is the brilliance of John’s advice.
If we want to be more inspired, we must cultivate a habit of inspiration.
If we want to be more creative, we must cultivate a habit of creativity.
It is never-ending. Everything is an opportunity.
A little later in his conversation, John gave some advice to young actors — and it was very much in this spirit. I think it can apply to anyone.
Here it is:
“Do not define your career by what you've won't do,” he said. “So many actors define their careers by what they won't do. I won't do commercials and I won't do episodic, but I will do longform. Well, most of them won’t do very much. And in the end, it’s really important to just get a lot of experience. I used to do a thing I called ‘blitz audition.’ I would audition for everything. It didn't matter what it was. Because my idea was that if I got it, I could just say no. But until I got it, it was already no.”
John didn’t limit himself. He did not choose his moments. Instead, he chose every moment. Every opportunity. That’s when, as Q said to Picard, you chart the unknown possibilities.