The light and dark sides of inspiration

The light and dark sides of inspiration

Who wouldn’t want to be inspired? Invigorated, positive, motivated, uplifted. These are just some of the words that typically come to mind when we think about inspiration. And I’m delighted to say that last week I came away from a conference run by The Marketing Society feeling all of these emotions. The extraordinary stories and insights shared by a fascinating range of speakers were a genuine treat to experience.

Yet what also struck me was how many of the speakers themselves talked about very different emotions. Mark Thompson, CEO of the New York Times, explained how he and his team had coped with President Trump’s recent onslaught on their so-called “failing” organisation. A Syrian refugee called Hassan Akkad shared the torment he went through before winning a BAFTA for his extraordinary film about his escape by boat to Europe. There was even a musical prodigy, Min Kym, who talked about the devastating theft of her treasured Stradivarius violin. The words that best described their experiences were very different in tone – testing, painful, daunting, frightening.

There was no doubt these people were all, in their own unique way, inspired. They and the other speakers at the conference had all been driven to stand up for values and goals that they believe in deeply. The TUC leader, Frances O’Grady, spoke out for the values of dignity, respect and fairness. A philanthropist entrepreneur called Dr. Ali Parsi shared his mission to provide accessible, affordable healthcare for everyone on earth. And a lady called Raha Moharrak described her passion to show what Saudi women are capable of, by achieving the rare feat of climbing the highest mountain peaks in each of the world’s seven continents. Like all great leaders, these individuals are clearly doing their very best to make their lives count.

But doing so in practice is often far from easy and requires incredible reserves of resilience, courage and determination. That was why the theme chosen by The Marketing Society for their conference this year was so powerful – being brave.

It seems important to me that we appreciate more fully these two conflicting dimensions of inspiration – the light side and the dark side. Don’t expect to feel inspired if you fancy an easy ride. Your life might be comfortable and enjoyable, but will you feel like you have made the most of it when you look back in the future?

Being inspired involves stretching ourselves, attempting to make the most of who we are and our potential impact on the world around us. To do that means going outside our comfort zones, embracing hope and fear, belief and doubt, the magic and the tragic. The Mars CMO, Matthew Clark, defined bravery as not the absence of fear, but the ability to move forward in spite of fear. How true.

As I reflect back on the conference, I still value the warm fuzzy feeling that came from having experienced something uplifting and stimulating. But I also realise that this is only one dimension of inspiration. Just as vital is to convert the positive boost in spirit that comes from an experience like this into something more tangible and action-orientated. How does one go about doing that?

At the very start of the day, an academic called Dr. Emma Barrett highlighted the crucial elements involved in being brave: acting voluntarily, danger, uncertainty, fear and a valued goal. She emphasised the last of these elements as the most crucial, because without the goal, why take on all the risk?

The central implication is that for us to become truly inspired, we must look inside ourselves to find our most valued goals. What do we care about and believe in most deeply? What are the unique talents we can bring to further these causes?  And what is the difference we want to make as leaders as a result? It is only by discovering the answers to these questions that we are likely to become brave enough to truly live our lives to the full.