A few thoughts on passion, motivation and inspiration

Passion: possibly the most overused word.  From personal statements to the Great British Bake-off, it seems that everyone is has a passion, whether it be for the works of Sartre or the contents of a muffin tray.  I don’t consider myself to be passionate about anything.  I am simply interested in lots of things and I suspect that most people substitute the word interest for passion simply because it sounds more impressive (in the same way that inn sounds more spooky and foreboding than pub).

Inspiration is another word misused on a regular basis, because admiration and inspiration are two different things.  I was recently asked for some advice from a friend who is a consultant to an ‘inspirational speaker’.  This speaker was keen to expand his repertoire to include Schools.  He has only recently become an inspirational speaker and the catalyst for his new career was having his leg blown off below the knee whilst serving with the British Army in Afghanistan.  I have great admiration for the British Army and I admire him as a person, after all it can’t be easy having your leg blown off.  Putting admiration to one side, I was unsure how such a background would be ideal preparation for a career in inspirational speaking?  He’s got a good story, but surely we could tell how it began and ended even before he got up on stage?  A comment from one School was that “previously pupils had complained that their History coursework was hard; now they know that it’s nothing compared to losing a limb in a roadside explosion”.  They are right of course, but simply being presented with a worse thing than the task with which you are currently struggling shouldn’t count as inspirational.  It could be argued that one’s own struggles have been put into perspective, but we’re generally aware of the natural order of things (losing a limb > troubles with coursework) without having it spelled out.

People who have been successful in one career can generally rely on a ready-made second career as an inspirational speaker.  Former Olympic athletes are a good example.  The general message seems to be that if you have a good amount of natural talent (at running or swimming, for example) and you nurture that talent for many years, often to the total exclusion of other pursuits, you have a chance at becoming good enough to challenge the people who are the best in the world in that field.  It’s difficult to disagree with the logic, but I’m not sure how inspiring I find it.  Essentially I’m being told that natural talent plus hard work plus single-minded determination gives good results.  It is logical but is it inspiring?

Would we not be better advised to take inspiration from people closer to home?  To quote a simple example, every year sees wild fluctuations in the academic performance of the Houses, despite similar exposure to all the external inspiration that the School can muster.  We are inspired (either in a positive or negative way) far more by our peers than by former Olympic middle-distance runners, war-hero amputees and even our teachers.  Our peers don’t tend to have the catchy back-story, but their attitude to work and life impacts upon us on a day by day basis.  No man is an island; the effect of those around us on our performance is significant.

We can take inspiration from a variety of people, but I much prefer the idea of self-motivation to motivation from an external source.  It is our duty to be self-motivated.  We should take a pride in being motivated to be the best we can be in all that we do.  I often hear that grade predictions act to motivate or demotivate pupils.  But motivation comes from within.  If you are demotivated you should look inwards to find out why rather than blaming external factors.  If your predictions are high, you’ve got high targets to aim for.  If your predictions are low, you’ve got something to beat to prove the doubters wrong. 

So, to summarise: be inspired by those close to you; have admiration for those who are successful; be self-motivated; be passionate (if that’s really what you mean) and be interested (because that’s what you probably mean).  No-one should really be passionate about bakery products, unless you’re Marcel Proust.