Inspiration vs. Working Hard: Why Working Hard Always Wins

The world is surrounded by people who are willing to sell you inspiration. And you know what? Chances are high that you are buying into it.

Even worse is that it might be destroying your potential to do and create great things.

Go to any bookstore and you’ll see a “business” section. It’s a popular place these days, particular for today’s professionals, who go in seeking validation. The promises of hopes and dreams are high. But it’s a trap.

Instead of providing you with motivation to start working, this inspirational material acts as a substitute to performing work. It becomes a distraction that prolongs the efforts that you should already be putting into new and existing projects.

The authors get richer while your hopes and dreams grow, but are you working on things that really matter? Maybe… maybe not.


Our Obsession With Inspiration

I’ll be the first to admit that I visit those business sections in book stores. I love reading memoirs about people who have done great things — the opportunity to learn from leaders like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates is always treasured. The same can be said for companies like 37 Signals with Rework and Facebook with The Facebook Effect.

But when I see that people like Maria Bartiromo, a financial news anchor at CNBC, with a head shot and a title called The 10 Laws of Enduring Success, I can’t help but be brought back to reality; all these people want is to make a profit from selling you inspiration. (I’m still waiting for Charlie Sheen’s book.)

The Internet is not so different. There are websites dedicated to doing nothing more than providing people with inspiration. This is exemplary in the creative industry, where entire blogs are dedicated to little more than this task alone. But they are some of the most popular blogs within the industry.

You’ll find that people are enamored with posts like “10 Ways To Be More Productive” or “100 Ways To Become Inspired.” It is this content that immediately gets the creative juices flowing. It provides a shot of adrenaline, one which many people seek to take advantage of.

The content itself isn’t bad, but the way people utilize it is.


Inspiration Doesn’t Work

If you use inspiration as a way to invent new and creative things, then you are using inspiration wisely. To take from others who have created great things and make your own wonderful creations is how inspiration is meant to be used. And, in that way, inspiration is a great thing. Unfortunately, inspiration only serves this purpose for a minority.

Most people use inspiration for another purpose — they use it to get those creative juices flowing, but they almost always fail to produce anything. You can call them the “wannabes,” “dreamers,” or “lazies” of the creative industry. They have big ideas, but they have little in the way of execution.

These people have the best intentions. They have that idea stuck in their head that they know is great. But when it comes time to produce results, there is nothing but inaction. It might be fear. It might be laziness. It might be any number of forms of resistance that inhibit us from doing great things.

That is when many turn to inspiration.


Inspiration Does Not Equal Work

It used to be that people would step outside of their house, visit a new place or thing, become inspired from these places or things, and work off of this inspiration. People still do this. People still make an effort to become inspired to create great things.

One of the more memorable examples that I can recall is the new Cadillac CTS-V. The designer, Bob Munson, gathered inspiration for the car’s redesign from an archer’s bow being pulled taut.

Mr. Munson’s inspiration, alone, did not equal work. He might have had the idea, scribbled a few notes, and had a winner. But where is is different from most is that he followed through with the inspiration. He put it to work. It required plenty of dedication to actually iterate through concept, design, and production, but he did it. The inspiration, in a way, served as a means to an end.

Most others would have looked at the archer’s bow and arrow and only saw what it could have been. So few would have been able to execute an idea such as the new CTS-V, which is now considered one of the best in its class. But how often is that going to happen?


Inspiration Could Be A Distraction

Instead of focusing on one piece of inspiration, people tend to focus on hundreds. They take advantage of all the information that the Internet provides, and, instead of producing work, they get caught up in the moment of seeing stuff that other people have created. Don’t get me wrong: I do this as much as the next person. But where most people go wrong is they fail to do anything with it. I used to be in this group.

If you are one of those people who have many bookmarks of inspirational galleries and ideas, but you have many few products as a result of that inspiration, you might be suffering from these same issues.

It wasn’t but three years ago when I had not hundreds but thousands of bookmarks to things I deemed inspirational. It became an obsession of sorts, where I would scour the Internet, websites, blogs, forums, and more for inspirational material. I had hundreds of bookmarks pointing to sites like Flickr and DeviantArt. It became a rush for me. I loved every moment of it, and I was determined not to miss the latest and greatest stuff that other people were producing.

Instead of actually doing meaningful work, I started dreaming of all the things I could create with all of my newfound inspiration. I spent more time in programs like OmniGraffle than I did in TextMate or Photoshop. I eventually had hundreds of ideas for websites that, in truth, I had no motivation to follow through with. But that inspirational high that I took from all of this content sucked me in.

Just as my collection of bookmarks grew, my obsession with reading books did too. Any well-known inspirational book you could name within the past five years is one that I have probably read. I’ve read memoirs and autobiographies of several hundreds. It fueled my creativity, but it also caused inactivity.

It got to a point where things got really bad, so I decided to eliminate the need for books, inspirational galleries, and more. I also deleted all of the bookmarks I amassed over the years. I was cleaning house.

It was time to get to work.


Why Working Hard Is The Only Way

I, alone, could not force myself to break free of this aura of inspiration I had created around me. I needed a good kick in the ass to make me realize my mistakes. Thankfully, I stumbled upon someone who really helped change my life.

That one person is Merlin Mann. He previously talked about the topic of work ethic. He knows that no amount of talk or inspiration is going to convince people to produce something amazing. He knows that only one thing will amount to such an achievement — that one thing is working hard.

Photo by cliff1066. | CC

I decided to block out everything around me and focus on the important things. I was going to work hard to get things done. It turned out to be one of the greatest decisions in my life, and one that I will never regret.


Eliminating Distractions

We have problems with working hard. We want to maximize profits with the least potential amount of work. This is why books like 4-Hour Workweek exist and are best sellers. But even though it is possible to maximize return on the least amount of effort, it rarely results in the type of work that would be classified as quality or worthwhile. Timothy Ferris is happy to tell you that you can make a living from four hours of work, but he didn’t tell you that his book probably required hundreds (if not thousands) of hours to write. Think about it.

Working hard is difficult when you consider all of the distractions — Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc. — that prevent us from achieving great results. It is difficult to remain focused at the tasks at hand when you have chirps and dings making you aware that there is a world of information and inspiration awaiting you on the Internet.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I was addicted to Facebook and Twitter. At one point I even counted using these services as work. But to justify my Tweeting and Facebooking as work was silly. If we worked hard to produce something amazing in the first place, those connections would probably come as a result. (Of course, networking should be a part of everyone’s business, but if you don’t put in the hours to create an amazing product, no amount of followers will do you much good.)

Infographic by | CC

So I make it a habit of mine to turn off access to the Internet when I go to work. I only turn it on when absolutely necessary and I only open tabs to websites that I need to do research. Everything else is eliminated from view.

Once I have eliminated distractions and start working, things seemingly go on autopilot and I start to produce results. I’m sure this is true for many others who are in the creative industry. To allow someone or something to distract you at this point of focus is, for a lack of a better word, crazy.


When All Else Fails, Working Hard Prevails

If you want to save yourself time, money, and much grief, come to realize the following things:

  • Inspiration is only useful if you are willing to work hard.
  • Inspirational material is not a substitute for work, and it could be a distraction.
  • Doing hard work doesn’t mean you are working hard.
  • Working hard is difficult, but it’s possible and necessary to accomplish great things.
  • Eliminating distractions is key to working hard and maintaining focus.
  • Working harder will, in most cases, produce better long-term results.

In the future, if you need a book, blog post, image gallery, podcast, television show, or movie to get you to sit down and do something, you have a serious problem.

Realize that you already know the solution — you always have. The question is, however, are you willing to put in the long hours to make it work?

Written exclusively for WDD by James Mowery. He is a passionate technology journalist and entrepreneur who has written for various top-tier publications like Mashable and CMSWire. Follow him on Twitter: @JMowery.

What do you think of these ideas and how do you handle inspiration? Please post your thoughts below…

  • Sony

    Working hard is always good but smart worrk is always required. If you are doing hard work but there is no output then all is waste. Hard work, Luck and Smartness are all together.

    • one web studio

      yes.. i agree with you d-.-b

    • mowery

      Absolutely! This is where keeping, setting, and maintaining goals becomes very important.

  • gloofer

    This post really inspired me, is that good or bad?

    • mowery

      I’ll go out on a limb and say it is a good thing! Glad to have helped!

  • Kawsar Ali

    I think you have to combine inspiration and working hard together. You can get inspired and work hard to achieve your goal.

  • TrafficColeman

    Hard work is and will continue to be the key making your life that much easier. You must go for your goals and make things happen..

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  • TheAL

    Related post: Find inspiration on Flickr! *lol*

    Excellent post. This bug actually bit me a while ago when I was still dreaming of teaching myself photoshop and digital graphic design. I would look at DeviantArt all day and be amazed at what some people were producing. Once I got off of my butt and started practicing, going back and looking at a lot of that stuff no longer wows me. I’m not great, and I’m still learning, but actually doing it has improved my abilities significantly. Now I’m one of those people on DevArt who gets decent views, compliments, Daily Deviations, etc.

    • mowery

      I have actually done the exact same thing. Glad to know you have broken the allure of inspiration and embraced the hard work and ability to explore your own creativity. It’s a powerful thing.

  • Marko

    Great article. I often have these problems, I have and idea but not the motivation to follow it trough. I start something but then stop half way through..

  • Geoffrey Gordon

    James words to live by. The formula for success has always been hard work. Hey I am guilty of distractions too… Unfortunately those same distraction make you procrastinate everything else you know you should get done. Great Article :)

    • mowery

      Thanks, Geoffrey.

      I hear what you are saying. But hard work pays off in the end!

  • JoeJoe

    Damn right! I experience this kinda prob pretty much every day:/
    It makes me glad someone highlights it and helps us change it:)

  • Nathan

    I disagree to an extent. Yes, distractions lead to less work. We’ve all understood this since we understood an 1/8 of pie is less filling than 1/4. However, in some cases distractions can lead to solutions. I can’t begin to list the number of times the people I follow on twitter post a link to something relevant to what I am current working on. I’ve actually finished projects early based on advice or solutions “distractions” have introduced me too.

    Depends on the person I guess. I love distractions as they help me do work without me constantly being aware I’m doing it, and also I get constant feedback on what I’m doing through these distraction channels.

    To each their own, but I don’t think this is a cut and dry thing. There isn’t a right and wrong in this debate. The science of success and productivity is, in fact, not a science, just a preference.

    • mowery

      Fair enough! Granted, using distraction as a tool to enhance productivity is a great thing, but how many people really do that? I mean, really do that?

    • Fuad Malikov

      I think what should be done is to switch of the twitter say for 4 hours. Do the work and check your inspirations . 4 hours shouldn’t be too late I guess.

  • Dessign

    People need to realize that the successful people worked their face off to get where they are now, it took them years to get their overnight success,


    • Neville

      I agree 100% Marios. They also worked smart. Working smart can be a production multiplier on any project.

  • Tom

    The only one problem is, that Prayer works :)

    In another hand, it’s great to combinate prayer with working … things are going a lot easier then …

  • David

    Great article. I’m a college fine art professor, but say the same thing to my students, will definitely be linking this article to them.
    To quote artist Chuck Close:
    “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

  • Fro

    Great post, I know I am guilty of having too many bookmarks of different website for inspiration myself, well I guess I need to do some bookmark cleaning…

    • mowery

      Bookmark cleaning… gosh that was a day-long task. I hated it. I’d rather clean my whole house than attempt to clean out my bookmarks! But, in all honestly, there were so many bookmarks that I had that I would, realistically, never visit again, so it is nice to clean everything up to help the stuff that is actually useful stand out and become useful once again.

  • Charlie

    Thanks for this wonderful post. I myself got caught up in this trap for years until I finally decided enough of reading, it’s time for doing.

    But then again too much doing doesn’t help either. At some point we have to stop, drop whatever is in our hands and reassess what we really want to do. The balance of inspiration and action is a powerful thing.

  • aditia

    I think we all need both inspiration and hard work, have you ever fell burnout with your job? fell that your work is miserable? well I think that inspiration taking place, not to forcing yourself, hard work really good nobody ever doubt about that, but if the hard work make you stressful or frustration what the point, maybe we can combine inspiration while we are taking a break

  • Kabindra Bakey

    Working hard with inspiration always works

  • website designer uk

    It’s great post.This is really helpful for me..thanks for sharing this…

  • Nathan

    is it bad that i found this article when looking for inspiration?

  • Gabriel

    Great post, really. I do agree with you. Like a friend of mine said several years ago : “We are the ‘just do it’ generation”.

    2nd I think that inspiration often comes after a great period of hard work. When the hard work is finished, your mind becomes to be very free and very happy, inventing new ideas, trying new combinations

    3rd : Inspiration without work is just nothing

  • Devin G

    Incredible post. You’ve really struck a cord with me here. I think over the last 3 years I’ve been obsessed with research. This mainly because all the people I need to convince want a strong rational for every decision. So you can’t sell anything without having seen someone else do it first. This is no way to create. I’m going working and living on pure creative energy. I guess that is inspiration. It has its place too.

  • Wanderson Santos

    Very insightful and conclusive!

    I suggest you all to use the excellent to help identify what blocks you out to realize your work.

  • Hardly Working

    Let me say this: One of, if not the best article I’ve read on this site.
    Now let me say this: This article is spewing with irony.
    You’ve just inspired us all to assess our creative lives, delete our bookmarks and burn our inspiration design magazines stack in the corner of our home office.

    You mentioned “hard work” but not goal setting! Hard work with no direction equals stupidity. I can work hard diggin a hole to china but inspiration is going to tell me to buy a plane ticket.

    You mentioned “eliminating distraction” This is impossible, Life has too many distraction to eliminate, the focus should be on managing distraction (many of us read this article because it was a distraction to us from our work at the job). What about all the designers with a Spouse and *gasp* a child, you can’t eliminate them (I’ve tried, not the way you think- shame on you!)

    It’s one thing for your end goal to be completing an idea of inspiration and bringing it to life with hard work, it’s another “ball game” to make money off this completed idea.

    Working hard to be successful is nothing with out a goal of success. Let inspiration be a tool not a crutch. Learn the tool of inspiration like a Samurai learns their sword, be able to wield it at will.

    “Ka-BOOM!” *Drops mic, points to the right of stage, exits right of stage*

    • mowery

      Appreciate the “if not the best article I’ve read on this site” comment, as it is my first article, and hopefully the first of many. :)

      As for your other points, I completely agree about having goals and having an end point or deadline in mind. And I completely agree about using inspiration as a tool — most people, unfortunately, use it as a substitute for hard work, but those who this inspiration to create things and form their own wonderful ideas are awesome.

      As for eliminating distractions: of course eliminating all distractions is near impossible. I know this first hand, and it sucks when I catch myself playing Minecraft or something else instead of working. Of course, I sometimes need a distraction to give my mind a break — I find that some of my best work comes after being distracted a bit. But we all know that most people can’t recover from distractions. Some have too frequent distractions and then checking email and tweeting suddenly becomes “work.” We know it isn’t, but we like to make it sound like it is.

      That said, an article on goal setting is already on the to do list. Hope you will enjoy it! :)

  • Rob

    Just wanted to say that I think this article is awesome. If you value inspiration too heavily, you’re not a professional, you’re a hobbyist. You can’t roll up your sleeves at the end of the day and combine 50 different sources of inspiration into the current project you’re working on. You gotta attack the project first thing in the morning. Get some inspiration at the end of the day to fuel you for the next day. Inspiration should come through your subconscious as you’re working.

    • mowery

      Well said!

  • Claire

    Distraction is not a bad thing!

    • James Mowery

      Anything that draws you away from the things you want to accomplish in life are bad things. Taking time to clear your mind and to have fun, of course, isn’t a bad thing. We all do it: I do it too. I don’t consider those things distractions. But things like tweeting while I should be working, checking email at a time when I said I wouldn’t… that is bad.

  • Toni T

    A bit of psychic cod liver oil. Good for me, as I tend to coast on inspiration.
    OK. Back to work.

  • Mehmet

    Thanks for the perfect article. I agree with you. Edison too :)

  • EugeneK

    Well, no one will read your article or visit this website if we were working hard and researching all-day-long.

    I agree with your article but you could emphasize a bit more, that doses of inspiration should have daily limits while the most creative ones of us probably will disagree with term limits in this context.

  • savvinovan

    i always know that hard work is better :)

  • CabinetDude

    Kudos James… good article.

    I tend to agree with Eugene though. Inspiration in small doses helps you gain a bit of “perspective”.

  • James

    Great article James!

    Really enjoyed reading it. It helped remind me that we need to create more and stop consuming design galleries, blog posts, Twitter, Facebook etc.

    Maybe rewarding yourself with some distractions (for a set time) after you’ve completed a number of important daily work goals would work well for some people.

  • Gaurav M

    Great dose of inspiration.
    Working hard ask for high persistence level where lies the biggest challenge!

    I am delighted to find that this is your first article. And you exploded out well!

  • Rosangela L.

    No one could possibly disagree with the spirit of this article, but I feel like it’s more about balancing between production and absorption than just cutting off any outside input labeling it as a distraction. Being too focused can turn you blind to your own mistakes, and very often that unexpected distraction can be exactly that slap on the back of the head you need to realize that you’re spending time and effort on an idea which was broken from its very conception.

    The point is, it’s not always about what you create. We live on the shoulders of the giants because that’s how we work as human beings. We need to look up to the exceptional feats of other people to learn from them. I’d say the issue resides in the way “inspiration” is pushed around in those wonder compilations you mentioned – they’re all about the high and not about the hard work and the thought process that went towards each one of the featured pieces.

    Thank you for your brilliant and thought-provoking article.

  • Christian

    You smart son of a bitch. I think I may just delete all of my bookmarks right now. I never look at them anyway.

    And the beauty of your article? I don’t need to bookmark it to refresh what you said—all I have to do is remember the title.

    Thanks, neighbour.

  • Osvaldo M.

    Great post, it had been quite a while since i read something so interesting in a design blog.

  • Dale Moore

    Love, love, loved this. Definitely needed this, as I’ve recently found myself falling into the same trap. Downloading tons of PDF ebooks on design, preparing for when my iPad arrives to sit down and read them. I have a feeling that I would’ve slipped straight into inactivity, marveling at everything everyone else is doing even more so than I already do.

    Excellent, excellent article!

  • Mahen

    so maybe this is your last post on the topic “inspiration”… or else u r one of them. and no kidding.. your site is full of distractions…wot’d u say?? hehe

  • Carolina Short

    Great article. Reminds me of one of my favourite (Picasso’s) quotation “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”

  • Nick Chamberlin

    ahhhhhhhrrrrrr…. Jesus just round-house kicked me in the face, I needed that.

  • Kenny Estrada

    this really helped me, i have some problems with my time management. Thanks for the info.

  • LaurieJEnglish

    Interesting article. All of those years of using other people’s inspiration finally lead you to write this article…. I always thought inspiration was internal. Your inspiration is not necessarily meant to be my inspiration. Also, I think hard work without inspiration boils down to…hard work. I’ve always tried to marry the two and not be a slave to one or the other and especially not to hard work dictated by someone else’s standards – which kind of amounts to hard work without one’s own inspiration.

  • Katelyn Maguire

    love your article. You are right. Working hard is always wins.