Omar Shehata

On inspiration and determination

From Omar's notebook.

One thing I've struggled with in my life is inspiration: I just have way too much of it. The world is exciting, there are so many opportunities to seize, directions to explore, and beautiful things to learn about and enjoy.

This is usually great for getting things done. I've always seen it as a superpower in that I'll happily take the boring-but-high-impact work that no one else is volunteering to do — I can always find something about it to pique my interest.

But this backfires, a lot. It means I'm constantly starting things I don't finish. It means I live with an overwhelming desire to say yes to everything. It means I'm over-committing and under-delivering.

A professor once told me freshman year that I was a "fountain of ideas". I took it as a wonderful compliment at the time. Pumping out tons of great ideas is nice — seeing one thing through to completion is even better.

I was lamenting about this to my good friend Jon. I told him that I've given up! I've accepted that trying to work against this nature is not productive. That I've discovered, a lot of the time, the value of all this unfinished work is not 0. Most of the time, when I do finish something, it's built on top of dozens of projects or experiences I took on on a whim or in a burst of energy.

And Jon analyzed this really eloquently:

The way I see it, there are two types of creative energy: inspiration and determination. Inspiration conceives new ideas, but is insufficient in the long haul. That's where determination comes in — it's the drive to overcome obstacles to reach the finish line.

No ambition can be achieved with only one of these. If you try to finish a project with only inspiration, you will quickly burn out (e.g. loss of motivation). If you try to create new ideas with only determination, you will quickly hit a wall (e.g. writer's block). But together, they work in tandem. Perhaps the ideal is a smooth transition between the two over the duration of the project.

So, I agree with you. When inspiration strikes, make the most of it! Enjoy it. This energy is not meant to carry the idea to completion — it's meant to bring it into the world. In time, reflection and feedback may kindle the determination to continue pursuing it.

And if not, that's ok too! The only waste would be not to capitalize on the inspiration in the first place.

— Jon Tiburzi

That last line really got me. It completely flipped it around. Choosing to ignore these bursts of energy to try something new wasn't a difficult choice I had to learn to live with, it was a waste. It's like I could pick the easy choice, and get the better outcome.

So, then, how do I ever get things done? In my personal work, I'll have a few different projects I'm pursuing simultaneously. If I'm stuck or don't see the potential in one, I'll switch to another.

The urge to switch is not a bad thing. Potential excites me. If I really see no potential in this work, perhaps it is best to shelve it. This only really works as long as the grunt or unenjoyable parts are not what cause me to switch.

This is why I do my best work when I understand and am constantly reminded of the connection between my work and the people for whom it matters.

It kills me to work on things that feel like don't matter because there's so much that does that I could be doing right now.