02/04/2015 02:26 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2015

How to Be Inspired (And How You've Been Doing It Wrong)


If someone else's good example directly motivates you to take action, then you've been inspired. Whether it moved you to start a new diet or start your own business, it was inspiring.

Being inspired seems easy, right? It should be. And yet, people get it wrong all the time.

Here's how NOT to be inspired.

Watch how people use the word "inspiring." It's applied as a label to things that have the surface characteristics of being inspiring:

  • Someone underwent an extreme hardship; and
  • Someone then went on to do something remarkable.
Those amazing stories have the potential to be inspiring, but it's not truly inspiring unless you can identify the direct connection between somebody else's accomplishments and a real effort that you took as a result.

Here are three reasons you should never classify something as inspiring unless it actually inspires you.

1. It Takes No Effort On Your Part

As long as you can call somebody else's story inspiring, you don't have to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or compete in the Olympics or learn to play guitar. You get the quick fix of feeling "positive" without doing any work.

On the one hand, there's nothing wrong with an upbeat mood enhancer if it makes you feel a little bit better about facing your day. However, these empty claims of inspiration can also lead to dangerous habits like dismissing pain and burden shifting.

2. It Dismisses Pain

Labeling something inspiring allows us to dismiss the effort and gloss over the obstacles that stood in the way of an amazing accomplishment. We assume that there is a happy ending and positive outcomes to every setback. Or even worse, we come to believe that success is a direct and inevitable result of suffering.

3. It Shifts the Burden

It's easy to look at the world as if it's not your job to be inspired, but rather it's other people's job to be inspiring to you. This burden shifting points to people who are already going through something horrible and puts extra pressure on them -- they don't just need to survive. They need to thrive now. They need to be extraordinary. Meanwhile, the people who place the "inspiration" label are free to live their lives without achieving something remarkable.

Watch what happens the next time you see an allegedly inspiring story on Facebook. It would be nice if people responded with comments like "This means that I can accomplish great things if I follow that inspiring example." If somebody feels personally energized, that's fine because the pressure to be inspired is pointed inward. They're setting a high standard for themselves.

However, the comments section is much more likely to include reactions like "This proves that nobody has any excuse to complain about anything" or "The only people with problems aren't trying hard enough." That's problematic because the pressure to be inspired is pointed outward. That line of thinking doesn't make you a "positive" person: it makes you indifferent.

If you see a woman rise from poverty to become a self made millionaire, does it actually inspire you to do something in your own life... or does it just lead you to believe that the other 50 million Americans living in poverty have no excuse?

If a man in a wheelchair becomes a world class archer, does it actually inspire you to strive towards a goal... or does it just make it easier for you to forget the extra challenges that wheelchair users face every day?

Remember that YOU are the key to inspiration. If you don't balance the "inspiring" achievements of others with some hard work to achieve your own personal goals, then that "positive" feeling you get today could ultimately end up draining you of empathy... empathy that might otherwise actually inspire you to go out and make a real impact.