Looking for inspiration is a primal human impulse.
In ancient Greece, muses were the goddesses of inspiration for literature, science, and the arts. In old Norse mythology, inspiration had a similarly divine origin and was thought to be a gift from their gods.
Because of the concept’s connection to the divine, inspiration went largely unstudied by science. But recently scientists have been looking more closely at the role it plays in our lives.
Perhaps one of the most famous studies was conducted by psychologists Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot. Among their contributions was the establishment of the “Inspiration Scale,” which measures how often a person experiences inspiration in their daily life.
Another recent study conducted by Marina Milyavskaya and her colleagues shows how inspiration helps facilitate progress towards goals.
The study found that people who were more inspired in their daily lives tended to set higher goals. Those goals were then more likely to be attained. It also found that achieving goals helped fuel inspiration, creating a positive feedback loop.
All studies seem to agree that, while inspiration matters a lot, actively creating it is difficult. But as Scott Barry Kaufman points out in this article for the Harvard Business Review, one “often overlooked trigger of inspiration is exposure to inspiring managers, role models, and heroes.”
This can’t be overstated, especially when it comes to the startup sphere. Being a founder can be a very isolating existence and finding inspiration is often the only thing that keeps a person going.
We were curious about where founders look for inspiration, especially outside the business world. So we reached out to a number of them and collected their inspiring responses:
Clark Benson, founder and CEO, Ranker
“When I was starting out as an entrepreneur in the ‘90s, Richard Branson was my biggest inspiration. Branson built big businesses in lively verticals he was passionate about, and did it with a brand approach that managed to convey both a sense of fun and a sense of quality.
“I worked at Virgin Records for a few years and even though it was after he sold that business to EMI, there was something about the company culture that just made you proud to be a part of it, years before the dot-com era started really changing work culture.”
Raaid Hossain, co-founder, Wiser
“Kobe Bryant. I’m inspired by his unrelenting and obsessive requirement to be better every single day. Startup life isn’t easy; it requires sacrifice, determination, persistence, and more than anything—the will power to win.”
Laura Crawshaw, founder, The Boss Whispering Institute
“I am most inspired by Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud. Darwin, because he explicated the concept of evolutionary adaptation—survival of the fittest. Freud, because he applied this concept in seeing that all organisms defend against threat (physical or psychological) to survive.
“My work with abrasive leaders has taught me that in their attempts to survive and thrive, they will defend against any threat to their self-image of competence with aggression. These principles are operative in every workplace ‘habitat,’ every day.”
Liz Steblay, founder and managing officer, PrōKo Consulting
“The author J.K. Rowling inspires me. She was able to make time to write Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a working single parent. I can only imagine how many nights she stayed up late writing, then got up early to get her kid to school and herself to work. Whenever I get tired, I think of her passion and perseverance.
“Also, although he’s now gone, I am inspired when I think of David Bowie. He was always rebranding and reinventing himself, pushing his own boundaries, and expanding his areas of interest.”
Howdy Pierce, founder and CEO, Cardinal Peak
“I recently read David McCullough’s biography of the Wright brothers. As an engineer, I found the Wrights’ story particularly inspirational. They lived at a time when the solo inventor was on the cusp of being replaced by research done in corporate teams; after the Wrights you have Bell Labs and Silicon Valley.
“So they’re kind of the last gasp of this romantic idea of the lone individual changing the world. Moreover, like other great engineers I know, the Wrights chose to pursue flight for the intellectual passion of building something cool. The fact that it led to fame and fortune was welcome, sure, but almost an afterthought.
“And they had to invent so much: McCullough recounts how they found out that some published lift equations weren’t correct, so they had to go back and basically invent a wind tunnel so they could measure the lift generated by different wing shapes. In many ways they represent what brought me into engineering in the first place—to create great stuff.”
Koh Martinez Onozawa, co-founder, president and CEO, Loudbasstard
“Lionel Messi. When I was a thirteen-year-old football fanatic, not knowing a thing about where I was headed in the future, I watched him as a fifteen-year-old who played his first pro match for FC Barcelona. Right then I knew youth is the greatest advantage I have in my life as an entrepreneur.”
Jason Mandell, co-founder, LaunchSquad
“I’m constantly inspired by people who seek to innovate in whatever field they may be in, try to push society forward, embrace the new and different and undiscovered, and generally try to think different (as Steve Jobs famously said).
“For today, I’ll go with astronaut Scott Kelly, who recently returned from a year at the International Space Station in an attempt to better understand how humans handle space over a long period. The mission will assuredly help scientists for generations to come.”
Norman Brauns, founder and CEO, PACIFIC
“Antanas Mockus, the Columbian scholar, philosopher, and politician, is brilliant. He was faced with seemingly impossible situations in Bogotá and used unconventional methods to turn it around, again and again.
“He challenged himself and others around him to solve problems in a different way, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do. It really stuck with me that he did not revert to traditional approaches and I am truly inspired by his accomplishments.”
Joe Phelps, founder and CEO, Phelps Agency
“Elon Musk is the twenty-first century Thomas Edison—on steroids! PayPal, SpaceX, SolarCity, and Tesla! He’s smart, knows how to plan, recruit the best talent, and execute. I don’t know a lot about him other than he obviously is not afraid to take on huge challenges and knows how to get big, important things done.”
Alisa Johnson, president and co-founder, Dogs On Deployment
“I started Dogs on Deployment when I was twenty-two. I didn’t have any business influences. I was a newly graduated college student who joined the Marine Corps and needed care for my dog, so I started a national nonprofit to provide fostering services to military members.”
Da Vinci had Mona Lisa, Van Gogh had his starry night, and the ancient Greeks had their goddesses. Wherever it comes from, inspiration is fleeting. But sometimes looking in the right places will give a person the strength they need to keep pushing through and make their dreams a reality.