What are you waiting for? I hope it’s not inspiration

Phil Castle

It’s time for another column in which the curmudgeonly newspaper editor reveals his trade secrets — and, hopefully, some insights that could prove useful in greater pursuits. The moral of my latest story? The importance of NOT waiting for inspiration to strike.

Ironic, isn’t it? I want to believe — fantasize, actually — my columns offer some measure of inspiration. If nothing else, to serve some food for thought. To encourage readers to consider different ways of looking at things and maybe even suggest a few ideas for improving their businesses. That’s the point, at least. But my point today is to not wait for inspiration — from this column or any other source, for that matter.

I arrived at this subject after wandering for quite some time in what I sometimes imagine as the desert of my mind. Believe me: It can be a vast wasteland in there, one where no novel thought springs forth. That’s problematic for a newspaper editor searching for topics for columns. More important, it’s problematic for business owners and managers searching for new products and services or new ways in which to more efficiently run their operations.

There’s this hopeful belief somewhere out there in the universe awaits a source of inspiration. When I worked at an agricultural publication in Oregon, I used to joke with a newsroom colleague about sharing the muse when weekly deadlines loomed. “Aren’t you done yet?” I’d ask with the same urgency as someone waiting outside a locked bathroom door. “Hurry up. I’ve got to go write a good lead.”

You know what? I’ve yet to locate the mythical Pierian spring that inspires whoever drinks its waters. And not a single one of the nine muses has ever offered to lend a hand. I’d settle for a hint or suggestion. But nothing. Zip. Zero. Zilch. They’re fickle that way.

And that’s the thing about inspiration. You can’t wait for it — at least if you expect to ever accomplish anything. If I’ve learned anything in more than 40 years of writing to earn a living, it’s the fact you can’t force inspiration. Try it and see what happens. Go ahead. Open a file on your computer. Better yet, pull out a blank sheet of paper. It’s counter productive.

If it does occur, inspiration is far more likely to drop by when you least expect it — to come in like fog on little cat feet rather than flash on a Jumbotron. Think “Back to the Future” and how Dr. Emmett Brown slipped while hanging a clock in his bathroom, hit his head on the sink and conceived of the idea for the flux capacitor that makes time travel possible.

The alternative in the meantime? Work your butt off and hope for the best. The prolific inventor Thomas Edison knew well the proportionality involved in describing genius as 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. By the way, Edison also said most people fail to recognize opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks a lot like work.

So let’s get to work. I’ve written some of this before, but it bears repeating.

Take small steps. Don’t set out to reinvent the wheel. Rather, tweak the wheel. Are there ways to improve an existing product or service? Are there ways to adapt a product or service traditionally used in one industry to another industry and create in the process a new market?

Fix something. Look for inspiration in unsolved problems and unmet needs. Make the inconvenient more convenient. Relieve the pain points. Ask a question that begins, “Wouldn’t it be great if …” Necessity really is the mother of invention.

Get it in writing. If inspiration does strikes in the midst of all that work, don’t dare waste the moment. Get your ideas down in writing if not immediately, then as soon as possible. Some people carry around a notebook and pen for this very purpose. Alternatively, use your smartphone. You might believe you won’t forget an idea, but it’s surprising how often that happens. Once you’ve written down your ideas, keep them organized in some sort of central location whether that’s a computer file or paper file. Review your file on a regular basis. Keep the good ideas and cull what in retrospect turn out to be bad ones.

Do something about it. The most important thing of all about inspiration isn’t so much where it comes from or when, but what you do about it. One particularly successful entrepreneur I repeatedly interviewed told me more than once lots of people come up with good ideas, but few ever act on them.

Take me, for example. I wasn’t initially inspired to write a column, much less a column about the importance of not waiting for inspiration. But now that I have, I’m glad I did. I can only hope you are, too.

Phil Castle is editor of the Business Times. Reach him at phil@thebusinesstimes.com or 424-5133.