Jack London once said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” He knew what he was talking about, too: London cranked out short stories, novels, essays, plays, poetry and non-fiction at a tremendous rate. To write — and make a living — the way London did, there just isn’t the possibility of waiting around for inspiration to strike. The same holds true in other fields. When we’re in need of inspiration for any project, we have to be prepared to go find it.
Go out looking for inspiration
My first stops in the search for inspiration are my peers’ blogs and websites. I immediately go online to find out what other people are working on. It’s not a question of finding someone working on the same exact project — instead, it’s a way to see what techniques are out there. There are new techniques, as well as old ones that slip our minds, that we can catch glimpses of when we see others in our industry at work. From there, it’s just a matter of thinking about how we can use those techniques on our own projects.
Read outside your area of expertise
Just because someone doesn’t know a single thing about your project doesn’t mean that he can’t provide you with a little inspiration. Head outside the blogs, magazines and people that you follow in your own industry and go hunting for a little wild inspiration. A chef can just as easily find inspiration on how to arrange food from an architect as from another chef — and sometimes she can find something entirely new in architecture that can be built in food.
Try another format
Format can devour inspiration: working on projects that might as well follow a format can sap you of any desire to work on the next, identical project. So change things up. A website designer may have spent the past several years married to the 800 by 600 pixel format that is often used as a standard format — but there are plenty of other configurations that could work better. Just give a new format a try: you don’t have to sell a client or supervisor on the final project unless that new format really does inspire you.
Get an outsider’s take
Handing someone outside your field a description of your project will get you a list of questions. Answering those questions can be a quick way to spark inspiration: an outsider won’t know that you traditionally don’t take a specific approach or know what limitations you’ve placed on the project. Sure, you might get asked a few questions that go over approaches you’ve already tried and discarded — but you’re likely to get a few questions you’ve never considered.
Look back at what has worked
It isn’t always necessary to go outside of your normal pursuits to find inspiration: reviewing past work done in the same area can give you a few new ideas. Keep an eye out for pieces not fully developed the last time around — even if you can only concentrate on taking a similar approach and improving on it a little, you can find enough inspiration to finish your current project and move on to the next one. In the course of your career, you’ll find a few projects where your only inspiration is to make a small change from an earlier iteration. Just because inspiration doesn’t offer a hugely divergent approach in these situations doesn’t mean that you can’t complete a quality project.
Borrow an idea
If you feel like someone else is getting all the good ideas today, borrow one for inspiration. A write might rewrite a story in his own words. An ad designer might rework concept with her own insight. Using other people’s ideas as a starting point can jump start your own inspiration. It’s not a favored approach to finding inspiration for many people: it’s too easy to turn out something that is, for all intents and purposes, identical to someone else’s work. Stealing an idea is bad; borrowing an idea and developing it in a new way, however, is just another way to find inspiration. Consider that ad designer: most designers keep a file of ads that they’ve seen and enjoyed as a place to start their search for inspiration.
Brute force your way through
Nice as inspiration is, there are always projects where we just don’t have the time to find inspiration. While inspiration can make the work go faster, though, it’s not always necessary: sometimes just sitting down and putting together an uninspired project is the best option. Not every memo, design or product can be perfectly inspired. Sometimes, the best we can do is just try to create more inspired projects than uninspired projects.
Jack London was known for his ability to find inspiration in anything: he wrote stories based off of newspaper clippings, his own experiences — even watching a boxing match was enough to spark a short story. London made sure that he had plenty to draw on. He went out and brought back inspiration with a club, no matter what it took. London joined the Klondike Gold Rush and got scurvy — experiences that he based some of his most successful stories on. We may not need to suffer scurvy to find our inspiration, but we do have to go looking for it.