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Find Your Inspiration, Jack London’s Way

Find Your Inspiration, Jack London’s Way

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    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.

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    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.
    6. 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.
    7. 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.

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      Last Updated on August 20, 2019

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

      This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

      The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

      Curiosity

      Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

      People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

      Patience

      Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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      When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

      Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

      A Feeling for Connectedness

      This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

      A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

      The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

      With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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      1. Research

      Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

      Learning the Basics

      Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

      Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

      What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

      Hitting the Books

      Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

      Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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      Long-Term Reference

      While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

      My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

      2. Practice

      Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

      A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

      Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

      3. Network

      One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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      These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

      Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

      4. Schedule

      For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

      Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

      Final Thoughts

      In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

      If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

      At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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      Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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