Find your sources of inspiration

If you want to get your creative juices flowing, you want to know what your sources of inspiration are. Whether you want to resolve an issue, respond to a risk, craft a project strategy, you need to be able to tap into the creative zone of your brain.

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"Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve" –Napoleon Hill

If you want to get your creative juices flowing, you want to know what your sources of inspiration are. Whether you want to resolve an issue, respond to a risk or craft a project strategy, you need to be able to tap into the creative zone of your brain. It applies to all non-routine activities that you are facing on a daily basis. Be effective, smart and of real value to your clients by being aware of where your inventiveness is coming from.

The greatest sources of inspiration are stories about work and life experience of other people, and memories you have of achievements that had a lasting impact. Inspirational leadership is based on stories. Think about it for a minute. Inspirational leaders like Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, Michael Jordan, Johan Cruijff or Hasso Plattner all have great stories to tell about their accomplishments. They entice you because they can vibrantly articulate what they have done, why they relentlessly pursued on that path and how they dealt with obstacles along the way. Many people want to replicate behavior of inspirational leaders and do it slightly better.  

People love stories. The best presentations you remember are the ones where the speaker gets your attention right from the start by telling a unique story. The best stories grab your energy and direct it to a better, high motivating level. A formal setting is not needed for storytelling. It can simply come from somebody you are talking to, or from the different kinds of (social) media we have today. It can come from a location that is special to you and where the setting and ambiance is inspiring. 

The stories that I remember and like to go back to for inspiration are from people who contributed to my personal growth and performance. They gave me meaningful messages that I instantly knew I would never forget. I also obtained insightful stories from biographies, audio books, magazines, TV or radio programs. Not necessarily from academic literature. Of course there are a number of key concepts and theories that you have memorized for a lifetime, like a SWOT analysis, the five forces of Porter, or Mintzberg’s structuring of organizations. Truth to the matter is that most of what you remember and recall when you need it is from experiences, either your own personal experience or somebody else’s. 

It is key to have a broad interest in topics, also outside your field of expertise, outside your comfort zone. By expanding your horizon, you are able to expose yourself to information that you have never imagined and which can be very helpful for completing a task you have been struggling with for quite awhile. As an example, one of the areas that I have been exploring the last year is artificial intelligence and its impact on professional services. It is a fascinating topic that is rapidly evolving and one day will impact all of us to some degree. A development that is very interesting to follow is what IBM is doing with Watson.  

Sources of inspiration can be ‘real-time' or from past experiences. When I was 15 years old I started working for a grocery store in a small city, north of Amsterdam, who was well known in the area for their fresh produce. It was a family owned business with a long tradition of serving top-notch products to a very loyal group of customers. The owner and his two sons ran the business. Each son had his own store. The owner was in his late 70s when I met him. He was a great storyteller. I remember the days that he asked me to work with him in the warehouse. It was a very old building not far from the office where my father worked. Together we prepared the fresh produce for the store. We would load a silo full of potatoes and unload it by filling 5 kilogram bags for example. That activity could easily last for half a day. While doing that, he told stories about the Second World War and what he and his friends did to hinder the Germans. Or how he helped local people survive by handing out food. He spoke about the evolution in transportation, and that the distribution of fresh produce was now so much easier with the use of trucks. When hye was young, small vessels handled most of the transportation from Amsterdam.

With him telling stories, they days went by fast. When we were done with bagging the potatoes, we would switch to sorting all the different kind of bottles that the customers returned to the store. Crates and crates full of bottles, getting them ready for return transport. I did not mind doing the work, as long as he kept telling stories.

What I learned from this period in my life was to always deliver quality output, even when the work is repetitive. But also to respect the quality of life we have today, as well as the freedom and security. He taught me what it means to persevere, especially by explaining what it meant for him to stay alive during the cold winter of 1944-45 of the Second World War.  

Locations you visit on a regular basis can become a source of inspiration as well. There's an island in the Caribbean that I visit quite often with my family. The entire experience from arrival to departure completely renews, replenishes and reenergizes me. Whether it's going to the white sand beaches, listening to live music, nice dinners or get-togethers with friends, all of them are very inspiring.

One day I met the founder of a Brazilian company that manufactures, installs and services ATM machines, entrance technology and ticketing systems around the world. He was in his 80s and had passed on the business to his sons. He was still involved as an advisor. I had long talks with him about his life and work. He told me that he worked in many different places and companies in Europe and North and South America. Engineering was his trade and he made a number of major inventions. Through this storytelling he handed a number of lessons:

  1. Be the dominant leader player in your industry. Be so damn good in whatever you are doing, such that you always attract business
  2. Know the key players and work with business partners. To be successful you have to collaborate with other stakeholders in the market segments where you operate.
  3. Know your clients. The most important stakeholder is your client and you better understand their needs and challenges they have to overcome
  4. Have lots of cash, cash is King. You will be facing difficult times whatever you do and you need a cushion to keep going
  5. Be fit. No matter how busy you are, find time to maintain your health through exercise and clean diet.

Despite his age, he swam a few kilometers in the ocean every day. He would park his car, warm up his muscles, put on his goggles, watch the tide, decide what direction to swim, swim and walk back. During the swim he would oftentimes get ideas that he would share with his sons, the new leaders of the company that he founded.

Another source of inspiration for me are performances from business leaders who really made a difference and changed the world we live in today. Steve Jobs is an example of such a leader. His commencement speech at Stanford University says it all. The advice he gave to the students has made a huge impact on me and many others who I know admire him as well:

“You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

In the 1989, Stephen Covey published his bestseller "The 7 habits of highly effective people." I remember that many people around me in the workplace read the book and mentioned that it changed their attitude towards work and life. The seven habits transformed the way they work and interact with other people. The book became of standard and many companies included it in their management development programs. Overtime, it became a source of inspiration for many successful leaders. His book also inspired his own son, Stephen M. Covey, to write the bestseller "The Speed of Trust." One of the key lessons that comes to mind frequently when I lead technology-driven change programs, is that when trust goes down, speed goes down and cost goes up. Stephen came up with this equation to clarify a simple dynamic that can make or break any initiative: "trust in relationships is the main driver of success."

You can make it a habit to get to your sources of inspiration. Most of those habits require a moment of silence or time for yourself. It could be a walk in the forest, or some form of meditation, an outdoor run, an intensive workout or any kind of activity where you are detached from the day-to-day routine. Try to find what that habit is for you and seek your sources of inspiration.

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