The Difference between Motivation and Inspiration

Christopher Witt —  May 19, 2014 — Leave a comment

We often talk about motivation and inspiration as if they’re they same thing. But they’re not.

What Is Motivation?

Motivation is about moving people to take action if not immediately, then within the very near future.

It heightens people’s emotions — especially their hope, desire, enthusiasm — urging them to act in a way that accomplishes a specific goal.

And it holds out the offer of a reward, a reason or a motivation for people to act.

Before a big game or during halftime, coaches motivate their teams to go out and do their best. What’s the goal? Win the game. What’s the reward? The pride of victory and of being a champion.

There’s a wonderful example of a military leader motivating his troops before battle from the movie Patton.

The speech as it’s delivered by George C. Scott is almost word for word the same speech that General Patton used to give the day before sending his troops to fight.

What does he want from his troops? To attack, never to stop, never to retreat, and most of all to kill the enemy. What reward does he offer? It’s better to kill them than to be killed by them.

So motivation involves moving people to take immediate action to accomplish a short-term goal. It does so by appealing to their emotions and by offering them some sort of reward or recompense.

By necessity, you have to keep motivating people over and over again. It doesn’t last, but as Zig Ziglar was fond of pointing out, neither does bathing, and that doesn’t stop you from bathing.

What is Inspiration?

Inspiration is about moving people to feel and think differently about themselves and about what they are capable of becoming and doing. It engages people’s imaginations, values, aspirations, and dreams.

It may take time for people to change as a result, but the changes they do make will be long-lasting because they are internalized.

Inspiration offers no reward, other than the internal satisfaction of knowing that you have made yourself something to be proud of.

Inspiration comes, for the most part, from the person of the speaker: who the person is, what the person has accomplished, and what the person stands for.

Another military leader from World War II, General Douglas A. MacArthur, gave a memorable inspirational speech to the cadets at West Point.

It’s a masterpiece. (Read and listen to his speech, “Duty, Honor, Country.”)

It’s beautifully written. It extols the virtues that the academy professes. And it’s given by a man — a five-star general, and the most decorated American officer in history — whose life and career was itself an inspiration to his audience.

He didn’t urge them to action. He called them to be the type of officer who embodies the code of the academy: duty, honor, country. He offered no reward.

Inspiration, if it takes, doesn’t need to be repeated. Some of the cadets who heard that speech may have been so moved that they were forever changed.

The Difference: Motivation or Inspiration

They are different. That doesn’t mean that one is better than the other. It just means that you, as speaker or as a leader, have to decide which is more appropriate for the occasion.

Do you want people to act and to act now? Then motivate them.

Do you want people to become something better or bigger than they are now? Then inspire them.

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

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