What Makes Something Inspiring?

A little over a week ago, I was clicking my way into a social media K-hole when I read something puzzling. Below a photo of a cup of coffee and a majestic sunrise someone had written “wow, you have so many followers, so inspiring!!” and then followed it with some nonsensical litany of emojis.

I stared at the comment, the wheels in my head stalled and unable to process what I was reading. I’m not sure how long I sat there, but it was long enough for the person waiting for the toilet to start knocking aggressively on the bathroom door.

You see, I don’t trust people who are easily inspired. To me, inspiration is something that has to be earned, and getting a bunch of people to like pictures of your coffee isn’t inspirational. It might be impressive – maybe – but it’s certainly not inspirational. So what’s the difference between inspiring and impressive? Toil.

Take the Dawn Wall for example. When Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen made the first free ascent of that massive Yosemite rock face in 2015, it was impressive news. What made it inspiring though was that Caldwell had to build a model of a dyno move, one of the crux’s of the route, on his garage in order to figure the problem out. What made it inspiring was that Jorgeson spent ten days on pitch 15 of the route, tearing the skin off his fingers, letting it heal and then trying again and again on the razor thin hand holds that define the pitch. It was inspiring because Caldwell had spent seven years on the project. Think about that, he spent the better part of a decade climbing one rock climbing route.

That kind of toil is inspiring because every success only comes after dozens, if not hundreds, of failures. Because, for every news story praising modest success, there is endless questioning of what exactly you are doing with your life, and probably some serious concern about your mental health and/or ambitions in life. Whatever the goal, be it climbing a big wall, writing a book or fighting against some injustice in the world, more people are going to question your efforts than cheer them. The ability to overcome, or even just tune out, the gnawing doubt this breeds is what I find inspiring.

A few days after sitting in that bathroom, contemplating what Instagram follower size-based inspiration means for the future of our civilization, I was watching a friend’s band. Over the years I watched this friend move from playing in a punk band, to playing as a solo artist and back to playing in a full band. I had spent weeks on the road with him, joining on tours across Canada and down into the United States. I had seen him deal with two day drives, just to arrive at a cancelled show. Sat in empty bars oncross-Canada treks, watching him play back to back shows to barely-there crowds. Of course, like any good friend, I made fun of him for it.

But, through it all, he maintained a sort of focus and dedication like little I’ve ever seen. He always maintained that eventually, he would be back in a band, on track to the kind of mid-level renown that only punk rock musicians can build a dream around. Every challenge or perceived failure was but a speed bump on some grand highway towards the goal.

Watching that most recent show I realized that he was right. He had spent nearly eight years grinding it, motivated by a goal and some modest successes that only he probably felt. Standing it that club, watching his band play to a around seventy people in a dim Vancouver bar was one of the most inspiring things I have ever seen.

It reminded me of something important. That we should strive not to be impressive, but to be inspirational. That I should take solace in the struggle and the toil of my goals because frankly, there is nothing inspiring about winning the lottery, but there’s a lot to be proud of when you work your ass off at something and find modest success, even if you’re the only one who cares.

P.S. Check out my friend's band here.

Cameron Fenton