Draw Inspiration from the Moment of Emergence

Photo by Simon Fitall on Unsplash

The most awe-inspiring things I encounter tend to be at their incipient stages. Sometimes clandestine, but often absent from plain sight because we’re just not looking, these are fledgling efforts.

New-born ideas.

Unproven adventures.

When this realization crept up on me (and it took years to truly become definitive), I also understood the problem with inspiration as we tend to think about it. Meaning is conferred upon inspiration only by the existence of a goal. If there is a problem with the inspiration, then I have reason to believe that there is a problem with the life we are striving for.

So I ask, what is the life worth striving for?

I happen to be an engineer-entrepreneur by intention and by training, so I often look to people in science and technology to learn from their path. But half my brain also happens to crave unstructured creativity, in the form of musical expression, words on a page, or graphite on paper. This other half of what inspires me to take each breath comes from the avant-garde artist.

I have observed the outstanding achievements, skill, passion, drive, honesty, and sheer will-power of these people. We all have. That such determination, rigour, and self-motivation play a part in success is a foregone conclusion, and being inspired to imbibe these traits and habits is what I think of as the normative model of inspiration. But when we talk of someone with these traits, we usually expect them to be a world-changing personality in a very tangible sense. By extension, we hope to become a world-changing personality by amassing some measurable achievements. This is where the problem begins — in our understanding of what actually causes the world to change.

Imagine that you want to build a vehicle. You have been an ambulatory masterpiece so far in your life, walking everywhere you need to go.

On one of your walks, you run into a few folks discussing the extent to which a person could walk. They say you could only walk a certain length per day, but if you wanted to reach a destination quicker, you would need something that moved you faster than your own feet could.

Being the enterprising person that you are, you take the walkability limit to heart and immediately want to do something about it — you should be able to travel further and further distances. You collect tires, wheel-hubs, axles, some steel rods, and a comfy seat in the hopes of building a simple human-powered vehicle. When you have all you need in a pile before you, you take a step back in a priceless moment of inspiration.

You wonder who invented the wheel.

There ceases to be any difference between an inspirational scientist, engineer, musician, or writer only at one level (besides the level of being a human, that is). They gorge on new information as voracious learners. They have the ability to learn, yes, but the best of them have the ability to leave everything aside and… do.

Fabian Voigt, a neuroscience postdoc working with Prof. Fritjof Helmchen at the Brain Research Institute, University of Zurich, invented a mesoscale light-sheet microscopy technique called mesoSPIM. Light-sheet microscopy is a mature technology in the biological research domain, but the research that his team wanted to conduct involved using large samples of biological material, say a mouse brain, and the best existing apparatus did not serve this purpose well. So they decided to build an improvement themselves. What’s more, they built it and open-sourced it.

Light-sheet microscopy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

During his time at MIT, Steven Keating spent months (almost) alone in a large rented workshop. As a PhD student, he was working on 3D printing large structures for building construction applications. Again, large 3D printers were a maturing technology, but no method existed for free-form precision printing, without space constraints, for specific materials. Imagine “printing” a 15-metre dome of structural foam using a specialized truck for a 3D printer. Among the new parts to be made, he designed and built a lot of them himself. Pretty cool.

But then he was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

When at the hospital, he realized that there was a dearth of sharing of patient records, and that only a medical doctor could approve such sharing. Dead end? No. He enrolled in an MD program near the end of his PhD. He requested all of the 200 GB of data from his MRI brain scans. With this wealth of information, he and his collaborators re-created his tumour, his brain, and his surgically-repaired skull in plastic via 3D printing. He advocated for open access to patient medical data till his untimely death in 2019.

Source: MIT News. Used for educational and discussion purposes only. No rights reserved by author.

Gavin Harrison and Larnell Lewis are masters of their craft. There are many world-famous drummers, say like Ringo Starr, but Harrison and Lewis are celebrated in limited circles. They bring style and substance to modern drumming, but most of all, they iterate and invent.

No one can play polyrhythms in progressive rock while making it sound like an intricate ballad quite like Gavin Harrison.

Larnell Lewis pushes the boundaries of modern jazz drumming with his unforgiving, relentless style.

Gavin Harrison during a concert. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Larnell Lewis behind a kit. Source: Drumeo. Used for educational and discussion purposes only.

These people are the embodiment of the boundless human spirit. The fact that they are at the top of their fields, being highly intelligent and accomplished people, takes nothing away from the fact that their focus on creating something that’s absent is the very thing that puts them there.

They deal in the currency of inception.

Fabian Voigt could build mesoSPIM because he had been working on light-sheet microscopy since his undergrad years. In fact, he built miniSPIM during that time. He got his hands dirty. You could argue that neither miniSPIM nor mesoSPIM are impacting every single person on Earth effective immediately upon invention, but these are the methods that will in due time be incorporated into what could become mainstream medical techniques. Their open-source efforts would allow more collaboration and expedited progress. This is happening in a lab in Zurich, far away from where you are perhaps.

Steven Keating was surrounded by the absolute best in cancer research at the Koch Institute, but on his own, he embodies the spirit of the motto of his alma mater: mens et manus (“mind and hand”).

Harrison and Lewis perform at global venues, but the general public typically recognizes only the singer and the band.

The people who write open-source programming languages literally allow thousands of cutting-edge applications to be built on top of them. They are rockstars in their own right, but theirs is not a life the typical human strives for.

There is no public acknowledgement, at least not in the way we acknowledge our movie starts for their service in keeping us entertained. Nonetheless, all of this is world-changing. None of these people are Nobel laureates. But in no way does it mean that they fall short of making an impact. In fact, they are participants in the crucial process of making the wheel available to the future.

Perhaps it is simply the nature of wonderment to assign high value to something that is path-breaking. It would be a conspicuous feat, after all. Noteworthy. Yet, if something can engender fascination without offering the certainty to be path-breaking, especially without offering certainty of “returns”, then that is the most powerful inspiration of all. It is an indication that the water is not stagnant, even if it is not flowing up the hill yet.

The people who end up becoming world-changers have a very different worldview: they feel settled when they become perennially unsettled. They give in to the need to fill a void they observe. They are simultaneously the gatekeepers and the admirals of social good. They reach for the complex, unafraid to start with the simple.

They have the ability to learn, but the best of them have the ability to leave everything aside and… do.

Truth be told, there is no complexity unless preceded by simplicity. The complex is jaw-dropping to us, but it is more often a result of some process, not a beginning. The presence of the primitive effort is worthy of being replicated, and this is where we should seek our inspiration. When we are armed with this knowledge, we can begin to focus on the truly important.

You can imagine the impact this outlook can have on our output, our relationships, and the fulfilment we feel in our lives. Following in these footsteps is what I see as the formative model of inspiration. Not only is it formative figuratively, but it also literally involves a formative process for whatever we are trying to achieve.

To our mundane, everyday experience, the complex lifeforms all around us are seldom glorious. But try not being enraptured by the molecular machinery inside some segment of a cell, composed of nothing more than proteins, let alone conscious thought. The cell comes in much later, though. First, the proteins must be formed from the elements, the proteins must bind in the right sequences, and the proteins must interact with their environment in particular ways.

Imagine you are creating something intricate like this, something that is your life’s goal. It may be a mural, a book, a technology, a video game, or a start-up. You must be able, willing, and inspired to tackle the unglamorous rudiments if you wish to have some hope for success.

The moment of emergence is the most powerful experience of all. The life spent seeking it is the life worth striving for.

Photo by Christian Joudrey on Unsplash

About the author

Sarang Deshpande is an engineer, founder [Flow Mobility; Cambio Motion], and writer. Besides spending time solving challenges in the urban mobility domain, he regularly writes about science, tech, business, and life (sometimes). He is an editor at World In Mind, a new publication which brings cutting-edge research to students and working professionals: important research across industries will set the tone for humanity’s future trajectory, and young humans would do well to keep the world in mind when they choose their area of professional focus.

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Co-founder at Flow Mobility (urban mobility architecture); prev: EV platforms | Curiosity doesn’t kill the cat — it’s only opening the box that does. Sometimes.

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Sarang Deshpande

Sarang Deshpande

Co-founder at Flow Mobility (urban mobility architecture); prev: EV platforms | Curiosity doesn’t kill the cat — it’s only opening the box that does. Sometimes.

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