One of my distinguished and very ambitious professors in graduate school jokingly told me that his notable success for accomplishing a certain research effort was “more due to perspiration than inspiration!” Those 2 factors always play important roles for the work of all research scientists. I now will explain this so that all non-scientist readers will understand how and why this is so.
What is inspiration for scientists? How does it work?
Inspiration is a quick mental process resulting in an unexpected new idea or thought that clarifies or advances something. With inspiration, all of a sudden some relationships or difficulties become crystal clear and fully understood. It typically is not frequent, and comes out of nowhere. For researchers, an inspiration might set off a chain of other thoughts; thus, it can provide stimulation for further mental activities. It often results in seeing connections that were not visible before, and hence can stimulate new directions. Inspiration is not just an ordinary new idea, but often provides insight and new understanding. Undoubtedly, some of the creative products from inventors arise due to inspiration. To the best of my knowledge, nobody knows what sets off an inspiration; it could even be cosmic rays!
Inspiration has occurred to me mostly while waking up or in the nightly shower. When inspiration happens, it is seen as being magical because it seems to appear without conscious intention. If inspiration occurs at the time when you are just waking, it is very essential to immediately write down the new thoughts; if that is not done, they very rapidly become unavailable no matter how hard one tries to recall them later. My own observations lead me to conclude that inspirations often are situated right at the border between unconsciousness and consciousness; at their time of origin, there seems to be much less restriction against thinking new and unusual thoughts or realizing new connections and relationships.
What is perspiration for scientists?
Perspiration is a physiological result of hard work that is evident as sweating. Working at research demands persistent efforts, focused attention to details, practical skills, and determination to overcome any failures; only a commitment to strong personal work can produce successful outcomes for research projects. Hard work for research scientists involves a variety of both mental and physical efforts, usually necessitates working for long hours, and is accompanied by some perspiration. Sweating correlates particularly well with difficult efforts, and has a purely subconscious origin; it is valuable not only for keeping body temperature from getting too high, and also serves to identify work that requires strong exertions.
How do inspiration and perspiration interact with research scientists?
For working on research investigations in laboratories or in the field, both inspiration and perspiration are very useful! Both can overcome practical problems (e.g., finally getting a new experimental protocol to work after having many failures, constructing a good new concept to explain a set of unexpected data, modifying and developing a new method or instrument in order to be able to collect data that answers a research question, etc.). Perspiration is especially useful for researchers because working harder always is available to help advance a research project; if you are not sweating, then you are not working at your maximal level! Inspiration is particularly valuable for researchers because it can save time by jumping over some problematic situation, or penetrating a mental blockade.
Inspiration and perspiration can be found in all types of people, and all readers should be able to see both in action at their own workplace. In my opinion, the necessity for hard work can be taught to research scientists, but inspiration is not able to be taught; I believe inspiration is an inborn trait. Since it is not voluntary, one can only be aware of inspiration after it happens, and be ready to use it when it appears. I see inspiration as being similar to creativity in that both are inherent mental capabilities; some people certainly are borne with much more than others have.
Perspiration from physical and mental activities often accompanies making a research project progress towards completion before a deadline. Inspiration can help scientific research by jumping over or around some problematic point in the progress of a study. Science and research clearly benefit from both inspiration and perspiration!
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