Finding Inspiration

If you are anything like me, there are some days you just don’t want to get out of bed. On those days, finding the drive to eat breakfast and get moving is hard enough, let alone trying to tackle a difficult situation at work, taking care of kids, going for the run you promised yourself you’d take, or any of life's other daily challenges. Because almost all of us can relate to this feeling, it’s no wonder that when someone or something truly inspiring comes along, there is natural tug at our heartstrings that makes us lean in – we yearn to hear tales of the impossible, or seemingly so, and feel good when others prove that goals in fact can be reached.

With that in mind, I had the unique opportunity to spend last week with a group of young men who fit that description – in fact, I was asked to be their coach as they began a cross-country cycling trek that in the span of just over 2 months is taking them from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the steps of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. While that in and of itself may sound like a big undertaking (and it certainly is), there are plenty of crazy endurance junkies out there who thrive on this kind of activity. What makes this group of young men stand out from the crowd is why they are riding bicycles across the United States. Their mission is only partially about riding from point to point each day. Their real focus is on raising awareness for people with disabilities, and as they put it, convincing others to focus on the abilities of all people.

More on that in a minute, but first I want to tackle how we can think about motivation and inspiration.

Big Rock, Small Pond

We all can understand the image of throwing a huge rock into a small pond. If it’s big enough, that rock will create ripples that extend across every inch of the water. But for those of you who know a thing or two about fluid dynamics, (and even those who don’t) you’ll also know that as the ripples reach the sides, they bounce back toward their source. Call it karma, say ‘what goes around comes around’ – any way you put it, it’s essentially the same concept.

And herein lies the subtle difference between motivation and inspiration. Throwing the rock makes ripples that travel out – think of this as motivation. It’s an external force that is uplifting and generally makes you feel good. The ripples that come back to the center provide inspiration – which I view as an internal force that leads to action. For me, motivation makes me smile, and inspiration makes me take action. There is something deeply motivating about watching others take on big goals, but if we let ourselves actually be inspired by the actions of others, we send ripples back and help keep this virtuous cycle going.

A Journey of Hope

Back to our cyclists, picture this: start with 36 college students from campuses all over the country, whose priorities are likely somewhat different from those of us in the working world. Ask them to give up a full summer. Tell them they have to raise a very significant sum in donations to participate. Convince them that sleeping on church floors and in school gyms is a good idea. Hope they actually train a little on the bike they most likely just purchased (or borrowed). Show up on the west coast with said bike packed in a box having no experience unpacking it. Squeeze in a couple short group training rides covering basic bike handling skills and bike safety, and then hit the road, with the Sierra Mountains to cross in the first week. Daunting? No question.

But what makes this team so unique is the one constant binding them all together – they are all focused on bettering themselves by doing good for others. (By way of background, the team is made up of members of a collegiate fraternity, Pi Kappa Phi, and the ride known as the Journey of Hope is a project of The Ability Experience, a non-profit founded by the fraternity to support people with disabilities by using shared experiences to develop its members into servant leaders.) What this means in a practical sense is that after the team rides from point to point each day, they typically meet with local community groups who share a focus on people with different abilities. And this is where the magic happens.

In the week I spent with the team, I felt like a proud father as I watched these young men play dodgeball with teen and young adult campers with developmental disabilities near San Jose, become guests of honor at Napa’s Special Olympics baseball awards picnic, get serenaded with a fantastic concert by some truly special musicians at Southside Arts Center in Sacramento, and ride victory laps into a huge reception with Arc of Jackson. And in every case, I witnessed first-hand what it meant to participants in these programs to be treated with respect, dignity, and value. To the people touched by the team’s interaction, it was a chance to understand that somebody else in the world sees them for what they are capable of… For who they are as people. And for the cyclists and crew members who put in long hours on the road and sleep in meager accommodations, the pure joy in the eyes and excitement in the voices of those they met each day made getting up and hitting the road each morning that much easier.

The Virtuous Cycle at Work

Just like any of us, the team found their fair share of adversity, and right out of the gate. While attending an event in Sacramento, four team members had all of their belongings stolen from a church in a less-than-ideal area where we were to have stayed the night. Rather than dwell on the problem, the team came together as a group and rode on the next morning into our next destination. At that night’s dinner, which was sponsored by the local Lions Club, somehow one of the members had heard about the previous evening’s burglary. On the spot, Lions of Jackson offered to make a donation to each of the guys who had been robbed to help replace what was lost. For me, it was a great lesson about the ripple effects of doing good and the difference between motivation and inspiration. Because the guys on the team had been so focused on selflessly helping others, they inspired the Lions Club to take action and continue the virtuous cycle.

The lesson that we can learn in the corporate world is that we can all find inspiration in selfless acts. Doing something small for someone else, especially if it happens to be one of ‘those days’ where nothing goes right, can do wonders to lift morale. Think about where you can find opportunities to inspire others, or let yourself be inspired by those around you. Not because you have to, but because you can. And for leaders, think about what kind of message you send to your staff. Managers at every level have the ability to inspire – but it has to start from within. Just keep in mind that the ripples you send out are what will be returned back!

Parting shots

I can’t wrap this up without disclosing that I was a member of this same team 25 years ago as an undergraduate college student. Being able to rejoin the group as this year’s coach was both personally gratifying and deeply inspiring. As for the team, I left them in Lake Tahoe knowing they are all definitely capable as cyclists to make their goal of getting to Washington DC. More importantly, I’m confident they will be inspiring others one town and one day at a time as they make their journey!


About the author:

Corey Dillon is Chief Engagement Officer of Benefitness Partners, a Denver-based company committed to the health and wellness of companies and their employees. With a focus on event-based coaching, Benefitness Partners gets employees moving in a fun, educational, and inclusive manner, helping companies develop a healthier, more engaged workforce.