How Inspiration Works

How Inspiration Works


My good friend Seth picks up garbage. He’s not a sanitation worker and he receives no pay. When we are walking together and he spots a paper plate or a plastic bottle on the side of the street or in the grass, he will jog over to it and put it in a garbage bin. 

I usually just stand there like a beanpole and watch, slightly irritated. Why am I irritated? For two reasons. First because he has interrupted the flow of our walk, of our conversation, and for what? For a piece of trash? Secondly, I am irritated because I feel ashamed. I feel embarrassed that I am doing nothing but watching. Why don’t I pick up garbage? I think to myself, “wow, if everyone picks up one piece of garbage every day, then the world will....” and then my thoughts fade out in a haze of vague calculations, and by then Seth is back and we are walking and talking again. The garbage question is behind me.

I recently spent a weekend with Seth and he did this a few times and I didn’t think much of it. I’d come to expect it of him. Well, back in the city, I was walking home from the subway station and I saw something drop from a girl’s coat pocket and smack the ground. The girl was walking in front of me and she was oblivious that she’d lost something. I looked down and saw a can of Canada Dry Selzer Water rolling on the curb. It had been pierced by the fall and a thin mist was spraying up out of it. 

As usual in such situations I had a couple of quick thoughts:

  1. If I pick it up, my hands will get wet, I’ll have to run to catch up with this girl, and she probably doesn’t even want the can anyway. 
  2. It’s easier if I just leave it. The garbage men will get it eventually. That’s their job and frankly, all of New York City is one big garbage can, it’s not like littering in nature.

More than these thoughts, there was a bigger obstacle to my picking up the can and racing it over to it’s rightful owner. Social embarrassment. This one is hard to explain, but it is powerful and I suspect it affects many of us and is the main reason why we don’t go out of our way to do something good for our world. If I was to bend down to grab the can, then I would be seen, and people would watch. We all live according to tightly set pattens of behavior and when something occurs out of the norm, we all stop and watch like social rubberneckers, like craning our necks to see the scene of an accident as we pass slowly by in our cars. 

On this day, there was something different. Seth was fresh in my mind. I had seen him do it recently, and that was enough to convince me that it was possible and that it was actually very easy. You just bend down, Drew, you pick up the can, then walk a little more quickly until you reach the girl with the black coat, you tap her on the shoulder and hold out the can and say, “You dropped this” and you hand it to her. 

The girl smiled and thanked me. Her smile was icing on the cake. But the true joy was that I had been inspired to act outside my comfort zone. 

Sure it was a simple, easy to do gesture. I could have done it anytime. But I wouldn’t have, and that’s the truth. Seth had inspired me.

That is how inspiration works.

Now comes the final moment when I wrap this up and relate it to test taking:

A great tutor can inspire a student in many ways. 

  • He can show a student how easy a seemingly difficult math question actually is. 
  • He can create short, meaningful homework assignments that make the road to total preparation that much more manageable. 
  • He can model what it feels like to dig even deeper into a reading passage and find gems of meaning that the student would not otherwise have looked for. 
  • He can create such a joyous and lively atmosphere for learning that the student no longer loathes sitting down to study. 

We all need inspiration. We all need one another. We are ultimately better for it.


David's Toe, a Plethora of Michaels (or Commandment #5: Always Be Doing)

David's Toe, a Plethora of Michaels (or Commandment #5: Always Be Doing)

Fourth Commandment: LOOK OUT