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Ask HN: What are your sources of inspiration and motivation?
83 points by dpflan on Oct 4, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 84 comments
I was wondering what other members of the HN community found as sources of inspiration and motivation. Maybe it's a book, a quotation, a poem, an image, a movie, a project you worked on, etc.

For example, I've always enjoyed this poem by E. Dickinson - a concise recipe for being honest to yourself and persevering.

"Lad of Athens, faithful be To Thyself, And Mystery— All the rest is Perjury—"


My hope is that this thread will become full of good sources and discussion.


One of the things I found most inspiring early on was a sentence in the small print on the back of Nirvana's "Bleach" album:

"Recorded in Seattle at Reciprocal Recording by Jack Endino for $600."

I read that after Nirvana had already gone on to be one of the biggest bands in the world. But here was their first commercial album, where they started out & just before they made Nevermind, and the cost of making that first album was so much less than I'd ever thought. It made things seem possible, that you can start with whatever you have. It meant you couldn't blame a lack of money; if you had $600, you could make an album. Nirvana taught me to bootstrap.

After studying Political Science in college, I became a middle school math and history teacher in a low-income community. I witnessed firsthand that the American Dream was not a possiblity for everyone. If a kid is smart and hard working, but the resources aren't there to support her, it is very difficult for her to end up with certain opportunities that rich kids in America take for granted.

I saw technology as one way to help address this complex problem. I took a bunch of night classes in CS, and I'll be graduating with a Masters in CS from a full-time program in May. I wish I started down this path earlier because there is so much to do, but I guess that's how life is. I've found that I am happiest when I am giving to and empowering others, and the technological revolution we are currently living through enables us to do this at an amazing scale. I feel very fortunate to be alive at this time in history, and to have had a path in life that enabled me to find Computer Science. This is what motivates me to work relentlessly every day.

In peace, Mike

You said two very different things:

the American Dream was not a possiblity for everyone


it is very difficult for her

No rational person thinks it is easy in the United States to go from being low-income to high-income. But hopefully also no rational person thinks it is "not a possibility for everyone" as you first said.

I went from a very low-income family to very high-income myself, so I know it is possible.

I don't think it makes any practical sense to talk about whether something is strictly possible or strictly not; if a random kid has 0.0001% chance of crossing the income barrier then of course you can say that "it is possible for everyone", but that doesn't change the fact that for that kid it's next to impossible, period.

You had about the same chance of being knighted as a feudal serf.

>But hopefully also no rational person thinks it is "not a possibility for everyone"

There are plenty of rational people who believe that and I'm certain they could provide you with convincing arguments for their stance.

> it is very difficult for her to end up with certain opportunities that rich kids in America take for granted

That's actually one of the things that originally drew me to computer science--code is inherently democratizing. It only takes a small, core group of people to build something world-class, provided that core group knows what the hell they're doing. Unlike just about any other field out there, software is something anyone can create. And as hardware has become more commoditized and virtualized, the barriers to entry have been reduced almost purely to knowledge and effort.

+1. Information can be very powerful. At this era, we have the opportunities to bring information to people need them with very low cost. This will change the world. I'm a believer and working on it. There are so many things we can do. Good luck!

I'm rather fond of "The Man in the Arena":

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

NB I suspect i like this because of the Mandela connection with one of the all time great rugby stories.

Actually at the moment - I'm finding this mountain biking video rather inspiring - mainly because of the music and wonderful scenery that I've climbed/walked (rather than cycled) over:


Also from Theodore Roosevelt (Man in the Arena is his speech):

Get action. Do things; be sane; don’t fritter away your time; create, act, take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action.

Scholars have interpreted this quote, and Teddy's overall crazed drive as his way of staving off depression.

And from his counsin, FDR:

There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.

A few others that I've collected off of HN comments:

Focused, hard work is the real key to success. Keep your eyes on the goal, and just keep taking the next step towards completing it. If you aren't sure which way to do something, do it both ways and see which way works better. - John Carmack

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success. - this, or some variation of this, was used in advertising for Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition

Paul Graham's lecture recently really cemented the idea of having a good life is just work on things that interest you and maybe something comes from it but it doesn't matter because you are still doing what you enjoy.

Exactly! People want things to come from it so they can finally do all they wanted. Why not do it now? Then adjust your priorities, lifestyle and consuming patterns as to lower both your needs and expectations, and you're less likely to feel let down by life. Does not work for power-hungry needs, of course.

Along those lines, I was inspired by pg quoting Richard Hamming's three questions [1]:

1) What are the most important problems in your field? 2) Are you working on one of them? 3) Why not?

[1] http://paulgraham.com/procrastination.html

During a time of anxiety and depression I've discovered Stoic philosophy. Especially the Enchiridion from Epictetus somehow helped me to feel better. Also Seneca² is worth a read. It's over 2000 years old but surprisingly apt for the world of today.

1: http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html

2: https://archive.org/stream/adluciliumepistu02sene#page/n7/mo...

A great introduction is "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy" by Irvine


Actually in my opinion: No. Read the original texts. The book from Irvine gives you a different impression of stoicism. It has some "self-help with stoic touch" feel that I just don't feel comfortable with. Read some historic context and the original texts. The original texts are quite accessible.

This is interesting. I'm not well versed in stoic philosophy, so how did studying something that teaches being less affected by emotion help you cope with depression? Did it give you a different perspective on emotion?

It's kind of blurry. For one I'd never had a solid diagnosis of depression. I've got a diagnosis of general anxiety disorder but this is more or less a catch-all and after seeing a therapist he only wrote was more or less 'adaptive disorder'. So I don't want to say that reading some philosophy will cure your depression or your problems.

That being said: Realising your spheres of control and the limits of control helped a lot with anxiety. Stoicism is kind of like math. It's a concept to life a life. It's worth nothing if you only read the texts. You have to practice and ingrain the concepts. Well you even have to really understand the concepts. I did neither. It's still comforting and calming to read the ancient texts.

It helps with anxiety as it helps to put things in perspective. As it challenges you to conquer your fear.

As for depression... I can only speak for myself but but reading the ancient texts helps you to realize your role in the world and to bring back your unrealistic thoughts into productive ones. Albert Ellis used stoic philosophy as a building block of CBT. Reading the originals is always worth it.

As for the perspective on emotions: Yes. Stoicism has some very radical views on emotions. I'm not a stoic and I don't want to be one but basically the overall idea is to act despite emotions. Don't ignore them, don't suppress them but accept them and act despite them.

It's difficult and it's not a cheesy solution to all your problem. But it's worth a read. It's the foundation of Christianity so it's not that far away from western society. Don't take it as religion. Read it critical in the historic context and read other books but I've found it worthwhile.

Poem: "If" by Rudyard Kipling

Quote: "Everyone knew it was impossible to do. One day, someone who did not know showed up and did it."

Person: Alexis Ohanian - I know he's kind of goofy and perhaps not the most inspirational to someone else, but he gave me hope when I needed it most. I never actually met him. I discovered his story at a serendipitous moment when my father, the last person who believed in me at that time, had just passed away of cancer. I finally learned that, outside of my social bubble, exploring unbeaten paths was a value rather than a defect. I discovered YC and HN because of Alexis. I owe him more gratitude than I know how to express.

Curiosity: Future generations will wonder how we could endure the inefficiencies and unnecessary hardships we put up with. I want to discover why they’ll wonder that.

Fear: PG mentioned toward the end of "Before the Startup" that, "If you're absolutely terrified of starting a startup, you probably shouldn't do it." I am absolutely terrified of giving myself a reason in the future to look back and think, "I wish I had tried."

I find these lines from the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling the most inspirational of all:

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

Good will hunting, even if it's cliche'd, helped me understand how personality can be a huge problem for oneself, whatever the talents, work and motivations.

There are many quotes that will make you wiser, but to me, the most important thing to remember about politics and society being mostly disorganized and unable to properly help individuals, is that society resembles a growing pool of microbes.

It's blooming with life with diversity, but it's not really aware of itself. To me people are aware of themselves, but society is not aware of itself. People are truly alone in their own life, society is not really there to really help them or make them connect with each other properly. This way, society is unable to really improve itself by improving its subjects. That's why I try to compare society as a live being, holding several cells.

This helped me contextualize myself in society, and give context to what society really is. Also important to never look down to anybody or anything, always be curious and not leave a thought with pessimism, always try to understand the compromises and origins of things. It's not an ode to optimism and positivism, but always be sure to confront your interests as a human in the void of the universe, and understand that even if it looks pointless, if it's a step forward, it's a good step.

I'm also very bad at expressing myself.

You're really not. This is the best comment I've seen here for a while.

Mot sure if we could ever reach collective conscious of our so sociery. Anthropologists like Marshsll Sahlins was onxe enamoured with hunter-gatherer for societies for this reason. But large scale industrial societies? I can't see a way for a microbe pool that complex to feel truly whole

hahaha :)

Every so often I contemplate the facts of my birth - the time, the place, social strata - being free from wants, relative to just about every human that has ever existed - and that, like most of you here, I can create the great capital good of our age, software - out of thin air and at zero cost...

The mere thought of wasting this alignment of circumstance always spurs me to action.

The entire history of the human species is an inspiration and motivation, depending on what you choose to read into it. We are practically an infinite collection of case studies in creativity, innovation, perseverance, adaptability, beating the odds... your question is actually very hard to answer because so many great examples come to mind.

As for reading, a few things popped into my head in no particular order:

The Greatest Salesman in the World, by Og Mandino

Emerson's Essays, particularly "Self Reliance"

Biographies of people like James Clerk Maxwell and Tesla

If, by Kipling

Any of Bucky Fuller's books

And really, just look around at what people are doing in our industry. Our peers are a constant source of inspiration. I see what some of my friends are doing the field of IoT and it makes me want to get up every day at 4am and hack until my fingers fall off.

"A rat race is for rats. We are not rats. We are human beings. "A rat race is for rats. We're not rats. We're human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice, lest you jeopardise your chances of self-promotion and self-advancement. This is how it starts. And before you know where you are, you're a fully paid-up member of the rat pack. The price is too high. It entails the loss of your dignity and human spirit." - Jimmy Reid

That same speech has some other great quotes:

"Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It's the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies."


This is a strongly left speech and some of it is goin to be offensive(?) to the HN audience, but the good bits are great.

Perhaps a bit darker than the other quotes, but I wake up everyday thinking "At most, I've only got X years left before I die." When you appreciate time/life as a limited resource you'll spend it more wisely. Typically people don't realize this until they're too old, but this is something 20-year-olds should think about.

Each week I get an email reminder with this quote in it and the subject "Things Are Hard":

"When you can do whatever you want, you get a variant of the terror induced by the proverbial blank page. There are a lot of people who think the thing stopping them from writing that great novel they plan to write is the fact that their job takes up all their time. In fact what's stopping 99% of them is that writing novels is hard. When the job goes away, they see how hard."

which is part of a pg comment on an HN thread, https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1512096

Thank you for that quote, this resonates with me strongly. One of the bigger sources of my stress is that internal narrative of "I can't do awesome things because my job takes away all my time". This quote encourages me to re-evaluate my attitude now.

I never had that problem. There are too many interesting things to read, to watch, to argue about, to learn, places to visit, things to do.

Same with the ideas - I have tons of ideas, enough for decades of coding. Unfortunately most of these fun things eat up a lot time. Browsing Reddit is fun, but not productive at all.

The Frontier Is Everywhere – the first video in the Sagan Series by Reid Gower: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oY59wZdCDo0

It gives me the motivation to work towards a goal which lies tens, hundreds, maybe a thousand years in the future.

Seeing this video puts my own selfish needs and feelings in perspective, and inspires me to do my little part in making humanity just a little bit better.

I'm a sucker for inspirational quotes and have, throughout the years, saved several hundred of them in Evernote.

Take a look, I'm sure you'll find quite a lot that you like:


Nice quote collection, although I feel strongly offended by quoting Mussolini (a brutal dictator and fascist).

what if Mussolini the brutal dictator and fascist wrote a clever algorithm or solved a neat math problem, will you feel strongly offended against those who use the algorithm or math equation?

I purchased a copy of the entire works of Michelangelo Buonarotti with high-res pictures that I like to look at: http://www.amazon.com/Michelangelo-Complete-Sculpture-Painti...

I've always found "Philippe Petit" and "Man on Wire" interesting. “You must not fall. / When you lose your balance, resist for a long time before turning yourself toward the earth. Then jump. / You must not force yourself to stay steady. You must move forward.”

I am a fan of biographies. Here are a couple of people in history that inspire me:


Helen Adams Keller (June 27, 1880 – June 1, 1968) was an American author, political activist, and lecturer. She was the first deafblind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree.


He started as a slave in America and ended up an ambassador of the U.S. to Haiti.

I watch this every time I want to restore my motivation and faith in humanity and its bright future.


While ST:ENT was widely criticized as "losing the spirit", I think that its intro - the images, the song, the message - is the perfect and most beautiful description of the spirit of Star Trek. Hope, curiosity, exploration, faith that we can solve all our problems, that things are to get better and not worse - all in there.

I find Arnold Schwarzeneggers commencement speech to be very inspirstional. I've always admired him for having such wild ambitions(being a body builder) in a conservative country and time. Full speech:http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=66vkogKQS2E

Or, if you prefer a shorter version with music:http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=QmD6QwI9nXA

Watching this has been pretty inspiring to me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6Oxl5dAnR0

Was completely expecting a rickroll there, linking to a YouTube video without description

Here's a quote that I have on my desk: "The greatest rewards go to those that take initiative" - I think Seth Godin said this.

This is an awesome Saturday question! Recently, I wrote a blog post about how to capture motivation and turn them into actions.

Here it is: http://blog.bottega8.com/capturing-moments-of-motivation-and...

Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.

André Gide

A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.

William G.T. Shedd

Some are always in a state of preparation, occupied in previous measures, forming plans, accumulating materials and providing for the main affair. These are certainly under the secret power of idleness. Nothing is to be expected from the workman whose tools are for ever to be sought.

Samuel Johnson

Side projects! They maintain the little spark inside me. Concidentally, yesterday I wrote a piece about motivation and side projects, maybe you can get some ideas: http://cfenollosa.com/blog/you-only-do-it-when-nobody-else-w...

Very interesting post. One thing jumped at me though:

"It started with functional programming, one of the academic topics which has been discussed since the 60s but never took off."

You seem to frequent HN, so surely you must be aware that functional programming actually took off in the end - just now. In the last 5 years it went from something that people would give you strange looks over mentioning, to The Hottest Thing in programming. "Functional" is now synonymous with awesome and something people brag about (whether they understand it or not is another thing, but that's how things are with fashion).

Glad you liked the post!

Functional programming is an amazing tool, but I found it super hard to program real world applications. Object oriented programming is much more useful for that, because it represents more effectively the world that we live in, which is composed of objects that talk to each other.

Yes, functional is now cool and awesome and hackerish. Nothing wrong with that. However, while it does make you smarter (since it gives you a new viewpoint and is a new skill), it does not mean that you need to apply it everywhere.

I'll add that us in HN live in a bubble and what we read here is not representative of real world. Of all programmers I know only two really know and have successfully coded stuff with functional programming. So... It has not taken off in my opinion. There seems to be more eyes looking at it, or maybe people using it are more vocal so we read more about it.

Thanks! I'll check it out. I've got the list of ideas, but picking one and digging in can be difficult.

If you let me, just choose what your heart says. I know it's a cliché, but for a side project you can't go wrong with doing what intrigues you. Paid work is different, you know, but in your free time you should just choose one thing and go with it, and if for any reason it doesn't succeed, go with the next one.

A good source of inspiration, motivation and -- important to mention as well -- abstraction from the real world, is clearly some Spotify playlists based on white noise and world sounds. When I hit the play button, I'm not here for the next hours and I can really focus on whatever I'm doing at the moment.

Postrock music (with few vocals) tends to do the same, while adding a little more structure:

* Explosions in the Sky

* Mogwai

* This Will Destroy You

* The American Dollar

* Tycho



I seriously I find that kid's enthusiasm inspirational. Sure, maybe learning to ride a bike is really no big deal, but the euphoria of having truly mastered something new is incredible.

That's an awesome video!

I totally agree with you, for me it's the euphoria of seeing it work, after days or weeks of poking and reading and prodding and reading some more and scratching your head and re-reading the same things.

That light-bulb moment is addicting, that's what keeps me going.

Edit: There also seems to be a little bit of correlation between how long it takes to make it work, and how great it feels seeing it finally do it's thing. That can be a source of encouragement to take on a project that's a bigger than your previous one.

Sure, maybe learning to ride a bike is really no big deal

Being the 21-year-old guy who didn't learn how to ride a bike when growing up I am, this has actually motivated me to do exactly that, as a start.

For me it's Bret Victor and his Inventing on Principle talk, Learnable Programming article.

The Strangest Secret by Earl Nightingale > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62DqsD2s5V8

It's an Old School message that still resonates by the late Dean of Personal Development.

I'm watching 'The pursuit of happyness'when I need inspiration. Really love it. 'The internship'is another one that can inspire me. But most of all I'm inspired when I get some success with my project

  "When You Think of Garbage, Think of Hakeem"
    -- Coming to America
Here is a prince who has everything, yet even when on the bottom rung at McDowell's he puts in 100% effort.

"Thou mayest," from "East of Eden," John Steinbeck.

Edit: no fair being cryptic. http://www.timshel.org/timshel.php

For me a major source of inspiration & motivation is patio11. I don't really care whether it is podcast, blog post or video. I always learn new things and it also helps me stay motivated

Motivation: Money, financial responsibility and security, material affluence, happiness from satisfying curiosity.

Inspiration: High quality work in pure and applied mathematics, physical science, and music.

I have a different take on motiviation (http://rvivek.com/motivation/) - would love to know your thoughts

Motivation 3.0 , I find the book , "the surprising truth about what drives us ".Daniel H. Pink.....amazingly accurate and one true sense reveals...what motivates us.

This is my go-to place when I need inspiration and motivation: http://www.thisiscolossal.com/

I love watching Shark Tank, Mixergy and Growth Hacker TV.

It's hard not to get inspired by seeing other passionate entrepreneurs talk about their business.

"You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" | "if you are good at something, never do it for free"

You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free | If you are good at something, never do it for free.

there are worse things than

being alone

but it often takes decades

to realize this

and most often

when you do

it's too late

and there's nothing worse

than too late.

Oh Yes by Charles Bukowski

Sheer terror of looming deadline is usually enough.

For me it was enough for about two years, after which my brain got used to it so that now I just experience terror, but do not gain productivity.

The Amiga, metal music and Alan Kay.

James Allen - As a man thinketh

sauna & recreational coding

1.01^365 = 37.8

0.99^365 = 0.03

This one thing always motivates me to put the extra effort in everything I do. Good luck mate :-)

As beautiful as that is, and as much as I want it to be true, it might not necessarily be true that personal growth can be compounded so easily. It very well may be nearly linear.

I upvoted anyways though, because it really is beautiful.

eureka moments and plateaus make it non linear. I think it's more like a repeated S curve at different scale, Fractal-like. Accepting plateaus and going on nevertheless is one of the most important thing for a project.

I like this comparison. When did you formulate this? Was it after a specific event - did you struggle with determining how to cope with what you needed to do? This seems to show that small yet sustained perseverance to change each day is the simplest key to compounding personal growth.

Reminded me of Hamming and Bode saying "Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest." http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html

Although I'm a huge fan of Warren Buffett, I have never thought about this one. This one is really big !

Wow that's powerful! I like it!

You won. Amazing, thank you.

Wow - that's awesome

Care to explain?


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