What does inspiration look like? For an engineer, it could be coming up with a design that is an intersection of beauty and mathematical rigour, all the while being strained for time. Perhaps it is the putting together of complex harmonies and rhythms over a series of sleepless nights, creating a sublime piece of music that pierces the ear and goes straight to the heart. It may be manifested in a software developer typing furiously away on the eve of a deadline, creating bug-free, feature-full, client-pleasing, UX-conforming software after a bout of programmer’s block, or a writer churning out page after fascinating page following an extended period of writer’s block. However it is manifested, something underlying it all has to be addressed: where do the ideas that spur these occurrences come from?

Seasons in the Sun

Many a man has found inspiration in nature. Professor Culmann of Zürich definitely saw in the longitudinal section of femur lines of stress and directions of tension and compression – foundational ideas in structural mechanics and the bane of many a mechanical or civil engineering student. One of his students, Maurice Koechlin, would go on to submit the original concept of the famed Eiffel Tower in Paris. In the beautiful scenes and inspiring solitude offered in nature, Beethoven encountered many of his best musical ideas, confessing to having “often preferred the company of a tree to that of a man.” Zimbabwe’s Eastgate Centre, modelled after African termite mounds, incorporated novel natural ventilation methods that cut up to 90% of energy consumption. Isaac Newton purportedly had the theory of gravitation congeal in his mind upon watching an apple fall perpendicularly to the ground (I say purportedly because while the story was true, it definitely got better with the telling). It is worth noting that he too was on recess following an outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1666.

Iron Sharpeneth Iron

But it is not just solitary immersion in nature that spurs ideas. Ideas that benefit mankind do not generally spring up from wholesale eremitism. “Iron sharpeneth iron” creating sparks in the course of the interaction: sparks that are bits of the iron itself worn off the surface by friction. It is often in informal dialogues as we go about the day that new thoughts, like seeds, are planted in the mind. Further brooding waters them, before some chance occurrence – typified by sunlight – causes them to blossom into something tangible and beneficial. We tend to use the word serendipity to describe the generation of the final product, yet most ideas can be broken down into thoughts that can each be traced back to several sources: the previous evening’s dialogue with the mama mboga down the street, the discussion with classmates over lunch at the mess, that mother-daughter talk a decade ago, the lecture in the first year, last month’s board meeting. Everyone has something to bring to the table: some more, some less, but something nonetheless. In the words of the Desiderata:

Speak your truth quietly and clearly;

and listen to others,

even the dull and the ignorant;

they too have their story.

What are we at?

What are we at? Spending time honing your skills is important, but “life outside your craft is just as important as practicing it.” Take some time off to take a walk, work on a farm, or catch up with friends. Who knows what difference that will bring to your work?


Proverbs 27:17

Proverbs 27:9

Proverbs 6:6

Education, Chapters 10-12

Desiderata, a Poem by Max Ehrman