Unstructured time as an engine to spark inspiration can be very powerful. Just ask Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and composer who turned the biography of Alexander Hamilton into “one of the great successes in recent theatrical history,” according to the New York Times. We’ve all been recently reminded of why the show has been so successful with the release of the movie now exploding on Disney+.
And it all started with the spark of inspiration on a beach in Mexico.
“It’s no accident that the best idea I’ve ever had in my life – perhaps maybe the best one I’ll ever have in my life – came to me on vacation,” says Lin-Manuel Miranda in a 2016 interview with the Huffington Post.
Sparks of inspiration can be transformative, as they were for Miranda, and can lead to incredible personal and professional innovations and business results and even industry disruptions! If inspiration can provide this powerful fuel, do we have to wait and hope for it to happen? The answer, we’ve found, is a resounding no. Not only do we not have to wait for it (a great song from the show), we can spark and sustain inspiration for ourselves and others.
Engines that Spark Inspiration
In our book, Dare to Inspire – Sustain the Fire of Inspiration in Work and in Life, we uncover several engines of inspiration– actions one can take, situations one can architect or new ways of thinking that make inspiration more likely to occur – including unstructured think time. In our book we uncover that the most successful leaders across industries, know how to spark and sustain inspiration in their work to drive extraordinary results.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s story illustrates several ways he intentionally practices and activates his own personal pathway to inspiration through: unstructured time, body movement and presence, and seeking inspirational environments.
A key driver of inspiration is unstructured time. Think of it as a brain sabbatical, turning your brain off from it’s normal problem-solving, task-focused mode just enough that it can relax and allow subconscious ideas to emerge. Dartmouth Emeritus Professor, Christian Jernstedt, a pioneer in neuroscience and education, told us that this mode of activating inspiration is often underutilized because people feel like it’s passive. In other words, if you’re not actively trying to figure out new ideas or solve a problem through concentrated effort, you’re not really “doing work.” In reality, unstructured time can be one of the most productive and high impact actions you can take, because it provides the mental space for inspired ideas to emerge.
Miranda recounts picking up Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton at a New York City bookstore in 2008 to read on the beach in Mexico. He and his now-wife were headed there to enjoy his first vacation in many years as his role in his then-current hit show “In the Heights” had recently concluded. He was intrigued by the story of America’s first secretary of the treasury and looking forward to immersing himself in Chernow’s telling of Hamilton’s biography.
“The moment my brain got a moment’s rest, ‘Hamilton’ walked into it” Lin-Manuel Miranda
“I picked up the book thinking maybe I’ll get a funny song out of it—some jokey-rap thing about the Hamilton-Burr duel. But as I read it, I realized Hamilton’s whole life was about the power of words and wouldn’t it be great to hear a hip-hop album about how we created this country?”
It only took two chapters of Chernow’s book before a hip-hop beat began running through Miranda’s brain. Miranda recalled to Vogue that “I Googled ‘Alexander Hamilton hip-hop musical’ and totally expected to see that someone had already written it. But no. So I got to work.”
Today, when lives and work are often over structured and overburdened, unstructured time can seem like a luxury. Yet, for many, unstructured time is an essential ingredient to spark inspiration. Consider – would you benefit from carving out some chunks of time in your day, or week, to give yourself a mental break and have open time to breath, reflect and let your mind wander?
Body Movement and Presence
While Miranda sought out unstructured time for his brain, he sometimes combined that time with another engine of inspiration: body movement and presence.
For many, movement opens up new channels of thinking and unlocks creativity.
As Miranda was composing Hamilton, it often took physical movement, walking, specifically, to bring lyrics to life, he explained in a Smithsonian interview:
“For Hamilton what I’d do is write at the piano until I had something I liked,” Miranda recalls. “I’d make a loop of it and put it in my headphones and then walk around until I had the lyrics. That’s where the notebooks come in, and sort of write what comes to me, bring it back to the piano. I kind of need to be ambulatory to write lyrics.”
Today, many find it hard to find ways to physically move throughout the day, especially when working from home or confined to smaller spaces. But it’s more critical now than ever: In addition to sparking inspiration, physical activity relieves stress and helps us manage our energy, including our emotions. If movement is an important pathway to inspiration for you, how can you build it into your day?
Environments that Move Us
Miranda sustained his inspiration through the 5+ years of writing Hamilton in part by re-sparking engines again and again – sometimes relying on a specific environment to spark inspiration
While writing the musical, Miranda visited the Morris-Jumel mansion in Manhattan, once owned by Aaron Burr, the man who killed Hamilton, and spent time in Burr’s bedroom, channeling that time in history and their energy. When he needed inspiration, Miranda returned to the mansion to compose songs for the award-winning musical, including “Wait For It” and “The Room Where It Happens.”
Many people are more sensitive than they may think to the ways their environment impacts their emotions. You can focus on your immediate environment (office around you, what’s on your desktop, the surrounding colors, sounds, images), and you can seek out environments that are especially sparky and inspiring – like walks in nature or museums or other places that activate awe. In our COVID-19 world of today, when many are confined more than usual, environment can be especially important as a driver for inspired performance.
Inspiration is Good Business
Many think of inspiration as a soft emotion, not a hard skill that drives business outcomes and success. However, Miranda’s story illustrates that sustained inspiration can drive extraordinary outcomes and business success.
Miranda’s inspiration around Hamilton was not limited to artistic creation. With this ground-breaking musical, the artist revisited much of the business of theater. For example, Miranda’s inspiration revolutionized casting. Instead of your typical troupe of white actors landing the lead roles, the show presents a diverse cast to play white historical figures. The only white character played by a white man in the show is King George. According to this Mental Floss piece:
“Our goal was: This is a story about America then, told by America now, and we want to eliminate any distance—our story should look the way our country looks,” Miranda told The New York Times. “Then we found the best people to embody these parts. I think it’s a very powerful statement.”
Further, although Miranda gets much of the credit for the genius idea to tell Hamilton’s story via rap, he is quick to credit his team – “The Cabinet,” he calls them. They are the same director, music director, and choreographer who led his show “In The Heights” to acclaim. This collaborative team shares ideas just as they share in the financial success of the show; 22 original cast members, in exchange for helping develop the show, asked for and received an unprecedented 1% of net profits from the New York show and .33% of the net profits from the show in other cities.
Once written and choreographed, the show featuring 21 black and Latino performers played for 15 sold-out weeks at Off Broadway’s Public Theater, where 299 seats were available per performance, before moving to the Richard Rodgers Theater, where it currently sells out all 1,321 seats per show at an average price of over $800 per ticket.
While Hamilton is a blockbuster success at the Broadway box office, that’s only a portion of the revenue this inspirational idea will generate. The satellite productions across the country and around the world generate hundreds of millions more, not to mention merchandise sales.
The Pathway to Inspiration is Personal – What is yours?
Miranda’s story shows the power of inspiration to elevate ideas and transform results. Clearly, Miranda has developed a strong, intentional practice over the years for how to spark and sustain his inspiration around creative production. The business success case for Miranda’s inspiration practice is quite clear. And we have found this same business success case for inspiration in all kinds of other industries – financial, healthcare, technology, higher education, just to name a few.
What would happen if you considered inspiration to be as critical for your work and business success as technical skills, management skills, or industry knowledge?
Imagine what might be possible when you elevate performance to inspired performance. So much of what drove Alexander Hamilton’s success was the commitment to not “throw away his shot.” Implement inspiration at work so you don’t throw away yours.