Although musical preference is generally open to debate, the world seems to have come to a consensus about who deserves to be crowned the greatest band in history: The Beatles. Of course, you can disagree with this all you want, but The Beatles lead the pack in sales (nearly one billion albums sold, based on some estimates), number one hits (20!), and public opinion (if you Google “greatest band of all time,” The Beatles are the first search result). The Beatles are so beloved that Abbey Road, the road in London that served as the setting for their Abbey Road album cover, may employ a full-time crossing guard due to the dozens of adoring fans that stop in the road to take pictures.
With all of this success, it’s natural for us to wonder who the band members were, where they came from, and how they reached this level of musical genius. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell uses The Beatles as an example of how ten thousand hours of deliberate practice elevated the band to an elite level of performance. That may be the case, but one of their songs in particular originated in a single moment of pure inspiration, and it went on to become one of their greatest hits.
The song was called “Scrambled Eggs.” At least, that’s what Paul McCartney says they called it originally. He tells the story of how the melody came about:
I woke up with a lovely tune in my head. I thought, ‘That’s great, I wonder what that is?’ There was an upright piano next to me, to the right of the bed by the window. I got out of bed, sat at the piano, found G, found F sharp minor 7th – and that leads you through then to B to E minor, and finally back to E. It all leads forward logically. I liked the melody a lot but because I’d dreamed it I couldn’t believe I’d written it. I thought, ‘No, I’ve never written like this before.’ But I had the tune, which was the most magic thing.
McCartney explained that the tune was so familiar to him that he went around asking other people in the music industry, “Who wrote this song?” Eventually he accepted that he had written the song himself–inspiration struck and the melody was born. At the outset, McCartney just sang along with silly lyrics, “Scrambled eggs…oh, my baby, how I love your legs…” because he only had the melody. The song eventually became “Yesterday.” It has dozens of accolades, including number one on the US Billboard charts, and may be the most “covered” song of all time. (I highly recommend the song, you can listen to it here.)
The Origins of Inspiration
If only it were that easy–you wake up in the morning next to a piano and sound out one of the greatest melodies of the last century. You may be surprised to learn that while this type of inspiration is clearly an outlier, finding inspiration is something that you can actually DO; you don’t need to wait for it to occur. Allow me to introduce you to the study of inspiration within the field of psychology.
In 2003, two psychologists at the University of Rochester, Todd Thrash and Andrew Elliot, set out to conduct the definitive study of inspiration using psychology. This was not your average academic study–it was a seven-part study that tested dozens of hypotheses about inspiration and created a framework for studying it in the future. The entire research study was an impressive undertaking, and by the end the researchers had two very important results: 1) a psychological scale that could be used to measure inspiration, and 2) a list of over thirty personality traits with data to show whether these traits cause inspiration to occur. In essence, Thrash and Elliot turned inspiration into a science: if you exhibit particular personality traits, you’re more likely to be inspired.
That brings us to the burning question: What were the inspiring personality traits? Like I said, they tested over thirty different traits; some were directly related to inspiration, others not at all. Here are the top three traits, in order of how strongly they related to inspiration: openness to experience, self-esteem, and creativity.
Now obviously you can’t just pick-up some extra creativity in the checkout aisle at Walmart–it’s a personality trait; it’s part of who you are. But you can change your personality over time, and if you strengthen these traits in particular you can optimize yourself to receive McCartney-esque inspiration.
The Top Traits
Each personality trait has volumes of literature on its own, so I trust that you’ll dive into the ocean of research and find what works best for you. However, here are a few suggestions to get you started. And, since technology can be a powerful force in personal change, I’ll include a few apps that might help you along the way.
1. Openness to Experience
In their conclusions about this trait, Thrash and Elliot wrote, “These findings suggest that inspiration is facilitated by receptiveness.” Openness is certainly not an easy trait to develop. We like habits and customs because they give us comfort and security. For example, do you drive the same route to work every day? So do I. It’s the fastest route, that’s why I take it, but the repetition of the same sights every day doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of inspiration.
Here’s a simple suggestion to start being more open: Give up one thing you’re accustomed to. Try a new food, drive a new route to work, listen to a radio station that you’ve never heard before–anything to break an old routine. For years, I’ve ordered the same exact burrito from the menu at one of my favorite restaurants, Cafe Rio. I never order anything else, and honestly I don’t even know what else is on the menu. But if you’ll try a small experiment, I will too: the next time I visit Cafe Rio, I’ll order something different.
If you want to think bigger than just a new lunch entree or route to work, you might try out Everest, an app that’s meant to help you achieve goals. Everest seems to place an emphasis on trying new things, so the social community within the app might help nudge you in the direction of developing openness.
Inspiration comes more frequently to people with high self-esteem, and that makes sense: with high self-esteem, you’re less likely to set artificial limitations on your own abilities or be inhibited by what other people might think. Low self-esteem can have deep psychological roots and I’m certainly not qualified to offer advice for such a complex issue. Instead, I’ll offer a simplistic suggestion that is applicable to self-esteem: avoid comparing yourself to others.
I’ve written before that comparing yourself to other people is a worthless exercise because there will always be someone smarter, richer, and more beautiful than you are. And that’s based on statistics: you virtually have no chance of ever being the BEST in the world at anything. (If it makes you feel better, I’m right there with you!) So rather than focusing on everything you don’t have, make an inventory of what you DO have.
I’m sure there are hundreds of tools you can use to list what you have and what you’re grateful for; I’ve found one app that I especially like, called Grateful. Every day it asks for one thing you are grateful for, with a simple and effective interface.
Creativity is similar to openness in that we need to let go of conventional or routine ways of doing things to find new ways of expressing ourselves. Unfortunately we often have default habits that we rely on in situations that might otherwise yield creativity. For example, when we stand in line at a fast food restaurant, we don’t exhibit any creativity in attempting to preoccupy ourselves–we just scroll away on our smartphones. In fact, not long ago some psychologists found that most people would rather receive an electric shock than sit alone by themselves.
If you’d like to be more creative, my app suggestion is a bit counterintuitive. Choose to use an app that limits your smartphone functionality so that it becomes less of a distraction. Stop opening apps, checking notifications, and taking phone calls to devote more time to clear thinking. An app for this on iPhone is called Mobile Flow. It works in conjunction with Airplane mode on your phone, so it eliminates all unnecessary distractions. Deliberate focus can allow you to think and be creative without distractions, so I highly recommend the app.