Inspiration is Perishable
"Ideas are immortal. They last forever. What doesn’t last forever is inspiration. Inspiration is like fresh fruit or milk: it has an expiration date,” - from Rework, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
On this episode, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the Co-founders of 37signals, sit down with host Kimberly Rhodes to share their perspective on the fleeting nature of inspiration with insights from the chapter called “Inspiration is Perishable” in their book, Rework.
Listen in to discover why Jason and David liken inspiration to rocket fuel and offer advice to prevent smothering your best ideas with unnecessary tasks. They also explore team motivation and share the secret behind their enduring 20+ year working relationship.
Tune in to learn how to seize the moment when inspiration strikes, make the most of it, and avoid wasting its potential.
Check out the full video episode on YouTube
[00:00] - Kimberly introduces the topic of the show today, from the book, Rework, the conversation is about the chapter called, “Inspiration is Perishable.”
[00:31] - Jason shares how to filter out which ideas are truly worthwhile and which ones are not.
[01:48] - Inspiration is kind of like rocket fuel. David shares why he feels it’s important to act during the inspiration phase and which factors make inspiration perish most quickly.
[04:37] - New projects need intense inspiration and a sprint mindset.
[05:43] – How not to suffocate your inspiration right at the start. Jason shares why you should jump into action.
[06:37] - Many successful ideas started as imperfect ones. David shares the key to making them successful.
[07:33] - Inspiration ebbs and flows, Jason shares the key to knowing when a project is over and some advice from a piece he wrote called Faith in Eventually.
[09:38] - Motivation is a valuable driver of success. David shares his philosophy on why you should prioritize the idea that excites you the most (even if it looks worse on paper).
[10:37] - Don’t squander motivation on doubt—the importance of following your gut.
[12:48] - Kimberly asks how David and Jason get the team excited and fired up for their new ideas.
[13:13] - Everyone doesn’t have to be rah-rah fired up all the time. Jason shares his advice on what to focus on to keep a project progressing.
[15:02] - Not everyone needs to be a visionary; there’s a division of labor. David shares the need for a clear direction and decision-makers in every project.
[17:11] - Kimberly asks if David and Jason tend to share inspiration simultaneously or have alternating phases of inspiration.
[17:29] - Jason highlights where he and David have different areas of focus and the crucial areas where they come together in alignment.
[18:29] - The balance between individual creativity and a unified vision. David shares what has helped them maintain their 20+ year working relationship and where they come together to collaborate.
[19:44] - Tune in next week for the special guest episode with the person chosen to share their underdog story. Rework is a production of 37signals. You can find show notes and transcripts on our website. Full video episodes are available on YouTube and X [formerly known as Twitter). If you have a question for Jason or David about a better way to work and run your business, leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850 or email, and we might answer it on a future episode.
Links and Resources:
From Jason’s HEY World: Faith In Eventually
From David’s HEY World: Inspiration is Perishable
The Rework Podcast on YouTube
Books by 37signals
Sign up for a 30-day free trial at Basecamp.com
HEY World | HEY
The REWORK podcast
The 37signals Dev Blog
37signals on YouTube
@37signals on Twitter
37signals on LinkedIn
Kimberly (00:00): Welcome to Rework, a podcast by 37signals about the better way to work and run your business. I’m your host, Kimberly Rhodes, and I’m joined as always by the co-founders of 37signals, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. Today we’re talking about one of the chapters of their book Rework, Inspiration is Perishable, and I picked this one because guys, I feel like there’s a lot happening in the company. There’s been a lot of things that we’re really excited about and it seems like we’ve just moved when things have inspired us, and that’s the whole concept of this chapter. Tell me a little bit about that. Inspiration is perishable.
Jason (00:31): This one’s actually a bit of a mixed bag because I think the idea is that if you’re fired up about something, you kind of got to get going on it because probably not going to last. But the truth is, is that it might be better to wait a little bit and see if it lasts because you can start to chase, if you’re just an excitable person or have ideas all the time, you can start to chase too many things at once and not know which one’s worth doing. And so I think it’s better to let things marinate a tiny bit and then if you’re still excited about it 24 hours later, 48 hours later, then go for it. But the bigger point is don’t get excited about something, put it on the shelf for three months and be like in November, let’s just say it’s September, in November.
(01:12): We’ll get to that. You almost certainly will not, and you almost certainly won’t have the spark and the energy that you need to push you through the trying early moments because it can be really frustrating to get something off the ground and you really kind of need to have the motivation, almost the rage to push to fuel that thing. So that’s why the early moments usually have the most fuel and will give you the most burn that you’re going to need to or achieve escape velocity essentially. So if that’s enough metaphors for the day, we can move on, but
David (01:48): No, I’m going to double down on that metaphor.
Jason (01:49): Okay.
David (01:50): Because I think once you get to that outer space, you’re going to realize that the distance between what you’re working on and you being done is not linear, right? There are actual wormholes that you can hop through and jump over huge distances if you use that inspiration fuel to get going. I just had this experience when working on Kamal, this new tool that we use for our deployment, which we’re using to get out of the cloud, where I had this really clear notion that we need to go quite far way off into the galaxy. We need to get all this stuff that we built into the cloud out of the cloud. It took us years to get into the cloud. I’m not going to spend years to get back out. We need to find a freaking wormhole here that allows us to jump through much quicker. And that for me, had this magic two months phase at the beginning of the year that was just the incarnation of inspiration is perishable.
(02:44): It was funny because I knew when that started that the clock is now ticking. In the next two months, I looked at my calendar, I had some stuff coming up two months later that I knew was going to chop things up and going to make my schedule a little difficult. There’s two months here. I need to cover virtually the whole distance in two months, and we need to take every single shortcut we can do along that and the motivation to do that, the energy to pushing it forward, to pulling a team along with you happens in that space where the inspiration is perishable is not always that clear that you get such a fixed moment of time that it needs to happen within that. But I think if you think of it in that way, it’s actually really helpful. I think this is one of the reasons when Jason and I talk about new product, we very often will pick a launch date without having any idea about whether that’s even feasible or possible, whatever. It is a way to narrow that inspiration towards a destination. And then we can throw things off as we go along, but you got to get moving and it’s got to look a little unrealistic almost, or at least invite trade-offs.
(03:49): It’s got to invite the constraints, such that you make different choices. I think the inspiration perishes quite quickly if you go through every checklist and if you go through like them, we also need to study this and we need to study that, and we… Do. Get something live, get something real. Be excited about it because you’re using it and you’re getting closer to it. I think that is just, it is the kind of rocket fuel that you can’t actually estimate in normal terms. You can’t say, oh, this is going to take three human weeks to do, or this is going to take, no, no, no. When you’re in that phase, when you’re in that bubble, you can just jump these enormous distances in ways that seem unrealistic when you think of it in the normal times. We do a lot of cycle planning. We use the Shape Up methodology and so on.
(04:37): A lot of that is about how do you evolve an existing product. I think this inspiration is perishable nugget of wisdom applies mainly when it’s not established. When you’re just sprinting across a green field of development and you’re trying to get something that doesn’t even exist except in your head and in your partner’s head perhaps, and putting that up there so that others can run with you. That’s the moment where the inspiration just has to be there, but you got to bottle it up afterwards. I mean, the history of startups is exactly as Jason started with. Someone who has that energy is able to sprint really far against all odds and then they can’t switch modes. Now something exists, you can’t run the same way, or at least most people can’t. There are a few individuals who defy expectations in that regard repeatedly, but most individuals if they do that, they just end up thrashing. Ooh, ooh, ooh, shiny dog or shiny object syndrome where you’re just like a dog constantly can’t focus on anything and you’re just going to drive your team crazy if you do that all the time.
Jason (05:43): This is also why I’m so opposed to things like someone has an idea. It’s like the first thing they do is start to pile up these tedious tasks like let’s do some market research. Let’s go ask a bunch of other people what they think about this thing and let’s start to do some more research into pricing. It’s like you’re going to kill all the inspiration that you have when the first thing you do is tedious work. That’s why people never get these things off the ground. They’re pumped about something and they move right into research mode. No move into doing mode, build mode, design mode, whatever mode it is to get the product moving or the idea going somewhere. Don’t ask other people what they think. That’s the best way to just land yourself in some quicksand and some mud. Granted, it’s possible that every person you talk to is as fired up as you are. That can happen, but then you didn’t need to talk to 'em in the first place. Just go. Just make the thing and stop getting bogged down in the tedium.
David (06:37): I think especially in the beginning, this sense of inspiration often comes from an idea that’s not even fully shaped in a way you can articulate to other people. So it’s actually often difficult to convey your excitement to others and get them infected because most people when they hear a new idea will think of all the reasons why it won’t work. And you’re like, those reasons might be true, but it’s also irrelevant right now. So many things, virtually everything that was turned out to be a huge idea started out as a stupid idea, started out as an idea that had all sorts of flaws and had all sorts of drawbacks and had all sorts of reasons why it wouldn’t work. But it needs someone who just goes like, you know what? I don’t care. I don’t care for all the reasons it’s not going to work. We’re going to try. We’re going to sprint and we’re going to tap and suck all the inspiration there is out of it, and do you know what reality is going to tell us whether it works or it does more? You can’t argue your way out of so many of these debates.
Kimberly (07:33): Well, I would think inspiration sometimes ebbs and flows. If that is the case, I’m curious how you guys, especially with a new product, we’ve talked about not only the whole once umbrella that we have started, but also some other new products we’re working on, but when that inspiration ebbs and flows, how do you keep things on track?
Jason (07:52): Well, I think the first thing is to recognize that is true. So you’re not surprised when you’re not as enthusiastic seven months in or seven weeks in or whatever, weeks in or months in that you are, but if it’s ebbing, that’s the down one, right? Yeah,
Kimberly (08:08): I think so.
Jason (08:09): I’m like ebbing and flowing. I don’t know. Yeah, it’s the down one.
Kimberly (08:12): We’ll have to fact check that.
Jason (08:13): If it continues to ebb for too long and you don’t peak again, let’s say, maybe you should pay attention to that too. You can lose energy, lose momentum for good reasons too. Maybe this idea isn’t what you thought it was. Maybe it’s not going where you wish it was going. Maybe something else came up along the way that you hadn’t considered in the first place that got in your way. Those things can happen, so you need to be self-aware enough to pay attention to that, but also recognize there are going to be ups and downs in the process. I wrote this post, I dunno a few years ago, called Faith in Eventually, that there’s a sense still even when it’s ebbing that you’re going to figure it out and you have to have faith and eventually we’ll get there, but you also have to be realistic that at some point eventually is not going to come.
(08:59): I can’t tell you when that is. People are always like, how do you know what you don’t? I can’t tell you. There’s no way to tell you, but it is a feeling like, you know what? We’ve just lost energy on this. And then you keep prodding along and it gets harder and harder and harder as you go because when you’re not motivated, it’s over. In fact, motivation is the most important thing. There’s so many things I’ve done purely because I’ve been motivated and sucked at just because I was motivated to do it and there’s so many things I’ve not done that I could do well that I’m just not motivated to do and will never get to. Motivation is the key thing to look at here. So you can sustain that for a while as you’re ebbing, but at some point if that goes away, I think that’s the real tell that maybe it’s over
David (09:38): And I think this is the reasons why motivation actually needs to be protected. It needs to be guarded. When you have that motivation and you feel it, wow, I’m really burning for this, you need to get your collapse out. You need to actually reject a lot of realities, just that you can focus towards one point. You need to not ask other people what they think about it. You need to find ways to prevent all that doubt from seeping into the foundation because you know what? Just, if that’s true, we are going to find out eventually, but the longer you get to stay in the mode of motivation, the more energy you’re generally going to build up regardless. And it’s going to be fun and it’s going to be exciting, and it’s going to be all these things that are the highlights of your career. Whether it works out in the end or not, I think there’s, if you take two ideas and there’s one of them you’re really motivated about, it may be a slightly worse idea than the other one that seems on paper to be better, but you just can’t muster the enthusiasm for always go with the one you’re more motivated for.
(10:37): Always sort of think of like, oh, that’s the special rocket fuel. That’s the upgrade here. That’ll actually get us to the finish line. Because any idea, if you need to bring something that does not exist into this world, it’s going to be really difficult. It’s going to be really hard and it’s going to have these down moments and unless you have ways of getting back up the hill and you have that boost, do you know what a lot of people just end up in the valley and they never get back up there. And one of the reasons is because they squander that motivation on doubt, on other people’s opinions, on market research, on everything else, but building and throwing things against reality.
Jason (11:14): This is one of the reasons why we don’t bring outsiders into our product development process until maybe right at the end if we’re going to seed a hundred people with a pre-release version of something because first of all, it slows things down considerably. When you have other people looking at this, they come up with a million things that you’ve already thought of that they don’t know you’ve thought of, and they ask you if you’ve thought of it and you have to respond that a have and here’s why you didn’t do it. And it also just kills motivation. It slows things down, it kills motivation. Other people’s opinions are not great for motivation unless of course they all support your point of view. Now you could say, well, wouldn’t you want to know what other people think because maybe you’re going down the wrong road. Why do you put so much value in other people think. How do you know they’re right?
(11:58): This idea that because someone else said something, they’re right, you’re wrong, they’re right. That doesn’t make any sense to me. You’ve got to follow your gut on this sort of thing. So we bring people in right at the end sometimes and sometimes never, but right at the end because at that point motivation doesn’t matter anymore. We’ve already crested the hill, we’re already past the, we’ve broken out of our escape velocity, broken out of the orbit. We’re into deep space now. I dunno, whatever. Nothing’s going to bring us back to earth. We’re releasing this thing, it’s going to ship no matter what. So at that point, it’s more about finding a couple things around the edges, but it’s not finding big problems with the idea early on based on other people’s opinions. So value your own. If you’re pumped, if you know what you’re doing, if you’re fired up for this, just follow your own thing and you’ll find out if it’s going to work or not only when you put it on the market, there’s no other way to know.
Kimberly (12:48): Okay. So when it comes to product development in particular and maintaining that inspiration, how do you guys, I’m assuming a lot of times the ideas for new products are coming from the two of you and then are trickling down to the team. You obviously need other people to be inspired as well and to get behind it and rally behind it and be excited by those new ideas. Do you have any advice or tips for how to get your team on board for new things?
Jason (13:13): Well, one thing is, and this may be a slightly unpopular opinion, I don’t think everyone needs to be excited about the idea. They have a job they’re working on as a designer or programmer, and sometimes work is not exciting, it’s just work. It’s just routine work. Now people tend to get more excited as the thing is being built, as they can see what’s becoming, because it is hard to explain the whole thing to someone when you have it in your head. But I don’t think all work needs to be exciting. I don’t think you need to have everyone equally excited about something to do a good job. You just need to have people who like to do good jobs and like to do good work. Now granted, one of the ways to get people more interested in the work is to of course give them more agency over the work.
(13:57): And when we shape up features and projects to do, we don’t detail every little thing that needs to be done. We point in a direction and then the team figures out how to get things done, and that’s where they can find some of their own excitement. But this idea that everyone needs to be equally fired up, it’s not true. Just like no one’s going to be as excited about this company as David and I, we own the place. It’s unrealistic to think everyone is going to feel like us or whatever. They’re just not. And it’s okay that they’re not. That’s not what we expect out of people. So I just kind of want to put a damper on the whole, everyone’s got to be rah rah, fired up thing all the time. And hopefully, one of the things that seems to get people excited is when you actually ship the product and customers start to use it and feedback starts to come in. Sometimes people who weren’t excited before get excited because they realize they are part of something that is actually pretty special. But you can’t always tell on the inside. Sometimes you can tell only when it hits the real world so that sometimes the excitement is on pause or suspended until there’s a reality moment and that’s fine too. So anyway, that’s my take. I dunno if David has a different take, but
David (15:02): I totally agree. There’s a division of labor to this aspect too. We can’t have a company where everyone wants to be fully visionary about coming up with new novel concepts that have the gravity of a new product to come. Jason has enough product ideas to sustain all of us and then some. There’s just not enough room for that. So some of this is sometimes linked to that too. If you are the kind of person who sees castles in your mind in the sky, then maybe you should also start your own thing. And this is one of those areas where I think you’ll learn something as you work for other people, whether you’re well compatible with signing up for other people’s vision as the main mode that you’re going through. Most people are, and then there are individuals who make poor employees and some of those individuals end up being entrepreneurs and creating their own thing.
(15:57): And I think that’s how the universe is supposed to be, that there are some folks who fit in poorly with others working under someone else’s vision of where we need to go. They should try their hand at their own vision and at their own attempt, but not all of them will succeed. And then we should also have a bunch of people who are very sort of content and happy even going, you know what? I go to work and I can be excited about the work. I can love the way we work. I can like the culture, I can do all these other things. Part of that is I sign up for someone else’s mission here, and I understand that going into it. Now, there’s a huge spectrum here. It doesn’t mean that everyone should just turn off their creativity valve and that they can’t have any input on these new projects or whatever.
(16:41): It just means that there’s not room for everyone to set the ultimate direction of where we’re going into space. If Jason says, you know what? Let’s go to Mars. Then someone else saying, no, I’d like to go to Venus. Oh, I want to go to Jupiter. You know what? That doesn’t work. We can sign up for this ship and it’s going to freaking Mars, and then we can figure out how to get there. And there’s going to be all these interesting problems along the way, but there can really only be one or a handful of people deciding ultimately what is the destination.
Kimberly (17:11): Okay. And then my last question for you guys before we wrap up, as co-founders, do you guys find that you’re generally inspired at the same time or does that also go through phases of like, David’s really into a new idea and then Jason is into a new idea later? Or are you guys usually pretty simpatico on that?
Jason (17:29): I think there’s certain things that we’re both like, Kamal is not a thing that excites me because it’s not something I’m involved with. I’m excited that David’s excited about it, but it’s not personally my thing. So he doesn’t need that from me and I don’t need that from him. He’s going to do his own thing and I’m going to do my own thing over here. So we have I think different things. And then of course when we build products for customers that we’re going to sell, I think we both need to be pretty excited about that, pretty aligned on that. So that’s typically how it goes. And also business changes and whatever, that kind of thing. But this is not a two-vote system. We both need to be aligned to do something. We’ve talked about this in previous episodes, this agree or disagree and commit, or just like, you get this, I get that, or you go off and do your thing, I’ll go off and do my thing. It’s all fine. I think that’s the only healthy way to do it, frankly. Otherwise if you have to move in lockstep on everything, it’s inefficient, frankly. And also it’s just not as interesting.
David (18:29): Yeah, I think that Venn diagram where we have a slice of overlap and then we also have our own separate spheres is a really good way to sustain working together for 20 plus years. I don’t think anyone is going to be as excited about everything all the time as any other individual in the world, and allowing each party to have some space to pursue their ideas – I have a lot of ideas on the technical side, on the infrastructure side, and Jason has a lot of their ideas on the design side. And then we come together, I think once it’s a great example of that, that we sat down like, okay, we’re looking at the same kind of problems. We’re looking at the same direction that the industry is going. How can we end up with an answer to some of those open questions that we’re excited about?
(19:12): And then we both pile in on that idea like, oh, what about this thing? What about this thing? What about this thing? And that can exist, Once can exist, and we can be moving forward to, while I’m off here chasing Kamal and white Jason’s off here chasing something else. And I think that’s a good way of doing it. Don’t try to monopolize someone else’s sense of excitement or inspiration. Just like, hey, can I get 30% of your cake? That’d be great. We take your 30%, my 30%. Plenty of overlap there for us to be excited about other things at the same time.
Kimberly (19:44): Okay, well next week we’re going to have a special guest with us on an episode of Rework. We have selected one underdog who’s going to share their underdog story. So we’ll have a visitor with us at the beginning of the podcast. Rework is production of 37signals. So you can find show notes and transcripts on our website at 37 signals.com/podcast. Full video episodes are on YouTube and Twitter. And if you have a question for Jason or David about a better way to work and run your business, leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850 or send us an email to email@example.com.