How to find inspiration at work

The research about inspiration is, generally, that it improves our wellbeing but we cannot control when it comes to us. That said, opening ourselves to new experiences makes inspiration more likely. And surrounding ourselves with inspired people makes us more likely to feel inspired ourselves.

We constantly look for work that inspires us, but I have found in my career that often the jobs that were most inspiring to me were not necessarily at companies doing inspiring work. One example of this is a job I had at CyberMedia.

You can’t Google CyberMedia because it was purchased by McAfee. But before it was purchased by McAfee, it was a scrappy startup full of mostly Indian men who were of the age when they should be getting married, but were, instead, building a software company, so they would go home to India for a few days, get married, and come back to work.

As they got close to their first ship date, they had to hire non-developers to make a site for launch. I was one of those people they hired.

CyberMedia was the first company to offer a product that automatically updated itself via the Internet. I know that because it was our big selling point.

A few things happened at CyberMedia that were especially memorable. The first thing is that work hours simply never ended. There were about 50 employees, and for all of us, work was around the clock. The management team promised the product would ship, the product had to ship or the company would have no money. It didn’t really bother me. I was fascinated by the workplace culture. And it’s actually pretty fun to be the only woman in a round-the-clock coding environment, even if they all were betrothed to parent-selected brides.

Then one day, during one meeting, I said, “I can’t work this weekend.” I realized that I should have said it earlier, to my boss, but I didn’t realize we’d be talking about it then, in a meeting with ten people.

He said, “You have to. We have a code lockdown on Monday.”

“I can’t. I’m not working this weekend. I can’t.”


“What are you doing?”


“I’m having an abortion.”


Then a flurry to reschedule code lockdown for Tuesday so I could write copy on Monday.

That was all. There was no other discussion. It should have been really difficult. But it wasn’t, which I think made me much more brave about being myself as my career moved on. I realized that people just want to get the work done. They don’t care very much about my personal life beyond how it relates to work.

Here’s another thing that happened at that company. We had an IPO. It was 1996, when IPOs were not a household term. In fact, as I am looking for info on the IPO now, I’m realizing that CyberMedia was actually an Indian holding company. Which, in hindsight makes sense since two pieces of software would not be enough for an IPO, even in 1996. But I didn’t know that at the time.

But more than about the windfall, I want to tell you about the web team I managed. The team was amazing, maybe just by accident, because it was always clear to us that no one in the company could have made an educated hiring decision about something like online content management or design.

I am a magnet for a power vacuum, so I quickly took over the whole web site. I felt like God’s gift to online marketing because I was doing five simultaneous product launches in five different countries.

I was bored by the financial details and felt that no cost was too high to make my launches run smoothly. I was fascinated by the design details that reflected cultural differences.

The company made software utilities to make computers run smoothly. I can still see so vividly the British version of a site with a tidy PC wrapped in a red first-aid cross. Juxtaposed with the Japanese version that has what looks like a kamikaze induced explosion over a PC with motherboard pieces flying everywhere. To advertise the same software.

That was fun. The designer was Mark Fearing, who, to this day, is the most talented artist I’ve ever worked with. (That’s an illustration of his, at the top of this post.)

But you know how I always tell you that it’s better to work with someone who is nice and easy to get along with than someone who is especially talented? Well, Mark proves this point.

Every design, every illustration, every font treatment was gorgeous. It was fun just to come into work each morning and see what Mark had done the night before. But once a week, Mark quit the job.

He did it quietly, in private, with me. It was a quitting dance: I’d tell him I promise the marketing department won’t talk to him directly anymore. He’d tell me the Berlin Wall could not keep them out of his cube. I’d tell him he can’t quit because he has to pay rent. He’d tell me he’d rather be homeless. He would indulge his fantasy of homelessness and then he’d go back to his cube to work, largely unscathed.

Then one day the head of marketing came to Mark’s cube to tell him, more blue. “It’s a nice color,” she said. “It looks good online. Can you use more of it?”

Mark stared at the design. Then he looked at her. Then he screamed: “Blue? Blue? You want more blue? That is the worst, most ineffective piece of art direction  you can give. It’s stupid. Why blue? Did your mom like blue? Is it because the sky is blue? You know what? I like yellow. Let’s do more yellow. We need yellow! No. Let’s do both. Then we can have green! Do you like green?”

Heads poked up from cubes to watch Mark do his tirade.

Then he started packing up his desk while he screamed, “Marketing at this company is stupid because of you! You have no idea what you want! You have no vision! You bring us all down with you! You can find someone else to do your design changes all day long! I’m done!”

And he stormed out.

It was great to see. Everyone hated the head of marketing.

People who feel inspired do better work. The problem is, how do you get inspired? The writer Elizabeth Gilbert, who was, of course, inspired enough to write a bestseller, gave a TED talk about how we shouldn’t pressure ourselves to find inspiration. It just comes. Which is, I think, why I look at my life at CyberMedia so fondly: the people were inspired.

Tsun-yan Hsieh, from McKinsey, writes that while we cannot control our encounters with inspiration, we are more likely to get inspiration by constantly evolving. Our level of inspiration is commensurate with our levels to be true to ourselves.

So back to Mark: Since those days at CyberMedia, he has done animation and video and television game shows, becoming more and more notorious for making a scene when he quits. Until he started working for himself.

And that’s when things really bloomed for him. He married a developer, moved to Portland, and had a daughter. And just this week, five billion illustrations later, the New York Times reviewed his new book, Earthling! and called it “an exhilirating hoot”.

To watch Mark go from drawing computers exploding for unreasonable marketing managers to drawing characters in his own graphic novel is really inspiring. And I’m so happy to be able to tell you all to buy the book. And think about Mark’s path: quitting job after job, taking risk after risk to figure out his right place – finding inspiration by being true to yourself.

59 replies
  1. Lynette Jensen
    Lynette Jensen says:

    Thanks as always, Penelope. Inspiration is so important – in fact it’s probably food for the human psyche.

    “Know Thyself” was written above the entrance to the Delphic Oracle and is just as true today (also inspiring!)

  2. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    Once again- I am left in awe of your ability to be completely honest and open! Bravo Penelope……

    You know this is the story for you and of you- the key to discovering how to be comfortable and not worry about financial security- just keep being you- like Mark did… inspires others to be real- and know they won’t be sacrificed at the stake for it…..

  3. D
    D says:

    I don’t think you should pressure yourself to find inspiration, but it’s a good idea to put yourself in random situations that might trigger it. They don’t have to be business- or career-focused per se. Steve Jobs famously got inspired from taking a typography class.

    I used to go to South by Southwest for inspiration, but now it’s so crowded that the only inspiration I get is to avoid the long lines for everything.

  4. Dannielle
    Dannielle says:

    Did you tell the story just to get the part about the abortion in there?

    I think you like to get people all worked up, Penelope. You must have known how shocking/offensive that would be. Curious.

    • Kelly
      Kelly says:

      I can understand why one might be shocked about someone admitting the truth about having an abortion….but not sure I understand why telling the truth should be offensive.

    • Cheryl
      Cheryl says:

      sorry Dannielle I don’t find the mention of the last minute need to have an abortion shocking. Obviously you have never been in the position to know what that feels like. I sincerely hope you never are.

      • Passingbye
        Passingbye says:

        She could have had the abortion during her lunchtime, and go back to work. Not need to announce it. But the guys ate it up, anyways, either out of respect, or ignorance.
        I’d bought it if it were dental surgery-that is more complicated that a regular D&C, really.But yeah, abortion sounds edgier than say, a root canal.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I actually found it kind of shocking that being open about abortion would be shocking to someone.

      It’s like one of those things that are not even shocking anymore. We’re only waiting for rules and dinosaurs to catch up.

      • Dannielle
        Dannielle says:

        Common theme, no? Tweeting about miscarriage, oversharing with bosses to shock, photographing the bruise…and then blogging it. That’s not a feminist issue that’s something else.

          • Dannielle
            Dannielle says:

            I apologize if I caused any confusion here. Let me be clear – I am completely NOT judging Penelope for getting an abortion (I am prochoice), for sharing it, or for writing about it. It’s a deeper set of questions than shock, and selfish. She puts herself “out there,” has been a role model for me in terms of writing, and so I have questions for her as a writing master, so to speak:

            1. How does Penelope “do” the craft of blogging? She does have “exquisite” skill as a writer. The shock part – that is a technique. What is it called? How do you do it right? Because she is brilliant.

            2. Where does this skill come from? This is what I can’t figure out. Is it that Penelope is truly inept at life, but “ept” at capturing her ineptness in art? Or is it more complicated – that she isn’t that inept, but is purposely inept in life, so that she can capture it later, in writing? In other words – is the whole Penelope brand real, or calculated? (Does it matter?)

            3. If it is true that Penelope does certain shocking things for the sake of her craft, is that morally right (in the service of art), wrong (socially inappropriate, offensive), or does it not matter? Is anyone else bothered by this stuff even as they love the blog (recalling the blog about Veteran’s Day)?

            I wrote the other two comments quickly and cryptically, so this is the longer version. It’s a semi-clinical question coming from another writer and someone very interested in studying brand, but also me as a human being.

            Because every time I write something my heart is in my throat, as I worry about who will be shocked/offended, and Penelope makes my worries look very trivial.

      • Deepak
        Deepak says:

        I Still Love You has a great tutorial on her blog for creiatng your own stamps, no carving required.a0 You can use a stamp pad or fabric ink to create your own pretty gift wrap, stationery, or patterned clothing.a0 The best part it’s next to free since you can probably scrape up these supplies around your house.a0 You could substitute a pencil and glue the stamp to the eraser if it’s small enough.

    • Ebriel
      Ebriel says:

      The story was shocking because of the exquisite timing of the dialogue/situation leading up to the revelation. Penelope’s a damned good writer, and this post highlights it really well.

  5. Irving Podolsky
    Irving Podolsky says:

    You know what inspires me? No, you don’t know. But when I tell you, you’ll think, “Yeah, that inspires me too!”


    People who appreciate and connect with my artistic expressions energize me. They also encourage me to do more of it.

    I can’t stop creating, because that’s just me. But the thrill, the big pay-offs sparkle when people tell me, “That moved me. I want more.”

    It’s a validation I guess. Like…maybe I DO matter. Maybe I can make a positive difference. Maybe there’s a justification for my sucking up the air everyday. Maybe I can be proud of myself. Maybe it’s okay to be happy.

    And watching others strive and win and get the acknowledgment inspires me too.

    We all want to be winners. We all NEED to be winners – appreciated winners. And when we are, we fly.


  6. marita
    marita says:

    That is so true! It took me a while to figure out as well, that going to a job (meaning having a schedule) made me physically ill and mentally depressed. I was just another product of ‘modern’ schooling that prepares you for a j o b, but doesn’t do much to figure yourself out.

    Reading your blog is an inspiration!

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I JUST got done telling my husband that I am almost giving up on the idea of working for myself. There are some people who are born in some paths that lead to that. Or people who are born in paths that can more easily be broken and bridged into the entrepreneurial path.

      Not me.

      And it’s not that I dislike hard work. I don’t even care that it’s hard work when it’s rewarding and I am inspired.

      I said “why can’t I just be like one of those people that get up, go to work, like it or not, it’s not that big of a deal to them?”

      “I don’t know why you can’t be like that” he said.

      I am concerned that he’ll resent me. Right now I am thinking about my computer and my chair at work and I get that jittery/I gotta go to the bathroom/I feel sick kinda feeling. My work is not that big of a deal and my coworkers are fairly nice.

      I will have a mental breakdown if I do this much longer.

      Seriously, I have no idea how I can be brave and quit and take risks when I don’t see where my abilities can lead to make money. At least a little bit. At least $500/month. That’s all I need to cover our bills if my husband doesn’t quit his job. That’s all we need and I don’t know where I can get them for sure. That’s the Berlin Wall that my courage can’t climb. In the meantime I am making myself sick by going to work.

      • Amanda
        Amanda says:

        Karelys- I feel the same way. If i don’t quit my day/desk/cubicle/1 hr commute each way job soon I’ll go nutty, but I don’t feel like I really know myself at all. Like if I quit I’ll just be guessing at what sort of career would make me happy and then I’ll never get anywhere. Great addition to the discussion & good luck!

      • Ebriel
        Ebriel says:

        You’ve given up on working for yourself because you don’t like working for others (at a soul-sucking job), was that a typo? Maybe I’m misunderstanding the connection between the two.

        It’s so hard – SO hard – to get up and do your own thing. And the fear can be paralyzing. And maybe the first few times it won’t work out. But each time the learning experience – most of all what your strengths/weaknesses are – are worthwhile.

        (You aren’t asking for advice so feel free to ignore this:)

        Save up enough to tide you over for six months, better yet, a year. That’s just 3-6K. During that time, stay at your job and use that time to scheme like mad for what you’re going to do next. It will probably really improve your experience at the day job, knowing that what you earn there every day will be the foundation for what you’re daring to do next.

        Plus that time will give you the space you need to really sort out what you want to do next, and try some things out before you do it fulltime.

        Just my 2 yuan (33 cents) ;)

  7. Rachel D.
    Rachel D. says:

    I’ve found you get inspired by trying to be inspiring. You get what you give, and around we go.

    On the path to realizing this I stumbled upon Penelope’s blog, Zen Habits, the Positivity Blog, and a bunch of other great blogs, and I realized that just looking for inspiration and taking it in, absorbing it, isn’t good enough. You have to practice giving inspiration to others to get a full appreciation for it.

    There’s something about the balance of giving and receiving the energy. It’s that shift from just benefiting yourself and your ego to benefiting others that allows you to let go of parts of yourself that you don’t need anymore in order to be inspiring.

    And so, to this day, I try…

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think this is so true, Rachel. I think we generally get what we really work hard at getting. I know this is so Horatio Alger, or Calvinist or something. But good things don’t really just fall on people. Good things come to people who work hard for that, specific good thing.

      So if you work hard at social skills, they get better. If you work hard at finding a spouse, you find one. If you work hard at being inspired, it comes.

      I think a lot of times we THINK we’re working hard at something but really we’re just thinking about working at something. Working hard at something requires giving stuff up, I think. And that’s really what I saw at CyberMedia – a parade of people who gave up something big in order be inspired.


  8. channa
    channa says:

    Holy shit, I can’t stop laughing. I’m never going to be able to be able to get through another meeting without considering using this line.

  9. Melita
    Melita says:

    I quit my last job with a dramatic tirade. But when I officially resigned, my boss said “I’m shocked!” It clearly demonstrated that she never took me seriously and I didn’t belong there.

  10. Alicia Roberts
    Alicia Roberts says:

    Couple of things

    1. I am so touched that you linked to a book and told us to buy it. You’re a good friend. Mark’s lucky.
    2. I like that you got leave for an abortion, no questions asked. If it’s important enough they give you time. Whereas if you’d said, “I need to get away on a romantic break with my husband to save our marriage” they probably would’ve said no because they don’t see that as a priority.
    3. Difficult employees can be great self-employeds.

  11. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    For me, the key to inspiration has been not being depressed. When I am not depressed, I am much more open to the world: open to love, open to ideas, open to other people, open to the good stuff. If you’re depressed, or just stuck (and being in the wrong job will do that), it’s really hard to see beyond your nose and everything before your nose is miserable.

  12. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I like the quitting dance story.
    I didn’t threaten to quit but I did have a boss who I could tell how I really felt about a customer, project, or whatever. He listened, was understanding, and helped me to find a solution to get back on track when it was necessary. He was also a good boss because he was a good buffer. He allowed me to do more of my work and be less pestered by upper management or micromanaged by a customer.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You know what? I think I actually agree with this. Because to be really committed to living an inspired life takes extra time and energy. And that extra time and energy has to come from somewhere. So the first thing you do when you make a huge commitment to something is notice you are short on time. And then you get up earlier, if you can.

      So I do think that people who are massively committed to getting something for themselves are people who wake up early.


      • Don
        Don says:

        Penelope, your problem is you think too much, and actually DO too little. Get a life. A blog is not a job. Homeschooling will never go mainstream “because I’m doing it.”

        • Thomas le' Pynchon
          Thomas le' Pynchon says:

          Don….A) you 4 sure are a Retardigan…..B) Have you not been coherent for the last 100 years of our country?? The good ole US of A is simply a country that is made up of ideas that swindle/trick people out of the money that sits in their wallet/purse/bra/etc.

          This was forced upon us by the idiots mainly drooling during the Industrial Revolution.

          We don’t live (mainly) productive/healthy lives….we swindle and put on a fake show so that the sheeple-person that stands across from us at Starbucks will open up their money-bags and give us far more money than they should for the caffeinated beverage that was just made for them.

          This is our lives. Tell me of an actual, real, genuine productive job and I’ll give you 25 that are not. You say teacher, I say, politician, lawyer, television show/producer/actor/etc, Wal-Mart board member, bar owner, the list goes on and on.

          This is the world we live in. You come up with something aka “gimmick” and you move on or you die. Penelope’s just happens to be less negative than the normal gimmick. At least she in some ways helps people, at least their is some bang for the buck unlike most jobs or swindles that encompasses our country.

          Her simple task is to provide for her kids and she is doing that quite well and I applaud her mightily for it.

  13. Montina Portis
    Montina Portis says:

    Beautiful post. Well written.

    1. You are amazing and I enjoy your stories. CyberMedia sounds like it was an amazing position!

    2. Way to go, Mark! NIce and easy or much more appreciated than one that is especially talented.

    3. My life and business mission is to “inspire.” It means to breathe life or God into others.

    Inspiration is so important to life!

  14. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    This is a great post! Seriously. So honest and so accurate. I’ve always found people shocked at me trying something and leaving it…but you know what, I’ve always been happier – relatively speaking – in the long run.

  15. Priya
    Priya says:

    Beautiful and brave, as always, Penelope. Those two-three lines you wrote about telling your team that you couldn’t work that weekend because you were getting an abortion…hit me in the gut.

    Honesty generally does.

  16. Paul Jun
    Paul Jun says:

    Very fun read. Made me think a lot about inspiration — and thank you for providing such great links.

    My inspiration hits me usually after the gym, at around 11 a.m. From then on, its just write, write, write, write — until I start making too many errors. Then its time to nap.

  17. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    Getting up early, surrounding yourself with positive energy, immersing yourself in inspiring things are all important to finding inspiration, but I think there’s another step to finding inspiration: knowing when to walk away (so you can come back).

    If something’s not working you need to know when to walk away and cool down so you can come back with a clear mind and a level head. My husband used to get so upset with me when I’d have to walk away from a project or whatever I was working on, but I explained to him that when I get worked up or something’s just not working the way it should my mind becomes an avalanche of negativity and it ends up taking me nowhere good so to avoid that I just step away, take a few yoga breaths and then try try again.. Sometimes for a few minutes sometimes for a few months, depending up on the situation.

    Great post Penelope (as usual)!

  18. Rebecca@MidcenturyModernRemodel
    Rebecca@MidcenturyModernRemodel says:

    “I am a magnet for a power vacuum.” GREAT LINE! Seriously, this is actually the story of my career, no matter the industry. I liked this post about inspiration and all the comments including the one about being inspiring to find inspiration. In addition, the idea of getting up earlier to find inspiration, our whole household just did this because our teenage son started high school and wants badly to be on the soccer team (his inspiration in Hope Solo). Anyway, practice starts at 6:30 AM… we are all inspired … and I am hitting the gym in the morning for the first time in ten years. Feels good. And just a little inspiring.

    • Pierre
      Pierre says:

      Yeah that is a great line. I clicked through to leave a comment about how awesome it was, but you beat me to it, you speedy bastard. :-)

  19. Jacko
    Jacko says:

    Inspiration should come from doing what you love right? What happens when you realized your getting used at your job though?

    Teachers are getting taking advantage of if you ask me the system doesn’t serve them very well. Nice illustration.

  20. Mark Fearing
    Mark Fearing says:

    Thanks Penelope for the walk down memory lane! CyberMedia (remember the company song?!) is like bronze age technology these days. Amazing how fast that all changed. Aside from the drama of that job, I still remember one thing you said. I know now it’s a common enough question, but I had never been asked it. One day, when I was no doubt complaining about work, you asked me to name the people I most looked up to. My heroes. I named a list of authors and artists, film-makers and such. They were all people who had taken tremendous chances to do what they loved most. Some became household names, others like Kenneth Patchen is a poet known mostly to academics these days. But after I named that list you said, “No wonder you’re unhappy. You aren’t doing anything like what all those people did.” Ouch! And completely correct. I think about that often and taking action on it took many years. But I was working against what the very people I most admired had done and were doing. So thanks for that!

  21. Preblogs
    Preblogs says:

    I don’t think you should pressure yourself to find inspiration, but it’s a good idea to put yourself in random situations that might trigger it. They don’t have to be business- or career-focused per se. Steve Jobs famously got inspired from taking a typography class.

    I used to go to South by Southwest for inspiration, but now it’s so crowded that the only inspiration I get is to avoid the long lines for everything.

  22. Don
    Don says:

    I wonder what your daughter would have accomplished in this world if you just accepted the supreme gift God had given you. Like usual, due to lack of actual writing talent, you use late night shock that is not even popular on lowly watched cable channels. I love my kids more than anything in the world and hope to have many more to annoy moral less liberals like yourself that CLAIM to be Jewish without having the FIRST CLUE about what it’s like to actually practice the faith. LOL, OMG, Obama is going to get creamed, by the way. Hah.

    • Thomas le' Pynchon
      Thomas le' Pynchon says:

      I would love if the Zodiac killer would come out of retirement happenstance-dly in your neighborhood…..I would so love it

  23. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    My stomach hurts so much from laughing so hard… just reminds me of all the tirades I heard @ the office.

    I agree that you must evolve to get inspired.

  24. Subtitles
    Subtitles says:

    The story was shocking because of the exquisite timing of the dialogue/situation leading up to the revelation. Penelope’s a damned good writer, and this post highlights it really well.

  25. SECricket
    SECricket says:

    Penelope’s “I’m having an abortion” is starting to read like a catchphrase — sort of like when Triumph the Insult Dog finishes sentences with “to poop on.”

  26. Beryl
    Beryl says:

    Thanks so much Penelope. Reminds me, more than ever, why I am not going looking for a job and starting up on my own. Cannot bear to have to be answerable for how I spend my precious short life! Keep the info coming Penelope, you are an out and out inspiration.

  27. Sujeetha
    Sujeetha says:

    Penelope, yet another inspirational post :). I do agree with the point that we have to put in some extra energy and extra effort to pursue with our inspiration and dreams. But the true inspiration to job alone still affects the work life balance as well , in your situation too. Sometimes all these extra efforts are left in vain just because we had to cope up with our personal life and just not job is enough. So how do we spread the positive energy with others so that we still hang on with our inspirations?

  28. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I missed your writing on the tangents of career advice this week!
    I was bored. So I scanned this blog post … again.
    Anyways, this sentence caught my eye this time – “You can’t Google
    CyberMedia because it was purchased by McAfee.”
    I must be really slipping or was just asleep at the switch the first time around because normally when I’m told I can’t do something is when I do something. :)
    So I googled CyberMedia (and the key here is together with McAfee) to get three good links to your old (now defunct) company.

    You have a link ( ) in the following sentence – In fact, as I am looking for info on the IPO now, I’m realizing that CyberMedia was actually an Indian holding company. – that goes to information about a company named CyberMedia that doesn’t appear to be the same company. Maybe it is – it’s not very clear but I didn’t see the connection.
    However, all of the above does not change the message of your post. It’s additional information. So if you want to update or change anything in the post, that’s of course entirely up to you.
    Hope you’re enjoying your day (and writing a new post!).

  29. T London
    T London says:

    Inspiratton can often be found in places where you least expect it. Even taking some time off, spending it with your friends and going to places you haven’t been to before can lead to chance encounters. Meeting new people and talking about subjects different to your day-to-day routine can sometimes lead to unexpected and exiting results.

  30. Ethan P.
    Ethan P. says:

    Boy, that was good. That’s just it though and that is you have to have fun to be inspired and when you are the world around you becomes different.

Comments are closed.