How exactly are these words different? Can they be used interchangeably?

I have been thinking about it, and I feel in these 2 sentences the words are used in the correct contexts:

1) Martin Luther King inspires me.

2) Money motivates me to work.

But I am unable to come up with an explanation for their differences. Is it correct to say that "motivation" is used in a more materialistic context and "inspiration" is used in a more spiritual or value-centric context?

  • 1
    Inspiration is what you need in order to motivate yourself (unless you have an iron will).
    – Mick
    Dec 29, 2016 at 11:33
  • ... or, inspiration is to motivation as poetry is to prose.
    – Mick
    Dec 29, 2016 at 11:35
  • What did the dictionary tell you?
    – Drew
    Dec 29, 2016 at 16:54
  • 1
    Inspiration changes the way you think--perhaps making you think about doing something, particularly something creative. Motivation changes the way you act: it actually makes you get off your ass and do it. Dec 29, 2016 at 22:21
  • In your examples, money is given as a goal to be obtained. Not quite the same as an inspiration that implies some goal that's entirely separate. Perhaps examples could be more strongly differentiated? Dec 29, 2016 at 23:24

2 Answers 2


If something motivates you the result is that it leads to a difference in terms of your actions / behaviour.

Martin Luther motivated me to stand up to racism

Garry's story motivated me to lose weight

Sonna's book motivated me to read more

If something inspires you the result is that it leads to a difference in terms of your motivation.

Martin Luther inspired me to stand up for racism. I now feel motivated to stop racism.

Garry's story inspired me to lose weight. I now feel motivated to lose weight

Sonna's book inspired me to read more. I now feel motivated to read more.

  • 1
    I would put it more simply: ideas are inspired; actions are motivated. Your talk inspired me to write a book about my experiences, but alas, I never found the motivation to get it done. Dec 29, 2016 at 22:17
  • @LeeDanielCrocker My answer was structured in a way sympathetic to metacognition to aid OP in understanding. Dec 31, 2016 at 11:30

First of all, they are synonyms and in most (if not all) cases they could be used interchangeably as both imply that something is causing something else's actions. However, they do have slightly different connotations.

When one motivates someone the motivator is typically giving someone a reason (e.g. motive) to do something. For example, money is a reason to work. If I yell at you to exercise you then you have a reason to exercise (fear, intimidation, or a desire to impress) and so you could say that I am motivating you. If you are using motivate then the focus is on a specific reason/motive and it tends to be specific and narrow. You generally wouldn't say a vague statement like "Joe motivates me."

When one inspires someone there isn't necessarily a solid reason. The focus tends to be more on the one doing the inspiring. It can be used when the reason is vague (e.g. if MLK inspires you to do things then there are reasons MLK is creating for you but it would be hard to pin them down) and can be used in vague statements (e.g. "Joe inspires me." is a fine sentence).

I think the word you use depends on what you are trying to communicate. If you want to focus on a specific reason/action relationship use motivate. If you want to keep it vague use inspire.

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