Out of the Mouth of Babes: Inspiration vs. Influence

A graduating middle school New York City student compares two essential ingredients for achievement and fulfillment.
Purist Founder Cristina Cuomo’s 14-year-old daughter Bella with her classmate, Nyla Gilstrap, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

by Nyla Gilstrap

As middle schoolers, we are past the stage of needing to be coddled, but aren’t yet in high school, where we are more or less left to figure things out for ourselves.  Adults around us use this age to teach us everything we need to know, in order to be independent. For example: comparing ourselves to others only results in jealousy and disappointment, as our natural instinct is to want everything we don’t have.

But thankfully, there is a silver lining, a perfectly okay form of comparison: inspiration. It’s taking bits and pieces from something else, and putting your very own spin on it to better yourself. Inspiration feeds the desire to reach new goals. It’s a moment of clarity followed by a sudden awareness of new possibilities, all while maintaining a sense of self, and staying true to it in spite of forces urging you to do otherwise.

All of us have been inspired at one point in our lives. The good thing about inspiration is that it doesn’t have any negative connotations. Typically, we look to it for motivation, encouragement, or ideas that we can’t yet find on our own. We aren’t perfect, and sometimes we need a push in order to achieve something. Focusing on a certain ideal outcome, whatever that may be, almost always works to assist in reaching a goal. It doesn’t matter if inspiration is found in a pep talk from a best friend, or pictures found on the Internet, as long as the end result makes you happy.

When I started playing volleyball two years ago, without inspiration and motivation, I probably wouldn’t have continued playing the sport. Being a beginner at anything was always a challenge for me because, in all honesty, I wasn’t very fond of the idea of having to work for something other than a gold star report card (which later proved to be an impossible task). I made up this notion in my head about what it was I wanted to achieve, through watching hundreds of videos of college players sprinting for every ball and spiking above the ten foot line. With that, I made like Apuleius and “jumped with a head first leap into the pit itself.”

With no set goal, I would have been spending my Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays aimlessly trying to achieve something without any guidance or direction. I would have given up a long time ago without the motivation to be where those girls in the videos were. I’m not even remotely close to that goal today, but I have such a firm idea of what it is I want to accomplish, that there is no way I could give that up. Whether I eventually get there or not doesn’t matter. That’s what inspiration has the power to do: to make someone relentless, stubborn, but unstoppable.

Influence is a somewhat different story. To me, it always seemed like the form of comparison that we are warned to steer clear of. It is taking what is gathered from the media and from peers, and giving it the ability to have power over who you are.

The first couple years of middle school, I seriously had no clue what I was doing. Basically, I was a chameleon. I hopped from group to group, changing my persona in order to fit whatever a particular one wanted. Whatever that group considered to be “cool” was what I strove for…it’s a good thing that stopped before I felt the need to buy myself a pair of Yeezy’s. The more I tried to be accepted, the more I lost track of who I was, and who genuinely I wanted to be.

Everyone has influenced someone, whether it’s accidental or purposeful. It’s important to be aware of that and to lead by example, because the things that you do can greatly affect others, like my 5th, 6th, and 7th grade selves.

Influence is extremely powerful, and if it is used in beneficial ways, it can inspire. I was wrong to portray influence as the villain. There are so many different sides that contribute to the real meaning of influence, many of them positive. Being positively influenced does include tweaking who are, but in a way that makes you better and happier. What I mean is, maintaining a sense of self is extremely important, but if you’re not benefiting you and if you’re not happy, then allow people you trust to intervene. Every single person I know has influenced me at least a little bit, and it’s inevitable that this will continue.

It’s the end of the school year, and that shouldn’t only be greeted with a sigh of relief, but with a period of reflection. What I’ve come to realize throughout middle school is that I get to choose who I surround myself with, so ultimately I decide to surround myself with positive influence. The sooner I realized that, the happier I was. And despite what I said earlier, influence, in fact, isn’t always the form of comparison we are warned to steer clear of. It’s about being intuitive and careful with whom you are comparing yourself to and surrounding yourself with, because it’s those people who have the power to negatively or positively affect you. So for all the “rebellious” teenagers in the room, that’s a responsibility that you have for yourself, parents aside.

Some more good news: there are always opportunities throughout the day to be inspirational and influential. People tend to want to spend their time with those who raise a hand in class to say something no one else thought of, win the last race of the season after countless times finishing last, or teach a friend how make sure an expression is completely simplified, because those are all the small factors that add up to form an inspirational, influential human being and an all-around “cool” person.

Bella and Nyla