Inspire – Women of Dartmouth Stories

The Power of Inspiration

                                             Allison Holzer ’00 reflects on how a professor sparked her lifelong passion

       Last week, while driving my 10-y-o son to the bus stop, he looked away from the winding and foggy country road and said to me: 

        I found my ‘spark’ – you know, like the guy in the movie Soul.”

       An unexpectedly deep topic for an early morning drive, I said: “Wow, what is it?”

       He said: “Coding Java Script – I love it! I could spend hours doing it every day.” 

       My heart smiled. As a parent with deep, unconditional love for my children, I want more than anything for them to experience passion, purpose, and the “spark of living.” There’s nothing more beautiful than the moments when we are ignited by inspiration — when we immediately see new possibilities for ourselves, and we feel energized to take action.

       This moment with my son brought me back to one of my first memories of feeling that fire for learning from within. It happened in a classroom at Dartmouth College during my Freshman year.

       Although I loved Dartmouth from the moment I stepped on campus to visit, I had a tough first-year transition. As one of only a couple students from Kentucky that year, I felt out of place. I was homesick and intimidated by the fast-paced dynamics of northeast culture (a place I now love and call home). I experienced imposter syndrome, coupled with hours spent asking for tutoring at the writing center and seeking support from my professors. I went to therapy. I wrote letters to my former teacher and now mentor & friend, Bill Bornschein, asking for his advice.

       Then, one day, I walked into my first Psychology class – a subject area completely novel to me. I sat down, a little nervous and excited, expecting an introduction to the history of Psychology. 

       Instead, Dr. Christian Jernstedt (now emeritus Professor) walked to the chalkboard (yes, chalk!) and wrote “parapsychology” on the board. He said to us: “I’m going to flip a coin five times and you are going to know if it’s heads or tails through mental telepathy. I’m going to send the mental image of heads or tails to you, and write down the message you receive.”

       Immediately, he had my full attention. Each time he flipped the coin, he sent me his mental telepathy message, and I wrote down Heads or Tails on my paper. 

       After doing this five times, he revealed what he had flipped and asked us to look down at our papers. Shocked, I had written down exactly what he had flipped. Wait, I thoughtmental telepathy is REAL? 

Or… not. 

       Dr. Jernstedt then explained what had really happened – and I’m sorry I have to leave the punchline out of this story, because I’m not one to give away my Professor’s magic.

       What I will tell you is… that moment lit a spark inside of me, a passion for psychology and understanding the human psyche. Dr. Jernstedt’s mental telepathy trick inspired me to want to learn more. 

       I wanted to understand: how did I move so quickly from “mental telepathy is a JOKE” to “mental telepathy is REAL”? How could my emotions so powerfully change my mind that quickly? If emotions are that powerful, how can we harness the power of them for GOOD – to drive positive change for ourselves and others? 

     Little did I know at that time, the seeds of inspiration from Dr. Jernstedt’s class would lead to a lifelong passion and pursuit.

       Fast forward about twenty years, I’m now leading a company called InspireCorps with my two partners, Jen Grace Baron and Sandy Spataro. Our mission is to activate emotions and mindsets in new ways for leaders to be a power for good within their organizations. We create experiences for people to see greater possibilities for their own capabilities, to ignite inspiration around their goals, and to take new steps to achieving success for themselves and the organizations they lead.

       Early on, we kept asking ourselves, what makes the difference between an ordinary and extraordinary day at work? Team? Organization? The word inspiration kept coming up. When we are inspired, we have our best days more often. When teams are inspired, they elevate what’s possible. When organizations have inspiring cultures, everyone benefits. So we set out to research inspiring leadership, teams and organizations about 7 years ago. 

       Who was the first person I wanted to interview on this topic? The leader who first taught me the difference it makes to be inspired – Professor Jernstedt. 

       When I reached out to ask him, he said “yes” and we met in Hanover for a chat over coffee. He said: “I’m inspired when I’m training or teaching others. In fact, I often start classes with the word ‘inspire’… I tell the class I’m going to be talking about things that inspire me about the brain. And through that I hope to inspire them. What truly inspires me is helping those I teach ‘hear their own voices’ – which requires me getting out of the way and being adaptable to teachable moments.”

       I know that Dr. Jernsted helped me hear my own voice and discover my passion around the psychology of learning, coaching, development and growth. 

       When I asked him about how inspiration works from a neuropsychological perspective, he described the concept of what he called unstructured time as being a critical part of the equation. “Why is it we often get our best, most inspired ideas when we are taking a long shower, going for a meandering car ride, or taking a walk?” 

       Most often, our brains are consumed by conscious thinking that includes active problem solving and checking “to dos” off our lists. When we quiet the noise and give our minds open space to wander, observe, listen… something truly amazing happens: the subconscious parts of our brains, which are always working hard, much of it outside our conscious awareness, can actively come forward with its creative ideas, connections or solutions. It’s in those quieter, mind wandering moments that we can listen to the thoughts that our amazing brains have been working on without our conscious awareness. 

       On the flip side, when we tax our brains with too much conscious problem solving and noise, we lose the opportunity to have those creative thoughts be communicated to our conscious awareness. We miss an opportunity to access powerful, creative thinking. 

For me, this was truly an “a-ha moment.” 

       As a child, I used to spend hours playing in the woods with unstructured time… and in those moments, I would be at my most engaged and creative. As an adult, the trend has continued that I often come up with the most innovative solutions and inspired ideas during unstructured time. Yet, in adulthood, precious unstructured time is less common, isn’t it? It’s often seen as “unproductive.” I think we need to change this mentality.

       I share more on this topic of unstructured time and how to create and sustain inspiration intentionally in my 2021 Dartmouth TEDx talk called Unpack the Power of Inspiration to Shape Your Future. 

        I’m proud that I can tell my 10-y-o son that I found my spark, too – thanks to a passionate and creative Professor at Dartmouth and a community that welcomed me to the TEDx stage to share these ideas in 2021. I am grateful to the Dartmouth community for being such an important part of my personal and professional journey. 

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