Inspiration is gratitude’s easy-to-mock cousin in personal self-fulfillment.

It’s a lot more fun to be cynical than earnest. Just the other day I was LMAO at a mock inspirational poster showing a deflated Stormtrooper with the title “Regret: Those Were The Droids You Were Looking For”.

Cynicism aside, however, in 2011 a little inspiration can go along way with the crazy state of the world and the stresses the tough economy is piling upon us.

I am lucky to have plenty of inspiration in my life, including my folks, my wife, and my kids. But many of us are lucky that way, so I wanted to share some things that I didn’t know about, that really blew me away when I encountered them for the first time.

1) John Wooden

I was born after head coach John Wooden’s ten NCAA basketball championships at UCLA and didn’t learn about him until my 20’s. Let me repeat that: Wooden’s teams won ten NCAA basketball championships in 12 years and at one point, 88 games in a row.

I read The Essential Wooden and it’s filled with letters to his teams and his philosophies. He developed a 15-point “Pyramid of Success”, but his message boils down to putting your best efforts into your life:

Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.

2) Marathon Finishing Lines

The fall is marathon season, so if there’s one in your city, get to the finish line four to five hours after it starts. Elite runners will finish a marathon in 2 hours and change, but it’s the regular folks among us who run 10-12 minute miles and finish in that time frame.

You’ll see people of all shapes and sizes. Better yet – don’t go to the finish line, go to somewhere between mile 21 and 25 where they’re exhausted, still have a ways to go, and could really use the encouragement. Many times they write their names on their shirts, so call out their names and cheer them on.

There’s something very special about seeing people complete major life goals, and you don’t get that chance very often. You gotta see it to believe it.

3) Washington Roebling

Washington Roebling was the chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge and has one of the most poignant stories of determination I’ve ever come across (chronicled in David McCullough’s The Great Bridge). He’s often overshadowed by his father, John, the bridge’s designer. But it’s one thing to design a bridge, it’s another to figure out how to build it.

In working in underwater caissons to build the base of the bridge, Roebling became incapacitated with decompression sickness, commonly known as “the bends” to scuba divers. Confined to his bed, and completely unable to visit the work site, he spent six months writing letters detailing the remaining construction of the bridge, down to the rivet.

Those instructions were delivered by his wife, Emily, and kept men busy for years until one of America’s most enduring engineering projects was completed. (Hey software engineers – can you imagine that happening at your company?)

4) John Adams

Obviously, there’s a lot to admire in each of our founding fathers, but when you start reading their biographies, you realize they were indeed people, not gods from Mount Olympus, and they had their quirks, idiosyncrasies, loves, strengths, faults, and everything else that made them human.

From another McCullough book I became familiar with John Adams, who’s inspiring for a zillion reasons, including helping found the nation, serving as it’s second president, being a loyal husband in an amazing marriage to Abigail, and living into his 90’s when the average life expectancy was 35.

You forget how brave these people were. By engaging in the revolution and signing the Declaration of Independence, Adams was at risk for execution for treason. He also served overseas a number of times before there were Boeings, setting himself up for uncertainty at sea and abroad.

And one part of the Adams story stood out for me, and contributed to my understanding of the mentality of the criminal defense lawyers. Remember the Boston Massacre? Adams represented the British soldiers when no one else would. He was a man who stuck to his convictions about the law, even though he was a fervent patriot.

5) Apple Inc.

Everyone loves a good comeback story, and I can’t help but wonder if that adds to the allure of Apple’s amazing computer products. If you’re old enough to remember using an Apple II, the advent of the Mac, and the dark days of Apple, the comeback still resonates and seems improbable.

The late Steve Jobs led that company to rebirth with amazing design, and what’s sometime forgotten is the total boldness of their new products. A computer without a floppy drive? Crazy! Yet the iMac got them back on track. An MP3 player where you couldn’t replace the battery?

What inspires me about Apple and Steve Jobs is not just the well designed products and the transformation of our entertainment landscape. It’s the comeback story, and the boldness and conviction that got them to the place they are now.

Join the discussion – who or what inspires you and why?