The world’s most inspirational people

We all know what it feels like to have a “lightbulb” moment – that lightning-quick strike of momentary inspiration that plants the seed of genius and sends us racing to the whiteboard. But the feeling of sustained inspiration – a lifelong link to a particular point of reference that moors us, guides us, reminds us of what we might aspire to and what we can achieve – is something much deeper, and much greater.

It was the unpacking of this kind of inspiration that we aimed to achieve. Canvassing our readers, followers, writers and a number of contemporary figures, we asked who is the most inspirational person of all time?

top three figures of inspiration

As it turns out, inspiration has many faces. It spans many centuries. It covers all walks of life, and lives big and small. People responded with votes for scientists, religious figures, artists and authors, political personas, businesspeople, sports heroes, and public figures. Interestingly, there were also a significant number of votes for mothers, fathers and children – so many that, if you count, you’ll only see 47 on the infographic map of our Top 50 because we left space for these categories of family members to honour those votes.

And in the way of honouring, we feel this map is an honouring of excellence from all those who voted. Whatever the role each person on the map has played, it’s been worthy of inspiring others to succeed and achieve – however each person wants to define it. While it’s created some amusing bedfellows – when else might Che Guevara and Margaret Thatcher rub shoulders, Walt Disney and Bob Marley, George Lucas and Coco Chanel? – it’s certainly a testament to the breadth of inspiring people and the exemplars of humanity.

Inspiration does not have to be political 

There’s a lot of talk in current affairs about leadership and inspiration; just a month or so past UK elections, in the midst of the US primaries and always on the eve of another international conference. But inspiration is not always political, it is not always loud, it is not always public. Susan Cain has been a great reminder of that in the last couple of years with her ideas on the quiet revolution. Votes for Brandon Stanton, the founder of Humans of New York, remind us of that. Votes for family remind us of that.

But it’s clear that the 47 individuals who were the most voted for by our audience have impacted the world, most would say for the better. And they’ve certainly inspired others, which is why they’re here on our list. But what’s the common denominator? Is there one?

Perhaps it’s a unique combination of humility and greatness that expresses itself in just the right way for others to take notice. Every year Time magazine lists its 100 most influential people in the world. But inspiration is so much more than simply influence. It’s an amalgamation of not only achievements, but also values and attitudes. Nelson Mandela himself, our number one of the Top 50, said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

Others say that inspiration is in what happens afterwards, when a life becomes a story – stories of greatness inspire, where facts may not. And often the stories of greatness that we find most inspirational are those of people who were “ordinary”, but did something extraordinary.

So while we hope you will enjoy our infographic in how it maps inspirational people around the globe and back through time, we hope you will also use it as a moment to reflect on your own potential and possibilities. The truth is we are all ordinary – we are all extraordinary.

See other Raconteur surveys: “World’s Greatest Storytellers” and “Greatest Inventions of all Time”