The 7 big lies of motivational speakers

What really motivates employees? That’s the question every motivational speaker tries to answer. And these speakers don’t just share information about the scene (or the zoom screen, as the case may be). Some motivators are managers. Authors. TikTok stars. Ted Lasso. The one question you really need to ask yourself, when faced with the pervasive motivational glare, is simple: Is it true?

On Instagram, The Good Quote has more than 29 million followers. And they are not alone. Seems like everyone on social media is a motivational speaker, sharing their voice to help lift others. The impulse to help others can be powerful. Especially if it means more likes and social validation. However, backyard motivational speakers often spread misunderstandings and clichés that don’t really hold up to scrutiny.

Sharing ideas with conviction and beautiful filters is not the same as sharing real value or impact. There is more to see, when looking at motivation from an unfiltered perspective. Just because someone tells you a nice lie (it’s a lie we all wish was true) doesn’t mean you have to believe them. Double tap, but don’t bet your career on a brilliant quote. Ready to bust some myths?

  1. Believe in yourself and you can do anything: Which me should I believe in? The one who just ate a bag of Oreos? The one who failed geometry, or the one who just sent Josh a nasty email in accounting? (Look, Josh deserved it, but still). Isn’t it true that there are people who don’t believe in themselves – in fact, they may even be insecure – but they succeed? Some would say that insecurity can actually be inspirational! Maybe there is something beyond belief that could make a real difference? How about letting go of your need to believe and taking massive action instead? There is a motivational strategy you can believe in.
  2. Your state of mind determines everything, so you have to control it. Our minds are never fixed. In 2020, scientists in Canada identified that human beings have over 6,000 thoughts per day. The National Science Foundation has found that the average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. That’s a lot of thoughts! Mind control is a wild ride. Trying to set your mind is like trying to harness the wind. Your thoughts are fleeting and a new one is on the way. Maybe you don’t need to manage your mindset to be truly successful. If you weren’t worried about your state of mind, what would you be doing instead?
  3. Courage and determination are the key! Think about your most satisfying personal relationship. Was it born of courage and determination? Was it your iron will that allowed you to meet your husband, or share a phenomenal 14-year friendship with your sorority sisters? Consider that courage is important, but it is not the only path to results. Have you ever seen someone succeed, almost despite what they were doing? Hard work and action are great ways to harness results – that’s for sure. But courage, like willpower, is not a lasting resource! If you have to be someone else – a rawer version of yourself – that can be hard work. Instead, why not ask yourself this question: what could make this easier?
  4. “If it has to be, that’s up to me.” Another riff on determination. In truth, nothing of value happens without the participation of other people. The clothes we wear, the computers we use, and the roads we travel are all the work of others. If you feel like you have to lift the whole world on your own, you’re going to end up with a sore shoulder.
  5. Discipline is the key to success – This one’s actually pretty good. Reflect on your own experiences: Staying attached to what you want is an important way to get it. After all, actions (not moods or state of mind) determine results. What if discipline was as simple as remembering what you want?
  6. I have overcome (cancer, an earthquake, the capital riots, another trauma) and you can too. The inspiring stories of those who overcome obstacles are very motivating. However, beating cancer, or COVID, or any other disease, could be a happy circumstance. The misunderstanding here is called “survivor bias.” “I lived _____,” the reasoning goes, “so I have a hero’s journey to share with you.” But is it true? Beware of superhero stories told by human beings. Consider a woman at the peak of her life, an energetic aerobics instructor. She has spent her life working in the fitness industry, with her radiant health admired by many. But when the cancer came, she couldn’t beat it. Despite her courage, determination, good diet, discipline (and lots of chemo), she was taken from her family far too soon. (I miss you mom). She has not failed where others have succeeded. She wasn’t deficient – just like survivors aren’t always something more than the rest of us. Don’t fall into the trap that survivors have superpowers. Overcoming obstacles can inspire, it’s true. But just know that overcoming natural circumstances isn’t always about talent, skill, or perseverance. Pay attention to survivor bias.
  7. You must have big goals if you want to go anywhere! – aim for the stars, the saying goes, and you might land on the moon. The problem is that there is no oxygen on the moon. High expectations can create cancellation pressure and a reason to feel demotivated when we don’t meet our ridiculously high, self-imposed expectations. It’s not sexy, but it’s true: the road to performance actually starts with doing what is doable. There’s nothing wrong with having high expectations, but when you link your identity to your ability to succeed, what happens? What if you could say, and mean it, that “no matter what, I’m fine?” Would it give you the freedom to try new things, without attachment to that big, bold goal? No one does well with a gun to their head. Goals are good. But getting attached to goals and tying your self-esteem to numbers, titles, education, and achievement can rob you of your ability to come up with creative solutions.

Just because a lie is beautiful doesn’t mean it’s true. Many well-meaning motivational speakers say things that sound good – really, really good. It may just be their delivery, but we must remember the words of American journalist, Edward R. Murrow: “Our greatest obligation is not to confuse slogans with solutions. Maybe it’s time to create your own motivation, stop trying to manage your beliefs, moods, or state of mind, and do what you know you have to do. Understand that the words of others are only tools. Not rules. You always have the ability to think for yourself, and that never goes away. So what do you think you should do now? This is the real question of motivation.

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