Motivational language.

There are a number of things about motivational language that annoys me.

Firstly motivational talk is often meaningless in a practical sense. “Confront your fears” tells me nothing practical. It offers only an emotional imperative. “Do epic shit” is probably the height of nonsensical language that tells me nothing about planning, preparing, organising, or any of the other practicalities that might be required to achieve this epicness. The competitive game show is the apex of this kind of ridiculousness. Finding one’s “inner voice” doesn’t tell me anything about whether my diaphragmatic breathing needs work, or whether i should really just sing more scales in rehearsal, or perhaps my genre choice is wrong for my vocal tone. Or indeed, whether I might in fact be incapable of singing. No-one looks at a portly middle aged man and says “just find your inner sprinter, and go out there and win gold.” (Okay, so on “The biggest loser” episode I watched once out of anthropological curiosity, they kind of did that, but anyway.)

The point is, is that sometimes that “inner dream,” that secret hope, might actually be physically impossible. Or require a great deal of planning, organisation, and quite specific training and preparation. No one says “Sorry, you can’t have that particular inner you you want to be true to, because you are a bit shit,” or “you failed to bring sandwiches, you are low on energy, so today, you are going to underperform, no matter how much you believe in yourself.”

This is also true in the business motivation industry as well. Lot’s of small towns probably have a whole lot of ambitious, talented people who believe in themselves, and have a vision to build a business that is the next big thing. Sometimes they can do that, and sometimes, a small town is just not the right place, and the infrastructure is not there, and the support mechanisms, and the population dynamics, and the talent pool and everything else you need to build a business, and its just not going to work. No matter how much you believe, and no matter how much you strive, and no matter how much you work, its actually just impossible. Sorry. Nothing against small towns, nothing at all, its just going to be a bit hard to build a businesses of scale in places with sod all people.

What’s more, the use of this sort of language, –and the related discourse around success, failure, or just good old mediocre but it will do– often shapes people’s reactions weirdly. Failure becomes an emotional issue, a failure of resolution rather than the fact that actually, you were coming down with a cold and you needed to stay in bed with some soup for a day, or that you were simply underprepared, or more saliently, it was actually not feasible.

This isn’t to say that motivational failures aren’t real; they are. But this confusion between motivational failure, and the actually achievable can be very slippery. Sometimes stuff is just impossible, and sometimes its possible if you focus, and try harder. Sometimes the very act of “trying harder” will mean you fail. If the background conditions that work against you are difficult to detect, or opaque, then there is the potential to beat yourself up when its not actually anything under your control. A subtle background infection that has no obvious symptoms, but is enough to reduce energy levels, might mean you underperform that day. You haven’t had a belief failure; you’ve just been sick.

The second aspect of motivational language that I dislike is that is often so wishy washy that you can turn it into negatives quickly and easily. “Stay true to yourself” (or your vision, goals, dreams) can, in the wrong hands, become “don’t listen to advice” or indeed “ignore reason or evidence that conflicts with your desires.” “Don’t give in to doubt” can become “behave irrationally” as the thoughts about the practicalities and difficulties are shunted aside as unbecoming, and counterproductive. “Stick with the plan, and stay true to the vision” can become “Under no circumstances respond to new evidence.”

The thing is, is that sometimes an event is a set of new circumstances we need to adapt to, and sometimes an event is a bump in the road that can be safely ignored. You can’t actually specify either of those things in advance; the world is often too complex for that.  So some kind of mantra of “stick with the plan” can become a constraint rather than a useful strategy.

Clearly the actual trick here is to be able to tell the difference; knowing when something is a motivational failure, and when it something more prosaic or pragmatic. I suspect high performing individuals can tell the difference a lot of the time, but in part because they are always highly motivated, so thats not an issue. Such people are not always great mentors or teachers as a result: they don’t always understand motivation failures.

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