The Problem With Inspirational Quotes


They’re lurking on thousands of Pinterest boards, countless Twitter feeds and even more Facebook statuses and profiles… those quotes. Those damn inspirational quotes. While some are genuinely thoughtful words o’ wisdom from respected authors and writers, the majority I see are fluffy “smile, sparkle, shine!” quotations. The “shoot for the stars, girlfriend!” kind of quotes that have come to mean very little to me. They’re quotes for people with dreams of opening a cupcake shop or designing a handbag line for dog. In other words…not for the masses. While this may sound harsh, and may alienate half of my Facebook friends, I can’t help it. They’re just out of touch, inherently selfish and often more paralyzing than effective. I think if we really want to achieve grand things, we should think more deeply about the words we choose to live by rather than tossing them around on social media, never to cross our minds again.

See, real people often don’t have the luxury to pursue the kind of dreams these sayings refer to. A lot of people just want to support their family. Or live comfortably. Maya Tokumitsu summarizes it best in her piece about how the phrase “Do what you love, love what you do” devalues actual work. She mentions Steve Jobs as one of the prominent purveyors of this type of advice. Tokumitsu writes,

But by portraying Apple as a labor of his individual love, Jobs elided the labor of untold thousands in Apple’s factories, hidden from sight on the other side of the planet—the very labor that allowed Jobs to actualize his love.

That’s a powerful observation. In materializing his own dreams, Jobs effectively employed thousands of people below him. Yet by advising everyone else to pursue only work they truly loved, Jobs disregarded the work of the very people who brought his own dreams to life. It’s this oversight that makes phrases like “Do what you love and love what you do,” alienating and slightly self-centered.

Many popular inspirational quotes are fundamentally self-centered. “Always go with your passions. Never ask yourself if it’s realistic or not” is one by Deepak Chopra. So is “The things you are passionate about are not random. They are your calling,” by Fabienne Fredrickson. These quotes definitely play with emotion and get people fired up. But should everyone really ditch their current lives for their so-called “passion”? Can we not just think about our situations differently? Can we not motivate ourselves to do a better job at the one we currently have, rather than quit to backpack across Europe or play video games for a living? Sometimes risks are worth taking, but due to the very definition of the word, sometimes they’re not. These types of quotes by Chopra and Fredrickson encourage people to value their own dreams above all else. Having big dreams is wonderful, but I don’t think valuing the self and your ambition above all else is ever a good bottom line (i.e. Macbeth or House of Cards).

While many of these quotes are overly focused on the individual, it’s their culmination that can be more paralyzing than motivating. They’re often too vague to be helpful. It’s true that working hard and being kind to others can foster great things (i.e. “If you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” – Conan O’Brien). And while I love Conan, general kindness and hard work are not all it takes to reach specific goals. We should definitely strive to be kind and work hard in our daily lives, but without focusing our efforts on actions specific to our long-term goals, simply being nice to people isn’t going to get us there. We’ll likely stay where we are. This vagueness also applies to the time it takes to achieve our dreams. Lasting success can take years to build or even recognize. When working towards a dream, people can forget that real results typically come much later than expected. When we forget the kind of success we’d like may take years to achieve, it gets easy to trade in one goal for another. It’s these trade-ins — in addition to loss of specifics — that keep us from making real progress towards any goal at all.

While it may seem like I despise any and all inspirational quotes, I really don’t. I just don’t feel we should blindly follow them. Or feel poorly for questioning them. Living your life with the mindset that you MUST accomplish something huge and noteworthy isn’t always admirable. It can be alienating, overly egocentric and even paralyzing to your own progress. Doing the best you can at whatever you decide to pursue is really the only first step towards achieving anything worthwhile…and you can quote me on that.