One thing I’ve noticed about Twitter, those silly little inspirational quotes seem to be everywhere. Every business- or management-related account that I follow seems to tweet, retweet, and re-retweet these little “pearls of wisdom” almost constantly.
You probably know what I’m talking about. In addition to the one above, here’s a couple more examples:
- “The best vision is insight.” – Malcolm Forbes
- “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” – Andre Gide
- “Life is like a recipe. What you put into it is what you’ll get out of it.” – Tim Fargo
And sure, I get it.
They’re meant to inspire, and get you feeling better about yourself—and perhaps performing at your best. Others are intended to offer insight into the workplace, and how to succeed in the crazy, mixed-up world of business.
Me personally, though, I can barely stand them.
It’s not just that they’re trite, or banal – although they certainly can be that. But at best, they offer very little in the way of true insight into much of anything, in my opinion. And at worst, I’d argue that they hide more truth than they actually convey.
So this week, I offer a more thorough analysis of these sort of quotes than they were perhaps ever intended to withstand.
For the most part, the motivational clichés I’ve encountered fall into three basic categories:
These are quotes whose words you can re-arrange like Scrabble tiles and still come up with something that makes sense (or at least seems to make sense). Consider, for instance, that Malcolm Forbes axiom from above: “The best insight is vision.” Swapping the words “vision” and “insight,” it now becomes:
The best vision is insight.
Which still makes sense, right? Sort of? Or at least it makes no less sense than the original quote, I’d argue. Which begs the question: How much can a proverb like this tell you about work, or life, or whatever, if the order of the words doesn’t really seem to matter?
Let’s try another:
- “The key to success is to start before you are ready.” ~ Lolly Daskal
Which could just as easily be:
- The key to success is to be ready before you start.
Again, either version seems pretty accurate – so does either really say anything substantive about how to achieve success?
And then just one more:
- “I have often regretted my speech, but never my silence.” – Publilius Syrus
- I have often regretted my silence, but never my speech.
So which is better…or more “true”? Or are both equally useless?
- The glass is half full
This second category of quotes presumes that you are already a positive, upbeat, “the glass is half full” person to begin with. If that’s the case, then yes – they will likely inspire. But it’s you that’s doing the heavy lifting, not the quote. If, however, it is in your nature to be a bit more my skeptical (like myself), you may find that this type of quote contains—or perhaps hides—an equally valid, yet nevertheless darker truth. For example, consider again that pearl of wisdom uttered by Andre Gide (a novelist and Nobel Laureate):
- “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
Sure – that’s great. But the following, perhaps more pessimistic twist on that thought is just as true, I’d argue:
- Man cannot get lost at sea unless he has the stupidity to lose sight of shore.
That glass is definitely “half empty” there. Or, how about this one from Oscar Wilde:
- “What seems to us as bitter trials are often blessings in disguise.“
But the converse is probably just as true:
- What seems to us as blessings may be bitter trials in disguise.
And then one from the great Vince Lombardi:
- “We would accomplish many more things if we did not think of them as impossible.”
- “We would accomplish many more things if we stopped pursuing those that are impossible.”
- Get back to work
This final category is the one that I personally take the greatest exception to.
Quotes of this sort, by all appearances, seem to perfectly capture the gung-ho, all-in, can-do attitude that would seem to absolutely necessary to succeed in the workplace, if not in life. For example, consider again that quote by Tim Fargo (angel investor and entrepreneur):
- “Life is like a recipe. What you put into it is what you’ll get out of it.”
Now, sure – that’s all well and good. It suggests that my own success is almost entirely up to me – that I have the biggest say in how my life turns out. And this is a very “empowering” message, to be sure. (To be honest, this particular quote almost makes me want to work harder – or at least fix dinner). It also implies that if you do happen to become wildly successful, enjoy it, because you absolutely 100% deserve it. You are just as special as you think you are, and that which you accomplish you’ve most certainly earned.
That sounds great to me too.
But what if my life—or career—doesn’t turn out quite as peachy as I’d hoped?
Who’s at fault then?
According to the logic of these sort of quotes, the short answer is: You. It is you who is to blame if your life doesn’t turn out to be the “box of chocolates” that you want it to. This next quote perhaps better illustrates my point:
- “When you blame and criticize others, you are avoiding some truth about yourself.” – Deepak Chopra
Now I’ve certainly got nothing against personal accountability, and taking responsibility for one’s actions (or inaction). If I don’t my bust my *** at work, and do the best I possibly can, I really have nobody to blame but myself if I get fired. No question.
But the fact of the matter is that circumstances can play a huge a role in how things turn out in our lives – and on occasion, others ARE to blame for our misfortune. I can still recall pictures from the news, for example, of the dazed looks on the faces of former Arthur Anderson employees as they walked out of their place of employment for the last time—carrying cardboard boxes filled with their possessions—after that company collapsed. And I bet very few of them felt they deserved to be held accountable for whoever’s decision it was to cook the books for a company called Enron. Nor do I think that, in that moment, many of them would have necessarily agreed with the following sentiment:
- Everything changes when we accept responsibility for ourselves. Stop blaming and start changing. – Unknown
But this quote nevertheless suggests that your hardships are ultimately of our own making. If you don’t like where you are in your life or career, well then, you should probably shut up, change your life, or maybe just work harder.
Even more perversely, in my opinion, “inspirational” quips such as these shift the blame for bad management practices to the very victims of those practices. After all:
- “If you don’t like how things are, change it! You’re not a tree.” – Jim Rohn
So it’s your own problem/responsibility/fault if you’re not happy with your station in life, not management’s. So get back to work, and make it happen! And what could possibly be better for a bad manager than a bunch of employees who toil away without ever complaining about how overworked, underpaid, or otherwise miserable they are – and who are instead content to pacify themselves with quotes like these which suggest that their own misery is simply a function of their own lack of effort, or poor life choices?
So what am I doing about any of this?
Well, I’ve started my own hashtag, of course.
It’s #mgmtpablum, which is short for management pablum – “pablum” meaning anything bland or overly simplistic, especially in speech or writing. And I attach it to my usually pessimistic retweets/mash-ups of inspirational quotes that randomly pop up in my Twitter feed.
For instance, take that anonymous quote from above. Instead of “Everything changes when we accept responsibility for ourselves. Stop blaming and start changing,” I’ve retweeted it as:
- Everything changes when we accept responsibility for ourselves. Stop holding others accountable, and start blaming yourself.
As for those “inspirational” quotes offered Tim Fargo, Deepak Chopra, and Jim Rohn, I offer the following rebuttals for your consideration:
- Life is like a recipe. You’re pretty much stuck with the ingredients.
- When you blame/criticize others, you give those stupid losers the feedback they need and deserve.
- Don’t like where you are? Rip out the roots you worked so hard to grow, you stupid tree.
Amused? If so, you can find many, many more of them—both the original quote, and my satirical retweet—by clicking on this link. I try to add one or two every day. Here’s a few more:
- The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you’re not going to stay where you are. – Chauncey DePew
Which I’ve retweeted as:
- The first step towards staying where you are is realizing you’re not getting anywhere.
- Life gets sooo much better when you stop caring about what others think. – Kim Garst
- Work gets sooo much harder when your boss realizes you’ve stopped caring about what he/she thinks.
- Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations. – Tim Fargo
- Difficult roads often lead you out into the middle of nowhere, and far from where you want to be.
So check it out, if you care to. Again, that hashtag is: #mgmtpablum, and I tweet at @theinsubordin8. (You can also click on the link at the top of the page.) Let me know what you like, dislike, or simply add your own to the pile.
Otherwise, see you next week.