Someone asked me the other day if I was still doing motivational speaking. I cringed. I’ve never done motivational speaking; I actually despise the term—as well as the whole notion that we need more external pressure and “motivation.” Being a motivational speaker is something I never aspire to be, even in my new effort to subsist on the kindness of others as a non-religious minister; but that said, I do aspire to be a demotivational speaker, and I’d like to share with you why that is the case.

First, a paragraph of disclaimers: I don’t hate money; I like money. Accumulating it was once a primary goal for me (and the reversal of that philosophy may have been a giant mistake I am rationalizing here). I also know that money isn’t inherently good or bad; money doesn’t kill people, people kill people. I know there are warm and wonderful families involved in travel sports. Yes, we need to be realistic and earn a living. No, not everyone should study the philosophy of wealth redistribution, sit and meditate, or follow Jesus’ commandment to the disciples to toss off all their worldly possessions and follow him to do cultic work (such broad neo-stoicism could destroy lives and make the world worse off). Yes, ambition helps us to survive and thrive. Yes, ambitious hyper people create great jobs, and produce much that benefits society.

Note however that most of these ambitious types are motivated from within, intrinsically. Our mistake is in thinking we should push harder to motivate others from the outside, that it works, and that the outcome is happiness.

Problems with Extrinsic Motivation

 

If I tell you that you need to get motivated today, what comes to mind?  My guess is that your mind doesn’t jump to meditation, philosophy, religion, meaning, compassion, reading a good book, charity, quiet time, enrichment, or a stroll through the park to smell the roses or figure out how to better feed or care for the hungry. Does it?

If we are honest about it, we must admit that when our achievement-obsessed society conventionally talks about “motivation,” we are talking about pursuit of greater material wealth, status, recognition, and achievement that is heavily based upon the external assessments of others—not our intrinsic sense of wellbeing; it’s not cool to subsist, no matter how centered, happy, and “at peace” it makes you. When we talk of achievement, we are not talking about experiencing the depth of our humanity, investing in human relationships, finding internal peace, finding profound meaning through our connection with other living things, discovering our core self, finding our bliss (to use Joseph Campbell’s words), or being self-aware about what intrinsically motivates us and gives our life meaning. Rather, we are talking about motivating people to play a game that evolution did not well equip them to play, one that many don’t really—deep in their hearts—even want to play, one that will likely require submitting to debt to play (if not  born to a well-off family), and one that can easily enslave them if they choose to play it. The unfortunate reality is that our quest for meaning and purpose in life often gets badly confused with our quest for material things, status, and recognition—much of which we cannot afford, and much of which results from external motivations and social forces that may not serve our happiness well.

Would you sacrifice your spouse and family, give up your mental health and edification, sacrifice the beauty of deep friendships or a social life for travel basketball? Have sleepless nights worrying about finances and payments on a second home? A boat?

Mom’s Advice Still Applies

 

Perhaps upon further reflection, ambition itself should not be immune from moderation and discipline, though it seems in our culture that often it is held as such. Perhaps like many sides of our human nature, ambition is an evolved trait—like egoism; self-centeredness; self-confidence; in-group, tribal bias; or being horny—which can present both a beneficial side, and a darker one. Maybe it is a trait that must be tamed and transcended in order for us to truly be all that we can be as people who are complete, whole, rounded, centered, loving, feeling, compassionate, alive, and fulfilled in our potential in the truest sense—not just the conventional and social sense. Maybe the highlighting of these attributes is yet another virtue of religious systems of thought that is underrated by we who are atheists?

The Case & the Costs

 

Yes, the Reverend Stephen L. Gibson has a mission to “improve the wellbeing of humanity through the promotion of social, emotional, and intellectual growth”; but no, I can’t see where any part of that mission could ever involve rah-rah “motivation”; embracing your personal power; thinking your way out of cancer; extolling a bulimia-inducing idolatry of thinness; violating our mothers’ advice for moderation in all things—to the extent I can’t eat what I want in reasonable portions; or offering sadistic advice that destroying your joints by pounding them on the pavement eight miles per day until you’re suicidal is somehow vital to your wellbeing—complete with the stress and dread of anticipating the next time you have to endure it.

To the contrary, I’d like to share a few additional thoughts about why furthering the hype of self-help and “motivation” is misguided, ineffective, and even destructive—at least in the way that our culture promotes, hypes, harps on, and defines success so heavily in material terms, and in terms of “achievement” (which is usually measured material terms). I will argue that through our obsessive-compulsive, neurotic, goods-chasing delusion about the nature of what motivates us and how we find meaning in life, we have sold ourselves a bill of goods. This has led to ever greater stress, perhaps even illness, and certainly to many death-bed regrets—at least until the economic music of our ponzi and debt-driven economy stops playing, at which time we might actually regain our sanity, even if by accidental necessity. Could this be the silver lining to what many predict is coming economically? 

Until then, Americans will continue to outwork even the Japanese, who coined the term “death by overwork”. Our “Tiger Moms” will insist that anything instrument other than piano is unacceptable … and that we must practice thirty-four hours per day, in between pounding our joints on the road and studying hard to get into Harvard. This comes despite emerging research from people like Bryan Caplan—who as in the audio interview here explains that good, emerging research indicates that regardless of parenting approach or degree of strictness, in the end genetics play a much larger role in “success.” Kids turn out the same either way—so we should bloody relax.

But instead, our fifth-generation immigrants (mutts like me) will insist that our kids should never have a moment to play with an erector set, chase butterflies, sell lemon-aide to merely a few kind strangers whilst reflecting on summer insects, or god-forbid be bored and pick up a Nancy Drew mystery. No, we true Americans play travel soccer while working with a summer tutor, spend every weekend on the road, and destroy marriages and organic family fun in the process. We believe our kids were born to be Olympic gymnasts (that gym owner listens to motivation speakers, by the way, and saw your gold card); we drive the family further into debt; run to music lessons after games; oh, and we structure any remaining time with over-the-top stimulation, travel, amusement parks, or entertainment. Of course there is a segment of society that can’t afford to live this travel-hockey way—but ignore them for a moment; everyone else does. 

As the rich clearly get richer and unknowingly enslave the shrinking middle class with college debt, consumer debt, mortgage debt, and any other form of debt through which the indentured crew can be driven to keep up and work harder and longer—while the companies wave their latest ultra-profitable gadgets in our eyes like a pedophile with candy, does it occur to us that this entire hamster-wheel, Prozac-laden existence plays right into the hands of the ultra-rich puppeteers? “Gotta re-inflate the debt bubble and get people spending again,” they keep telling us. But do we really?

Perspective 

 

We believe we need bigger houses, bigger toys, and bigger boats. Which reminds me of the story of the poor-but-content South American fisherman who lives a quiet and happy life with his wife near the sea. He is approached by a banker and told he can borrow money to buy more boats, and thus hire more people, to make more money, to buy a bigger house, in order to someday perhaps retire and fish quietly and contentedly, living happily with his wife, close to the sea. (Ahhh bankers; always trying to get a cut of everything by writing more loans.)

What happens to a child who has never been bored? What does that brain look like? How is it cheated? How are we taught to be self-sufficient with no time to think, read, create, write a play, make up a new sport, discover and discuss current events with the family, catch a funny-as-hell movie together, or watch a great TED lecture online? (See, I’m hardly a Luddite.) Are these really the great inventors and innovators of tomorrow, who will keep America alive and sustain its role as the great leader in creativity? What are we really teaching ourselves and our kids about this fragile, short span of time we call our lives? How could we possibly benefit from any more motivational speeches that extol the virtues of this type of extrinsic motivation, verses the intrinsic kind that Daniel H. Pink so clearly illustrates is behind real achievement?  (See Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.)

You Know What Matters

 

What are we saying and teaching ourselves about human relationships, which are clearly the most important elements of life? If you disagree, just pause for a minute and picture a world where all humans are actually robots, who cannot talk or interact emotionally with you (I know you may have one or two co-workers for whom that description is a scary fit). You can do your job, but you can never have a human relationship with anyone—at work or at home. You have nobody to share thoughts with; nobody to celebrate your victories and mourn your losses with; nobody to snuggle with, laugh with, or socialize with. No kids to bother you. How would that feel?

Push come to shove, humans are social animals, and I am convinced that the greatest meaning we can derive from life would not exist but for our relationships with each other. And for that we don’t need more things, motivation, achievements, or distractions from life; we need fewer! We need to experience life. Honestly, is our behavior and “motivational” mindset teaching and affirming what we value most? Our connectedness? Our social time in the village? Or do we favor emails, toys we don’t have time to use, cottages that sit empty, and more keys and responsibility to more locks and obligations than we could ever possibly use?

The True Danger

 

The last one hundred years of industrial revolution have brought great things. The time since Gutenberg’s printing press in the fifteenth century set the stage for these amazing advances. The transition from hunter-gatherer (in a world whose entire population numbered only in the thousands of people) to city-dwellers with televisions, whose lives play out on top of human anthills, occurred just before that printing press—or electricity—was invented. And before all of that was over 99.99% of history! These times are new. Very new. Blind ambition and 24×7 stimulation are very new. They are unprecedented, and present amazing advances and opportunities. But our nature means they present pitfalls and dangers, and I can think of no pitfall greater than that of a wasted day, a wasted hour, or certainly a wasted life—spent chasing a game deep into the matrix. A false game at that! As if you’ve landed a staring role in “The Truman Show,” but won’t ever even realize it! 

It’s your life, if you are internally motivated to run 150 m.p.h. with your hair on fire, collecting things and running marathons and beating people at many games—even if you then give back 5% or 20%—I don’t care. Knock yourself out. I’m not against, you.  In fact if you are intrinsically motivated, I’m all for you! That’s your nature, your bliss, and that’s great! But don’t assume everyone should be like you, or could be so driven.

For these reasons I am rethinking my own participation in this culture of material success. I, for one, am plenty full of extrinsic pressure, self-help, motivational speeches, and plain old empty nonsense. Yes, there is a time and place for inspiration, and sometimes a slight push from the external world can help you discover an intrinsic spark that turns to a flame. But that’s more Hollywood than reality; too many other forces and variables are at play, and reality is that camel’s back was going to break, regardless of which straw was added last. In other words, you would have gone in that direction of your bliss anyway. And if you are an intrinsically motivated, hyper, ambitious contributor to society to begin with, you don’t need external motivation anyway. It may be a quick and fun, caffeine-like jolt, but it’s more entertainment than it is life-changing. 

The world is full enough of motivational speakers; I, for one, will not join their ranks. Extrinsic motivation is mostly an empty promise that does not last, and rarely leads to the happiness or contentedness that we seek. Often it misleads us, or serves the interests of those trying to motivate us to buy the books, re-inflate the bubble, get our vote, or take out the loan.

So for the most part I say screw external motivation—and by that I mean the motivation imposed upon you by others and generally worshiped, without critical scrutiny, as being a good thing. To that end, motivational speakers are too often the symbol of the hype and overselling of that which has already been oversold in our culture, and on which the return is not all it’s cracked up to be. We are already far too motivated in this “material and accomplishment” sense. No, we can’t be careless; and we can’t take big risks in uncertain financial times. But we can re-prioritize our spending, our actions, our intentions, and our time. We can stop with the obsession with “achievement” in Western culture. Fat people, monks, quiet neighbors who work factory jobs, and cerebral geeks who emerge only on solstices are not only people—who incidentally should be admired and honored for surviving and thriving amidst life’s challenges like everyone else; they just might win the real game in the end—the game of joy, enlightenment, beauty, depth of experience, compassion, and love.

 

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(Stephen L. Gibson is a great cocktail party guest, and founder of the truth.bloomfire.com social learning community. He is also the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth via the popular Truth-Driven Thinking podcast program. Steve also posts random thoughts via his Perspectives blog. © 2011, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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