The Inspiration-Industrial Complex

Photo by Matt Lamers on Unsplash

I was hoping this would be a rant against inspirational content on the Internet because it’s getting excessive, but in doing so I’ve just written a success article of my own.


I know.

Well, you can call me a hypocrite, but read this at your own risk.

I am not one to get a rise out of motivational and inspirational speeches easily. It’s not that I don’t believe in them (there are quite a few that have left a mark on me) but that also doesn’t mean that I don’t have a problem with them.

Is that bad? Does it make me cynical, or just realistic?

I mean, as human beings, we feed off of motivational listicles and inspirational everything. We live off of songs and quotes and blog posts because they make us feel good. They make us want to do something with our lives. We want to become Successful.

I’m sure you all know that feeling — it’s ineffable, and my description of it does it no justice at all.

There’s a reason why I tend to roll my eyes whenever somebody tells me to watch another TED talk or read another Instagram quote. That feeling you get — a budding feeling of “motivation” — is really just a fleeting sense of accomplishment after rehabilitating your faux drive that was on the verge of starvation.

Motivation is a lot like willpower. It comes and goes as it pleases, never around when you need it the most. To rely on it to carry on through life is like trusting your memory and “smartness” to replace the hours of studying needed to cruise through an exam.

But why do we crave this motivation? Do we really need it to achieve this elusive success that is unique to everyone or what success is supposed to be?

They start to hammer this definition — no, fantasy — of success into our brains the minute we begin our education. They have all the insightful quotes from FDR, MLK, and Frederick Douglass hanging on posters in the hallways. They show us the videos of Steph Curry and of the football players at the Super Bowl at every assembly, exploiting how so many people get so fired up about sports. They bring in the people who went to UPenn, Cornell, Northwestern, MIT, and Georgetown because they know nearly everyone wants to go to a top 20 school.

We are already exposed to countless “success stories” by the time we graduate. Nobody actually says this of course, but it’s conveyed in perfect English:
Be like them.
Copy them.
Replicate them.

We don’t graduate as adults; we graduate as children. We may have grown and aged, but our behavior is the same. We listen and watch, we obey, and then we copy the greatest examples we’ve known.

“These next four years will determine the rest of your lives, so do not take them for granted.
“I am looking at the next next Henry Fords, the next Oprahs, the next Obamas, the next Jerry Seinfelds, the next Stephen Kings, and the next Michael Bloombergs.”
- Just About Every High School Principal

When I was in elementary school, there was this immense fear of being a “nobody”. So of course everyone would use it as an insult, labeling everyone else a “nobody”, all because they weren’t smart enough or hard-working enough or outstanding enough. It was a pyramid with only two, segregated tires.

From a young age, I began to see success as a hierarchy, something that only a select few accomplished while the majority were just… lesser.

At least that’s what the American public school system was relentlessly preaching to me.

But then when I went back into society after the bell rang and had been released from the false façade that was my school, I realized that the narrative I had been hearing and seeing and reading didn’t add up.

My brainwashed conscience started to doubt — what about that video I saw about that C student who ended up starting his own business? What about about all those college kids who dropped out and thrived as entrepreneurs? What about that story about the girl nobody knew existed who graduated with the lowest GPA in her class but is now a millionaire after creating some revolutionary antibiotic? Whataboutwhataboutwhataboutwhatabout-

So… what was everyone saying about nobodies?

Success isn’t an hierarchy, and me just saying so is futile after the exact opposite has been living without rent our minds since the age of five. Despite my best wishes, you can’t undo decades of that kind of indoctrination.

Success isn’t a hierarchy, neither is it a mystery formula that, with just the right factors and the right timing, can be replicated.

But that is the mindset we get from inspirational content.

Before I ruffle people’s feathers too much, let me explain:
The reason why we feel so good after seeing inspirational content is because it is designed to make us feel like it is speaking directly to us. The beautiful scenery behind a calligraphy font and the nicely strung words to assure us that life is hell and that we should be comforted by this notion because of what comes after it — it all makes a replendent piece of art, really.

Then we feel like we’re on the road to being successful just by having consumed this content. You, that post would whisper in your ear. You deserve a better life than this.

So we go along with somebody else’s narrative, somebody else’s words, somebody else’s life. In doing so, you’re diminishing your own narrative before even finding it and replacing it with the one that’s most desirable.

I think we all misinterpret what inspirational quotes are for. Sure, we’re supposed to want to do what it says, which is to be resilient. All inspirational quotes, videos, speeches, and the like all convey that same message, whether it be happiness, hard work, success, loss, friendship, life lessons, or whatever it is that’s coming your way.

So why don’t we call these resilience quotes?

Because of two words associated with it — want and become.

All the content out there wants you to want to become resilient, instead of wanting to do the work to be so. It also wants you to want to become motivated, every single time.

By become, I mean you never really stay motivated or resilient because the feelings aren’t genuine. You should only have to “become” once, and after that only be, You are so obsessed with the results, with achieving and acquiring, that you can’t imagine a world in which your work never ends.

“Inspiration” is a nice, flowery word and it suits it purpose. It is a thing you cleanse your thoughts with in order to feel less guilty about never getting anything done, a thing that we abuse to function — like a lot of material things we “need”. Resilience indicates turning the right cheek and not going home after perpetual suffering; it is daunting and intimidating.

And let’s dispel this “success story” blather. Success isn’t a story, or a book that ends with a clean happily-ever-after with end pages and the back cover. That term pushes the narrative that success is just about the result, not the work. It is the latter you must be in love with, it is the only way, for success isn’t some grandiose milestone you chase until you get; it is your life.

Besides, I think it’s more than safe to say that the people we look up to now weren’t looking at pretty pictures and quotes, and listening to speeches in hopes that their innovation would manifest.

This is all kind of funny because ever since the study community exploded on YouTube, people have been doing these hours-long livestreams in a futile attempt to “motivate” others to study. In reality, the viewers would just procrastinate cramming for their AP exams.

I know people will continue to post inspirational content, and other people will continue to read it because of its high demand. You and I will continue to hypocritically look at the little content that actually moves us.

But we need to stop pretending that it will actually help us or anyone else.