Why motivation videos work

In an earlier post I mentioned these inspirational videos of Olympic Lifting titan Dmitry Klokov. They feature seriously toned voice-overs in Russian and an energizing synthie-soundtrack. Some also contain great ideas for back breaking workout sessions.

Many people I meet claim that Klokov is “pure motivation” and to some extent, I do agree.

Nonetheless, I remain critical of these “motivation” videos and with this post indeed want to challenge the whole genre.

Let’s take a well-known example. For me, the most high-quality motivation content is produced by Ross Enamait. Ross not only gives you inspiring images to look at and integrate into your personal exercise fantasy but comments those in an honest, knowledgeable and well-written way.

Now don’t get me wrong. Fantasy is in no way meant to be depreciative. The whole point in this sort of motivational content is that the fantasy should become reality. You internalize the image and it helps you navigate your own workout.

The salient feature of Ross’s videos and blog posts is a strong and independent attitude. All his features are hymns to self-reliance. You do not need a gym, he suggests. You do not need 20 hours a week. If you have the will, you can make this decision right now and start today.

Boom! and next thing you see is Ross lifting tree trunks in a wintry frozen forest.

All of the issues pointed out earlier apply to many motivation blogs and feeds: You see Ross training solitarily in an adverse environment. There’s snow, there’s heat. The sweating is intense. And in case you wondered: what you cannot see in the video is that Ross only had 20 minutes to work out on that particular day — something elaborated on in the accompanying post.

This sort of commitment is easy to frame in moral terms. It’s also done a lot. Ross’s approach (and those of many other motivation activists) wants to be honest, simple, pure. That’s just what passion is, they say. Relentless pursuit of the higher good.

Have you ever wondered why this works? Why does the vision of Ross lifting tree trunks in the frozen dead of winter inspire me to go out after work to do calisthenics in our neighborhood playground?

You can imagine this as a simple hammer and nail problem: Your issue is to get a nail in the wall. The tool to achieve this is a hammer. Blogs like Ross Enamait’s have a clear agenda, they want to get a nail in the wall: They want to motivate you to exercise. And the hammer they use is the image of the hero.

Ross and the motivational discourse in general address us in moral terms. It’s not just about the snow and all. It’s about a strength of character manifesting itself in strong performance. In a strange way this sort of content acknowledges us as persons with an actual life. It speaks to us of exercise but engages us beyond our bodies.

The problem I see in this sort of content is that it pictures everything in our life not associated with exercise as an obstacle, as the enemy to overcome. The strong character must persist and stay strong to arrive in the promised land of exercise. Every hero needs its dragon.

Persistence and constancy have been the attributes of heroes since antiquity. That’s why this image makes so much sense. The modern workout hero is their heir but lacks actual dragons to fight. Instead, her duty is to overcome the adversity of everyday duties and general laziness.

So far so good.

These motivational blogs and videos take a step in the right direction by addressing their audience as persons with real lives. However, the hammer they use, although useful sometimes, does not actually solve the problems at hand. It might get that nail in there most of the time but it also covers up the fact that you might not have needed one in the first place.

There is better motivation than picturing peak performers (one key issue with this was explained earlier) and imagining everyday heroes that have weathered every obstacle of their regular lives to get some deadlifting done after picking up their kids from school.

If we leave the worn-out image of solitary performance, how epic it may be, and shift our attention to something that we can fully embrace and that actually makes sense in our lives, then “motivation” is no issue at all.

Let's start a conversation on how this might be possible!

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