“Expecto Resulto!” Using Quotes Like Magic Spells Undermines True Self-Improvement

Luke Orlando
Jun 11, 2019 · 5 min read

The internet is addicted to “good quotes”.

Photo by Mert Talay on Unsplash

Even Medium Magazine itself is rife with inspirational articles touting the value of out-of-context truisms. Many of these articles will claim your “life will change” if you read these quotes. Articles like this one by Ryan Holiday are literally just a list of quotes with no other context, comment, or original content. He claims in the title that these quotes will help you “turn any problem into something great”. At the time of this writing, that article has over twelve thousand claps. That is twelve thousand claps for a list of quotes with no other content. It’s amazing news. Who knew that digesting two sentences could create real, lasting, personal improvement in your problem solving skills?

You can find articles, social media pages, entire websites, and even books dedicated solely to the collecting and sharing of quotes with no additional context or content. It’s not uncommon for these quotes to be of questionable authenticity or have no citation whatsoever. Like the quip in the photo that accompanies this article, these statements are often truisms with little to no meaning. Yet, there is a large and growing contingent of people who act like these quotes, whether original or not, are ends unto themselves — that they contain inherent wisdom that can be digested and applied with instant, life-changing results.

Why is this belief so common and why is it growing?

A recent Canadian study found that the pervasive nature of these pseudo-profound quotes can be related directly to demonstrable intelligence in reading and reflection. The inability to sort “bullshit”, as the study calls it, from actual profound meaning is a measurable quantity. The study used sentences made from random buzzwords put together in a grammatically correct way and confirmed quotes from respected individuals, then asked readers to rate the statements on a scale from “least profound” to “most profound”.

In their results, the authors state:

“ Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.”

The really damning part about this study is that, “those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective.” The very point of many of these, “Top Ten Quotes To Live Your Life By” articles, is to reflect on your life and make changes to it. What they obviously do not mention is that these quotes are nothing more than contextless sentences said by a dead guy whose work has been bastardized or misappropriated for the sake of clickbait. The very notion that quotes are meant to inspire self-reflection is undercut by the fact that only those incapable of doing so find them inspirational.

Noted author of Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars, John Green, weighed in on the subject of bad quoting when he discovered that a line from one of his own books had gone viral on Twitter.

He says:

“The line is, ‘What’s the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?’ Which, I will admit, I did write in this book, but as anyone who read it knows… I was kidding. That’s something Colin Singleton, the main character of the book- he’s kind of a child prodigy- says at the beginning of the book and he must spend the entire book learning is… bull.”

The obvious problem here is that, not only is the quote being pulled out of context, but the quote is meant to be problematic and unhelpful. It’s a statement made by an immature and supercilious child that is explicitly meant to be bad advice, but is being touted as something profound by Twitter users.

He goes on to say, “This phenomenon, it seems to me, is near universal in the internet age, which is that instead of people being misquoted, that they are miscontextualized. It’s impossible to pull a line or a sentence or even a chapter from a book and understand the meaning of that section because, as much as it pains us in this soundbite-y, twittering world, text means nothing without its context.”

But I would argue the problem is even more long lived than Mr. Green implies. We don’t need to look to Twitter to find common miscontextualization of quotes. If you have ever said, “And this above all: to thine own self be true,” then you too have fallen victim to one of the classic blunders. No, not getting involved in a land war in Asia, but miscontextualizing a quote.

This line is stated by the character Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act I, Scene iii. Yes, Shakespeare did write that in his play, but just like John Green’s quote, it has been dramatically miscontextualized. The character Polonius is speaking to Laertes and giving him advice before he leaves the country, but Polonius is meant to be understood, through the entire play, as a Grade-A moron. So any advice from him should definitely be considered suspect, but more than that, the idea that you should be true to yourself is particularly bad advice for Laertes, who is an unmitigated jerk-muffin for the entire course of the play. He is the last person on the planet who should be “true to himself”.

Indeed, the very notion that one should be true to one’s self implies that there is a root-self to which to be true. This flies in the very face of self-reflection and self improvement, but, as the Canadian study indicates, anyone who finds this idea profound probably isn’t getting high marks in the self-reflection category.

But that is the trap, and it’s easy to fall into. This addiction to quotes undermines real self-improvement because they will not only give you bad advice but will not stoke the fires of intellect enough to ignite a change in you.

True self-reflection and self-improvement takes time, effort, and a lot of pain as you slowly chip away at your imperfections like a proto-hominid knapping a flint knife. If you’re trying to improve yourself, then you will have moments of doubt and frustration as you struggle to understand a subject beyond your level. You will, like me, read The Sound and Fury by William Faulkner and be upset because you don’t get it yet, but with patience and effort you might. Quotes do not have inherent meaning. They are not intended to be consumed without context. They are not designed to sum-up a larger work in a ready-packaged format you can tweet about and look deep. Remember what the Bible said in Colossians 3:9–10, “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose”.

If you didn’t follow that link to check the source for yourself, then you haven’t really learned anything from this article, have you?

One cannot simply wave a magic wand, incant a magic spell, and be better. Quotes are, at best, a way to express a simple idea elegantly. At worst, they are misattributed falsehoods that are designed to be bad advice. So get off of BrainyQuote.com, unfollow the “Beautiful Quotes to Live By” Facebook page, and read a book. Yes, the whole book, not just the 280 characters you agreed with.

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