Over the past decade there has been a boom in the industry of “motivational speaking”.
The industry has seen a boom across both of its sectors be it relating to individual and personal struggles or those related to the business and entrepreneurial world. Irrespective of which audience these speakers address, they all seem to capitalise on the inherent challenges and difficulties of life to motivate others in a bid to assist them on their path to self-actualization.
These speakers often rely heavily on platitudes tied to resilience, patience, and hard work, clichés of “if you’re not there then you’re not working hard enough”, and “suffer today to reap the reward tomorrow”. At a superficial level these statements tie into simple psychological principles of delayed gratification, the idea that good things come to those who wait and work hard. Of course what they leave out is that delayed gratification is usually built on transparent information that empowers decision making based on known costs/rewards, information usually inaccessible in our day to day lives leaving these speeches as nothing more than parables.
The platitudes and the superficiality of this advice stems from the fact that they remain generic and un-contextualized making it easy for anyone to relate to on a certain level. However, besides providing it with its appeal, the generic state of these statements is also the source of their danger.
Help gone wrong
Resilience, patience, and hard work are all noble aspirations, however when contextualized they could paint a dark image. Resilience at a job or in a situation that consistently depletes an individual’s mental health is simply unsustainable. Patience in the face of a sustained event causing duress, be it personal or business related, is also unsustainable if left unresolved. And hard work in the face of insurmountable odds, or something as simple as an incompetent superior, will never lead to any sort of positive outcome.
On those simple yet common situations, these talks end up romanticising our own suffering as opposed to acting as a facilitator of self-actualization. They end up preaching in support of suffering and not only normalising it, but glorifying it. Suffering becomes the pedestal and barometer of or character and accomplishment, a badge of honor.
These talks also shift the focus from what is healthy to a driven sense of accomplishment often set by unattainable social standards. They justify pain and suffering for that financial goal, the vacation, the new car, completely undermining the necessity for internal balance, mental health, or intrinsic motivation which can only be found with a healthy dose of self-reflection.
Joining the industry
These platitudes quickly fall apart when you try to apply them to different contexts, a single mother working several jobs, a famine struck child, or a refugee of war, could you imagine them listening to a “motivational speaker”? Surely not.
With that in mind it becomes easy to see that the target market of motivational speakers are those with a certain “acceptable” level of suffering, the type of suffering that can be cured or stemmed with a speech.
With that suffering in of itself becomes a commoditized luxury available to mostly middle class working individuals.
This begs the question how much have we actually normalised to suffering? Why is it that we need parables to justify suffering? Perhaps we need these motivations to justify the amount of pressure we face, the fact that we are part of a large rigged system that capitalises on our own suffering?
This might seem like a blanketing statement, but if we were to investigate it a bit closer we would notice that the elements we interact with on a daily basis barely scratch the surface of nurturing us to lead healthy lives. Education is increasingly competitive, expensive, and standardised. As soon as that touch point is done you are expected to become an economic contributor via employment which through competition comes with unfavourable odds and seems to be extending as a necessity longer and longer into our age. We are expected to do all this and remain healthy while being constantly bombarded by social pressures of conformity and ideals of accomplishment that diminish our intrinsic motivation.
With all of this it’s no surprise that we have turned to quick fixes, platitudes and parables to give us glimmers of hope in an otherwise grim system sustained by our complicit suffering.
This piece is in no way an explicit attack against the motivational industry, at the end of the day the industry stems from a valid demand. But away from the motivational industry, it’s important to pause for reflection and critically assess how much of the suffering we face is acceptable to us, what parts of it we’re masking through the use of tools such as motivational talks, and more importantly whether or not we can stand for this suffering being imposed on ourselves and others around us.
Ultimately life is full of difficulty, and stress is inescapable. Suffering on the other hand is imposed, and it remains our job to expose and alleviate it.