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Are motivational talks useful?

Motivation is a thriving and growing industry. Millions listen to the most popular inspirational lectures, but do they ever realize what is going on?

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

The discovery of the happiest human, a few years ago, was convincing to the extent that the person turned out to be a man. Everything else was suspect. He was French. Yet another European who had fled family and civilization to don maroon robes and live as a monk in the Himalayas. About such men, the Kerala police would say that they are only hiding from their police. The fact is that a neuroscientist studied Matthieu Ricard for over a decade, even attached many electrodes to his skull, and claimed that the frequency of the gamma waves emanating from his brain was unusual. That meant nothing really. The link between a brain’s gamma waves and consciousness is nothing more than popular pseudo-science. But journalists declared him “the happiest man". Ricard then travelled to unhappy parts of the world and delivered talks on happiness.

Thousands listen to him, an act they consider very important, possibly transformative. He is not a charlatan, he is a philosopher who has highly influential notions about happiness. He is funny and wise. But is he as useful to his listeners as they imagine? Are they mistaking entertainment for a life hack?

His central message is that we should want less and thus find happiness. It is hard to argue with the message, but then it is a familiar one. For thousands of years, men in unusual costumes have said the same thing. Even Baloo to Mowgli in The Jungle Book: “Look for the bare necessities. The simple bare necessities. Forget about your worries and your strife."

Ricard is a bit more complex than Baloo; he says that any brain can be altered through mind exercises, which is a reasonable and an important argument. But still, are people transformed when they hear such words? Or do they remain the same because they do not possess the neurological system that can nudge them to make the choices Ricard made for himself?

What Ricard and all motivational speakers, including Baloo, are actually saying is, “Be like me. Why can’t you be like me?" And that is among the most futile instructions in the history of human communication.

There are broadly five kinds of inspirational talks: the billionaire’s advice to college students; a celebrity’s triumph against a misfortune; a social underdog’s passage to success; a successful person’s praise of failure and losers; and a general suggestion that you must do the very opposite of whatever it is that you are doing right now.

One of the most famous inspirational speeches was delivered by the co-founder of Apple, the late Steve Jobs, at Stanford in 2005. He was on an ascent once again. It was before the launch of the iPhone but the new Mac, iPod and Pixar had already promised him a place in history. One morning, a year earlier, he had been diagnosed with an incurable form of pancreatic cancer, but in the evening that same day, the doctors realized that it was a rare, curable form of cancer. When he delivered the commencement address, Jobs did not know that he was not off the hook yet. He spoke about death, being a college dropout, and failure. He told the students: “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle." He said it again later, “Don’t settle." His most famous words were probably, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice."

The speech has been viewed online millions of times and its text has probably been read by as many. But I assume that an overwhelming majority of his audience, especially the Stanford students, do not love their present jobs, they settle every day, their lives are filled with compromises and they raise loving families purely through their professional caution and artistic defeats. Most of Jobs’ listeners, and the youth who will listen to him in the future, will live “someone else’s life" because they cannot come up with their own; they will be “trapped in dogma", in fact they would be lost without dogma; and they will “let the noise of others’ opinions drown out" their own because they do not have strong opinions. They are not Steve Jobs, hence they will never be him. Jobs did attempt to inspire but he was, in reality, asking people to be like him.

So did film-maker George Lucas when he said, “We are all living in cages with the door wide open." I know people who love the quote, who mention it in their brief bios, but they have spent their whole lives locking their cage doors because the forest outside is scary. The world is filled with people who would cherish billionaire Richard Branson’s declaration that “you don’t learn to walk by following rules", but they are the same conformists who torture the few who try to break the rules.

Jobs, in his speech, also told the students: “For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."

This part of his speech is curious because he begins the strand with a contradictory view—“if you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right." This, in fact, is the view of the majority. That when it is not the last day of your life, it is extremely dangerous to live as if it is.

The transformative powers of motivational talks appear to be vastly overstated. But they certainly are not merely entertainment that people misunderstand as modern scripture. The most precious thing about a motivational talk is not motivation, it is something else.

Poetry has failed to capture most of the world because it calls itself poetry. But when it names itself pop or rock or folk, it becomes mainstream culture. Literature is most powerful when it is not called that. And that is what the finest motivational talks do.

Couched as self-improvement, motivational talks take the beauty and power of literature and its ability to sting with insights, to a vast innocent audience that asks the most foolish question of our times, “What is the takeaway?" People then sit and listen to billionaires and monks, thinking they are in the sway of profitable inspiration, but in reality it is the trance of the good old story.

This is not to say that motivational talks do not motivate at all, and that they have none of the materialistic uses that people who ask for “takeaway" wish for. Such talks do transform but not everyone, not the millions. It transforms a few, the exceptional who are as talented or odd as the orators. That is why the most misleading aspect of a great motivational talk is that it is popular.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People. The writer tweets at @manujosephsan

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