A common approach used by motivational speakers to help encourage their audience is to give examples of notable achievers and their achievements. The bigger the achievement, the more obstacles that opposed the achievement, the better. The story of a man or woman simply living a contented life and raising contented children is eschewed in favor of rags to riches stories and tales of mentally or physically handicapped people overcoming against all odds.
While this approach of using dramatic success stories to motivate people can be effective, it is not universally so. The inherent problem with the approach, as typically practiced, is in the poor selection and erroneous over-simplifications of the achiever and his/her achievements. The purpose of citing the success of others is to show the de-motivated that they too can achieve, that others who had similar (or more severe) challenges were able under somewhat similar circumstances to achieve truly impressive outcomes. With the proper selection of achiever and achievement this method is highly effective. All humans respond to this general approach, it is fundamental to how we learn. We are all more likely to attempt something we know others to have done successfully (or nearly been successful doing). However, if the achiever and achievement chosen for use as a motivational example is inappropriate, the motivatee will not respond, and may become highly suspicious of the motivator's abilities to motivate.
The selection criteria for a suitable achiever and achievement is quite simple. The achievement must not be heavily dependent on chance. Any achievement must contain within its story a basic recipe for success such that others could duplicate it. And, equally importantly, the achiever's success must not have been dependent on choices that the motivatee would refuse to make (on the grounds of moral, religious objections).
An example of a violation of the first criteria would be a fortune made from a piece of land a person inherited that happened to become valuable by way of a highway expansion. That person's tale of achievement is not a useful example. No choices of any particular merit were involved in the achievement.
An example of a violation of the second criteria would be a local drug dealer who made $1,500,000 in one year without having more than a 7th grade education. While the financial achievement is impressive, particularly against a backdrop of limited tuition, few motivatees would be willing to engage themselves in the illicit narcotics trade.
While these examples were artificially created to highlight the issues, and may seem extreme, the problem is that most achievers and achievements raised by motivational speakers are no better, they all rely upon over-simplifications which merely hide the violations.
It is often argued that complicating negative elements within the stories of achievers and their achievements can be ignored, arguing that the negative issue was not central to the achievement. The danger with this argument is that it fails to acknowledge that these strongly negative elements are often common byproducts/side-effects of the very personalities that are required by those who succeed. As a crude example, studies show that high achievers are more likely to be unfaithful to their wives/husbands. Some of this increased infidelity can be explained by the greater opportunities for unfaithfulness afforded to those achievers (products of their money, power, position, travel, etc.), but surely the most significant factor is their own psychology, which in an achiever usually places a far greater value on their own needs than those of others.
Below is a list of examples of some people and companies often used as motivational references which possess hidden violations of the motivational criteria. References to them invariably contain gross over-simplifications which hide elements of luck and immorality that makes them unduplicable for most motivatees.
- Apple - While a huge success in most people's eyes, I fear for a world in which others duplicate Apple's approach to technology and business. I think a reasonable argument can be made that Apple is highly immoral in the constraints they place on their end-users, in their monopolistic practices in business, in their treatment of business partners, in their tax dodging, in their use of underpaid and overworked labor, and more.
- YouTube - YouTube is the de facto video sharing site, a startup that within a few years was acquired by Google for $1.65 billion in stock. The founders of YouTube, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, certainly have achieved. But is their tale one that should be told in a motivational context? Was their success largely independent of luck? Was their success moral? YouTube was purchased by Google because of its popularity and ubiquity. But why was it popular? The reason is quite simple, illegal content. YouTube contained (and contains) volumes of pirated TV/movies/music/etc. and much of the content people created to upload included pirated music tracks. YouTube made (and continues to make) token efforts to remove copyright infringing content, but they do little more than mandated by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA does not make a website responsible for the actions of their users so long as the website removes infringing material when notified of it. YouTube has been the target of numerous lawsuits related to the violations of copyright on their site, including a $1 billion dollar suit involving Viacom. YouTube may continue to prevail in court, hiding behind the DMCA, but this hardly seems to absolve them of the immorality involved in profiting from illegal activity. Other sites doing essentially the same thing (sharing/hosting video) have not been so lucky, being shut down and sued into oblivion, see the ongoing tale of MegaUpload, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Megaupload for comparison.
- Skype has been a marvelous success, connecting the world with audio/video conferencing. While they would seem to be an amazing motivational story, the reality is a little more complicated. Skype was founded by the owners of Kazaa, a peer to peer platform shut down for illegally sharing movies, music, and software. The founders took their million in ill-gotten gains, their celebrity, and founded a new company to essentially launder their money/reputation. While there are no doubt valuable lessons present in the tale of Skype's success, growth, etc. the overall story is unsuitable and unadaptable.
- Napster is now one of the popular music streaming services, but they began as one of the first peer-to-peer systems for illegally sharing music, movies, tv shows, software, etc. They could not be now what they are without having been what they were.
- Google - By any reasonable account Google is a huge success story, but throughout its short life it's also been involved in quite a but of arguably immoral activities, the scope of which is too big to get into here.
- Microsoft - Microsoft is in many ways a success stories, but its success has been achieved through various arguably unethical methods. For example, they have bought up competing companies only to shut them down. They have used their near monopoly on home and business desktop PCs to dominate indirectly related software products, such as their integration of Internet Explorer into the OS so as to destroy the market share of Netscape. They have given away various products of theirs for free (or at deep discounts) so as to destroy competitors. There are no doubt specific elements of the Microsoft, Google, etc. story which may be valuable for motivation but they must be picked carefully.
- Einstein - Inarguably brilliant, but is his story one which others can or should? He cheated routinely on his wife, had an illegitimate child he neglected (to the point where no one knows what happened to the child), married his cousin, and had two other children who felt profoundly neglected. Dissection of his brain showed particular structural elements which probably explain elements of his success, which makes his story less useful when told to the vast majority of people who lack those advantages.
- Thomas Jefferson - A brilliant man, but his treatment of people as property, his cheating on his wife, his fathering children with at least one slave, etc. make him a person I would hope people would not emulate. Surely Jefferson's selfish, private drives mirror his professional, public drives. Strip Jefferson of his selfishness in his personal life and no doubt his other accomplishments would have suffered.
- Lance Armstrong - Clearly a high achieving, dedicated athlete, his Tour de France legacy will not soon be forgotten. But while he seems like a great example for us all, certain questions exist. The doping allegations against him seem more likely valid than not. And when one considers his tremendous ability it's hard to ignore that his genetics have been found to explain much of his ability. His heart is unusually large, his lungs are unusually capable. He has been more scientifically investigated than perhaps any athlete. While his conditioning allows him to maximize his genetic abilities, and that is worthy of praise, one can't help but acknowledge that without those genetic gifts he would likely never have been a world class cyclist. And if he had not performed so well early in life, he may never have devoted himself to the sport.
- John Nash - Nobel prize winner, as shown in A Beautiful Mind. The movie's message is that John Nash was able to use his beautiful mind not only to conquer his severe mental demons but also to achieve his world changing Game Theory equations. But would it be responsible to encourage other schizophrenics to do likewise? If Josh Nash could conquer his schizophrenia without medication why shouldn't all such patients try? John Nash's triumph over schizophrenia can hardly be called a total success, nor did it come about without the specific and lingering injury of quite a few people around him. His process of self-curing occurred over a decade or more, and involved periodic, reluctant inpatient treatments with medication and electroshock. How many schizophrenics encouraged to go off their medication to do battle with their own psyches would take their lives within the ten years Nash required to treat himself? In the case of John Nash the movie also overlooked his homosexual experiences, the illegitimate child he had and refused to care for, his treatment of the legitimate child he did care for, his divorce/real relationship with his wife, and many other things (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2001/12/a_real_number.html). And so the question must be asked, is John Nash really a good person to laud in the context of a motivational speech? Do we want to people large numbers of people with serious mental illnesses to believe that they can conquer their mental disorders on their own? Can we not argue that his decision to value personal mathematics achievement over the health and welfare of his wife and children is not sufficient to deny him credit as a suitable example for those needing motivating?
By attempting to show that many high achievers are not suitable as exemplars for motivational speakers I am not trying to suggest that there exist no achievers who are suitable. Quite the contrary, I believe there exist a wealth of suitable achievers, though I think many are ignored by motivational speakers for not having achieved "enough". The problem with the highest achievers is that they appear far more likely to possess strongly negative attributes/character flaws. There are far more and far less flawed individuals who would serve as better role models, and it is they who should be celebrated and used as encouragement to motivatees.
The damage done by poor selection of achievers is that the motivatee loses faith in his being able to achieve without becoming someone he is not (lucky or immoral). This loss of faith is hard to repair.