How Inspirational Videos Can Hurt You

by | Oct 9, 2012 | Science of Happiness | 73 comments

Giavanni Ruffin loves football.

He did everything he was supposed to: went to a college with a good sports program, played ball and played it well.

Unfortunately he also made some poor personal choices which resulted in getting arrested. He was suspended from playing for a semester, the year he hoped to get picked during the NFL draft. It didn’t happen.

For many, this would be the end of the dream. They would wander off, get a regular job, and reminisce about what could have been.

Ruffin, on the other hand, upped his game.

He became a free agent, and then made a video that went viral and got his name in front of millions of people, including some in the business. At this writing, he was in talks with some professional teams.

But let’s be absolutely clear about one thing: this video is meant to help Ruffin, not you.

It’s a creative approach to get noticed in an extremely competitive sport after he had already missed his best opportunity. In that sense, it’s brilliant. It’s a great example of how to use unconventional methods to get hired.

The problem with this video, and so many inspirational videos like it, is that it perpetuates a lot of myths that can be downright dangerous to those who get caught up in the rah-rah moment.

After coaching hundreds of unhappy people through career change, believe me when I say: the unstated assumptions and advice in this video can lead you seriously astray.

In this post, I highlight how these motivational messages can hurt you and how to stay on track to achieving your own dreams.

How well-intentioned advice sets you up for failure

In a recent blog post (where I initially saw the video), Jon Acuff points out

3.5 million kids play little league football in the United States.

1,696 people play football in the NFL.

Mathematically speaking, that means that 0.048% of the kids who put on a helmet in elementary school will put on one professionally.

So what about the other 99.952% of kids who don’t make it? Are they failures? Or just lazy?

No one says that. Not out loud. And I can pretty much guarantee that’s not what Jon Acuff meant when he wrote those words (I happen to be a big fan of his work and message).

But in a society obsessed with wealth and celebrity, success for many becomes a moving target they never achieve. The message subtly works its way into your unconscious.

Inspirational videos often encourage unsustainable standards. There’s the unspoken message that if you’re not number one (or in that 0.048%), you’re a failure.

The worst part is, we don’t even realize it’s happening. We get caught up in the music and the high of the moment, thinking, “Yeah, I can do that!”

Then, when the demands for attaining the goal outstrip your ability or dedication, you blame yourself. You don’t see it for what it is–someone else’s version of success.

These videos seem motivating at best or harmless at worst. Unfortunately, it has the potential to erode self confidence instead of build it.

An alternative: Define success for yourself

If a genie gave me a size 4 body, yeah, I’d take it. Ditto a million dollars and a big, glass house overlooking the Thames. But that doesn’t make it a dream I’m willing to work for. That makes it a handout I’d gladly accept.

But it’s easy to confuse the two, isn’t it? If I daydream about wearing smaller pant sizes enough, pretty soon I’ll start giving myself a hard time about not achieving it. I’ll eventually start to feel like a failure for a dream that wasn’t even mine.

What I tell my clients is to ask themselves: if I don’t achieve this goal, will I feel like a failure?

For example, if Ruffin doesn’t get signed with the NFL, is he a failure?

My guess is that most people would say no. But try to get to the bottom of why. Is it because he tried hard? Or is it because, regardless of where he goes next, he achieved an admirable level of mastery?

Now apply the same idea to your own career and definition of success. Understand what motivates you and makes you proud. Define your core values and live by them.

The good news is that success is a lot more achievable than you think.

The dangers of extreme success

Many people are convinced that being at the top of their industry is, in fact, their dream.

In the parable in the video, the guru says

When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful.

It’s really easy to watch the video and believe success means dreaming bigger and sacrificing more.

If you want to see where that kind of tunnel vision can lead you, watch this video where cyclist Sky Christopherson talks about how his Olympic mindset nearly killed him when he tried to apply it to the world of business. It’s hard to imagine someone who used to be an elite athlete almost suffering from a heart attack, but lack of sleep and high stress can take anyone down.

But it goes beyond sports. Celebrities give up privacy and the ability to trust people’s good intentions–everyone becomes a hanger-on. Executives often climb the corporate ladder at the expense of their families.

I once heard Penelope Trunk say, “If you don’t want their life, you don’t want their job.”

When you start to think of it that way, true success (along with happiness and fulfillment) becomes a bit more complicated than most inspirational videos would lead you to believe.

An alternative: don’t just think bigger, think different.

If I tell you that there’s more to success than money or fame, you’ll nod your head in agreement. The question remains though: what more is there?

As an example, here’s how Ralph Waldo Emerson looks at success (with a hat tip to Jonathan Fields)

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a little better; whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is the meaning of success.

That doesn’t mean Emerson’s definition is better than Ruffin’s. The point is that success is personal. No one can or should tell you how to define or achieve it.

Staying true to your own definition, however, won’t be easy. You’ll constantly find yourself lured back to more traditional definitions, like by inspirational videos.

Resist that urge with everything you’ve got.

Are you killing yourself for someone else’s dream?

The point of this post isn’t that you should make yourself smaller, or only set “achievable” goals, or resign yourself to an uninspired life.

The point is this: There is a difference between a dream you’re willing to work for and a handout you’d gladly accept (so long as it doesn’t require any real effort).

Because let’s face it: all Great Work takes, well… work. And if not outright sacrifice, at least some trade-offs.

So before you go all in, I urge you to ask yourself, “Is this really my dream?”

I don’t believe most people actually want the life and the sacrifices that come with shooting for that 0.048%. In fact, I’d argue many don’t even want the life of the 0.048% once it’s obtained.

That level of accomplishment requires an intense and exclusive focus.

There’s very little time for relationships, for hobbies, for travel – many of the things that have proven to increase our levels of happiness.

If you have a dream that gets you out of bed when the rest of the world enjoys a lazy Sunday, that keeps you going when the going gets tough, that means more to you than life itself – who am I to stop you?

But don’t kill yourself for someone else’s dream.

6 Inspirational videos that actually help

Instead, seek out inspiration that encourages you to live life on your own terms.  

Here are six of my favorite videos that inspire you to find your own dream. What I like about them is they make us think differently, not just bigger. (You can download them below.)

They remind us that success is not just about accomplishment, but meaning.

Build up the courage and confidence so you’re not driven to impress everyone but yourself.

But most importantly, don’t ever let someone tell you that you and your efforts aren’t enough to qualify as a success.

You get to decide that for yourself.


6 Inspirational Videos That Actually Help

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