Why You Should Stop Wasting Time On Absurd Motivational Articles

If the idea of one more rah-rah puff piece on building a successful startup or being happier in your career makes your brain hurt, you're not alone. Here are some great options for boosting your motivation without the saccharine OD.

The next time someone tells me to believe in myself, take the leap, and follow my dreams, I'm going to punch them in the face.

These sorts of rah-rah guides to self-actualization seem to be a bit of a trend in entrepreneurship articles of late. I'm not sure when it started exactly, but it's become so saccharine that the glycemic index might need to be recalibrated. Don't get me wrong, it's not that the ability to dream big and a sunny disposition are bad qualities (far from it). But not everyone's wired that way—at least not constantly—and that doesn't make the rest of us less worthy or capable of success.

That's what bothers me about these sorts of bright-side preachers (editor's note: Fast Company, no stranger to career boosterism, recognizes the irony here). It's not that they're trying to motivate people to improve their lives and find fulfilling careers; it's that they're unable to do it without seeming so damn superior in the process, as if having a single less-than-flowery emotion is an obstacle to be overcome in one's quest to change the world.

That's nonsense. In fact, I'd contend that a touch of bitterness can actually help you. Who among us hasn't wanted to stick it to someone who told us we weren't good enough? Why is it that we applaud athletes who play with a chip on their shoulder, but we refuse to celebrate those emotions in the equally competitive world of business? For an entrepreneur, there's such thing as a healthy amount of hate.

Listen to successful founders and you'll often hear variations on "They said we couldn't do it." And, really, "they" can be anyone: A potential investor who passed, a former partner who bailed, an arrogant competitor who scoffed—it doesn't matter. What matters is that these people were able to take a perceived slight and convert it into a driving motivation.

Is being fueled by the desire to prove people wrong the only way to go? Of course not. But for some folks, it works—and there's nothing wrong with that.

That said, it's important not to let it go too far. Venture capitalist Mark Suster wrote a good post about finding the perfect balance. He comes to the conclusion that having a chip on one's shoulder can certainly serve an entrepreneur well. It's actually one of the qualities he specifically looks for in a founder. However, as he's quick to point out, there's a massive difference between being emboldened and being a jerk.

No one's arguing that being a misanthrope is going to help you succeed, but neither is being Pollyanna. A penchant for taking lemons and making lemonade only matters if you're actually in the business of producing that particular beverage. And the folks who continue to push that myth are doing you a disservice. It's a lazy approach that makes for a great headline and little else. "4 Steps Towards Landing Your Dream Career!" "The Secret to a Better You!" You know what? I'd love a better me. I'd also love fantastic abs in just six minutes a day—but it's not going to happen.

Be yourself. Work your ass off. Try not to be a dick. Why is this hard? Unbridled optimism can be a powerful driver of success, but so can skepticism and a burning desire to triumph over one's doubters. It's just like anything else: There's no right way to do it. And anyone who tells you different is lying.

So I say to you chip-souldered souls—you spiteful, embittered, competition-driven worshippers at the temple of schadenfreude—you've got a friend in me. I will carry your torch. And then I will probably set someone on fire with it.

Joe Ippolito is a strategist at Yahoo. He writes about entrepreneurship, innovation, and the New York startup community. Like every freelance writer on the planet, he lives in Brooklyn. For more counterintuitive career advice, follow him @joeippolito.

[Image: Flickr user Mariana C.]

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20 Comments

  • Resonant Insights

    Yes and the harsh truth about why motivational 'stuff' fails is people are not willing to get vulnerable, get real and face up to their own 'hit.  Even "be yourself" is so loaded.  Be WHICH yourself?  I mean let's get honest.  Most of us put on a "rep" for the world to see and are not being ourselves.  "Authenticity" has a bad rap too as it's been diluted to be "what I want you to know about it."

  • Andy Reid

    I like the punchy article.  I also like the rebuttle from Chuck Blakeman below.  Both got me thinking that it matters not what the motivation is (both a chip on my shoulder and a dash of praise and self belief get me going) but turning that feeling into an action.  You both seem to agree on that one.  I'm all for folk just getting on with stuff and not wasting time.  Top material to bash a bit of oommpphhh in my day.  Love the banter both. 

  • Peter Roche

    This is brilliant. I especially like: "Be yourself. Work your ass off. Try not to be a dick. Why is this hard?" With that mastered first, we can move on to other areas of mastery.

  • Brandon Watkins

    Agreed. If I wanted superficial, skin-crawling positivity I'd go to an MLM meeting. 

  • Chuck Blakeman

    The author is wrong and this is a very ironic article. A chip on your shoulder is as emotional and vapid a reason to be in business as any of the motivational stuff he's throwing stones at. He's telling us to stop chanting at vision boards and walking on coals (emotional stuff) and instead be motivated by pissing on fire hydrants, proving people wrong and getting them back like a three year old (also emotional stuff).

    The keys to success are very simple, and don't include emotional hate and chips on the shoulder, or emotional motivational tapes:

    1) Know with clarity where you want to end up (vision)
    2) Know exactly where you are right now (a sane self-assessment)
    3) Decide what the ONE next step is to close the gap (forget trying to figure out the whole journey)
    4) Speed of Execution - stop thinking, get moving, perfect as you go.
    5) Commitment - Don't give up no matter what

    Conation - the most important business word you've never heard, is founded in quiet resolve, not jumping up and down in either anger or vapid happiness.

  • Peter Cook

    "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" that I know I "Can't Buy Me Love". On reflection, I always knew "You Can't Always Get What You Want", and it's not inspirational if the boss says "I would Die 4 U"  ...  
    And as Gareth points out, just because many successful people come from diffcult backgrounds, it does not work the other way.

    Now, I just got me the leadership blues ... http://humandynamics.wordpress...

    Peter 

  • Marianz5

    Nice to know I'm not alone -- there are other people like me out there! Love the: "Be yourself. Work your ass off. Try not to be a dick." Great motto!

  • Bobby Burns

    I'm not so sure we are really talking about self-delusional "positive thinking" versus, say, "crush the competition" mind-sets here. The reality is that constant negativity is counter-productive, ugly, and self-defeating. And positivity, untempered by practical realism, is just as futile. Hey, when I go on a road-trip I expect to and plan to have a great time. But I still have a spare tire and gas can. We are not machines and I contend that we are not determined by our genes nor by our circumstances. So work hard, make money, and have fun! It's all going to end eventually anyway :)

  • deskjockey6

    There's nothing wrong with motivation through positivity but what you have to watch out for is listening to "Guru's and experts" who have no credibility. Like Robert Kiyosaki who has no hard proof of his success prior to his Rich Dad books. They sell you on the broad ideas of success, independence, and lead you to believe that creating your own business and getting out of the middle class rat race is easy and you'll be greatly compensated for doing so.

  • Chris Reich

    There is no set formula to success. If it existed, it would be outlined for all to follow and there would be a shortage of employees. Plenty of people start with a huge advantage and do fine. Some start life in the hole and wildly succeed. Most, even very talented, people fail. They fail at least once.

    Be realistic.

  • Ilaedgar

    LOVE IT!  Hell yes - be you! no one else - nasty and beautiful emotions and all!   All those emotions are telling us something about ourselves and the situation we're in.  Halleluja! free information about ourselves.   I'm all for the be yourself, work hard and don't be dick (or a dick-ess).   Life is simple really - but we spend a hell of a lot of time complicating it.   Thanks for writing.  I love delicious controversy and holding it all with a boatload of curiousity.

  • Michael Zroback

    It seems as though you have some unresolved issues! 
    I hope you see the contradiction in wanting to be an entrepreneur (free of a boss) and your being controlled by those who said you couldn't do it. What is so wonderful about working under those conditions? And since when is there such a thing as a 'healthy amount of hate'? Sounds as twisted as the rest of this article. Into the garbage with it before it infects anyone with its venom!

  • MiThought

    Whether a misanthrope or optimist, one thing every entrepreneur needs is tenacity & lots of it...

  • Paul Glover

    Love it! That's my coaching style: push nudge cajole threaten until the agreed upon oal is reached. And that's my key to not being a dick: we agree, after concerted discussion, as to what the goals should be (and I'm not gonna let them be easy to reach - part of my job also) then I'm going to do everything I can/have to to ensure they are reached.

  • garethkane

    I've noticed that many highly successful people come from difficult backgrounds. Does this mean I should be awful to my kids to give them a good start in life? ;-)

  • Gabe Rosser

    Articles like "5 steps to a better you" are based on the fact that the open-rate is significantly higher among most Americans, and people all over for that matter. But that market will change with time, and therefore marketing and content will have to shift with it.

  • Dubem Ses Menakaya

    I dont think he is saying that you should be a grouch per say, but that the all eternal positivity and the hoopla that surrounds it is not necessarily the only way one can go about being/learning to be successful.  Positive mindset and progressive articles are important but I do agree with the author on the point that there comes a point where some are simply regurgitating stuff one has read hundreds of times before and it begins to slightly grate

  • halelly

    Reading *this* was what wasted my time. I read (and write) a lot about how to increase success and well-being, and thankfully there's a whole lot of science backing me up in fields like Positive Psychology and Neuroscience. Most of the articles are not promoting Pollyanna-ism at all - they give practical, science-backed advice on how to lead a more fulfilling, successful, and yes, HAPPY life. How is being a grouch with a chip on his shoulder better? No, thanks. I don't want any of that advice.

  • crazy animal product

    Competing (that is - fighting) with each other is written in human genes, cannot argue with that. It's purely scientific. And business/life is always about being better and better - from others and from past oneself. It is constant fight indeed so you need some 'mind/character muscle'.