Why Inspirational Quotes Will Never Inspire You
See if you can figure out what these five quotes have in common:
"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." - Albert Einstein
“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” - Wayne Gretzky
“Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.” - Henry David Thoreau
“I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.” - Niccolo Machiavelli
“I will always choose a lazy person to do a hard job because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” - Bill Gates
What they all have in common is that they’re quoted and attributed to these famous people on thousands of websites ... but none of them are true. There’s actually no legitimate record of these quotes being said by anyone of note, with one exception: the line attributed to Machiavelli was actually said by Newt Gingrich in 1991.
I bring this up to make several points. Feel free to quote me if you like, but as you’ll see in a minute, it won’t do you or anyone else a bit of good.
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The most obvious point is that the Internet is far and away the most insidious source of misinformation in human history, and that’s no lie. Just about every contemporary myth, fad, and crowd-sourced bit of pseudoscientific nonsense is a result of history’s most powerful echo chamber, the World Wide Web.
The culprit is social media, the blogosphere, and the massive amount of mindless content everyone feels the need to generate and consume on a daily basis. Why do they republish so much BS? Usually for page views or ad dollars, but sometimes to suit a point of view or simply fill a void on a slow news day.
In other words, whatever you happen to be reading, referencing, or retweeting – a research study, a famous quote, a statistic, a nugget of generally accepted common wisdom, even someone’s bio – has about as much chance of being genuine as not. Let’s be honest: the same may be true of some of the content you generate.
The second point is that lists of quotes are completely and utterly useless. Content generators post them because they’re lazy and unoriginal. If they have an intelligent thought or viewpoint to share, they post it. If not, they copy and paste quotes from quote sites. After all, they’re easy to generate and click-bait for the masses. That would be you. Sorry to be so blunt, but I’m afraid it’s true.
Which begs the question, why are we drawn to these lists? The answer, I’m sad to say, is another uncomfortable truth. They’re not just easy for whoever generates the list; they’re easy for readers, as well. For a brief moment in time, they fill a void – a need for instant gratification, reinforcement, or distraction.
The only useful purpose for quoting someone is to make or reinforce a point. It’s a highly effective tool that adds credibility to business presentations and writing. But I’ve never once seen a benefit from anyone either generating or consuming a listicle of quotes of any kind, except perhaps as reference material.
For the most part, sound bites extracted out of context from the writing or speech from which they originated lose most of their meaning and impact. There are of course exceptions. For example, if you hear, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” at just the right time in your life, it will stick with you forever. But those are rare gems.
I’ve certainly been influenced by plenty of people, books, plays, and songs over the years. It was never a single quote or riff that got to me, however, but the entirety of the story they told, the point of view they expressed, the thoughts they provoked, or the emotional chord they struck that continued to resonate long after the experience was over.
Lists of quotes taken out of context and of questionable authenticity are to complete works of art and literature as a single brush stroke is to Van Gogh’s Starry Night, “Who is John Galt” is to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and the final chord is to The Beatles’ Abbey Road album.
Finally, if you think you need sound bites to inspire your work, then you’re in the wrong line of work. If your work doesn’t inspire you, you owe it to yourself to search for work that does. And searching for quotes to keep your spirits up is like filling a bottomless pit with a few grains of sand. Happiness comes only from within.
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Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.