Do you remember the company Successories? It was responsible for the cheesy posters that hung in offices all across North America. Successories was founded in 1985, by Mac Anderson who, as a hobby collected quotations and motivational writings. Mac took these quotes and added them to a vaguely relevant stock photo. Close your eyes and picture a soaring eagle (setting goals), synchronized rowing crew (teamwork), sharpened pencil (ideas) or mountain climber (perseverance).
These were incredibly popular and at one point the company had stores in malls selling all manner of motivation and inspiration accessories. I saw a lineup to get into one in a Galleria in Dallas. It did not take long for wags to mock the format. This gave way to a wave of de-motivational posters that brought people back down to earth. In some cases the mockery was so well done that it was difficult to tell the two camps apart. This proves that imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but parody is envy of the original idea.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but parody is envy of the original idea.
If you spend two minutes on the Internet or thirty seconds on any social media, you will see Mac’s original idea is alive and well. Instagram and Tumblr is replete with motivational quotes and writings artfully arrayed on various backdrops. Hundreds, if not, thousands of blogs are dedicated to these positive provocations. People the world over on Facebook share these encouragements in hopes of connecting with like-minded souls or, by doing, give themselves a little lift. Twitter’s 140 characters pump out thousands of pithy expressions every minute that encourage and cajole.
The original intent of motivational posters was to make people achieve more, or to think differently about the things that they may be learning or doing. It was about challenging beliefs and looking at the world in a fresh way. CBS News concluded that modern motivational posters “are geared more toward things that need to be done than things that are good to believe”. In other words, motivation has become a task or bucket list of things to do or buy versus a perpetual state of being.
Motivation has become a bucket list of things to do or buy.
Why did Mac’s business originally take off and why is the Internet now flooded with mini pep talks and reinforcement? The short answer is many people are lost. Our world is moving faster than ever before. Technology is changing the way we interact. We have lost trust in traditional institutions. Anxiety and depression are on the rise.
This relatively innocuous activity of designing and sharing motivational and inspirational sayings is a form of self-help, connection, and way of making sense of the world. They are meant to reassure individuals that they are not alone. However, the content, tone and purpose have shifted from achievement to comfort, consolation and pacification. They are soothers not kick-in-the-butts.
People are searching for answers because what has worked in the past does not necessarily work today. Ironically, we are drawing on past lessons when we reference the vast majority of these quotes and sayings given so many come from or are paraphrased from those who made history. This type of search for meaning is as rational as relying on the daily horoscope or reading tea leaves.
Still all is not negative or silly when it comes to these motivational instruments. If people get a positive jolt from them then who can argue with the result? We just need to avoid commercializing inspiration and motivation. This will focus us on the act or feeling of being motivated rather than equating it with a goal (and too often the goal is superficial).
Perhaps the most famous motivational poster summed it up. It features a cute kitten hanging from a bar (or tree branch depending on the version). The phrase that accompanies it says, “Hang in There, Baby!” That is all any of us can do. Thanks for reading this and make sure to Keep Calm and Carry On.