Platitudes R Us: How “inspirational” quotes mess with our minds

Dear Wendy,

Okay, I have a confession to make. I’ve officially had it up to here with “inspirational” quotes.You know the ones I mean—they’ve been around for years, on posters and greeting cards. They say things like “Life is only as good as you make it!” and “Your thoughts control your destiny!”

Many of them offer a kind of canned spirituality, offering feel-good platitudes to convince us that no matter how crappy our lives might be, there are great things waiting just around the corner: “Every single thing in your life is preparing you for a moment that is yet to come.”

Lately I’ve noticed sayings like this proliferating on the Internet. I can’t open my Facebook or Twitter feeds these days without some well-meaning soul plastering the place with happy fairy-fart sayings like, “All your dreams can come true, if you have the courage to pursue them!” (Thanks, Walt Disney. Glad things worked out for you.)

(Image: Richie Diesterheft, via Flickr)

(Image: Richie Diesterheft, via Flickr)

Here’s what bothers me about sayings like that: we all know someone whose dreams have gone up in flames, someone whose life just never really got past the starting gate. We know people who’ve lived lives of quiet desperation, or who’ve suffered terrible setbacks, and grown old and bitter.

Were those people simply lacking in courage?

Maybe they lacked faith, or vision, or creativity, or some other attribute which, if applied with sufficient force and in sufficient quantity, would surely have made that person’s life a paradise on earth!


I call bullshit.

Because you know what? Not everyone really can control their own destiny. Some people are born with the deck stacked against them. Some people make stupid mistakes that reap terrible consequences, consequences they can never overcome. Some—like the homeless people you talked about yesterday—have to cope with setbacks that you or I couldn’t even dream of.

And guess what? Most of the people in the world don’t live with the kind of middle-class privilege you and I take very much for granted.

How can we justify telling someone who’s just lost their home, or whose family has just been bombed to death in Syria, or whose children are dying of malnutrition in a drought-ravaged country, that they alone are in charge of their fate?

To me, that goes beyond irritating. It’s the worst kind of cruelty. And yet, it’s exactly what we’re doing when we spout “inspirational” quotes.

Or what about this winner? “Shoot for the moon! Even if you miss, you’ll end up among the stars!”

This fatuous bit of motivational drivel decorates the walls of every classroom I’ve visited in the past decade or so. In addition to irritating the snot out of the students who bother to read it, what kind of message does it give?

“Hey, kid, no matter what happens, if you aim big, you’re really going to go places!” That sounds great, on the surface.


And I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t encourage our kids to do their best, and to aim high. But telling them they’re pretty much guaranteed to “land among the stars”? You know, much has been made of the millennial generation’s alleged “sense of entitlement.” But if we’re filling their heads with the idea that as long as they dream big, they’re going someplace special, each and every one of them…well, let’s just say that might not be the most realistic lesson they could learn.

Maybe I’m a little grumpy about this (okay, maybe a lot grumpy), but to me, inspirational quotes are a conceit of the privileged. They represent a world view that is shared by fewer people than we might think.

Let me put it this way:

  • About half the world’s population lives on less than US$2.50 per day.
  • 80% of the world’s population lives on less than US$10 per day.
  • 22,000 children die each day due to poverty.
  • One in three of the world’s children lives with inadequate shelter.
  • Currently, there are about 2.2 billion children in the world. One billion of them live in poverty; 1.4 million of them die each day due to a lack of basic sanitation and drinking water.

So maybe inspirational quotes aren’t really meant for everyone. Maybe they’re just meant for those of us with the physical, financial, social, and emotional wherewithal to think about things like “holding fast to our dreams” or “living the lives we were meant to live.”

The rest of the people in the world are too busy trying to survive.

Here endeth the sermon.



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19 thoughts on “Platitudes R Us: How “inspirational” quotes mess with our minds

  1. Wow — there is a lot I have to say about your post because you have no idea how much I can relate. First of all, I too am a bit tired of the “empty” inspirational quotes. I still scan them and every once in awhile there is one that “speaks” to me and I think about it momentarily. The reason I related to your post is that a few months ago I released my memoir, Battered Hope. My story is 40 years of phenomenal trauma as a result of some poor choices but also circumstances beyond any control. The reason for writing it was to give real encouragement to people who needed to know there was someone who survived and soared above all the negativity through perseverance and faith that produced incredible strength. Now, I can use that wisdom to offer hope to so many that suffer and need more than a pat on the back or a ‘inspirational quote’ to get them through. For that I am eternally grateful. If I had not experienced this, maybe I would be one of those people who loosely tossed those quotes around thinking they would be a help to someone hurting — but I doubt it.

  2. Thank you for showing me a good argument. They drive me mad too. From the perspective that people have to constantly aspire for better and not appreciate how over privileged they are. When I’m feeling bad I need a hug not a quote!
    This is great!
    Thank you

  3. I always tried to encourage my kids to do their best – but always reminded them that average is okay. My mother use to say, “The world needs ditch diggers too.” I tried to impact on my kids that they don’t have to reach the stars just find happiness. I appreciate your post.

  4. Really gutsy of you to write this. I’m very grateful. I think it’s our country’s can-do cultural roots. Success is seen as a mark of hard work, independent thinking, brainpower, and morality. But I’ve seen good people slammed hard (think Detroit bankruptcy) and I don’t think their “shooting for the stars” helped any. Thanks for a fantastic post.

  5. You just became my new best friend. I absolutely agree that these quotes represent an extremely privileged Joel Osteen world view. I guess everyone in Syria and Somalia just have a shitty attitude.

  6. Well, Karen, as usual, you nailed it. I see this shit all the time, roll my eyes, and move along. These platitudes and the bible verses really turn me off. You’re so right about them being aimed at the privileged among us, though, that’s for sure — those statistics you provided are sobering. And horrifying. Why don’t you post them in response to the next FB “friend”, blogger, or pinner who spouts a nice platitude at you? That would be awesome!

  7. Karen,
    I agree that empty platitudes are not helpful. I also think it’s important to stay out of a “victim” mentality. When things suck for me, the last thing that helps is sympathy and agreement about how everything sucks. I look for messages that help me to find a positive lesson within my circumstances. Empty platitudes rarely do this. But a belief that there is a lesson in everything helps me to move forward.

    • You’re right, Jenise–we all find inspiration where we can. I have absolutely nothing against that!
      But I also know that for people in extreme situations, it’s entirely reasonable to affirm that yes, what they’re facing is indeed pretty awful. However, that’s a first step; the next step is to try to figure out together what can be done to mitigate or improve the situation.
      When I was a practicing social worker, the rule was “meet the client where they are.” Once you’ve done that, you can often (though not always) start to move toward something better.

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  9. All of what was posted here by Karen are true statements, however a persons attitude towards losses and misfortunes can make all the difference in the world. There are 2 choices I can make: I can be a victim and be defeated or I can make the absolute most out of the situation and rise above. Iv had many misfortunes and have been a victim of the economy. I have always reached for the stars and I continue to have high ideals. I’v decided to spend less time blaming and more time recovering. Even the most privileged individuals don’t always have strength of spirit. I live by inspirational quotes. I find them healing and comforting. I can’t understand how something with a beautiful sediment can be interpreted negatively. Yes it’s true, we all don’t have the same opportunities. I will however continue to get back up and try again and again. In the end if I’m still not successful, I accept that and I gave it all I had. I’d rather have that on my conscious at the end of the day than to say ” poor me “. These homeless people and starving children are TRUE victims and still some of them still hold on to some hope. That in itself is what inspires me to do my absolute best and help humanity in any way I can. I certainly will not be wasting my time griping about statements that can actually empower some people to survive. I hope I can encourage people to look on the positive side of life. We always have that choice.

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