Do motivational memes work?

It’s the beginning of Ironman Training Week Three. There are 27 weeks remaining until Ironman Los Cabos. Motivation to complete this goal isn’t particularly high this morning. Fortunately my favourite place to hang out, Instagram, is crowded with inspirational memes in bold fonts surrounded by curlicues. But is the presence of these memes helpful? Are the productive people really smiling to themselves as they reiterate not to count the days, but to make the days count? Is record-breaking marathon runner Dennis Kimetto muttering to himself that pain is just weakness leaving the body? Is the ACMG (association of Canadian mountain guides) candidate who recently failed her exam thinking that failure is not the opposite of success but that it’s part of success?

The motivational memes and phrases are easy to find, easy to write on the bathroom mirror and easy to say to someone else. But actually getting to the pool right now to swim laps when I’d rather sit here and drink coffee and eat croissants? Not as easy. Will motivational phrases help? Apparently they will. Their use of language tools such as alliteration and parallel construction create pleasing little incantations and their aspirational nature represents the human condition to dream and plan. These qualities create self-efficacy. These pithy phrases are more than just platitudes. Their presence is like self-coaching. It’s the start of a motivational dialogue with yourself.

“if it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.”

“A little progress each day adds up”

“Your only limit is you”

“Will it be easy” Nope. Worth it? Absolutely.”

But is this meaningless nonsense or is it helpful rhetoric?

The truth is that inspirational idioms do work. They work because they represent a deeply-rooted aspirational human condition. We all aspire to something and the presence of aphorisms demonstrates that others before us have also needed some motivation:

“I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” –Thomas Edison

“We become what we think about.” – Earl Nightingale

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” – Wayne Gretzky

“The mind is like a parachute. It only functions when open.” -Thomas Dewar

Motivational quotes work because their grand message is encapsulated into a tidy turn of phrase that is easy to remember and repeat.

“If you can dream it, you can do it.”

“Yesterday you said tomorrow.”

“I can and I will.”

Shannon Briggs, twenty year veteran professional boxer, repeats to himself “let’s go champ.” Let’s Go Champ has become a slogan for personal and group motivation. It’s a meme, it’s a website, it’s an idea, it’s a source of motivation. Its appeal lies in its simplicity and its connection to a public figure. It’s an easy phrase to repeat and the story of Briggs’ success as a professional boxer is illustrated by the three little words. He used three little words to motivate himself to overcome asthma, rise up from being homeless as a child and achieve greatness in a professional sport.

So do motivational phrases work? They are certainly appealing because of their simplicity and their agreeable use of language. They represent a connection to the ubiquitous human condition of striving towards something. And their contribution to self-efficacy creates confidence in one’s own ability. So use their imagery and meaning to change your thinking. Use their historical resonance and universal appeal to motivate yourself. Motivational phrases are more than just platitudes. They are tools to overcome adversity and achieve goals.

And with that, I’m going to put down the coffee cup and go to the pool to bang out 2000m. Instagram says not to count laps, but to make every lap count. #motivation

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