Amy Langstaff

Dear Motivational Speakers

Tony Robbins, “Unleash The Power Within” (Orlando, 2010)

It’s a poor letter that starts with a lie, even one of omission, so I will open with disclosure: I have spoken ill of you. More than once. With rare vitriol. And unusual relish. I have said things about you that I wouldn’t want to be asked to repeat and defend in front of your parents or children. For this I apologize without reservation or excuse. But I’d like to tell you a little about the roots of my bad behaviour. (Olive branch to follow.)

In truth I myself don’t fully understand the source of my distaste. I have only sat through a handful of your speeches in my life (always at the insistance of an educational institution). I have never felt swindled or betrayed by you, never having paid you any money and never having had any expectations to disappoint. You have never hurt me in any way, never so much as telemarketed to me or dropped an unwelcome circular on my doorstep. I have suffered no wrong at your hands, motivational speakers, and yet I denounce you passionately while remaining more or less silent on pirates, poachers, tin-pot dictators, and most murderers. Why should this be?

Steven LeMons, “Inspired to Succeed” (2014)

Upon reflection, I think the main barrier between my money and your life-transforming DVD collection is my discomfort with the fact that your enthusiasm, on purpose and by definition, lacks content. You are—who could deny it?—very fired up. But about what? About the idea, apparently, of being fired up. And about the idea of whipping others into an air-punching state like the one you claim to enjoy at all times. Just as there is no I in TEAM, there is no IT in MOTIVATION. (Fine—there are two. But they’re backward.)

This lack of content is, of course, essential to your commercial success; you need to be able to get diverse people with diverse needs excited about whatever it is they’re doing. Whereas a good teacher hopes to inspire excitement about a specific idea or skill, you must—in total ignorance of the particulars of people’s lives—try to infuse your acolytes with a generic excitement that they can translate into relevant action after your talk is done. You provide the superlatives and the exclamation point; they have to fill in the verbs themselves.

It is a very tricky job you have, motivators, I’ll certainly give you that. But I wonder whether, like living among grizzly bears or eating 65 hardboiled eggs in six minutes and forty seconds, it is tricky because no one should really be doing it.

Dr. Paul Vehorn, “Self Improvement: How To Be Charistmatic” (2007)

Shouldn’t we get excited about the things we do because of them specifically? Shouldn’t we love our lovers in particular, because of their noses and laughs and specialty dishes, not because we count “lovingness” among our own traits? Motivators, how would you like it if someone coaxed you into their bed and during the ensuing proceedings breathed into your ear, “Oh…oh my God…I am someone who finds others attractive.”

And just as we love in particular, should we not try to do things well because we think they’re worth doing well—this person worth helping, this roof worth fixing, this meal worth preparing—not just because we want to be people who excel at productivity per se? Isn’t this how we make our way, finding people and things to care about as much and for as long as possible?

I know someone who can be drawn forth from bed in the morning only by the promise of jam on toast. It’s a start—she figures the rest of the day out from there. The world is teeming with such arbitrary, trivial, contingent motivations, and the actions born of these. This is one of the great things about the world. Why grind all these intimate particulars through the sausagemaker of trademarked habits and mantras? Generic motivation is like a one-size-fits-all wedding gown: a few people might buy it, but it’s not what anyone deserves.

Grant Cardone, “Why Bad Things Happen To You” (2007)

You may counter that many venerable schools of thought about how people should live suggest that we look beyond the petty particulars of our lives—that we seek deeper, less mutable motivations and satisfactions. There is Buddhist non-attachment, for example, and the Christian exhortation to love indiscriminately—attractive noses and specialty dishes be damned. But it strikes me that the renunciation of selfishness, self-involvement, and self-importance that some philosophies ask of us is exactly the opposite of what you ask. You do not ask us to be less ourselves in order to be more fully what we ought to be (more humane, less deluded, more godly).

You ask us, at least superficially, to be more ourselves: our special, special selves as featured in your bestselling series “Unleash the Power of Your Special, Special Self” (6 billion copies in print). And why should we be more ourselves? You never quite say, but your promotional material suggests it will get us things we want: yachts and friends and blinding teeth.

Rabbi Zusya said, “In the world to come, I will not be asked, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ I will be asked, ‘Why were you not Zusya?'” But it is not quite this deep engagement with our personhood you’re after, is it? Would our deepest, truest, Zusya-in-the-afterlife selves order your tapes? Would our naked souls drive to Holiday Inns to watch you pump your fists and write pantingly on dry-erase boards?

Zig Ziglar, “Prime The Pump” (2008)

Motivators, I don’t dispute that it is helpful in life—if one can swing it—to foster a secret core of steely confidence and self-sufficiency. Who could deny the utility of having a tough little motor deep down that hums along with or without jam on toast, prosperity, adoring fans, or even physical health? It is nice to feel that we are full of promise and living in a universe waiting patiently to reward us. But you ask us to heed the hum of that little motor above all else—to not be shaken by the world’s demands for our attention, bafflement, and humility. Indeed, you sometimes seem to advise that we treat the whole world as fuel for our little motors—every heartbreak the seed of future triumph! Every relationship a node in our network! Every traffic jam a lesson in patience (plus an opportunity to jot down mid-term goals)!—and I just can’t believe that’s what the world is for.

I admit: much as Anne Geddes may be the world’s greatest parent for all I know, you may lead the richest, wisest, most fulfilling lives ever lived. But how would we know it from the way you ask us to jump up and down in hotel conference rooms cheering the possibility that our narcissism might one day trample our self-doubt?

Les Brown, “Live Full Die Empty” (2008)

Wow, motivators. Thank you for reading this far. It speaks to considerable generosity and admirable forbearance on your part. And I want you to know that I too approach our correspondence in a spirit of openness and conciliation. I have no reason to believe your intentions are not good, or that you don’t genuinely hope to help people with your work. I like to think that I am also an ok person doing what I can as I go along. There is no good reason, then, for us to be so at odds.

So I write with an invitation. I would like you to come over to my place for dinner. Don’t bring a thing. I will feed you and keep your glasses filled and we’ll try to find some music we can agree on. In return, I ask only that you tell me—without jargon or acronyms or bluster—why precisely you got out of bed on that particular morning. And I’ll do the same. I think that will be a good start. RSVP.

A Penitent Trash-Talker,

– Amy Langstaff

Ryeberg Curator Bio

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Amy Langstaff is a writer and consultant based in Toronto. She holds a literature degree and a diploma in cabinetmaking — the latter irrelevant to her current work but attesting to a meticulous nature. For more Amy Langstaff, click here.