How to spot bad motivational advice

There’s a somewhat popular Internet meme known as “drunksperation.”  This juxtaposes the copy from fitness inspiration posters and memes with images of people in the throes of drink.  Of course, there was a time when I used to push myself with these “go harder or you’re faking it” slogans, which is why I think they’re hilarious.

An example from the linked article:

But the implicit humor in drunksperation actually hinges on just how poor the advice actually is at creating and maintaining the mentality that’s conducive to a lifestyle of good fitness and general self-care.  Yes, it is true that you sometimes inspire yourself by pulling on a fantasy of your own goals, but it’s really important to understand that your inspiring fantasy is your tool, and if it’s a tool to diminish personal agency or self-worth…then, at the end of the day, you’re just kicking yourself.

The semiotics of a fitness inspiration image “work” because the picture is always of some athlete in the struggles of training, something culture generally ascribes as “good,” despite the fact that the pursuit of extreme fitness can lead to all sorts of serious physical punishments to one’s body.  By substituting an image which shows a person punishing his/her body in a way assigned as bad, indulgent, and lazy, it becomes easier to see the damaging self-narrative the advice text is trying to instill.

Which is why, when I see pieces of advice, I will imagine them as text on a “drunksperation” meme image and see if I still feel like they’re good advice.  If the advice is encouraging a damaging self-narrative, then the “drunksperation” will read as funny, because few of us really want to advocate for alcoholism.  If the advice doesn’t, then it can actually make a “drunksperation” that encourages drinking in moderation.

The thing is, this can be really, really insidious and indirect, and it’s not necessarily the fault of people who make the statement.  The kind of psychological context for self-damaging narratives hiding as advice comes from broader culture.  We’re all standing in it.

But, for example, take this piece of work/life advice from Cathy Wang.

Working hard for something you don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something you love is called passion.

And now, let’s juxtapose it with a man collapsing after too many drinks:

It’s funny, and parsing out why is something I’ll leave for the reader to consider.  This isn’t to say that the ideas underlying it are bad, or that someone who believes this is bad.  What it does mean, though, is that seeing a friend killing him/herself slowly in the name of “passion” is an incomplete idea that requires a context of self-care.

As a dare to the reader, think about the things you tell yourself to push yourself, and then imagine them in a meme like this.  See if you’d still stand behind them, or if they need attenuation.

And thanks to Jonathan Korman for coining this as “Rhett’s Law.”