Why motivational videos likely do more harm than good to you

It is not hard to come across a motivational video in our lives today.

A common theme in motivational video (source).

Most of them have a similar theme and have fast music in the background. Be tough, work hard, achieve your dream and don't give up! The usual scene is a picture of a bodybuilder working out hard in a sweaty shirt.

Now, there is nothing wrong with these images.

It is true that the people in these videos are working their ass off.

It is true that success is not easy. Sometimes you have to grind to get somewhere.

The video is telling you the truth.

But not all the truth.

The truth about hard work

There are a few problems I often have with motivational videos. First, everyone is different and one's way to success might not be the formula for others.

A video about Arnold Schwarzenegger can make you feel the urge to go to the gym before you realize that this is not something you enjoy to do in a long time. Most of us only want to work out to be healthy, not to compete in Mr Olympia.

Motivational videos give you the impression that you can work very hard to achieve your dream. The reality is that no one can endure long hard work because, in Naval's word, the definition of work is to do something that you don't like.

People in these motivational videos love what they do. They love it so much that the so-called "hard work" is just play to them. The play gives them dopamine which allows them to do it in the long run without feeling exhausted.

Take Cristiano Ronaldo for an example. He is very well known for hard training and discipline. But what if he stopped doing what he is doing right now? He would be bored to death. It's not work to him. It is purely play. He would be dead without it.

You have to realize that you might have to use lots of mental strength while some others use very little to do the same thing. Statistically the mental strength level required to do an activity often indicates how long someone can keep working on that activity. And the longer someone can work in a field, the more likely he/she will succeed in it.

Don't listen to someone telling you to work hard like them to succeed. Instead, try to figure out what requires you the least amount of mental strength to do because it allows you to play that game in a very long time. Success is usually inevitable if you do something long enough.

The truth about motivation

Motivational clips are meant to invoke the emotion in you. The emotion allows you to take the first action. Ironically, the more excited at the beginning, the more likely you give up early.

Weight loss interest on Google Trend

Take a look at the number of searches for "Weight loss" on Google Trend for 5 years. Do you notice a pattern? They all spike in January and slowly decline till December before spiking again next year. So are all gym memberships.

The spike in January comes from New Year resolution. It's a new year and everyone wants to see a new version of themselves. They are motivated to sign up for gym membership, weight loss classes, or fitness programs.

But motivation often does not last long as shown by the data. In fact, most motivation is a temporary lie one tells themselves to do something without committing a timeline. The long term habit is the key factor that differentiates a liar and a genuinely motivated person.

The danger of motivational videos is that it does not tell you specifically what to do.

Imagine that you see someone who is good at fishing and you decide to go fishing yourself without knowing that you need at least a rod and a bait. Without specific guidance, you are likely to fail. This is called the reality crash.

What is better than motivation? It's a routine. If you want to get fit, make exercising (not necessarily in a gym) a daily routine. And building routine requires doing little step at a time rather than setting a big goal.

The truth behind video making

Another problem with motivational videos is they only tell you the tip of an iceberg. You do not know what is the real reason behind someone's success. Everything has gone through the filter of video editing.

Some people are true heroes. Some are heroes until they are not.

Lance Armstrong used to be the inspiration for all cyclists. He won numerous Tour de France, fought hard with fatal cancer before returning to cycling again. He was the perfect example of hard work, relentless fighting spirit for media narratives.

Until he was concluded to use doping over the course of his career, stripped off all his titles since 1998, and permanently banned from all sport. His rise and fall from stardom broke the heart of many fans when the truth was revealed.

No matter how much the media talks about someone, it's hard to know the truth behind. In fact, you will never do.

Instead of finding inspiration from someone you never meet and never talk to, seek inspiration from someone close in your circle that you know the truth. Here is mine. Having touch with reality is better than believing in a story that might be an illusion. You want to minimize the chance of facing a reality shock.

And one last thing.

The valid cases for motivational videos

There are cases where the motivational video is truly helpful to you. Here are the cases where I think it's relevant:

  • You are training/working with similar intensity like the person in the video. You are already close to their level. A little more boost would not hurt you anything.
  • The video makes you feel humbled, reflective rather than feeling like a loser or creating an urge to work hard.
  • The video is not made by a marketing agency.

I am not saying that all motivational videos are bad or bad for everyone. That's why I put the word "likely" in the title of this post. I want you to pause and think for a moment the next time you watch a motivational video.

Might be it is not a bad thing when these stories make you take action and transform yourself regardless of the truth. Doesn't political propaganda work in the same way? Do you think it's ok if someone can transform your life even though he is a liar?

I don't have a good answer to these questions. But there is one thing I am feeling confident: building a good routine will get you to where you want regardless of your emotional starting state. Keep calm and build a routine.

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