In my mid-teens I was given as a present the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. I started to read at the beginning and worked my way up to letter C where I arrived at Churchill. I was hugely enjoying reading his famous motivational and inspirational quotes when I read: “It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations.” This hit me hard. Although it wasn’t what he meant, I took it to mean that I was a bit of a cheat. Rather than reading the original texts I was in effect cherry picking to make myself seem cleverer than I was. As a consequence, I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the profound quotation industry.
And so it was that two things caught my eye this week. The first was a report, which appeared on Quartz.com, of a Canadian academic study which claimed to have found a proven link that shows that people who buy into pseudo-scientific quotes are less intelligent. As they say: “Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.” (http://bit.ly/1XMAb6W)
The second thing I read was a line someone posted on the benefit of motivational quotes which stated that miserable people produce miserable results. This point was, I felt, not only devoid of any factual underpinning but completely fatuous. It certainly scored high on my bullshit barometer. To imply that only happy people can produce good (happy?) work is naïve. Think of the great artists who have struggled with varying degrees of melancholy and depression: Blake, Conrad, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Gaugin, Van Goth, et al, and not forgetting the self-portraits of Rembrandt, works that seemingly penetrate the very soul of the human condition. Personally I find the PPP leadership model (Perpetual Polyanna Personality) irritating. Excessive and, often, contrived positivity can be draining. Similarly, I once wrote about the downside of open-plan offices and extrovert-driven brainstorms. The reality being that it is often the quiet, focused, pragmatic, realistic, introverts who are most effective. The endlessly positive motivators miss the point of both true leadership and of the human condition. One of my favourite writers, the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, has written extensively about how foolish the pursuit of happiness is. He describes it as being wildly unrealistic and unconsciously destructive. Realism and unhappiness are as important to our sanity as happiness which, he says, should be a side effect.
So where does this leave the workplace happiness industry? For me happiness in business should be, like employee engagement, a consequence of doing the basics well. Rather than focus on initiatives to address (un)happiness, the attention should be on what really matters: being well-paid, well-respected, involved (agents of change not objects of change), and with the time and the tools to achieve realistic goals. In other words, a pragmatic, realistic and grown-up approach to the workplace in place of the ra-ra focus on endlessly uplifting motivation.
And where does this leave motivational quotes? How about this one from AA Milne, creator of that famous curmudgeon Eeyore: “A quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself.”