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Confessions of a Self-Hating Motivational Speaker

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I am a self-hating motivational speaker. Or at least I used to be.

For starters, I have never won an Olympic gold medal. I have never summited Mount Everest. I have never lived in a van down by the river. So, my street cred was suspect.

But the bigger problem—the thing I found especially hard to swallow—was the implicit value proposition.  How could a staged monologue lasting the same amount of time it takes me to watch an episode of The Americans magically reroute the lifelong behavior patterns of a roomful of strangers?

Sure, I could easily believe that a healthy blend of intriguing stories, some chuckles here and a few throat-lumps there could spark interesting conversations at that night’s cocktail hour. But claiming that a one-hour speech could sustainably change a life or transform a team sounded like something toothy pitchmen on late-night infomercials would use to coerce insomniacs to “call now!”  It conjures up images of the late, great Chris Farley face-planting on coffee tables while bellowing “la dee frickin’ dah!” I had simply spent too much of my life immersed in the science of behavior change to buy such a ridiculous suggestion.

But what if I was wrong?

1. The Surprising Expiration Date on Inspiration

A few years ago, a group of soon-to-be members of the white-collar workforce spent an hour with a pair of Stanford researchers. The group learned about, and then reflected on, the changes they were facing. Then they left. They never again saw the researchers.

But the study didn’t end there. In fact, the interesting part had just begun.

Over the next three years, the researchers kept tabs on the group. They compared their progress to their peers who were like them in nearly every way. What the researchers discovered is that the people who had participated in this one hour of lightly structured noodling only needed to see a doctor half as many times as their less hardy classmates. Their self-esteem was nearly twice as high. They were also performing better than their peers­—quarter after quarter after quarter for three straight years.  As much as nine years later, these same people were significantly happier with their careers and more satisfied with their personal lives.

Take a second to let that sink in.

The session lasted one hour—start to finish. There were no takeaway tools. No SMART goals. No monthly check-ins. No weekly emails. No follow-up coaching. No learning reinforcement at all. Nothing. Nada. Zero. Zilch.

What exactly happened in that one hour?  Did the Stanford researchers put on a performance so memorable, so sticky, so Martin-Luther-King-I-have-a-dream inspirational that the participants wept—nay, blubbered—with crocodile tears, shuddering shoulders, and quivering lips while the message of hope and empowerment eternally branded itself on their souls?

Not so much.  Three years later, the study participants were surveyed about that magical hour. Do you know what they said?  A full 92% of them didn’t have the foggiest idea what the session was even about. And yet…

It worked. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the one-hour session altered the course of their lives.

The Stanford study isn’t a one-off fluke either. It is one among hundreds of so-called “wise interventions” that have recently begun popping up all over social science journals. These short interactions with astonishingly long-lasting results are re-writing the rules of change.

In one set of studies, 30 minutes of thought-provoking content from University of Texas researchers transformed high-risk adolescents into high-performing students—without changing a single thing about the way their parents parent or the way their teachers teach. Another series of studies from Columbia University showed that watching just a few 3-minute videos highlighting the upside of stress made Fortune 500 managers more productive, engaged, and adaptable in the wake of a recession.

Taken together, this research reveals a strange paradox about inspiration: Inspiration is much more forgettable and much more sustainable than we imagined.

2. The Firecracker and the Seed

On the one hand, these results seem hard to believe. But they are also oddly intuitive, aren’t they?

Who hasn’t had the experience of watching a movie, listening to a TED talk, hearing a sermon, or having a coffee conversation in which you gleaned some subtle insight that eventually proved to be life-changing? Even though the plot of the movie never got integrated into your company’s learning management software. The TED talk didn’t end with an action plan. Your coffee chat wasn’t reinforced with “over-communicated” messages from the CEO. And yet, the experience changed you.

Come to think of it, maybe the big question is not how is that kind of change possible?

Maybe the better question is why do we doubt such a universal human experience?

I think it’s because we often see inspiration as a fireworks display. Stirring words produce a vibrant emotional burst. The emotional surge triggers a flash of creative insight. The insight flickers. Then it fades.

If this is how inspiration works, then we are right to be skeptical about the longevity of its impact. We should try to bottle the moment with as much structured follow-up and ongoing reinforcement as our time and budget allows.

But the Stanford study shows us another way to see inspiration.

Inspiration can sometimes be more like a falling seed than a firecracker.  The tiny seed of a new perspective drops on the mushy soil of our working memory. For example, the seed might be a suggestion that stress isn’t only the Grim Reaper’s weapon of choice, but that stress can actually be good for you. Or the seed might be an innocent question asking you to reflect on a time in which you’ve overcome an obstacle in your past.

It’s not a hard sell. It’s not a fiery proclamation. It’s a question. It’s a hint.

Then the seed is quickly buried by to-do lists, lunch plans, and expense reports. But buried does not mean banished. It isn’t gone. It’s growing. It’s extending its roots outward. It’s slowly infiltrating your deepest beliefs about the kind of person you think you are. It’s nudging you to consider what a resilient person like you would do in a challenging situation like this.

Suddenly, the big hairy monster blocking your way doesn’t look so threatening. It’s not exactly seducing you with a come hither stare. But it does seem less imposing. So instead of finding creative ways to avoid the stressful project, you look for creative solutions to advance it. Instead of trying to escape the uncertainty of your job, you get excited about the adventure of conquering it.

The seed was nothing but a new perspective. But a new behavior is what sprouted. Now, you aren’t only feeling better. You’re performing better.

It’s harvest time. The long forgotten seed that was planted months before is beginning to yield a bumper crop of real world results.

3. How Mindsets Fuel Skillsets

Does this mean we should take everything we’ve been taught about behavior training and bury it under the back tire of Matt Foley’s van down by the river? Not exactly.

Motivational speeches, TED talks, and informational videos won’t solve all our problems.  No matter how good my guitar teacher is, I won’t be able to play Stairway to Heaven after one 45-minute lesson. You won’t become a scratch golfer without deliberately devoting thousands of frustrating hours to the nuances of your putt.  A single dose of insight won’t inject you with the knowledge you need to flawlessly operate the new accounting software. Mastering new skills still requires focused training, deliberate practice, and endless repetition.

But a skillset is different than a mindset.

Mindsets are what enable us to endure the 10,000 hours of teeth-gritting, mistake-ridden practice required to master the skillset. Mindsets are what motivate your team to keep exploring—day after uncertain day of a long change initiative. Mindsets are what encourage our kids to spend their lives pursuing meaningful goals instead of hiding from failure.

Mindsets are also what we can change with a brief encounter—when we pose a thoughtful question to a friend during a rough patch in their marriage or a tough transition in their job. Mindsets are what we can shift when we tell our kids stories of grit and resilience after the soccer game goes south or the math homework feels too hard.

And yes, mindsets are also what a motivational speaker can alter by delivering a 45-minute speech to a roomful of strangers grappling with a changing world.

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