I recently came across a video on LinkedIn which showcased the arduous journey of a celebrity sportsman. The video captured the early struggles, the eventual success and the pitfalls such success brings with it and had all the usual ingredients to inspire. To my surprise, I wasn’t inspired. Instead, it actually dis-empowered me. The Internet is replete with such inspirational videos and stories. Reams of paper have been written on the successes of people across the world. Yet, there is very little evidence to support the claim that they actually do what they are meant to. My explorations within have been revealing. Here’s why I think they don’t work.

Looking out for ‘Red’

I was once attending a leadership workshop where the Coach initiated a game with all the participants. He called it ‘ Looking for the Red’. Every participant was to find as many shades of the colour Red in the room in one minute. At the end of the allotted time, he asked as to how many shades of the colour Red had we found. When everyone had finished answering, he asked whether any one of us had found a green, a Blue or a Yellow. Barring an odd participant, none of us had. What does that tell you about the human brain? If you go looking for Red, you will only find Red. Well, this doesn’t seem very helpful in the context of the issue being discussed here. Right? Not really. When the human brain receives information which is extraordinary, the first impulse is one of disbelief. Remember the times when a friend disclosed that they had won a lottery, met someone famous on a flight or had encountered a ghost or spirit. What’s the usual refrain? No way, Are you kidding me or what, etc etc. Then, we usually launch ourselves into a bit of fact finding which is done by daring the person making the declaration. We demand proof in our own colloquial ways. That’s exactly what happens, albeit sub-consciously, when we see these inspirational videos. The brain negates the information and starts to ‘look for the Red’. Not surprisingly, the brain manages to find a lot of Red (reasons for success) which range from genetic superiority to luck and chance and sometimes destiny. In this particular case, the video showed the celebrity belonging to a family whose members were accomplished in the sport he eventually made his name in. Ah, that’s why he succeeded. That’s the ‘Red’ the brain was looking for.

Threshold for action/inaction

Almost all theories on motivation talk of the incremental model. Most new year resolutions fail not only because they are made under the influence of alcohol but also because they usually are too ambitious. For someone who hasn’t moved off his or her bed in a lifetime, making a resolution to run a marathon before the year ends is a surefire recipe for failure. Instead, breaking this down into achievable goals like a short and vigorous walk the first month followed by a jog and then a 5 k run and so on may have greater chances of success. The same is true for such videos which unveil the journey from ‘zero’ to ‘hero’ in a matter of seconds or minutes at best 9the actual journey takes a lifetime). While the limitations of the medium are known, because the achievement of the celebrity seems so daunting, the viewer gives up even before he/she can contemplate action.


This is a debatable factor and I know I am on thin ice. However, its important to bring this up. As is the case elsewhere, context is important. As we move into an era of targeted advertising, a one size fits all approach may not work. While a sports celebrity’s life journey may inspire an athlete, it may not work for someone starting a business or trying to crack the GMAT, despite the fact that the basic ingredients for success remain the same. That’s where our brain plays games and starts to look for the ‘Red’. There is also an element of ‘Where you are’ in your journey which plays a critical role. If you have embarked upon a mission to scale Mt Everest and are just starting out, an inspirational video of successful attempts at the summit may not be as inspiring as videos showing the initial phases of the climb and the problems successfully overcome.

Motivation, some may argue, almost always comes from within. While external influences do have an impact, the real catalyst lies within. The quarrel I have with celebrity inspirational videos is that they demand ‘too much too soon’ from an individual and provide the brain an opportunity to go looking for the ‘Red’. I am not suggesting that such videos or writings are completely ineffective. Its just that they could be more effective if they are contextual to the target audience, provide a connect and do not raise the threshold for action to such a level that instead of spurring action, they lull the viewer into inaction due to the sheer enormity and scale of the success depicted. Stories of an Olympian, a world famous cricketer or a film star make for good reading but often just that. The realm of action requires a different(iated) approach.

I would love to hear your views.

Originally published at medium.com