You Never Fail Until You Stop Trying Motivational Sign



I recently went to the gym for the first time in months, because my inability to climb the two flights of stairs to my office without needing to be defibrillated was becoming annoying.

It was while desperately grappling some infernal contraption like I’d just fallen into the workings of Big Ben that I contemplated abandoning this whole “exercise” charade. But then I glanced at the wall and saw an image of a mountaintop, a stunning natural vista, underneath which was written something akin to “It takes effort to be all you can be”. I suddenly realised that, if I stuck at it and worked my hardest, I could be a mountain one day.

A mountain is a very large rise in the land, over 610 metres in height, and formed by the action of tectonic forces. Being such a thing would be incredibly inconvenient for me, so I stopped exercising and left the gym forever.

That last part isn’t true; I’m not really worried about becoming a landmass. There was a poster though, but I don’t really remember what it said, because it was just one of dozens I see every day that are intended to motivate, inspire or reassure me. When something is so commonplace, it can quickly fade to the level of well-intentioned white noise.


The actual mechanism by which they could work is almost certainly intrinsic; there is no obvious external reward offered by looking at a poster. Higgins in 1987 came up with the self-discrepancy theory to explain people’s motivation. This argues that people have three types of self: the “ideal” self, which is what we hope to become; the “ought” self, which is how we think we should behave to achieve the ideal self; and the actual self, which is the extent to which we actually possess these desired attributes.

The “ideal” self encourages us to do things that take our actual self closer to that state (eg dressing smarter at work to seem more professional), the “ought” self stops us doing things that lead our actual self away from it (eg avoiding fatty foods because we want to be fitter). In either case, it usually takes effort and motivation, so could a well-placed reminder that our efforts aren’t necessarily futile provide the necessary impetus we need? A well-phrased quote emphasising the things a person can achieve could boost our ideal self, or one reassuring us that hard work is normal and necessary may shore up our ought self. This no doubt varies from person to person, it depends how seriously you take these things.

It’s easy to scoff at the corporate use of motivational posters like these. It often seems like a company trying to get more from employees without actually paying them any more money, but this is to overlook the importance of intrinsic motivation, as exemplified by the “overjustification effect”.

The overjustification effect suggests that if you reward people for something they already like doing, they’ll actually lose the motivation for doing it. This has led to the agency theory of motivation, where it is argued that autonomy is better than financial reward for motivating people, as a reward is an external factor, beyond their control and could be taken away at any time, whereas giving someone autonomy means they have control and responsibility so a sense of achievement, which could explain why micromanagement is so infuriating.

Others argue that this agency theory is something cooked up by amoral economists as a way of justifying not paying a workforce fairly. It’s easy to understand this position in modern times.







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