My Particular Problem With Motivational Claptrap
“Claptrap” is such a great word, don’t you think?
Last night, because I apparently had nothing better to do, I watched a very short video in which a man (“Man 1”) asked another man (“Man 2”) a question about motivation. I should mention that (a) I had the sound off and was reading the subtitles, and (b) I do not know who either man was or why one was asking questions of the other. In any event, Man 2’s response was to paraphrase something he’d read in a book, the name of which I don’t recall exactly but which I think was something like THE BOY, THE HORSE, THE FOX, AND THE MOUSE (although it could just as well have been THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER… except I know that there were a boy and a horse in there).
The specific tale in this book that Man 2 called to mind featured a boy and a horse (see?) in a forest. The boy lamented to the horse that he, the boy, could not see the end of the forest. The horse asked the boy if he, the boy, could see his next step. When the boy said that he, the boy, could, then the horse recommended that he, the boy, focus only on taking that next step, and then the step after that, and so on… and soon enough, they’d be out of the forest.
The motivational idea being, of course, that focusing on the end goal, if it be a daunting one, is likely to derail your journey, whereas focusing instead on the small steps you need to reach that goal will be much more productive/less daunting. A not indecent point, except…
- Where did the boy find a talking horse?
- Why was the boy walking, if he could have been riding the horse?
- In order for taking individual steps to be a successful strategy toward reaching one’s goal, one must already know the way, and each step necessarily must move one closer to one’s goal. (This is my real nit to pick with the advice of the talking horse.)
To put this another way, if the boy had complained to his equine companion, I don’t know which way to proceed to get us out of the forest, then the horse’s advice to focus on one step at a time would have been decidedly unhelpful. If you’re lost in a forest, simply walking will not guarantee your exit, or survival. You’re just as likely to walk further into the forest than you are to walk out of it; you might as well not walk at all. Just stay where you are and wait for sweet, sweet death. Eat your talking horse to buy yourself some time.
So for the horse’s advice to be good advice, the boy’s problem had to be specifically that he couldn’t see the edge of the forest. Now, that’s an entirely possible scenario, I’ll allow. Maybe there was even a path. Maybe the boy and his horse were on a clearly defined, paved, primrose path that traversed the woodland. The boy was simply not sure that he could walk as far as he’d need to in order not to have to resort to eating his horse.
There aren’t many problems like that one, though. At least, I don’t have many problems like that. I have the kind of problems that involve not knowing how to get from Point A to Point B, and not knowing whether any step, in any direction, will help or hurt or do nothing at all. In fact, I’ve taken entirely too many steps over the years that have not moved me from where I was. The query email that goes unacknowledged. The job application that goes unresponded-to. Some third example of this sort of thing.
Why was the boy walking, if he could have been riding the horse?
I genuinely kind of wish that I had the kinds of goals that simply required me to put one metaphorical foot in front of the other repeatedly until I’d arrive, perhaps pleasantly surprised, at my intended destination, the place I never thought I’d reach because it was so far away that I just couldn’t see it — or that I could see, but which was so small because it was so far in the distance.
Anyway, my advice to you is: Don’t be too quick to trust horses. And maybe stay out of the woods?