A Big 'Ole Stack of Motivational Quotes
The fonts are pretty, but the messages . . .not so much
I moved offices at my university job over the summer, and as I packed things up, I became aware of the fact that I own a lot of things with motivational quotes on them. There were cards, printable downloads, buttons, and stickers. Some were framed, others stuck to a bulletin board, while a few more hung out in a stack (I suppose waiting for their turn in a frame or pinned up on that board?). What can I say, I’ve always been a sucker for a little snippet of wisdom or encouragement in a pretty font.
Nevertheless, I found myself doing a pretty heavy edit of these as I unpacked in my new digs.
“Slay the day” is catchy, but it also feels like it’s creeping toward toxic productivity, right? It’s cool to slay, but it’s also admirable to rest. And slay sounds like tackling big and giant things every day all the time. If we took the time to talk about all the things that could encompass “slaying” (i.e. just showing up, taking a nap, checking that one thing off our to-do list), this would be super motivational, but since there’s really no nuance to be gleaned from a framed piece of bright pink paper, this one didn’t make the cut.
“You’ve got this.” I mean, you do. But it’s maybe not always the most helpful thing to say in the middle of a situation in which someone feels like they very much don’t got it. It’s the same as “it’ll be okay,” which so easily slips off the tongue when what we actually mean is “you will feel more okay at some point in the future, that day isn’t today, but I really wish it was because I don’t like to see you sad/hurt/suffering.” I truly believe everyone who walks through my office door has “got it” in that they are capable and will figure out the right next steps. But I can also acknowledge that this might not look like they thought it would when they started the thing. So once again, there’s a lot of gray and nuance and growth that gets glossed over by that little “you got this” sign tacked to the bulletin board. It also had to go.
And then there’s “do what you love . . .”
This one is a doozy (buckle up, I’ve got lots to say here). I was actually surprised to find a little promotional button touting this phrase amongst my collection. I’ve had strong feelings about this one long enough to assume I’d eradicated all mentions of it from the office quote collection. Which just goes to show just how pervasive and tenacious this message is. It sounds SO good, right? But don’t be fooled— this little phrase is a havoc wrecker, dressed up like the best advice ever. (It also sometimes goes by: “what’s your passion?” or its longer cousin “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”)
I’ve written before about the effects of this sneaky little phrase in my own life. So there’s an element of this that is personal, but here are some other reasons I’m on a campaign to remove “do what you love” from its ubiquitous place in the world of career advice:
First and foremost, it’s a terrible organizing principle. In their book Designing Your Life, Dave Evans and Bill Burnett talk about research out of Stanford University that shows that less than 20% of people have ONE identifiable passion, while 8 out of 10 people can name a large number of things they are interested in. So to say do what you LOVE, do what you’re PASSIONATE about is problematic from the outset, since many people won’t be able to pinpoint that one specific thing. I’ve seen this exercise of trying to identify this one true love debilitate people’s progress toward choosing a major or thinking about careers that would be fulfilling, all while they can name countless areas of interest.
It puts way too much pressure on loving your vocation. I blame the longer version that includes the bit about “never working a day in your life” for this one. I’m absolutely not advocating for people to have jobs that they hate, but I also think that trying to make sure you are passionate about the work you are paid to do puts way too much pressure on it. If we’re using the better organizing principle that we all have a lot of things that we are interested in, then we can choose one of those areas of interest as our pay the bills work and use time and energy outside to pursue some of the others. It’s not an all or nothing game, we don’t have to derive every ounce of joy from our jobs.
Which ties in with my last point, “do what you love” makes falling out of love feel debilitating. It’s just a fact that our likes and dislikes are going to change. It’s human to shift our perspective over time. It’s what growth and development and self-discovery are all about. But if you’ve tied everything to this idea of “one true love,” you can start to feel really down on yourself when those natural shifts occur (“I’ve lost my passion. What am I without my love of this or that?”). If you’ve thought more broadly about all the things you’re interested in, curious about, lose track of time thinking about/doing, then it feels easier to shift to the next thing.
Okay, so if you’re reading this and feeling like taking down every quote you have posted by your door, or stuck to your water bottle, or framed on the wall, let me offer a little levity. The reason we’re drawn to motivational quotes is that they are shorthand for really, really valid intentions. We want people to “slay” because we believe in their potential to accomplish unique and wonderful things. We say “you’ve got this” because we see others' inner strength and resilience even when they don’t. And even when we espouse “do what you love,” what we really mean is “I really want you to find meaning and purpose in your work.”
The intentions are good, just often oversimplified. And here’s the thing, there are still some quotes on my shelves and walls. Yes, because I’m a sucker for a pretty font. But even more because I’m a sucker for the shorthand note for: I care about you, and I want the absolute very best for you.
But pretty, pretty please, let’s stop getting all tied in knots over “doing what we love,” okay? You can take that one down.
Beautiful Thing of the Week
One little something that brought joy this week (longer lists of tiny joyful things come out bi-weekly for paid subscribers):
❤️ Speaking of shorthand, really loved this from Ann Friedman, unpacking what we mean when we say “with everything going on.”
Are you a sucker for a pretty font? Do you have favorite quotes that you’ve changed your mind on? Ones you still stand by? I’ll be sharing the ones that made the cut in my new office decor in a future article here and would love to share some reader favorites too.