How Inspirational Stories Lie

February 10th, 2010

So, now that I’ve established that inspirational stories can be used for evil, let me tell you an  inspirational story.

This is a true story because it happend to me.

Eight years ago I stopped smoking.  My wife at the time had just gotten pregnant and I was determined to be healthy not only for myself but for the new baby.

So, THAT DAY, I smoked my last cigarette and that was that.

No more smoking.  Kaput.

Is that the end?

I’m sure you hear these kinds of stories all the time.  Usually these stories pop up in the context of quitting smoking, losing weight, gaining confidence, etc. They reek of sheer willpower with the faint hint of positive thinking.  And the stories always go something like:

One day, it hit me.  And I was determined to/not to ______________.

I don’t know if it’s because we’ve been “chicken-souped” to death or what.  But I see many stories like this that are intended to inspire. To show what is possible if you “put your mind to it”.

Maybe for people trying to quit smoking, lose weight, or change something they don’t like about themselves, they are inspiration.  The whole “If they did it, so can I.”  They stress mind over matter and “triumph of the will”.

But all too often when you find that it’s not so easy, thoughts creep into your head like:

“Why can’t I do it?  What’s wrong with me? I just don’t have the willpower”

There’s nothing wrong with you.  The problem is in the story.

Those stories lie.  They’ tell you half the truth and end at a time that makes the story sound more uplifting.

Now, how would one do that?  It’s easy. Just End a story so that it gives people a false sense of what happened.  Let’s see how this relates to my quitting smoking story.

It is true.  I found out my wife at the time was pregnant.  And I stopped smoking.  Absolutely 100% true.  What I failed to mention was that I had previously quit 9 times in the 3 months prior that that moment.  I tried and failed.  Tried and failed.  The 10th time was the charm. Now, that was only in the previous 3 months.  I have tried  almost a hundred times before that in my thankfull brief smoking career.

And what had I done in those failed attempts?  I learned about why I kept smoking.  I found out what triggered my addiction.  I experimented with different methods for quitting (I found the patch worked best for me). And then and only then was I able to quit.

I then failed to mention that after I quit, I went through the worst three-month period in my life.

So, rather than quitting smoking being an example of my willpower, it was really an example of my lack of willpower.  I had to recognize and change several habits over a period of time before I reached the moment of quitting and staying quit.  And I continue not to smoke because I also know that if I just take one drag, I’m back to smoking.

And that is how an inspirational story can can lie.  It stresses one aspect (the mental aspect) of an event and fails to mention the negative parts (actions).  If you read the first part of my story, you may have been inspired to quit smoking.  But then when you failed you would have assumed that Carlon has more willpower than you and that’s why you failed.

If you had read my whole story, you might not have been so inspired but you would have a t least known what to expect and the chances of you actually quitting would have been better. (As an aside, if you do smoke, quit.  It won’t be easy, but it’s worth it.)

So, don’t take any inspirational story as fact.  Question it, and if you start asking yourself “and then what?” then you have my permission to consider that story a big load of poop!

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