Aspirational material is everywhere. We see headlines like ‘7 steps to shredded abs’ or ‘how I made this much $$$ working from home’ or any other exciting material promising to help you be or have something different. Aspirational material is addictive, probably because we pretty much all aspire to things. Who doesn’t want more money or a better body or a more fulfilling job? Seems pretty natural that we’d be interested in engaging with the manuals.
Simon Sinek is his Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action makes the point that all of this aspirational jargon is a type of manipulation. Here’s a helpful quote:
Though positive in nature, aspirational messages are most effective with those who lack discipline or have a nagging fear or insecurity that they don’t have the ability to achieve their dreams on their own.
By ‘effective,’ Sinek means for the company or person who creates the content, it’s not effective for the individual. Companies use aspirational messaging to sell us things, and it works. You buy a gym membership because you aspire to be healthier, and if it’s a nice gym for a great deal it’s easy to justify. An entire gym membership business model is built on these aspirations. They sell innumerable memberships, far more than the gym could actually accommodate, because they know people won’t show up. They know people aspire to be healthier making a membership an easy sell, but they also know people only aspire, they don’t want to put in the work to execute on a goal.
When we feel stuck in some part of our lives, when there’s something we would love to change about ourselves or our circumstances, we often think the problem is a lack of knowledge or motivation. If it’s knowledge, we think that either we need more knowledge or someone else needs more knowledge (probably both) in order to make progress or affect change. If it’s motivation, we think we need some sort of special inspiration in order to get us moving. Neither of those beliefs is helpful. How many aspirational blog posts do you think you’ll need to read before you’re sufficiently knowledgable and motivated to make those pounds fall off or start that passion project? If you’re anything like me, you’ve definitely put your time in with this aspirational stuff, but those hours probably haven’t paid really well. It’s fun, but it never does what we hope it will. Aspirational material is not all bad, you can find some really helpful tips and tricks buried in there, and maybe even a little motivation now and again, but it’s important to understand what that stuff can and cannot do for you. Aspirations and aspirational material can’t change you.
So here’s a little trick I picked up: stop aspiring. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set goals and make plans, in fact, goals and plans are the opposite of aspiration. An aspiration is foggy, vague, mostly unhelpful. It’s more like a wish than anything else. And it’s really easy to spend hours and hours thinking about our wishes. A goal is objective, something you can act on, something you can make a plan to achieve. If you want to do or be something different an aspiration won’t take you very far, but a plan of action could.