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Why You Should Stop Trying to Inspire People

I work with people of all backgrounds and businesses who have something to say and are dying to say it.

They want to do media and launch podcasts, give TED talks and write books. They want to “put themselves out there.” If there were two words that literally every person says to me, it’s that they want to “help people.” That’s not unique, but it’s a good direction to head in.

There’s another thing they want to do: “inspire people.” In a post-Oprah world, it’s no wonder that this is a common goal. They see authors and thought leaders and everyone else signing copies of their books and strutting around the TED stage, and it looks like those people are up there with a single goal: to be inspiring. That might be the effect, but I don’t think that’s why you get up there to begin with.

It’s not a bad intention, don’t get me wrong. But I think when we set out to inspire, we’re missing a step.

I’ve wrestled with this for a while—why it sticks in my craw, why it bugs me, why I feel like even though it seems great it’s the wrong goal. And the reason is this: It presumes I need inspiring, and that only you can fix my lowly, sordid self.

I don’t believe that’s what moves people.

I teach an online course on how to create a standout signature talk, for TEDx or any stage, and in it, I specifically ask students NOT to try to be inspiring. Be the opposite: Be vulnerable and honest and self-deprecating and real. Be willing to show how you struggled and messed up and why you’re no different from the rest of us.

In his (amazing) book, The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, Chris Anderson talks about how the pursuit of “inspiring people” is a little too on the nose:

“Inspiration is like love. You don’t get it by pursuing it directly. In fact, there’s a name for people who pursue love too directly: stalker.”

And there it is. The reason “I want to inspire people” doesn’t work (in a talk, but really, anywhere) is because it’s more about what YOU want, not what I need. And if you assume I need what you want, you’ve jumped a few steps, and you’re no longer leading with message, but agenda.

I think of inspiration as a little like self-esteem: You can’t give it to someone; it must be earned. It’s a byproduct of vulnerability, wisdom, courage. Your willingness to take a risk will inspire us far more than anything you do “to” inspire us.

When I had the opportunity to pitch my TEDx talk idea (“Stop Searching for Your Passion”) to the organizer of TEDxKC, I never, not once, said I wanted to do it to inspire people. Are people inspired by TED talks? All the time. The good ones, anyway. But it’s not because people got up there with the sole purpose of inspiring you; they had something they wanted to say, some truth they’d come to, some struggle they’d had, and wanted to share it.

The last thing I wanted to do was “inspire people to follow their passion.” I’d always felt that “follow your passion” was unhelpful advice, and I knew I couldn’t be the only one who rankled against it. I didn’t go in to “inspire” people with my brilliance, but to share how I’d struggled with an idea, and how I’d ultimately come to terms with it. I had the sense I wasn’t alone, and I was right.

So? Don’t go in to inspire. Instead, make it a point in all that you do, whether it’s writing, speaking, leading, managing, delivering, to tell us the truth, to show us the work. To change the way we see a thing. Share your own contradictions, complexities, and struggle. Take us with you down the path of your own discovery, so we can see how you got there, what decisions, and mistakes, you made.  

That, to be sure, will be the most inspiring thing you can do.

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