What makes a story inspiring?

It seemed like such a perfect inspirational story. This coach told about her client, a woman who just decided to start out and offer services to corporate clients and who joined the coach’s program to get a kick start. The coach had a great step-by-step process in her program. The first step was about refining the offer, the second was to identify candidates that would be interested, the third was to start making outreach and build relationships etc.

By the sixth week, this case study client had just received the sign off on her first engagement and it was a six figure deal. Yay, right?

As I listened to this podcast episode, somehow I failed to get emotionally involved in the story. I mean, good for her and all but it was just another “look who’s made it, you can make it too” story to me.

Later on in the episode, both the podcast host and this coach interviewee talked about social media and how bad it can be for our mental health. How it’s dangerous to only see the highlight reel of other’s life. And that it’s disheartening to be in an environment that seeps of the assumption that you should make six figure in six months when starting out or you’re a failure.

So while they both were in agreement that this image and verbiage can set people up for unreasonable expectations, this coach had used exactly that as her example story just 15 minutes ago! In order inspire people – and ultimately of course consider her services to get there.

What gives?

Sure, we have the difference between inspiration and expectation. The overnight success stories in the media are supposed to inspire us to chase our own dreams. But when these stories are the only ones told, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that these scenarios are expected or common.

As I listened to this episode I also came to think about the difference between what kind of stories that often are used as inspiration and what actually inspires us. Because I didn’t get inspired by hearing about signing a six figure deal even though I think that was the point behind telling the story.

I don’t know what kind of situation this woman was in. There’s no way for me to know if she was similar to me, had similar struggles and obstacles as I have that she overcame, or how much of it was due to circumstances I cannot replicate.

I don’t know her values or principles. It might sound trite, but money alone is not enough to motivate me. I don’t know under which circumstances this deal was going to be fulfilled, nor what kind of client it was. I hope it was her ideal client, but I don’t know if my ideal client is similar to hers.

In short, the story was not relatable to me. And this is especially important when it comes to trying to inspire people.

What kind of thoughts and emotions do you get when you hear stories about people doing something remarkable, like completing 7 marathons on 7 continents within 7 days (Dave Jones) or climbing Mount Everest wearing only shorts (Wim Hof)?

Do you think “Wow, that sounds awesome! Humans can do anything they set their mind to, I’m going to do the same but in my way.”?

Or is it closer to “Whoah it’s amazing what some crazy people are capable of with determination. That’s like far away on the edge of what’s possible. Cool for them but way out of range for normal people like me.”?

The first involves provoking some kind of action and inspiration in you, the second is more like seeing it as part of some “other” distant person that has little to do with your own life.

Mikael Mattson, member of the board of Brain Athletics, made the observation

“It’s like there’s an increased gap between how people view their own abilities and the stories in media about all these people doing extreme physical challenges”

Mikael mattson (article in Swedish)

He noticed that many people had an either-or mindset. That these challenges become what counts, and it’s no longer ok to “only” jog a few miles a couple of times per week.

The so called inspirational stories have the opposite effect and become de-motivational instead.

So what do we need to be inspired?

Well for one thing, the person in the story or the main point in it has to be relatable to yourself. You need to recognise some element of yourself in it, something that applies to you and speaks to you. Either similar circumstances, external traits, personality, values, dreams or challenges – something that creates a thread of connection between you and the subject.

Secondly, it helps if the distance is not too far from where you are to the example or the ideal. We need to feel that the gap is bridgeable, that it is possible for us to cross the distance from where we are to where we want to be.

This is why don’t think I as a very flexible person would be the greatest candidate to instruct beginners in stretching. “Just do like me!” – Flop – “It’s easy, just relax into it”. I’d just make the lesser flexible feel even more stiff in comparison.

This is also why I find it more inspirational with a colleague who several times per week takes a longer lunch in order to go for a run, than someone who is riding a bicycle alone through seven countries in Europe.

One is directly applicable to me, the other is not.

Now, there’s a part of me that would love to make six figures within six weeks. There’s also another part of me who kind of snicker at the mere thought that I’d be able to do such a thing.

And I know that that snickering little voice is a big part of why I wasn’t inspired by the story. Because as long as I think something is clearly outside my reach, there’s no reason to be inspired to reach for it.

Does this mean that it was a mistake for the coach to share her case study story? Nope.

For the right people – those who think this is within their reach and who want to go there – this would be exactly the kind of inspirational story they would need. To hear that it’s possible. An example of someone who did it. Even a coach and a process that can help you get there faster.

These would be exactly the people best suited to go for the coach’s program. I was simply not one of them at this time of listening.

What kind of stories inspire you? Do you get motivated when you hear about people who stretched themselves and went way beyond the average? Or do you get more inspired about hearing someone like you overcome the same struggles that you have?

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