The downside of powerful examples


In October universities start and among them The Alternative University. It’s a place where people are crazy about learning: students, trainers, mentors and all others who gather around it. In this first Learning Day, when everybody was there, I had the honour to give a speech and the pleasure to listen to some great others.

And while listening, I started thinking about the examples we use to motivate students. And it’s not just us, in that context. It’s everywhere.


When we want to talk about passion we give examples about people who after 15 years in a corporate job, quit and started cooking or other entrepreneurial adventure – “the returning to their true passion”. Isn’t this a way to put unnecessary pressure on some youngsters who have trouble settling for one passion and figuring what to do next, in the first place? The only lesson I think we should teach from those stories is that: it’s ok to change your mind…not the one we’re teaching now: “find your passion! do anything for that or you’ll live an unhappy life until you do!”.

Or we use the same stories to portray guts and courage. Plus, we invite extreme sports practitioners to talk to us about how they climbed 8.000m mountains. What if I’m happy doing my job? Does it mean I don’t have courage if I don’t make any harsh decisions in my life? Or if I don’t climb mountains or run marathons at The North Pole? (Those adrenaline junkies are a special breed of people – and some of them die, you know!). I might start wondering if my decisions are good, even if they are, just because there’s no super-extreme risk involved. And it makes me feel…average, having not spilled any real blood at work. Hmm.

And to climb a really high mountain you need determination. And to talk about determination we also invite people with disabilities to talk about how they overcame that to have a normal life. By the way, some of them don’t like to be “an inspiration”. And I remember watching a TED-type of talk and caught myself thinking “well, no matter what I do I’ll never be on that stage, because I was born lucky and people we’ll think my life was easy – there’s no surprise in having success, even if I will”. It’s like in a Catan game…we all start with different resources (better or worse), but we still have the same chance on winning.

I’m now reading Mastery – a book on how to become a master in a field. The book has some good insights but the author gives a lot of examples of masters using all sorts of strategies: Einstein, Mozart, Edison, The Wright Brothers…But I wonder: how can I trust a strategy that was successful for a person out of hundreds? Would this really make anybody think that by using that strategy she will become the next Einstein?

u-shaped-goal-difficulty-curve-300x228What I learned from direct selling is that if you want to motivate people to sell more you can build a competition in which you give a prize for reaching a more challenging than usual sales target. But you wouldn’t want to set a too high target because then the majority of people will not even try, they will know that the effort is too high and the chances to make it are too low – it’s not a good bargain, so your sales will stay the same. Isn’t there a risk that the same can happen when we use these “powerful examples”? Especially with young people? I say we be careful which and how we use them.

Just food for thought…

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