Everywhere we look, there’s a surplus of trite, cliched advice that doesn’t work or doesn’t really apply anymore, even though it sounds wise and resonant. These kinds of messages can sound important because they resonate with our favorite cultural stories, not necessarily with any deeper truth. These simplified ideas often circulate as inspiring memes and videos on social media. As a result, messages of true wisdom—ideas that take our thinking and our lives to the next level if we pay attention—can be drowned out in the cacophony.
To illustrate this point, let’s consider working hard vs. the value of sleep. We’ve all heard countless inspiring stories of highly successful people putting in long hours, working late, waking up early, never taking leisurely naps, and rarely taking days off, much less taking restful vacations. First, these people have a vision, then they work unimaginably hard for many years, and, voilà, they reach all their goals beyond their wildest dreams. What we don’t hear about is the toll on their bodies as a result of not sleeping enough night after night for years on end. When we don’t get enough sleep for sustained periods, our bodies age quickly. We slice years, decades even, off our lives. Further, when we’re perennially tired, we feel terrible, we don’t perform optimally, and our health declines. Maybe the sacrifice in lifespan and healthspan is still worth it to reach certain dreams, but that’s a different message entirely, one that’s more nuanced and perhaps a bit less inspiring at first glance.
Even messages about the rewards of sacrifice often get sensationalized and meme-ified, skipping past deeper meaning. For example, a friend of mine, Garrett Weber-Gale, is an Olympic gold medalist. His is undeniably an inspiring story. He wasn’t a natural-born talent in swimming, but he had a dream to go to the Olympics anyway. He put in longer practice hours, for more years, with more intensity and better focus than perhaps anyone else. He eventually accomplished his goal by competing in the 2008 Olympics. He took home the gold in two events, including perhaps the most remembered Olympic swimming relay of all time.
Later on, he considered continuing his training and attempting to go to the 2016 Olympics. However, he decided against it, because he realized that being an Olympian, or any kind of elite athlete, is ultimately a selfish act. That path was all about Garrett and Garrett’s goals. The insane hours he put into training meant he didn’t have much time left over to give back to other people in his life. He didn’t have the bandwidth to also be the supportive son, husband, parent, or friend he wanted to be. He realized he had little time to help others in any meaningful way unless they were physically in the pool with him. In fact, the other people in his life made big sacrifices to support him in his quest. They arranged their lives around his practice schedules. They used all their vacation time to attend his competitions. He didn’t want to live this way anymore.
He’s proud of his incredible accomplishments, and well he should be. However, he also learned from them. He continued to grow as he discovered new paths that awaited him. He decided that it was time to hang up the goggles and start giving back by supporting others more. Again, that’s not to say that working hard to achieve a goal is bad, because it isn’t. However, as with most inspirational advice we encounter, “work hard and you’ll achieve your goals” is not the whole story.
Greater wisdom lies beneath the surface, available to anyone willing to dig through the overly-simplified, highly-polished advice found everywhere we look. If we read or hear a story that resonates and inspires, that’s fine, but we also need to ask why it resonates and inspires. We must also read between the lines and look for more nuanced wisdom. If we find some, it may do more than just inspire us, it could also challenge us to examine our cherished beliefs and help us grow in unexpected ways.