This is the first sentence of the rest of your life! On reflection, that seems an overstatement. Let’s start again. This is the first sentence of the rest of the article. Inspirational quotes have seeped into all kinds of previously quiet corners – brief instructions in places that once were empty of thought. Underground, for instance, in the foyers of tube stations. Inspirational quotes step in front of you on pavements, on the overfriendly A-boards of coffee shops. They coach you from the sidelines of your life, nippy pep talks from the labels on soap dispensers, tea towels and classroom doors, and even the ingratiatingly pally chitchat of the Boden catalogue.
There is no point being snobby about this. Inspirational quotes cross the bounds of class and taste. It’s true they are vented freely on The Apprentice where “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”. (That’s the candidate Ella Jade Bitton.) But they also colour political discussion. The Scottish yes campaign cited the supposed Gandhi quote, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” You can buy inspirational quotes in the New York Public Library shop, see other people’s favourites on Goodreads. Inspirational quotes were even on billboards at the Frankfurt book fair – “because you can’t buy happiness but you can buy a book”. Congratulations if you make it home tonight without seeing an inspirational quote. You will probably find all the ones you avoided, photographed by your friends and posted on your Facebook wall.
Inspirational quotes operate as currency on social media – not only in terms of the way their wisdom is handled and passed on, but because motivational tweets have become a key indicator of a person worth following. In 2013, Forbes ran a list of the most influential people on social media. (There is no escape: clicking that link will activate a pop-up “Quote of the Day”. Enjoy!) Haydn Shaughnessy compiled the data, and noticed that the most influential people on Twitter offered a stream of motivational content. “When we looked at leading social media influencers in 2012, they were all people who created a lot of content. By 2013,” he says, “it was much more likely that a top influencer would be tweeting inspiration instead of creating separate content. The reason? People probably don’t read content anyway, they just share it.”
One of the odd things about reading inspirational quotes, perhaps catching sight of them in your Twitter feed, is their anonymity. Huge numbers of quotes are unattributed. Accuracy is unprized. That quote that proliferated during the campaign for Scottish independence is probably not Gandhi but an adaptation of a quote by the American trade unionist Nicholas Klein. But who cares? It’s the sentiment that counts, not its source. Ella Jade Bitton’s inspiration was first Eleanor Roosevelt’s. Anyone can own a quote, and their typical presentation on sites such as Tumblr or Pinterest, captured inside a decorative border or frame, is designed to excise all sense of prior context – a sort of historical cleansing.
There is something disturbing about the facelessness of the enterprise. The Twitter handles that specialise in quotes tend to be anonymously managed with names that sound weirdly uninspired: Inspirational Quotes, Inspiring Quotes, Motivational Quotes, etc. Somewhere behind these handles is a real person. But what sort of person?
Gonzalo Arzuaga is an internet entrepreneur who, having founded (and sold for several million dollars) GauchoNet.com, a search engine in Spanish, now devotes himself to the business of inspiration. This year he started working full-time for his company Inspower (as in, “get inspowered!”). It sells motivational packages to businesses “to take advantage of unused real estate” – inspiring thoughts to put on the mirror in the bathroom, in elevators, on empty windows. He runs Inspirational Quotes and several of the aforementioned Twitter handles and sites, with a combined audience of “two million real followers”. He says he wants “to place quotes everywhere in the world – until every individual in the planet finds the one that triggers her/him to be the best she/he can be”.
Because Arzuaga is a well-motivated and kind person who is trying to help me to be the best I can be, he kindly offers to tweet the 667,000 followers of @InspowerMinds to ask why they love quotes. “It’s like brain training,” someone says. “You can get a lot of wisdom in few words.” “I like them because someone else feels the same way.” “Being positive is one of the best things a person can do for themselves.” (A lot of people who like inspirational quotes tend to talk in inspirational quotes.) And, less epigrammatically, “They speak for the truths I learned when I received counselling for depression.”
As this last suggests, there is a sadness, a hankering, at the heart of the inspirational quote. (Some inspirational quotes are actually pretty depressing: “We’re not friends. We’re strangers with enemies.”) As anyone who has read his Maxims knows, the 17th-century French author La Rochefoucauld was miserable.
Arzuaga grew up in the countryside in Argentina, 300 miles north of Buenos Aires. His father died when he was one. “In the countryside, in an undeveloped country, a single mother raising my brother and I. That kind of scarcity gets deep into your soul,” he says. “I didn’t want to get trapped in my thought that there wasn’t enough. Now my beliefs are completely the opposite. The world is abundant. The universe is only waiting on your call.”
Maybe hardship – or “scarcity”, as Arzuaga calls it – lies behind the current surge of interest in quotes. I wonder how many people pushing motivational material themselves had – or are having – a really hard time. Like Arzuaga, Atticus Aristotle is helpful on the phone. The author of motivational books, his real name is Abdul Jaludi, a 54-year-old former technology manager for Citigroup in New York, for which he worked for 26 years. Jaludi says he first came across inspirational quotes on email sign-offs. He always enjoyed them, especially one by the 30th US president Calvin Coolidge, about perseverence, which he kept on his desk until he got laid off last year.
Jaludi put together his first book of quotes for fun, but it was downloaded about 3,000 times a month, which got him thinking. “The economic problems, the banking failures, got me wondering about ethics and morality,” he says. “We are losing our ethics in the business world.” Then he adds, without specifically including himself in the observation, “There’s a lot of people out of work. It helps to keep their spirits up.”
The problem is, when quotes are everywhere, do they start to lose their point? One slightly mournful response to Arzuaga’s call-out on Twitter notes simply, “Recently, I’ve found that some people view my constant motivational quotes as annoying and insincere.” There is something poignant about that person’s bewilderment. “You cannot be a quote-saying guy like a vending machine,” warns Arzuaga. (That would be a bit too much like Lou Ford, protagonist of the noir classic The Killer Inside Me, who deployed inspirational quotes in order to deflect attention from his serial killing.) But a quick count of 10 inspirational quoters on Twitter gives a combined quote speed of 22 per hour, which is quite a lot of inspiration to channel. It can feel overpowering, the collective exhortation of it all. You will be a better person!
“It’s very easy to mock that tea towel philosophy,” says Matt Haig, one whole chapter of whose bestselling novel The Humans comprises 97 inspirational quotes. The nuggets range from “irony is fine, but not as fine as feeling” to “If you are laughing, check that you don’t really want to cry. And vice versa.” Haig thinks that “British culture is very cynical sometimes of overt displays of sentimentality, and I think that becomes almost a suspicion of emotion, or a suspicion of someone making a grand statement. It is always easier to be ironic, or ‘meta’, or coolly postmodern. But I think there is such a thing as authentic sentimentality.”
This makes sense. The difficulty is that the format of inspirational quotes can seem insincere. How can anyone distinguish between authentic and inauthentic sentimentality, between useful and discouraging inspirational quotes?
James Geary, author of The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism, thinks the difference is qualitative. Geary believes aphorisms are “a very high form of literary style”. In contrast, he says, “some ‘inspirational quotes’ are just pretty dull and pretty obvious. One, in my view, induces a feeling of complacency. The other is a spur to action. It inspires critical thinking.”
To test Geary’s theory, I read aloud a few inspirational quotes from my Twitter list, knowing that he will find them substandard: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
“I’d have to say that’s close,” Geary says. “It’s got the reversal. It’s stylistically aphoristic, even though it’s perilously close to sentimental.”
What! Is he serious? Hang on. How about this one? “The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.”
“Perfect! Love it! It’s got humour. It’s got a reversal. It’s La Rochefoucauldian.” (On further investigation, this quote turns out to be from Gloria Steinem.)