Shoot for The Stars
You may be familiar with motivation posters. They are hung in the classrooms of middle schoolers, the offices of pediatricians, and the homes of the ironically depressed. All motivational posters have some drawings on them, and they also have a catchy phrase. But the question is: do they actually inspire? Do children who have access to these posters during school time have more initiative than kids who stared at posters of Johnny Depp in a pirate costume? It’s the “paradox of the motivational poster” – they do not motivate. So why not replace the posters with math equations or Michael Jordan slam dunks? How does the motivational poster cottage industry continue to exist?
I would think about this often in my high school English classroom, which was bedazzled with motivation posters. We had three standard “READ” posters sponsored by a library association that featured celebrities reading books. There was one with Sean Connery (“Read! Follow your heart!”), one with Denzel (“Read! Anything is possible!”), and one with Mel (“Read! The Holocaust is a Lie!” [ed. note - this is not true]).
There was also this poster, which had yellow bubble text superimposed over a cartoonish night sky:
“Shoot for the Moon
Even if you miss
You’ll be among the stars”
This poster would bug me because, what’s the point? Who would look at this poster and heed the advice? It’s a nice saying, but the metaphor clouds the message (consider: if a space shuttle – let alone a human – missed the moon and “landed among the stars,” it would be an unmitigated disaster! Imagine the horror! ).
But, because I would so often think about the paradox of the motivational poster, I fell into what I have termed the “contradiction of the paradox of the motivational poster.” By just contemplating how unmotivating the poster was, I would inevitably repeat the catchphrase inside my head over and over again. And so eventually, I would be thinking of that phrase when I had to make a difficult choice. And because I didn’t have a concrete worldview or strong convictions, I wound up seriously considering the poster’s advice. Which meant that it was, in effect, almost motivating me. Almost.
Which is what brings me to a particular motivational poster that was so awful, I couldn’t help but become obsessed with it – obsessed to the extent that this poster eventually started to affect my behavior, leading to disastrous and hilariously embarrassingconsequences.
It all began my freshman year in High School, when I was the third best trombonist in the marching band. Looking back, it’s clear to me that our band teacher must have been dealing with some intense and confusing emotions at the time. I’m not sure what caused this, because as a 14½ year old, I was oblivious to any and all elements of my surroundings (I didn’t know that ice cream was unhealthy until I was 20!). But I did know something was off with him. I know this because he arranged, scored, and choreographed a 15 minute marching band routine to a medley of Genesis songs. Genesis! So while other young adults marched to Disney songs and the Lord of the Rings theme, we trudged around while blaring early form Prog Rock.
To say the least, our band director really took the marching band in an experimental direction that year. And by experimental, I mean terrible. And not subjectively terrible, we were terrible by any conceivable metric and measurement. Did we sound good? Much worse than the actual Genesis. Did we march well? I recall participating in some rather oblong circles. Did we have fun? I think someone did a great impression of Napolean Dynamite one time.
Most emblematic of our year was the manner in which we entered the field to perform our piece. Where most bands march on to the field in a unison, step-by-step line before splitting into their initial formation, our band teacher made the artistic choice that we should walk onto the field intentionally out of step, and not in any particular shape. In theory, this was a deconstructionist take on the traditional structures marching band – an honest look at what it really means to be a “marching band”. In practice, it was 50 people in stupid costumes wandering around an empty football field for a minute and a half. Why did we do this? I will never know.
The goal of a marching band is to do fun-looking things while making nice-sounding music. We, of course, did neither. We never marched into entertaining shapes and we always had trouble with our right angles. Our drum major looked like a guy that would still be working at Blockbuster in 2009. Not that I am without blame – I would get myself super psyched before performances and wind up playing my trombone as loud as possible. Really just blowing all of worries, troubles, and phlegm through 10 feet of brass. What can I say – our marching show was my Super Bowl (or, my Puppy Bowl, really). I’m not sure if you’ve heard a trombonist play like that, but it takes all of the farty aspects of the trombone, magnifies them, and combines that with the pitch and tone of an actual fart, albeit one from a classically trained fartist. But I digress.
Unsurprisingly, between our terrible marching, stoned drum major, and flatulent sound, morale was low that year. A few people quit. A few parents complained. Now, if reading leadership books has taught me anything, it’s that a true leader responds to a crisis with resolve, conviction, and environmental deregulation. But, remember, our leader was a band teacher who enjoyed Genesis to the extent that he created a 15 minute medially of their DEEP CUTSand forced a group of high schoolers to perform it.
So, naturally, he did not respond to our resistance with a cool head and calm heart. No. He went batshit crazy. Over one weekend, he retooled our routines and restructured the bandroom. We returned to find that we would be practicing longer hours at a more intense pace. He removed chairs from the band room because we were no longer allowed to sit down during our indoor practices.
And, most consequentially, he also put up the motivational poster that would become the whale to my Ahab; the Nader to my Gore; the internet to my regional newspaper:
What does not kill you
Only makes you stronger
This was awful for three reasons. First, it is an extremely negative message. It’s the least positive way of saying, “if you learn from your experiences, you’ll probably succeed!” Second, upon reading it, all I could think about were exceptions to the rule. This was true then, and it was true now. I remember staring at this poster, and thinking, “Well, AIDS. No, that kills you. Really bad acne? Well, if it gets infected, certainly. Non-lethal bullet wound? Loss of limb? Stage IV Concussion? Obesity? Male pattern baldness?”
The third reason was that our band teacher repeated this all the time. Which meant people were thinking about non-lethal but non-strengthening things all the time. So what we had on our hands was a situation in which the band teacher would get angry at us for not playing Peter Gabriel’s songs well enough, and so he would make us work harder. Then we would complain. Then he would repeat his mantra. Then someone would shout out something that would not kill us. If this was, in fact, something that would kill you, the band teacher would say so. If not, he would say nothing. Then he would get angrier, and the vicious cycle continued.
As a consequence of this experience, I constantly thought that What does not kill me, only makes me stronger. And pretty soon, I started to come around to believing it. Yes, I knew it was stupid…but it was also somewhat true. Which I found fascinating. And so, combined with the “shoot for the stars” saying and this new one, I began to cobble together a worldview I could use as a decision making engine (apologies to Bing).
In the years that followed, that quote stayed up in the band room, and the band got progressively worse. After my Junior year, my mom let me quit the band, but on the condition I do something else with my time. I joined the cross country team. As a 6ft tall18 year old, I was fast enough that I once almost placed in the top 5 of our underclass(wo)men.
Of course, a constant motivator for me at the time was thinking that running would not kill me, and then it would make me stronger. So I ran a little bit faster in practice, and then a little bit faster in the meets. The beautiful thing about cross country is that if you run as fast as possible without suffering heat stroke, you might actually become a little bit stronger. Dehydrated and cranky, yes, but also stronger.
I was thinking about that phrase as I was about to finish one of the races in the middle of the season. I was trailing a fellow slow kid from a big high school as we came into sight of the finish line. I decided that pushing it would not kill me. So I ran a little bit faster, and then a little bit faster than that. Pretty soon I was at a near sprint (have you ever seen an emu sprint? It was not unlike this). I came in 30th out of 35th place, just edging out the asthmatic behind me. Relatively triumphant, I was also pretty exhausted. I started to feel like I someone punched me in the stomach as soon as I stopped running. I took a step towards a nice older couple who were there to watch a grandchild.
“Good job!” the man said to me.
I doubled over on my knees, panting, and beginning to feel light headed.
“Really great!” the woman added.
“Bleeaaaaauuugh” I said to them, as I emphatically barfed on their feet.
And so, as I stared at the bits of apple and Gatorade strewn about all of our shoes, I thought that perhaps pragmatism was better than absolutism. Perhaps, instead of following motivational posters, I should just have a slightly positive outlook, and then figure out the rest on the fly. And so, I realized the Fallacy of the Contradiction of the Paradox of the Motivational Poster – that at first glance, these posters may appear to be worthless, but upon further reflection later, they are in fact still worthless.
In short: what does not kill me, could still make me puke.