De-Motivational Speaking: Enough Being “Nice,” Let’s Get Real

“We need a few trusted naysayers in our lives, critics who are willing to puncture our protective bubble of self-justifications and yank us back to reality if we veer too far off.”

Carol Tavris, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

De-motivational speakers are bubble-bursting, face-slapping, cold-water-on-your-head-dumping naysayers. They’re anti-participation ribbons and givers of medicine that tastes like shit but works. They’re shrill alarm clocks that startle us awake and bouncers who don’t let you in the club because you’re too drunk or too poorly dressed. And they’re mothers who snatch the scissors you’re running around with from your hands before you hurt someone.

Nobody likes de-motivational speakers. That’s why we need them.

Using the wrong tool for the wrong job
De-motivational speakers stop us from using the wrong tools for the wrong jobs.

Why We Need De-Motivational Speakers

✓ Because There Are No Instruction Manuals

Each of us is born with a unique toolbox of abilities, passions, and values which can and should play a part in constructing a greater world for us to live in. But none of our toolboxes come with inventory lists or user manuals. So, like monkeys attempting to use actual tools, we’re almost all using the wrong tools for the wrong jobs.

The only way we can learn to use our tools is through trial and error (à la extraordinary game of Thermometer.) If our fiddling works, it will be quickly apparent, like finding the right bit for a screw. But if our fiddling is fruitless and we continue in spite of it, that’s when we need a de-motivational speaker.

✓ To Combat Delusion

“It’s far easier to feel wonderful and special than to become wonderful and special.”

Tasha Eurich, Insight

Our brains are wired to creatively justify our every mistake. This handy skill protects our fragile egos from dissolving into puddles of sobs. But it has a glitch: Delusion.

The more we use the wrong tool from our boxes for the wrong job, the more our brains find excuses and delude ourselves into thinking it’s the right one for the right job. We need de-motivational speakers to drag us back into reality.

✓ To Take Our Eyes Of Others’ Prizes

We tend to obsess over the cool things “successful” people do with their toolsets. And the media, friends, and family egg us on.

This is problematic for many reasons:

  • Different toolsets: Rarely are we gifted with similar toolsets to those of the successful people we admire. We can’t, “Be like Mike.”
  • Fake smiles: Most “successful” people are as lost as we are, just richer. Fame and fortune aren’t synonymous with fulfillment.
  • Result disorientation: We fawn over others’ Insta-worthy results, but it’s the un-photogenic process that makes for a meaningful life.

De-motivational speakers hold us back from getting lured into wasting our efforts on unfulfilling tasks we aren’t equipped for.

✓ Self-Reflection Is Dangerous

“There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.”

Benjamin Franklin

Self-reflection doesn’t lead to self-awareness. As psychologist and author Tasha Eurich reveals in her book, Insight, surprisingly, it has the opposite effect (excerpt here). The more people self-reflect, the less self-knowledge they have. They also feel more stressed, depressed, and anxious, less satisfied with their jobs and relationships, and less in control of their lives.

So everyone needs to stop staring at our bellybuttons wondering why things happened, why we’re the way we are, and why we feel how we feel.

We need to figure out what to do. De-motivational speakers can help by power of elimination.

✓ Bad News Is Too Hard for Most to Break

When there’s good news coming our way, everyone is eager to break it to us. They want to be associated with the positivity and to get a sniff of that success.

Not so much when it’s bad news. People’s mouths shut right up or they cover up the stench with white lies. They’ve got enough shit of their own to deal with without sticking their noses in ours.

So be thankful for the rare de-motivational speaker who’s selfless and proactive enough to break the bad news you need to know.

Chris resisting de-motivational message from Kim.
“Take this de-motivational medicine like a big boy. It’s good for you.”

How to Work With De-Motivational Speakers

Tips on how to swallow the nasty medicine de-motivational speakers shove down our throats (without going too far and getting sick).

Watch Out For Fakers

True de-motivational speakers speak from experience. They learned how to make the most of their unique toolsets the hard way and are sharing that first-hand understanding.

Fake de-motivational speakers gave up on figuring out how to use their own toolsets a long time ago. They’re as bitter as the nonsense they spew and want others to be bitter with them.

Worst of all are de-motivational type-ers. They’re a complete waste of our attention. Disregard all negative comments on social media, Reddit, and blogs. If someone can’t say it to our faces, it’s not worth listening to.

Seek Them Out

If we want someone with expertise on specific skills to give us a dose of de-motivational speaking, we must seek them out and ask. People don’t like breaking bad news, as already mentioned, and worthy de-motivational speakers usually have better things to do than volunteer.

Soften the Blow

Use self-affirmation to absorb the de-motivational blow. It sounds hokey but, according to Tasha Eurich, studies show it works.

Self-affirmation is reminding ourselves of our values and strengths that the de-motivational speaker is not challenging. For example, maybe you’re a good friend or a loving parent. That’s more important than sucking at making spreadsheets, putting balls in goals, or whatever the de-motivational speaker is telling us we should stop wasting so much effort on.

In addition to softening the blow, the bigger picture perspective we get from self-affirmation makes us more open to ideas we’d otherwise find too painful to accept.

Look at It From Their Side

Instead of deflecting de-motivational messages, try to understand, “What led this person to have this opinion?” Take time to reflect on it. And if you can’t it figure it out, ask.

Gradually Adjust Your Beliefs

Everything we hear is an opinion and not a fact.

Marcus Aurelius

When a single de-motivational speaker blows your bubble, don’t let that completely deflate you and change your mind. Adjust your belief dials instead. And keep adjusting as more input comes in from different sources until you have enough evidence to come to a conclusion.

As Tasha Eurich puts it, “Feedback from one person is a perspective; feedback from two people is a pattern; but feedback from three or more people is likely to be as close to a fact as you can get.”

Live With Your Shortcomings

“Waste as little effort as possible improving areas of low competence. It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.”

Peter Drucker, Managing Oneself

We can choose to work on improving at whatever de-motivational speakers tell us we suck at. Or we can choose not to. Sometimes we’re better off living with our weaknesses, admitting them to our friends and colleagues so it takes the stigma and the sting away, and focusing on improving on our strengths.

Learning how to be a de-motivational speaker
De-motivational speaking doesn’t come naturally to most.

How To Be a De-Motivational Speaker

“You have to tell people what they need to hear, as opposed to what they want to hear.”

Charlamagne tha God, Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It

Return the de-motivational favor by passing it on to others. But please wield the weapon carefully.

Don’t Use a Sledgehammer

Our instinct to tell it as we see it—what’s obvious to us and what the facts are—is wrong. It’s as subtle and sensitive as swinging a sledgehammer. Just as there are better ways to nag and better ways to change other people’s minds, there are better ways to de-motivate.

Productive de-motivation requires we position our messages in the best interests of the recipient.

  • ✗ Less, “Your blog posts are crap.”
  • ✓ More, “I see you want to share things you’ve learned with others. Maybe you’d be more effective doing so in podcasts/tweets/children’s books.”

Then we have to let the de-motivatee come to their own conclusions. We can suggest whatever we want, but they have to live with it, so they have to own it.

Saturate It With Sweetness

Going full Simon Cowell or Gordon Ramsay on every misguided person you meet will lead to a short and ineffective de-motivational speaking career. You’re not on T.V. and people won’t find it entertaining. They’ll find it crushing.

That’s because we’re all wired to focus disproportionally on bad news, insults, and dangers. It’s called negativity bias.

The intent of de-motivational speaking is not to crush someone’s dreams, but redirect them. So, as a rule-of-thumb, saturate every dose of negativity with four to five equal parts positive.

People practicing sending de-motivational messages

Spread the De-Motivational Message

There’s too much “you can do whatever you put your mind to” B.S positive affirmation and too much selfish I-don’t-need-to-be-the-one-to-break-it-to-you white lying going on in the world today. And the consequences are dire. People are causing more harm than good by deludedly using the wrong tools from their boxes for the wrong jobs.

De-motivational speaking is the antidote. Get out there and do it, seek it, and listen to it so we can make the most of what we’ve got and help others do the same.

Further De-Motivation

The following books helped me come up with the concepts for this post:

Black Privilege, by Charlamagne the God. Introduced the term “de-motivational speaker,” to me. It’s among one of eight principles for success in Charlamagne’s entertaining memoir of his climb from the dirt roads or rural South Carolina to become the host of one of America’s top radio shows, The Breakfast Club. And he’s a world-class de-motivational speaker himself.

Insight, by Tasha Eurich. Why self-awareness is the meta-skill of the 21st century and how to develop both components of it: internal self-awareness (the ability to see ourselves clearly), and external self-awareness (the ability to understand how others see us and how we fit in the world).

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. How our brains’ self-justification instinct wreaks havoc on all aspects of our lives, memories, and society. It’s one of the “sledgehammer” books that changed my thinking.


Thanks to Luis, Blair, and Edison for their de-motivational input on this post!

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Chris and Kim

Kim and Chris are exploring better ways to do... everything. Think, travel, exercise, work, relate, you name it. Every week-ish, we share a new idea in our newsletter, "Consider This."