Kill This Word: Inspirational

Welcome to Kill This Word, the first in a series of blog posts in which HZers will tell you about words that are bad and dumb and need to be killed. Our first installment focuses on the word inspirational.

The word inspirational and its variants mean different things to different people—and none of those meanings are good. Consider:

  • When a client says they want something “inspiring,” they usually mean “Give me lens flares and ukuleles.” 
  • When designers say they’re looking for “inspiration,” they usually mean that they are looking for ideas to steal.
  • When copywriters say they are off to “find inspiration,” they usually mean they will spend the next 15 minutes dinking around on the Internet.
  • And when a company says it has some “inspirational” content to show you, it is always trying to sell you something on the assumption that you are not as smart as you think you are.

To borrow a phrase from the geniuses at Clickhole, inspirational content makes your brain spray the good chemical. But the inspirational images and quotations you’ll find on a billion boring Pinterest boards are not just calorie-free pap. They are part of a sustained attack on your limbic system, a deliberate attempt to override rational thought and separate you from your hard-earned dollars. And all too often, we walk blindly into that attack.

Let’s take a look at the #2 Google Image result for “inspirational.” It features a quotation attributed to Michelangelo that crystallizes the lofty ambitions we might associate with the painter of the Sistine Chapel: “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it but that it is too low and we reach it.”

SO INSPIRE, VERY SILHOUETTES, MUCH GOALS. Makes you want to dragon-kick your fears square in the teeth, doesn’t it?

One problem (beyond the appalling lack of punctuation): Michelangelo never said that. As far as I can tell, the 1980 text Mac’s Giant Book of Quips and Quotes marks the first time anyone attempted to shove those words into Michelangelo’s mouth. But as any copywriter can tell you, compelling stories and true stories are not necessarily the same thing.

“So what, Dan?” some might say. “It’s still an inspiring quote, and it motivated me to get stuff done. Isn’t that enough?”

Thing is, inspirational quotes are not inspirational on their own. Let’s see what happens when we attribute the same quote to someone less, shall we say, inspiring.

Still feel like lassoing a star and putting it in your pocket? Like all speech, inspirational quotes depend on context for their meaning. Consider this chestnut from Winston Churchill:

Now try applying that quote to other conflicts.



Changes things a bit, doesn’t it? As it turns out, saying “We shall never surrender” can be both inspirational and proof that you have lost all contact with reality!

The word inspirational leads people toward magical thinking. Again, not necessarily a bad thing (daydreaming can be fun!), but personally, I don’t like being led down a primrose path by marketers who most definitely know better. And I don’t think it is in anyone’s interest to pretend that we can solve the challenges we face by invoking motivational sorcery. 

The idea that we can overcome anything so long as we have enough Steve Jobs quotes and high-res photos of mountains is absurd. Worse, it denigrates the actual hard work of running a business or planning out a campaign. It’s natural to look for shortcuts, to believe that we can conquer the world with One Weird Trick. It is also foolish, and inspirational content is little more than an attempt to use your own dreams to pad someone else’s profits.

Call me a cynic, but I don’t find much inspiring about that.