One of the greatest problems facing office workers today is the motivational poster.  They are dangerous traps set to catch the thinkers and free spirits in the workplace as they make sarcastic comments or instinctually roll their eyes.  The hangers of such signs are watchers, dangerous villains who keep files on you and stalk your personal Facebook.  They smile and call you by name when they pass you in the hall, but then they subtly watch what you do as you pause in front of the “TEAMWORK“ sign by the coffee machine.  They are the sorts that long for the good old days when they could carry clipboards.

We’ve got you covered though.  Here’s a quick survival guide to help you maneuver through the hostile territory these posters create.

First, don’t change your realistic outlook and delightfully skeptical personality.  You are right to fire back against the assault of a dictum, axiom, or adage.  Platitudes must be terminated without prejudice.  You rightly resist group-think and oversimplification and understand that these posters are propaganda posted by idea bullies, purchased with your raise money by those who idolize motivational speakers like rock stars and look forward to training sessions and retreats at which they might discover their true personality color like kids at Christmas.  Bullies are bad.  A motivational speaker told me that once.

Let’s cover some common situations.

You pass a motivational poster in the hallway.

Resist the urge to look.  Your expression will alert others to your contrarian beliefs and attitudes.  You will be shunned.  Ha.  You know you have to look.  That picture of a mountain is so peaceful, the eagle so majestic.  So look.  Read.  But while you do so, take a deep breath and tighten your sphincter, like you’re trying to fool a lie detector test.  No one will know your immediate reaction.  It will be your little secret.

Then, take it in.  Read it ironically.  Grin at your own joke and nod your head in personal approval.  Anyone who passes you will think you are reacting positively to the poster itself.  So, if you pass a poster with the quote “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude,” by a man with a name as ridiculous as his advice, Zig Ziglar, think how unfortunately it is true.  Suck ups who smile all day at posters like this make it to the top, while you, with all the talent, are stuck in basement cubicle hell

A co-worker points out a motivational poster to you as you pass it in the hallway and comments positively on it.

Assume this co-worker is a plant, a drone, the guy with the Ziglar attitude and no aptitude.  He has a sticky note in the back of his eyeballs and a microphone on his nametag.  In short, he is up to no good.  No sane person would make small talk about a poster.  Resist the urge to persuade the co-worker to adopt your point of view.  There is no mind to persuade.  It has been filled with a stack of 7 Habits books and a dry erase marker.

Pause and breath as in situation one.  This will make the person think you are really taking him seriously.  Then say something like, Hmm.  That’s interesting.”  That is not a lie, but it is absolutely meaningless.  My tenth grade English teacher wrote that on every one of my weekly themes.  For bonus points, say exactly what you think in a way the co-worker won’t understand.  Say, “attitude certainly makes all the difference here.”  You’re thinking about the walking vacuum cleaner that just got your promotion; the listener hears you agreeing with him.   Perfect.  You’ve just insulted someone who might come to your defense at your inevitable hearing.   


You note someone looking at a motivational poster–really pausing to read it and take it in.

Be thankful that a tool has been provided to you to discover who this person really is.  Ask her about it.  Or say something that invites yet doesn’t push the direct conversation about content–like, “Is that new?” Be careful, though, to use this situation for discovery and not disclosure.

So the poster says “Ambition:  Aspire to climb as high as you can dream.”  If the person says, “Yes, I think it is new,” change the subject immediately to something that isn’t new.  “The carpet is still holding out,” you can say, or “the coffee is strong today.”  Both will prevent the person from asking your opinion when she clearly didn’t want to give hers.  If the person says something positive about the poster, like “my goodness, I’m going to try to climb to the moon today,” or “that’s a powerful message,” agree with the person (but not the poster).  “I bet you will,” you say to the first.  “That it is,” you say to the second.  Both can be very funny responses in your head, yet will feel supportive to the listener.  Both are certainly better rejoinders than “Was your brain washed? Or did it come already cleaned out?”   

You sit through a meeting with a motivational poster directly facing you. 

This can be a distraction, but distractions are essential to surviving a meeting anyway.  Use this in your favor.  At times, some of the people in the meeting may look away from their phones and actually gaze at you.  The poster can make you seem engaged.  They will marvel at your ability to pay attention and seem positive during an interminable “brain storming” session at which no one is invited to participate.

Here’s how it works.  Stare at the poster using the composure techniques learned above.  Then begin thinking of every parody of it you can make, every possible alternative reading you can imagine, every tangent the words can inspire.  As they occur to you, jot them down.  Look up at the person speaking, nod your head, then write your thought.  You will be the king of the meeting.  Let’s say the poster says “Journey,” followed by a Booker T. Washington quote, “You measure the size of the accomplishment by the obstacles you had to overcome to reach your goals.”  Imagine vacations you want to take and have taken.  Think about the band Journey.  Start writing new lyrics to their songs.  Think about how the meeting you are attending is an obstacle you are overcoming to reach your goal of a beer.  List other things that can replace the words “accomplishment,” “obstacles,” and “goals” in a motivational ad lib.  After the meeting you may find yourself asking for more posters to be hung in the conference room.

A motivational poster is hung in your office or on your cubicle carpet-wall. 

This is the end.  There is no way to tolerate this.  Quit.  Go homeless.  The view from the curb is better and stale urine smells better any day of the week than the breath pushing out words like  “When a team of dedicated individuals makes a commitment to act as one. . . the sky’s the limit.”  The ellipsis points alone are enough to drive any freedom-loving citizen crazy.

In this case, it is best to let the poster motivate you to a new occupation.  


Final advice:  Think about Arnold.

I had a friend Arnold who sold cars.  He called them units.  He made about three times as much as me, and I both hated and envied him for it.  I thought I should make up a new word that described the mixed emotion I felt when he would tell me of his success.  I wished I had learned more German, since they probably already had a word for that evil brew (neidgemischtmithasse?)

Arnold once shared with me his morning routine.  “Every morning, when I get out of the shower, I look at myself in the mirror.  I really look.  And I tell myself, ‘you will sell four units today.’”  Four was an example he was using.  Some days he shot even higher.  He repeated it until he believed it.

“Do you always sell that number of units?” I asked.

“Sometimes.  Sometimes more.  Sometimes less.  But I set the goal fresh every day.”

He really believed in it, even though he admitted by the more or less statement that it didn’t work.  When he would say things like that, I wished I could believe so strongly in ridiculous sayings, that I could follow the plan to success laid out by experts, that I could make friends and influence people by adapting a few easy habits.  If I didn’t question these things, I could believe them and maybe profit from them.

Then, of course, I would convince myself that the thinking-man’s poor life is much more noble.  Who knows.  All I know is that I am constitutionally unable to follow someone else’s plan.  I must question and make fun of any simple road to success.  Like you, I must shiver when I pass a motivational poster.

Arnold makes money.  I make fun.   Arnold counts his units.  Don’t be Arnold.

As a side note, one of the major companies in the motivational poster game is Successories.  Though I have spent hours with friends as we amuse ourselves with snappy neologisms based on the “Mich” in Michigan (Michinannigans, for example) and loving so many modern portmanteaus (and as a former fanzine writer and current blogger, how can I dislike a good portmanteau?), this term nauseates me in the same way their products do.  Tune in later for “How to Survive Bad Business Names.”