Why Most Great Quotations Aren’t

by on July 26, 2010 | posted in Marketing

“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won. It exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.”

We love quotes. What they most often represent is the totality of what our culture has come to overly consume as a society – surface-level enjoyment. Generally, quotes are short, and they’re powerful.

This one sentence represents what we love and emasculate and gravitate to as a culture. Funny YouTube clips. Lists. Twitter.

But what all these things have in common is also their cumulative failure – a lack of relative impact. These pulses of entertainment are rarely anything more – and even when engrossed by quotes, which are supposed to be sources of viral inspiration, rarely do they do enough to penetrate our psyche towards accomplishment.

“Sure I (have regrets), but if I were to give back the regretful experience, I’d also have to give back the lesson I learned from it, in which case I’d be primed to make the same mistake over again once I erased it.

The best advice comes from my iPhone when I accidentally shake it: “there is nothing to undo.”

Rarely is a Twitter quote more penetrating than a three second blip on our frontal cortex. After all, it takes something extra-special to draw attention within 140 characters, and it takes an extra-special 140-character quote to even draw an extra ten minutes of motivation.

And yet, here comes Lombardi. Here comes John Madden. Here comes Ghandi. Here comes the Buddah. Here comes quote after useless 140-character quote to spite our attention, offer us a small momentary lapse in work, but in the end, do absolutely nothing to our psyche.

Is that really what a great quote is supposed to do? Aren’t quotes supposed to do something extra?

[When he tells his wife he’s going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is, is we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.”

The penetrative failure of quotes is often times also their promotional success. This is because quotes have always been more than what the words said between the little quotation marks. When we looked at quotes and accepted them as a whole, we always looked to the little name at the end of that remark.

And often times, that informed what we thought of the quote. And whether or not we would promote it. But why? Why should the name of the person who said the quote have any impact on the quote itself?

“When I was 5 years old, my mom always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down “happy.” They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

Quotes become more than the words between the quotes. They become a math equation, a math equation that often tears down, or overwhelms, the composition of the words.

Inspirational Quality of Quote * Accomplishment of Author = Likliehood to be Spread

It is this equation that has propagated some of the worst, most uninspirational quotes to be spread through recent history. We have the thought that people we imagine as great leaders must therefore have great quotes, so if they spew out something even remotely readable, we vouch for it as the gospel.

“I can’t think of any field in which determination is overrated, but the relative importance of determination and talent probably do vary somewhat. Talent probably matters more in types of work that are purer, in the sense that one is solving mostly a single type of problem instead of many different types. I suspect determination would not take you as far in math as it would in, say, organized crime.”

You can find these quotes in the familiar places – for instance, find the stupid people on Facebook you’re friends with. They will have these .1 Inspirational Quality x .9 Speaker Accomplishment quotes splattered all over their Facebook info.

Take, for example, these Vince Lombardi quotes.

“If you can accept losing, you can’t win.” / “If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?” / “Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit.” / “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.”

Are you serious? SERIOUSLY? These are memorable quotes? These inspire you to break through walls of failure into accomplishment?

No. They don’t. We accept them and often times disseminate them because of who said them, not what was said. In this sense, quotations become more than a quote. They become a representation and a epitaph for that’s person’s life – and as such, an ode to their former accomplishment.

I’m okay with that. I’m okay with memoriam, and lifting up those still alive. But I am not okay with something that, at it’s purest, is a entirely inspiring and moving representation of the power of the human language – instead being a deflating remembrance of somebody we hardly knew, and really, don’t actually care about.

“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

I’m not saying these quotes shouldn’t exist. They should. But they’re different. They aren’t inspiring. They aren’t moving. And, to me, that’s what quotes should be. They should me power-packed punches that move to me to action, or at very least, deep thought. That’s what they’re meant for.

At a certain point along my equation, these quotes stop being thought provoking and instead, start being a memorium for another person’s accomplishments. When the scale slides towards the linguistic quality of the words, potential for true movement is more likely. And in many circumstances that’s all it takes.

The person who made the quote can, in fact, enhance it. This is because it often lends credibility to language – and many times, you can see how the words informed a lifetime of accomplishment. But as I argue here, it can often overtake it, creating a pimple on the canvas of langauge.  But when his or her world outweigh the actual beauty and originality of the words, reciting the words becomes less of a theatre performance and more of a rehearsal.

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle–when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”

Similarly, a great problem with my equation is that it faces the flaw inherent of the Curse of Knowledge – the difficult to escape impairment that makes us improperly believe that other people know the same things we do. When we are moved by a quote because the equation falls more towards being impressed by the speaker who uttered them, we run the risk of having the quote being lost on much of our audience.

As much as I like Jason Freid, few mainstream people know who he is. Similarly, many women might not give a flying pig about Vince Lombardi. When a quote becomes a totality of linguism itself, it has the ability to maximize it’s virality and become this ripe, encompassing representation of language that can move us to work a little harder. Or quit our jobs. Or pursue our dreams.

Not just hit the Retweet button on Twitter.

That’s what a great quote is about – a rare culmination of circumstance, wit and control of language to form something that represents a greater, bigger, bolder vision, but can still be encompassed in a short, power packed body of text.

Not a lifetime.

“No. Every single fucking day I wake up like a goddam bull, ready to charge out and destroy everything in my path. Maybe I’ll start a new business, maybe I’ll buy a house, maybe I’ll get in my car and drive to Texas, I don’t fucking know, but I’m going to do something that makes me happy. Sure, I used to be sad and pathetic like you, not sure what I wanted to do with my life, until I realized, there is no “single thing”. I want everything. I want thick juicy steaks still dripping blood, I want wide-open blue skies, endless summer, ice cold glacier water out of the skull of my enemy. I want to fuck until I scream, drive up the face of a cliff, ride horses in France, blow 10 grand on peanut butter or maybe just buy the biggest suite in the place and sit around ordering pay-per-view. It’s your goddam life you spineless fuck, no one is going to live it for you. You better wake the fuck up now, or you’re going to turn around, look at your Chrysler Minivan, your mortgage, your pot-belly and your thinning hair and wonder with crushing regret where it all went, how you got here, and what the fuck do you do now? Goddam, I want to slap you and wake you the fuck up. You want to know what to do? LEAVE THE FUCKING HOUSE and go explore. Fuck a midget. Create a stand-up routine and do open mike night. Yeah, you aren’t funny. Get over it. Learn something new. Go out and live. Then again, there is something to be said for a nice nap.”

Quotes, in order, are by Ayn Rand, John Mayer, Kurt Vonnegut, Unknown, Roger Ebert, Unknown, & Unknown (Reddit).

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