Inspiration vs. Practical Advice

Published November 16, 2009 in Rambling - 3 Comments

Contemplating Inspiration vs. Advice

Photo by elkit

The productivity/self-help corner of the blogosphere, that Explorative Approach is a small part of, contains many, many inspiring posts. You can find any number of articles providing motivating and uplifting stories, clever analogies and a “you can do it!” message. What I don’t find nearly as often as inspiring posts are posts containing practical, down-to-earth advice. Could we be focusing on the wrong thing, here?

The Case Against Inspirational Posts

A well-written story with an uplifting message can produce a real rush of motivation. When you read about someone else going through hardships only to overcome and end up achieving their goals, it can make you feel like you’re on top of the world and that there is no challenge too great for you!

In fact, that’s the very message you find at the heart of many an inspiring speech, book or blog-post: You can do anything!

If you’re reading this, I bet you’ve already come across many such messages. Particularly books of the motivational type often promise to teach you everything you need to know to make your dreams a reality. And while you are reading them, you might be made to feel as if your perfect life is just about to begin. It’s so close, you can almost reach out and seize it right away!

But once you’re done reading, you’re still pretty much stuck where you were before, aren’t you?
That rush of motivation just didn’t last very long and you got distracted by… well, by all of the distraction your everyday life has to offer, right?

That rush of inspiration just doesn’t last. And unless a book or blog post offers some practical, tangible advice on what to actually do, it’s all completely pointless anyway. What we really need is actionable (preferably scientifically backed) advice on how to improve our career, productivity, happiness and life in general.

Or is it?

The Case Against Practical Advice

First of all, practical advice is a bit pointless because it usually falls on deaf ears. I’ve lost count of how many times friends of mine have said to me: “You were right. I should have listened to you.”
And you know what? They’ve probably lost count of how many times I’ve said the same thing to them.

For example, there are hundreds of books offering very practical advice on how to build a successful business in a particular market and there are throngs of people who want to do just that. But when you bring those books and those people together, it results in far more books gathering dust with bookmarks inserted on page 40 than it does in flourishing new businesses built.

The same goes for books on weight-loss, productivity, time-management and pretty much every other self-help topic in existence.

By and large, people simply don’t follow advice, no matter how good it is. They don’t even follow their own.
The pinnacle of this, in my eyes, is the oh-so popular list-based blog post. “20 Tips for Improving Your Finances”, “Top 50 Ways to a Healthier You”, “100 Ways to Live a Better Life” (no, I didn’t make that one up); posts like these seem to enjoy a lot of popularity.

But really, to the dear readers: You didn’t even read through the whole list, did you? And you’re not actually going to take action on 100 or 50 or ten or even one of those tips, are you?
And to the author: You didn’t really test all of this stuff, did you? Nor do you follow your own advice on most of this. You picked some of these tips from your own experience, some you got from reading other people’s tips and the rest you conjured up out of thin air, to reach a nice, round number. Am I right? Of course I am.

But it matters not. Since no one takes action on advice, you might as well throw hundreds of tips at your readers, instead of going into detail on one thing and making it practical and actionable.

And I haven’t even gotten to the main case to be made against practical advice: More often than not, you already know what you need to do. If you just take a moment to look at your life and then look at what your ideal life would be, you can see the differences and you can break them down and you know what steps you could take to get there.

So really, what we need isn’t information. Not as much as we need the motivation to actually get up and do something…

Meeting in The Middle Of a Full Circle

So, I’ve come full circle in my argumentation. Motivation is and isn’t what we need and practical advice is and isn’t what we need.

I think I’ll have to do what I always do in this kind of situation: Fall back on an exercise analogy.

If you want to get in shape, do you need motivation and inspiration or do you need practical advice and information?
Well, you probably need both. On the one hand, you do know what you have to do to get in shape. You know that you basically have to move more and eat less junk. So, for this part of the equation you somehow need to find enough motivation and/or discipline to start moving more, stop eating junk and stick with it for the long run.

But you also need practical advice on how to exercise effectively and safely. You need a practical plan that you can stick with to prevent procrastination and to make sure you don’t feel helpless and disoriented when faced with having to do some type of workout. You could also use some good information on how to motivate yourself and how to utilise discipline.

So, I guess the question of inspiration vs. practical advice comes down to striking a balance. Motivation alone doesn’t do much good, and neither does practical advice alone.

The whole idea for this post sprang from the fact that I was heavily leaning towards the “practical advice” side. I was kind of looking down on motivational posts and was thinking about writing a post about this (ranting about all the “fluffy” posts I was seeing). But I started having a debate in my head, recognizing the merits and problems with both approaches. (Incidentally, this is something I really love about blogging: It helps me think things through and process them more deeply when I am preparing a post.)

I still aim to deliver as much practical advice as possible on Explorative Approach, but I’ll try not to neglect aspects of motivation and inspiration too much, in the future.

I’d really like to hear about your take on this subject. Do you agree with what I’ve written here? And do you see yourself as more on the inspirational or more on the practical side? Which do you think is more important?

By the way: I still think that lists of dozens of tips are stupid.

  • Well, I did test all of them 🙂 And I speak about that list of 100 Ways To Live A Better Life. If you look carefully, a third of those “ways” are actually links to other posts I wrote on my blog, based on real life experiences. Wether you believe it or not, that’s your choice, but making this a general fact is a little bit out of alignment with truth, so to speak.

    Oh, and saying lists of dozens are stupid, means also “people who read lists of dozens are stupid too”. Which makes a lot of stupid people, right? If that’s true, as you imply, then you remain with a very small percentage of “really” smart people who can read other type of posts. Maybe like this one, which is not bad at all.

    Overall, I liked your article, but, to be honest, if it wasn’t for this linkbait about my blog post, I wouldn’t discover it, nor do I needed to comment on it.

    If I would give you some practical advice, that would be: why don’t you TRY to write a list post? It may be beneficial for your blog, for your writing skills and even for your readers. Just try it. As you already wrote, that’s the thing with practical advice: you already know what you have to do 🙂


    • Hi Dragos,

      I was kind of expecting a reply from you. 🙂
      It’s nothing personal that i picked your post as an example, by the way. There are hundreds of posts I could have used as an example and I just had to pick one.

      I see that you have quite a few list-based posts on your site. Well, they really aren’t my kind of thing at all and I think that’s adequatly explained in my post above. As you say, these posts are very popular and maybe I’m just the one who doesn’t get it. I suspect, however, that they offer a kind of hopeful distraction for peple, more than anything else.

      Even though our views on this might forever be separated, let me just say: Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. And thanks for being friendly even though I took a stab at a post of yours. 🙂


  • If you’re expecting an answer from me, congratulations, you just had your first linkbaiting post 🙂

    As for taking a stab at one of my posts, I didn’t take it like this. Whatever you give your focus to, grows. The polarity (admiration / hate) doesn’t really matter. So, you just wanted my post to grow, somehow.

    If you take a closer look at my blog, you’ll see that my list posts are accounting for less than 5% of my total blog posts. In the last year I had around 180 posts, out of which less than 10 were list posts. Oh, they are the most popular, that’s right.

    Well, that’s another story. And it starts with: “if you want to have a successful blog, write for your readers, not for yourself…”