Inspirational memes are ruining your career

If you’re a leader or trying to become one, some degree of ongoing “personal branding” activity is inevitable. That often creates pressure to post something new to your social channels on a regular basis–and therein lies the risk.

The easiest thing to do might be to share pithy slogans purporting to deliver quick hits of inspiration. After all, it’s your job as a leader or aspiring leader to motivate others, right? Right! But your #MotivationalMonday tweet or Instagram post with a Gandhi quotation might be backfiring without you realizing it. Here’s why, and how to avoid those fluffy expressions.

Lack of clarity fails to motivate

It’s hard to be profound on a daily or weekly basis. It’s even harder to be profound in just a few quick words. Consider this gem from an Instagram account dedicated to motivation:

Buried beneath that double-negative statement are a few unanswered questions: What does it mean for quotes to “work”? How exactly should you “apply” them?

Here’s another ambiguous one from the same account:

Who could argue with that? It would be great to learn from every mistake! But even the slightly lengthier caption–instructing you you to “study ways to avoid repeating [mistakes”–doesn’t tell you how to go about doing that. Vague statements like these may earn likes from other busy professionals idly scrolling their social feeds, but they won’t earn you attention from the people best positioned to help you advance your career.

Leaders do need to inspire and motivate, but they never succeed by spouting unclear generalities. Powerful communication spurs others to take action through clarity and precision. One reason people don’t act is because they’re confused or uncertain about what to actually do. You can’t motivate anyone–let alone everyone–to take productive, mission-driven action if you stick to vague platitudes.

Superficial comments obscure your best ideas

In order to attract career opportunities or win support for your ideas, you need to offer an original insight or propose a compelling solution to a problem. Shallow, superficial remarks do neither. Take this tweet for example:

Is this even true? If it is, it’s great news anyone who’s lost a friend, a family member, or even a pet. Does that mean you’ll get a better dog next time? Or if you’ve blown a client opportunity, you’ll invariably ace the next one? Obviously not. Yes, it’s true that “there is nothing more certain than change,” as the text of the tweet points out, but not every loss leads to a better opportunity than what came before. This baseless optimism suggests shallow, uncritical thinking–never a great look when you’re trying to advance professionally.

Same goes for this post:

“Magic”? “The Universe”? Are these really where effective leaders should place their hopes? If anything, the most successful people know how to minimize unnecessary risk, sidestep the sunk-cost fallacy, and cut their losses so they can redirect their energies wherever they’ll be better served. Perhaps that’s a less “inspirational” idea, but it suggests much more skill, intelligence, and strategy that will likely appeal to your coworkers, employers, and business partners much more than your “stubborn heart” ever will.

Your best ideas will take more than a few words to lay out, and that’s okay. The most difficult challenges out there–the ones that take real leadership to surmount–are complex. So while there’s an art to speaking about complicated subjects without dumbing them down, your real goal should be to motivate others to engage with complexity, not shy away from it. Tossing out generic remarks that stick to the surface level doesn’t help you do that. Worse, it suggests you aren’t capable of diving any deeper.

Related: How To Talk About Complex Ideas With Literally Anybody

Rhetoric should sharpen meaning, not dull it

Many of the most commonly shared and liked “motivational” social media posts use snappy turns of phrase. They may sound clever, but more often than not, they bury meaning instead of heightening it. The rhetoric, in other words, hides the substance.

An especially common device is “antimetabole,” which simply means reversing the order of repeated words and phrases. John F. Kennedy used antimetabole in the most famous line of his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” In Kennedy’s case, it was a rhetorically powerful way to express an idea about civic service. But if you aren’t careful, your twist on this common device might do little more than set up a false opposition. Take this tweet for example:

For one thing, are knowledge and caring mutually exclusive? After a moment’s thought, it may strike you that the two are in fact intimately linked. After all, caring without knowledge suggests empty emotions; If you’re ignorant about something, how can you be expected to care about it in the first place–let alone know how best to show you care? Furthermore, is it even a good idea for people to desire others’ empathy without their understanding? It’s hard to agree or disagree with an idea that’s based on such shaky premises.

Rhetoric by itself is hollow. It’s only effective when it’s being used to compress and sharpen an underlying concept. Otherwise, it’s just fluff that makes people suspect you don’t know what you’re talking about, and are trying to hide it.

Related: These Expressions Make You Sound Like You Don’t Really Know Your Stuff

Quoting great thinkers doesn’t mean you understand them

Finally, there’s a risk that in quoting influential leaders, you’ll take their words out of context and diminish their original power–making yourself look bad in the process.

This professional quotes Alibaba founder Jack Ma in her LinkedIn headline: “Don’t hire the most Qualified candidate. Hire the Craziest.” This thought has deep roots in Ma’s experience; having been rejected for 30 jobs he applied to after college, including one at KFC, Ma knows that on-paper credentials don’t always tell the full story. But taken out of context, his statement doesn’t make much sense. In fact, using this quote on your own social media channels might give the impression that you believe in making risky hires or in taking “crazy” risks yourself–even if you don’t.

It’s always in your better interest to be seen as someone of substance than as an armchair philosopher. When in doubt, stick to specifics rather than airy generalities. Ground your social media posts in your own thoughtful observations, drawn from firsthand experience. Real leadership rarely comes in greeting card–sized bites.

It’s always in your better interest to be seen as someone of substance than as an armchair philosopher. When in doubt, stick to specifics rather than airy generalities. Ground your social media posts in your own thoughtful observations, drawn from firsthand experience. Real leadership rarely comes in greeting card–sized bites.