Inspirational speakers puzzle me. I’m never really sure what they are for and what the organisers of conferences hope to gain by inviting them to regale us with their stories. 

Is it to boost attendance figures by having a big name on the billing?  Is it because the organisers are convinced that we all need to be shaken out of our lethargy and that hearing about the exploits of a larger than life character will do the trick?  Is it because they desperately need at least one speaker who will hold our attention for an hour or so and help us overlook other less dynamic speakers?  Is it because they think we need a role model, someone we are supposed to emulate?  Or is the speaker simply there to entertain us with a gripping adventure story (and flog a few extra copies of their book)?

Paradoxically, inspirational speakers tend to have a depressing effect on me. Far from motivating me and lifting my horizons, they stir negative feelings from somewhere deep inside me. As I listen to their exploits – invariably involving an unimaginable (to me) physical challenge – I feel increasingly inadequate; a bit like the way I used to feel at school when I failed to get into the first team or to excel at cross country running.  I also feel indignant that they could be so unapologetically boastful.  Even speakers who have learnt to throw in the occasional bit of humility, or to admit to making the odd mistake, are basically saying, ‘Look at me, I’m special.  I succeeded against hopeless odds’.  The underlying message, never stated of course, is that they are better human beings than poor little me.  I also get irritated by the assumption that I will find it easy to transfer lessons learned from some Amazing Adventure, completely outside my experience, to my relatively humdrum life.

And, as if feeling inadequate, indignant and irritated was not enough, there is, if I’m totally honest, a touch of jealously about the widespread adulation these speakers attract. At a conference I attended the other day, an inspirational speaker, who had seriously overrun his allotted time (giving everyone who came after him, including me, a problem), received a standing ovation. Hmm….I could do with some of that!      

Over the past few years I’ve listened to people who have:

Run across the Sahara desert

Reached the South Pole

Climbed Everest

Hunted big game in Africa

Run seven marathons in as many days

Circumnavigated the globe

Led an expedition to the North Pole

In each case the story was one of unswerving commitment to a goal that involved extreme physical endurance and, ultimately, success.  The lessons boiled down to: ‘You can accomplish anything – the only limits are those you place on yourself’.  Why, I wonder, does this brazen optimism turn me, albeit temporarily, into a half empty person?  I know I’m supposed to be infused with a can-do attitude – and even knowing that is, well, irritating!

Don’t tell me, I know the answer; climb Everest and have done with it!

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