December 3, 2010

Inspirational anecdotes don't need to be faked

Motivational speakers often use true-life anecdotes to illustrate a topic, and this is a great tool. But of course it’s better if the true-life anecdotes really are true. Too often, speakers (and, dare I say it, writers) don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.

One plum people pull out to show you shouldn’t be discouraged by failure is the one about how the inventors of the Post-it Note were supposedly trying to make a super-strong glue but failed—the glue turned out weak. They then converted their biggest failure into their biggest success.
Silver and Fry are featured on the Post-it anniversary page

A good story, but not true. The truth is less dramatic, but no less inspirational: Spencer Silver, a chemist at 3M, discovered a low-tack glue in 1968, but because he and his colleagues couldn’t come up with any marketable applications, it was shelved. A few years later, one of those colleagues—Art Fry—realized Silver’s temporary adhesive would hold bookmarks in place. After some brainstorming, the company came up with Post-it notes and other products using the glue.

Silver’s original project was only a “failure” in that initially they couldn’t think of a market for it. Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras include the story in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. They emphasize that Silver wasn’t looking for anything in particular. He was “following the principle of ‘experimental doodling,’” something 3M encourages. He was playing around to see what he could find.

The Post-it story is a good one. But, as Collins and Porras make clear, what it illustrates is the need for companies to foster creativity and allow risk-taking.

The “super-strong glue” story isn’t the only falsehood I’ve heard propagated by people seeking to inspire. In the future, I’ll tackle some of the others, and any more you care to bring to my attention. Because I believe if you're going to use a true-life anecdote to make your point, it really should be true.

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