We all love success porn. Binging on success story podcasts, double tapping motivational quotes on Instagram, or listening to Ted Talkers and industry disruptors. We love it all! Although these are meant to be reminders of our potential, overexposure through social media has rendered these aspirational platforms as one more thing to ignore or worse—remind us of our shortcomings.
I’ll be the first to admit, begrudgingly, that I’m a total sucker for this type of content. I watch the Ted Talks, follow the motivational Instagram pages and listen to the inspiring celebrity graduation speeches. Ironically, I read a few motivational quotes to gain the drive to write this article. Did it work? Kind of. Did I feel silly? Oh, you bet. So what is behind the falsehood of success porn? Why does it make us feel so empty and why do we keep coming back for more?
Success porn isn’t a new thing and dates back to the Victorians and wartime morale boosters such as Britain’s “Keep on carrying on” or “We can do it!” on the Rosie the Riveter poster. The “Hang in there!” kitty poster, published in 1971 by LA photographer Victor Baldwin led to the motivational poster boom of the 90s that hung in corporate offices everywhere. Its popularity could be due to priming, a psychological term for the subconscious effects of pictures and texts on our actions. Although these posters are now considered counter-productive and meme-worthy, there has been a recent revival of these screenshot pep talks through social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, thus creating new genres within the industry of motivation: well-being, mental health and the ever-trendy self-care.
The core of what makes success porn so, well, successful is all about the chase. Humans are aspirational creatures, so we all love to dream about our dream. But does that mean we don’t actually want to succeed? Is success porn just a buffer distracting us from doing the work? Although these avenues are intended as alternative forms of confidence boosting and motivation building, success porn actually tends to leave us feeling empty. Engaging in success porn is addictive because of that surge of productivity you feel or at least the deception of thinking you’re productive. Reading, posting and double-tapping success porn content keeps the fear of knowing you’re not reaching your full potential at bay. That euphoric feeling of motivation feels like you actually accomplished something without doing anything. Eventually, that feeling plateaus as you slowly realise you’ve been engaging in an illusion. A thin veil of productivity that was never there. Like running in place, success porn gives the illusion of fulfilment and achievement with no tangible results. It’s a sad cycle to keep up with, leading us to feel worse about ourselves. Knowing we need to read a vaguely inspirational aphorism or listen to an over-enthusiastic Ted Talker to make us want to do anything is frankly, really lame.
According to Maslow’s fourth level in his hierarchy of needs, people need to be praised for their accomplishments. Feeling that support is magnified through social media as you are signalling to a wider audience how well-adjusted you are. Motivation is the energy to drive you to do something and it is based on intrinsic (feeling rewarded from achieving something for yourself) or extrinsic factors (getting an award from others). Social media has tipped the scales where such motives have driven the popularity of success porn. Although in hindsight this could be a good thing, external praise can deteriorate your drive. Your success, productivity, and motivation become measurable when they enter into a quantifiable framework in social media. The likes, the follows, the comments saying how well you’re doing, the “keep going dude!” and #hustler become your reward. But once those external praises disappear will you become any less successful, productive, or motivated?
We all want to be motivated to do something, which is apparent with the ridiculous amount of theories on motivation. In 2006, Piers Steel posited that the underlying themes with all these theories are the desire for more. This can be explained with the self-perception theory which states that after implementing an action or behaviour, we reflect and tell a story explaining the motives behind our actions and behaviours. This story can be the truth or a slightly over-exaggerated if not an entirely fabricated version of the truth.
“What if you fail? Oh, my darling what if you fly?” and the sans serif bold fonts telling you “you got this!” Whatever “this” may be. Motivational quotes such as these paint a picture of your ideal life, an ideal you. Success porn can become a filler to continue that illusion that you’re still killing it. Sharing this type of content can project that you have your life together and prove to everyone you’re happy when you’re really really not. You succumb to the illusion and not the work in progress. Bragging about the reward without revealing the work perpetuates the magical illusion of being an overnight success. Additionally, you don’t allow yourself to feel the downsides of success. This leads you to feel the imposter effect resulting in not achieving anything at all. Because what if you fail?
Success porn subtly conditions us to perform in a certain way that some may not be wired to do. Pressuring us to follow standards we may not adhere to. Another way to remind us that we are not motivated enough, not productive enough, can’t be enough unless we read one more book, go to one more workshop or read one more quote. The proliferation of this type of content reveals our desperation for aspiration but our disregard shows our indifference to changing ourselves. We fall into the romantic notion of success porn. The energy of something new and the adrenaline rush of the creative flow. Focusing on the end goal of success instead of the process hinders our productivity.
Success porn is not a one size fits all answer to motivation and fulfilment. It does not affect us all the same way. It puts you in an eternal state of aspiration instead of productivity. They are used as blockers from actually doing work. Conditioning you to think if I watch this talk or read this quote then I’ll be able to have the willpower to work. Like American author, salesman, and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar says, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily”. Positing that motivation is not a one dose treatment to fulfilment or productivity, but a proactive habit that you need to replenish everyday. Motivation is fleeting. Success porn only hits the surface of what will drive you, as each person possesses unique motives that drive them.
We want the instant gratification without the challenge. We don’t want to feel the peaks and valleys of self-doubt, failures and setbacks. But we want to brag about feeling those struggles without really feeling them. The components of motivation comprise of yes, that spark of inspiration, but also tangible steps to go towards your goals. Specific actions that must be initiated. Persistence to continue those actions. The vigour and intensity of energy you put into those actions to reach that goal.
I know that I constantly go through success porn binges like an addict who relapses whenever I go through stressful times, but it’s becoming clearer to me that we should romanticise the process more than the goal. That way more people will become interested in engaging in the work than the accolades; be excited about the process instead of the outcome. Think about the work you are doing. The possibility of mastery and pushing your competency. Make your own success porn. Write your own motivations—make a pretty poster of that! Record your own Ted Talk to yourself. It’ll be hilarious but will motivate you more than anything Tony Robbins can say.
It’s no secret the 80s are back, and in acknowledging the resurgence of scrunchies and SoundCloud overflowing with synthpop there’s one trend that never really left: hustle culture. A recent New York Times article, Why Are Young People Pretending To Love Work, mentioned coworking giant WeWork, where it is common to find signs like ‘Hustle Harder’ and ‘Stop When You Are Done’.
Somewhere around Netflix’s Girlboss series adaptation, described as a “tone-deaf rallying cry to millennial narcissists”, hustle culture became a subject of mockery. Yet, here it is, still a dominant ideology in 2019 (people who worship Elon Musk are very much alive and well). They say culture is a pendulum, and so the more recent self-care phenomenon appeared to enter internet culture as a true antithesis to the daily grind. Although there were initially obvious benefits to this idea in its purest sense, (self-love and prioritising health = good), the rush-to-market approach taken by brands to repackage rest and mental health as purchasable (aka the self-care industrial complex) has created a new sort of essential oil-infused dystopian reality.
With self-care often pitted as the solution to hustle culture, you’d think the social media sphere would have polarised into contrasting ideologies. But these trends have more in common than appears. Both lend themselves equally to earnestness and commodification. They’re shaped around the concept of self-improvement, and they’re both powerful mechanisms for social identity construction, and the transition of ‘wants’ into ‘needs.’
In fact, many brands and individuals have chosen to champion them simultaneously. Nike, long-time pioneers of ‘just doing it’, recently co-hosted a ‘Self Care Saturday’ in LA with Urban Outfitters that featured crystal facials (whatever that might mean). And Girlboss—one of the pioneers of the glossier-but-make-it-corporate marketing of hustle culture—has a ‘wellness’ brand pillar.
Strangely, rather than living side by side, hustle culture and self care have come together in a strange marriage. It’s 2019, and you still need to get that bread, but also remember to use your meditation app.
Now both these cultures are likely also a response to an increasingly uncertain future. For young people, this has produced a kind of unapologetically paradoxical, post-woke, “material girl in a dying world” mentality. The consensus seems to be when the system is broken, all we can really do is focus on improving ourselves and our direct and online communities. And unfortunately, the reality of self-improvement in the late 10s is that there’s always something new to need.
While hustle culture and self-are both put the responsibility on the individual, we should seek to examine the systems that purposefully encourage hyper-individualism in the view of needing consumers to need—and shop.
Even as self-care reaches the end of internet-earnestness and joins hustle culture and Girlboss in the parody phase, it’s anything but the end for their collective cultural influence. The self-care meets hustle culture paradox will live on through years of future content, as we continue to shape a large portion of our identities through a branded hierarchy of needs.
This article was written by Pitch Portal for Screen Shot as part of its recent project in collaboration with Screen Shot and the V&A Museum: Let’s (Not) Get This Bread.