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Nathaniel J Hall: Quote Me On That

Writer and director Nathaniel J Hall lays into one of his pet hates — vacuous inspirational slogans

A friend of mine recently posted a photograph on Facebook of an ‘inspiring’ slogan found on the wall of a conference venue. It read: ‘Formula for success: rise early, work hard, strike oil.’

To be clear, my friend wasn’t posting in agreement with the quote. No, despite the quote’s awful pro-fossil fuel agenda (read the room babes), my friend was incredulous, enraged even.

‘Just about to go prospecting for oil on Holloway Road bbz, brb,’ his accompanying comment read. I once saw something black oozing from a drain in a back alley down that way, but it’s best not to ask questions about these things.

We’re bombarded with so-called ‘inspirational’ quotes all the time, and for the most part, I just brush them off as harmless fun, sometimes I even agree on some level with them. But for some reason, this one incensed me more than usual.

A quick Google search revealed the quote was penned by American industrialist J Paul Getty who founded the Getty Oil Company and was once labelled as the ‘richest man in America.’

I was so narked by this quote because Getty’s so-called ‘advice’ is entirely based on luck. With an oilfield-owning father, Getty himself was rather more comfortably positioned than most to fulfil item three on his three-point plan. The old saying ‘it’s not what you know, who you know,’ springs to mind.

But there’s a deeper issue at play here too. Those with wealth and power will do and say anything to keep us in our place. The global capitalist system operates on the lie that simple hard work will deliver untold riches. With the rich/ poor divide the largest it has ever been in the UK and America, we all know the reality is far from it.

There’s a smugness to Getty’s words. This is a man who knows the real key to success is nepotism. It also turns out Getty wasn’t a very nice man. Famously frugal, he even negotiated his own grandson’s ransom — all the money in the world, and not enough going spare to release his own captive flesh and blood. When asked to reveal his secrets for success Getty should have replied: ‘Be born into wealth and be a right bleeding tight arse.’

Getty, and my anti-capitalist agenda aside, there’s another problem at play here. These motivational and inspirational types of quotes only really serve to make us feel one thing.

Guilt. Getty’s makes you feel guilty THREE times over: guilty for needing to rest, guilty for not working hard enough, and guilty for not being born at the right cosmic place at the right cosmic bloody time.

Of course, many ‘inspirational’ quotes perhaps have better intentions than Getty’s. ‘Believe in yourself… Don’t call it a dream, call it a plan… What you can do today can improve all of your tomorrows.’ But what happens when you really can’t be arsed doing anything today? What if you’re not very good at making plans? What if you simply can’t believe in yourself right now? Then you’re left feeling like you’ve fallen short.

But fallen short of what? What exact endpoint are we aiming to achieve when we turn to these quotes to spur us on? Riches? Fame? True happiness?

When it comes to happiness, we’re told that it’s ‘a journey, not a destination,’ but in reality, it’s even more elusive than that. Let’s face it, Getty himself was probably no happier than you or me. He married and divorced five times and once said, ‘A lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you are a business failure… and I hate to be a failure.’

‘I hate and regret the failure of my marriages. I would gladly give all my millions for just one lasting marital success.’

Now there’s a piece of advice we can all heed. Why wasn’t that printed on the wall?

@nathanieljhall / nathanieljhall.co.uk

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