Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Urban myths are poor motivators

Getting people to work harder by lying to them

I like motivational stories. Hearing about how people overcame adversity and achieved success or redemption can be inspiring. But there can be a problem with using stories as motivators; some of them aren't true. I'm going to look at one such motivational story that's common on the internet, describe its old and modern forms, and take it to pieces. Let's start with the original version of the story.

The original fake story - Christopher Wren and the bricklayers

(Sir Christopher Wren. Image credit: Wellcome Images Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons License)

Sir Christopher Wren was one of the greatest English architects. He was commissioned to design a replacement for St Paul's Cathedral which was burned to the ground in the devastating 1666 Great Fire of London. So far, all of this is well-established history.

The story goes that Sir Christopher was inspecting the construction work one day when he met three bricklayers. He asked them what they were doing.

The first bricklayer said, "I'm laying bricks. I'm doing it to feed my family."

The second bricklayer said, "I'm a builder. I'm doing it because I'm proud of my work."

The third bricklayer said, with a gleam in his eye, "I'm building a cathedral that will last a thousand years and be a wonder for the ages".

Some versions of the story stop here, other versions make the third bricklayer a future manager, or the most productive, or give him some other desirable property.

The story is meant to inspire people to see the bigger picture and feel motivated about being something larger than themselves. Plainly, the listener is expected to identify with the third bricklayer. But there are two problems with the story: internal and external.

Children's stories are for children

In many versions of the story, it doesn't say who was the better bricklayer. Even if the third bricklayer was the best, or a future manager, or some other good thing, was this because of his vision, or was it a coincidence? Was the third bricklayer being inspirational or was he trying to curry favor with Sir Christopher?

It seems astonishingly unlikely that in 1671, on the basis of a single conversation, anyone would record bricklayer productivity or future career trajectory. Maybe Sir Christopher was so motivated by the third bricklayer that he did both.

The most important problem with this story is the veracity. I couldn't find this story in any biography of Sir Christopher Wren or any academic writing about his life. With some internet sleuthing, I found what appears to be the first occurrence of this story in a 1927 religious inspirational book (''What can a man believe?" [Barton]). The book gives no reference for the story's provenance.

To put it bluntly: this story was probably made up and doesn't stand up to any scrutiny.

A made-up story about a janitor

There's a more modern version of this story, this time set in the 1960s. President Kennedy was visiting a NASA establishment where he saw a janitor sweeping the floor. The President asked the janitor what he was doing and the janitor said "I'm helping put a man on the moon". Once again, there's no evidence that this ever happened.

The odd thing about the moon landing story is there are very well-documented examples of NASA staff commenting on how motivated they felt [Wiseman]. The flip side is, there's the well-known fact that many were so motivated to work long hours to achieve the moon landing that their marriages ended or they turned to alcohol [Rose]. Leaving aside the negative effects, it's easy to find verifiable quotes that tell the same story as the fake janitor story, so why use something untrue when the truth doesn't take much more effort?

'I can motivate people by telling them fairy stories'

Most of the power of motivational stories relies on their basis in truth. If I told you stories to motivate you and then admitted that they probably weren't true, do you think my coaching would be successful? What if I told you a motivational story that I told you was true, but you later found out was made up, would it undermine my credibility?

There are great and true stories of success, redemption, leadership, and sacrifice that you can use to inspire yourself and others. I'm in favor of using true stories, but I'm against using made-up stories because it undermines my leadership, and frankly, it's an insult to the intelligence of my team.


[Barton] "What can a man believe?", Bruce Barton, 1927
[Wiseman] "Moonshot: What Landing a Man on the Moon Teaches Us About Collaboration, Creativity, and the Mind-set for Success", Richard Wiseman


  1. There’s a story in Hewlett-Packerd that an engineer needed at part from the storeroom out of hours but it was locked. Supposedly Bill Hewlett cut the padlock off with a bolt cutter. It always sounded implausible to me.

  2. I heard the story about a new CEO who was attempting to reform the company. There were a group of men sitting on a wall. He though they were wasting company time, so he went up to them, fired them, gave them cash in compensation, and walked them off the site. Only trouble was, they were contractors waiting to begin work and the CEO had just given them several weeks' wages in cash to not do the work the company wanted done...
    I heard this story in several forms about several companies. It's an entertaining story, but not true either.