Everything That You Know About Motivating Others is Wrong

By Richard Talens

Arnold talks about finding your spark, the fire that you need to make fitness an integral part of your life. Many people go looking for it on their own. In fact, both the information provided on this site and Fitocracy’s Arnold’s 1% Challenge put that “spark” is well within reach.

If you’re passionate about fitness, you’ve probably tried to help a friend find his or her spark already, and more likely than not, this ended in failure.

That’s because everything that you know about motivating others is wrong.

Two key phenomena explain why this happens and what you can do to successfully motivate others.

Phenomenon #1: Ambivalence and The Righting Reflex

Let’s start with a case study.

Joe burns through several packs of cigarettes a day and he’s been avoiding the doctor for as long as he can remember. Now he’s having health problems and deep down, he’s afraid cigarettes are the cause.

Joe sits in the doctor’s office nervously awaiting his prognosis. He taps his foot as he waits for the doctor and he craves a cigarette.

When Dr. Gupta enters the office, he explains that Joe’s at extremely high risk for atherosclerosis, a disease where his arteries harden. Dr. Gupta tells Joe that he needs to quit smoking immediately. He walks Joe through the percentage he’s at risk and the amount that risk decreases if Joe quits today.

Dr. Gupta delivered an objective diagnosis and told Joe exactly what he needs to do to improve his health. And yet, Dr. Gupta did the absolute worst thing possible to light Joe’s spark.

Why, you ask?

The answer comes from the “Righting Reflex” in conjunction with the “state of ambivalence,” two phenomena Dr. William Miller explains in the book “Motivational Interviewing.”

When people are passionate about a topic, they have a natural desire to dictate and direct changes they feel other people should make (Miller’s “Righting Reflex).

Professionals in the fitness and health space have the best intentions in wanting to fix their client’s problems, but these intentions can backfire when a client is ambivalent (i.e. in the state of deciding whether or not to change).

When someone attempts to make a difficult change, they play a continuous debate in their head. The debate is between two sides – one is pro-change and the other is pro-status quo.

Both sides of the internal debate are so strong that no objective “fact” will invalidate either argument. In Joe’s case, the most powerful arguments are the ones that he plays in his head over and over again.

Think about it. Would Joe – or anyone – say “Oh thanks Dr. Gupta, I didn’t realize my chances of a heart attack were increased by 30%! I’ll definitely stop now.”

When an ambivalent person encounters someone who exhibits the Righting Reflex, the natural inclination is to play the opposite argument in their own mind.

Try this on your own. Think of a subject that you’re truly ambivalent about – ending a relationship, quitting an addiction, etc.

Now, have a friend pick one side and argue it. What’s your natural reaction? If you’re like most people, you’ll instinctively start defending the other side. You might feel judged by your friend’s opinion, even if you’ve made the same arguments to yourself.

The argument that’s played internally usually wins.

Phenomenon #2: Growth vs. Fixed Mindsets

Prior to starting Fitocracy, I thought anyone could be instantly inspired.

The first eye-opener was discovering a significant proportion of people find before and after pictures demotivational. I remember telling people about this amazing transformation, only to be shocked by the number of people who complained about being discouraged.

The second eye-opened involves Fitocracy's point system. At Fitocracy, we use point values as a motivational tool – the exercises that deliver the most benefit to your health are weighted more heavily than others. Users like bjax, the guy featured in one of our banners, started seeing results for the first time in his life because he noticed that squats and deadlifts yielded more points.

Yet, many beginners quit Fitocracy because, to them, it didn’t feel fair their elliptical workouts earned relatively few points. They were demotivated by the same system that led to an enormous amount of successful transformations.

Why are these people so resistant to change?

It turns out, people can either be bucketed into “growth” or “fixed” mindsets.

People with a fixed mindset believe abilities and talents are immutable traits; you either have them or you don’t. They take negative feedback personally because they don’t differentiate between their performance and themselves. They avoid challenge and see failures as being outside of their control.

Those with a growth mindset believe skills and talents are acquired through education and hard work. They embrace challenge and use criticism to improve. (Side note: My framework of self-compassion, mindfulness, and humility all help develop the growth mindset.)

While not discussed in scientific literature, I’ve seen evidence in the wild that it’s possible to have a “growth” mindset around fitness but a “fixed” mindset around another subject, like math.

What happens when someone with a growth mindset tries to motivate someone with a fixed mindset?

Consider the backlash against this “What’s your excuse?” image that made its way around the Internet.


The pro-image camp believes the backlash was because their counterparts are lazy and make excuses to avoid hard work. The anti-image folks think their counterparts are too hardcore about fitness, unrealistic, and lack compassion.

Both camps are wrong. Simply, the backlash was the natural reaction that occurs when a “growth mindset” message is shown to a “fixed mindset” audience.

Similarly, in the examples revolving around Fitocracy users, both groups – those who were demotivated by transformation pictures and those who were demotivated by point variations – had a fixed mindset.

Igniting the Spark

If you’re passionate about fitness (many of you reading this article) you’re likely an individual with a growth mindset who exhibits the Righting Reflex. Most of the people you’re trying to motivate are going to be ambivalent individuals with fixed mindsets.

Think back to when you failed to help someone else and failed. You probably chalked it up to your friend’s laziness or lack of motivation. There was nothing you could do, right? It was beyond your control.

Does this sound similar to how the “fixed mindset” folks react to fitness?

It should.

The following is the ultimate irony for any fitness enthusiasts who’ve failed to motivate another person:

If you’re passionate about fitness and want to motivate others, you probably have a growth mindset around fitness but a fixed mindset around motivation.

The first step in helping light a loved one’s spark is realizing that motivation is a skill just like any other. Your success will very much depend on the message you send and how you deliver it.

This means coming from a place of compassion, not judgment. Both judgment and the Righting Reflex can make the person you’re trying to help feel bad and that doesn’t inspire change.

Guide, don’t direct. Help the person feel empowered and in control. Ask questions that encourage them to explain the need to find his or her spark, like:

“What do you think you need to do this time around in order to be successful with weight loss?”

Realize that someone can make the change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

I know, because I spent most of my life blaming my obesity on factors beyond my control – genetics, environment, etc. I thought there was nothing I could do. I had a fixed mindset around fitness.

Yet, through practicing humility and mindfulness, I transformed my fixed mindset into a growth mindset and subsequently made my physical transformation.

Motivating the people you love isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it. You may be the catalyst that someone needs to find his or her own spark. The most powerful thing you can do to light someone’s spark is to help them realize that you can only provide the gas. They’ve had the flame all along.


Richard Talens is a Cofounder and Chief Growth Officer at Fitocracy.  Dick is a former fat kid who used to look exactly like the kid in Up. He eventually geeked out over fitness enough to lose a lot of weight, get stronger, and compete in bodybuilding shows, even if he doesn't even lift. He likes to tell people his title is Chief Gains Officer. Outside of Fitocracy, he's been the nutritional coach to a many clients, including Miss America (successful) and his fat cat (unsuccessful). He has never been given the opportunity to coach a horse, however.

Website: https://www.fitocracy.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/DickTalens