Nothing gets you pumped up quite like a motivational quote. Whether it’s finding the energy to go for a run on a cold day or mustering up the courage to finally go talk to your crush, quotes help put abstract ideas into words we can understand. They can also remind us that we’re not alone, and that other people have been through similar struggles and made it out alright.
Of course, the “villains” of history can coin noble phrases just as easily as the good guys. Do one’s deeds forever tarnish otherwise positive quotes? Is it morally acceptable to search for beauty beneath the ugliness?
Painted by Adolf Hitler. Is it pretty?
That’s for you to decide. Below are some motivational quotes from unlikely sources.
1. Civilize the mind but make savage the body.
I love this quote. To me it evokes the idea of balancing brain and brawn, and how the two aren’t mutually exclusive as is so often thought. I have to imagine that Hugh Jackman has this quote in mind whenever he trains for his Wolverine roles, and Hugh knows how to get results. The word savage in particular makes me think of intense training that involves getting out of the air-conditioned gym and off the beaten path.
Who said it?
Well, that kind of changes things. Although I guess it also makes sense. Mao Zedong led the Communist party through 20 years of war, battling both the ruling Chinese faction led by Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese during World War II. He eventually emerged as the undisputed Chairman of the ruling Communist party, which is still in power today, and led the nation for 25 years.
Normally, when you win the war, history henceforth considers you the good guy. And for a long time, the world considered Mao, if not the good guy, then at least not a force for evil. Sure, he was backed by the Soviet Union and had essentially closed the entire country off to foreigners. But what’s the worst that could happen?
Aside from a clammy handshake or two.
As it turns out, the worst that could happen was actually the worst that has EVER happened. Chairman Mao’s twin policies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, enacted in an attempt to modernize the economy of China, turned out to be genocidal disasters on an unprecedented scale. Approximately 36 million people starved to death between 1959-62 during the Great Chinese Famine, which was caused when Chairman Mao ordered thousands of farms across the country to halt food production and start producing metal. When you include the millions of people who were killed by Mao’s regime due to real or imagined opposition (and trying to report the famine was considered opposition), you reach numbers that are simply staggering.
But Mao never got to hug Dennis Rodman.
Of course, unlike North Korea today, nobody really knew all of this was happening while it was happening. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1980s, almost a decade after Mao died, that the world began to get a sense of just how devastating Mao’s policies had been. Suffice it to say that 38 years after his death, China’s attitude toward Mao’s legacy is a bit complicated.2. The truth cannot be drowned out by any flood of false indictments.
The quote is great, both in the fitness sense–never let anyone discourage you or tell you what your physical limits are–and in the more general sense of self-esteem. It doesn’t matter what anyone says about you. The central core of who you are and what you stand for is unchangeable.
Who said it?
The story of Slobodan Milošević tends to get glossed over in schools Stateside, mostly because kids these days are too busy studying for standardized test to worry about Eastern European history from the late 1980s and early 1990s. But Slobodan deserves a brief explanation as to just what makes him stand out as such a terrible person.
After going to law school, Ole Sloba began to march up the Serbian political ladder. Once he effectively gained control of the Serbian government in the late 1980s, he set out on a mission to defend the ethnic Serbians in Kosovo from the majority Albanians. Slobodan’s opponents saw right through his sham, suspecting that he was conspiring to use Serbian nationalism within Yugoslavia to create a “Greater Serbia” that would control the region.
It’s believed that when this picture was taken, he was saying, “My opponents are so silly.”
Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. Slobodan helped set off the Bosnian and Kosovo Wars (the Behind Enemy Lines wars, for you movie buffs) and somehow wound up as President of Yugoslavia in 1997 before he was finally arrested in 2001 for crimes against humanity on charges dating back to 1999. The International Criminal Tribunal threw the book at Slobodan, charging him with dozens of crimes committed on a huge scale against non-
Serbians in the region. In the midst of the four year joke of a trial, during which he represented himself and was allowed to expound upon his innocence in rousing speeches on live TV, Slobodan died of a heart attack in his cell.
I have a feeling that Slobodan’s version of the “truth” mentioned in the quote above differs a bit from reality.3. Success in any endeavor requires single-minded attention to detail and total concentration.
I love this quote, because it’s a great reminder that results can take a lot of time and energy. In our culture of instant satisfaction, it’s harder than ever to focus on developing a yourself. Whether it’s your body, a hobby, or a business, excellence is difficult to come by but still achievable. This quote is reminiscent of the “10,000 Hour Rule” of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, and it teaches the same important lesson.
Who said it?
Willie Sutton embodied his quote completely. He was also one of the most prolific bank robbers in American history. Sutton relied on painstaking preparation and clever disguises to pull off dozens of robberies, becoming one of the most infamous criminals of his day. He used those same skills to break out of prison three times.
Sutton had a strange relationship with the public, who viewed him as a Robin Hood-esque figure even though he never gave any of his money away. Although he was closely tied to the Mafia, Sutton is notable for having never injured anyone during the course of his crimes (if you don’t count young Arnold Schuster, who recognized Sutton after one of his escapes, leading to Sutton’s recapture and Arnold’s mysterious death shortly afterward).
Sutton’s deeds aren’t anywhere near the level of Chairman Mao’s and Sloba’s, but being a career criminal is good enough to count as a terrible person for the purpose of this list. Still, his quote remains a stark reminder that excellence in any field requires determination and focus.4. Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.
This is without a doubt my favorite quote of all time. I love the simplicity of the imagery and the utter truth it evokes: to a large extent, we are our own creation. The process of self-improvement isn’t pleasant, and it will involve muscle soreness, sweat, and late nights. However, by consistent chipping away the excess, we can reveal our true selves.
Who said it?
Today, Alexis Carrel has something of a mixed legacy. Carrel was a pioneering French surgeon who made important contributions to blood vessel suturing, organ transplanting, wound sepsis, and aging. He was also a well-known author, and his book Man, The Unknown became a best-seller.
Unfortunately, that same book went into great detail on Carrel’s opinion that eugenics policies should be enforced for the betterment of society, likening it to dog breeding. Eugenics was fairly popular at the time (and designer babies are the latest incarnation), and Carrel wouldn’t be on this list if that was the end of the story. However, Carrel was also an unabashed racist, viewing the white races as supreme, and a big supporter of Hitler. During the Nazi occupation of France, Carrel worked closely with the Nazi overlords to fund a large institute to further his eugenics studies (the extent of his real-world experimentation is unknown). As you can imagine, he was not well-regarded by his countrymen following the end of the war and died a broken man.
On the bright side, now you can go to the hospital and have a decent chance of coming out healthier.
Carrel was on the wrong side of history, and he was also a victim of his failure to take a principled stance on the lengths that should be taken to further scientific advancement. However, he knew what it takes to achieve greatness, as he certainly did in his field, and I would say his quote stands on its own merits.