The late Chris Farley, one of my favorite comedians, did a series of skits in which he plays a manic character named Matt Foley.

No matter how many times I watch the re-runs, I have to laugh when Farley, in falling-down pants and a tight dress shirt, hunches over and bellows, "My name is Matt Foley, and I am a motivational speaker." Gesturing emphatically, he goes on to say in a booming voice, "I'm 32 years old, thrice divorced, and I live in a van down by the river."

Although laughable, the object of Farley's humor – the motivational industry – is serious business. Each year untold millions are spent on books, tapes, and seminars, as well as speakers' fees that can be as high as six figures. For guys like "Matt Foley" it's a boon, but what's the benefit for the rest of us?

It seems to me that, despite our investment in time and money, people are no more motivated now than in years past. In fact, as a whole, we seem to be getting more bogged down, becoming more debt-ridden, dysfunctional, and desperate each day.

The problem with "manufactured" motivation is that it doesn't last beyond the doors of the meeting room or conference hall. It's like an unstable element. In other words, for a brief period, you can get almost anyone fired up, just as you can inject a few additional electrons into the outer orbital of an atom. But the new atomic state, like that of the artificially motivated individual, is inherently unstable and short-lived.

In a way, I'm glad that artificial motivation isn't permanent. What if I, in a moment of crisis, got myself motivated to stop at nothing in order to "climb the ladder" of social status or material wealth? I could end up losing everything dear to me – which brings me to another point.

If the goals we set for ourselves are so desirable, then why do we have to motivate ourselves to go after them? Maybe somewhere deep inside we realize that the things (we think) we want can't bring us true satisfaction. So, we resort to paying someone to prod us to make the sacrifices to accomplish that which we already know won't make us happy. No wonder our society is the way it is.

Instead of motivation, what we really need is to set some new goals for ourselves. Many of us, whether we realize it or not, are pursuing other peoples' goals based on their definition of success. But neither they nor we will ever be satisfied because success isn't measured, as most Americans seem to believe, in dollars, or the size of your house, or the number of friends you have.

Success is something altogether different, and easy to miss. I think I've experienced it a few times, but one occasion seems to stand out from the rest.

When I was about 20 years old, I coached a 3rd-grade YMCA basketball team. That was before Ritalin, so some of the kids were a little unruly. Practices were a waste of time, and so was showing up for the games. In fact, we didn't win once all season. But everyone got to play, including Eddie.

Eddie was barely tall enough to dribble the ball. His passes were weak and almost as likely to go to the other team as ours. Because of his size, he got pushed around a lot too. After every game, though, the little boy's dad, a short man himself, made it a point to thank me for playing his son.

In the last game of the season, as we were cruising to another loss, Eddie somehow managed to get ahold of the ball under the other team's basket. With all the force he could muster, he heaved the ball underhanded, sending it on the long journey to the rim. As if in slow motion, the ball rolled up, over, and in, giving Eddie his one and only basket of the season.

The four boys out on the floor with Eddie jumped up and down around him and cheered as if they had won a championship. Eddie was ecstatic and tried to run over to his dad and older brother standing on the sidelines. In the midst of the chaos, the other team in-bounded the ball and went up the floor uncontested for an easy lay-up. Our kids didn't seem to mind, however, and neither did I because Eddie's shot had just made the entire season a success.

Larry Berardinis
lberardinis@penton.com