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The real meanings behind the best motivational quotes of all time

Every now and again, we all need some motivation. But it can be easy to misunderstand the sayings. Or we hear something so many times – and hear what other people say it means – that the meaning just kind of sticks in our heads. It’s not your fault when this happens. It’s common to recall what you hear the most, it’s a mechanism the brain uses to do less work. 

So when you need some motivation, check out these quotes. From Walt Disney and Michael Phelps to Maya Angelou and Michelle Obama, these are some of the best motivational quotes of all time – and what they really mean. 

A necessary reminder

a necessary reminder

The quote: “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

– Confucius

What people think it means:

People often assume this quote is about getting things done all the time. If you never stop, you’ll always accomplish your task.

What it really means:

While it’s true you will accomplish things if you simply keep working at it, this quote is really about willpower and self control. You have to make sure you don’t stop – the habit you build is the real win. As long as you continue to build great habits, you’ll overcome any challenge that comes your way.

Stay ready

Stay ready

The quote: “There ain’t nobody in this world who’s going to do it for you – do what you gotta do.”

– Garth Brooks

What people think it means:

Take care of yourself and the rest of the world will figure itself out as well.

What it really means:

Sometimes, doing ‘what you gotta do’ means taking care of someone else. Or simply stopping yourself from doing something you know is wrong. It’s not always about looking out for your needs and no one else’s. If you only ever look out for your own needs or wants, you’ll miss out on the depth of life.

Reactions are everything

Reactions are everything

The quote: “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.”

– Charles R. Swindoll

What people think it means:

That you have to maintain a positive attitude at all times and not let anything bother you. If you let something bother you, you’ve failed.

What it really means:

You should check that you have the appropriate reaction. Sometimes you have to be furious. Other times you have to be calm – just make sure you know which is which. If you overreact, that won’t help you. But if you under-react, that won’t help either. Just like Goldilocks, it has to be just right.

Improve always

Improve always

The quote: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

– Maya Angelou

What people think it means:

Always do your best and that’s enough. If you do your best at any given moment, you’ve done all you can.

What it really means:

You should always be doing your best… and always be learning how to do better. Instead of waiting for “better” to show up on your doorstep, part of you doing your best is looking for ways to get better over time. As you get better, then your “best” keeps improving, making everything better for you.

Just start

Just start

The quote: “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”

– Walt Disney

What people think it means:

As the Nike slogan goes, many people assume this quote means “just do it.” If you’re not doing something physical or active, then you aren’t doing anything worthwhile.

What it really means:

While you have to take action to get anywhere, sometimes talking is the action you need to take. Having a difficult conversation will require a lot of talking. Or planning a new business idea will likely require you to talk with potential partners. Both are important examples of talking being the required action.

Look on the bright side

Look on the bright side

The quote: “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.”

– Winston Churchill

What people think it means:

You have to be positive all the time or else you’ll never get anywhere. And you don’t respond to everything with positivity, then you are bound to fail.

What it really means:

This quote is really a warning to not be an eternal pessimist. If you only look at things negatively, you’ll never see opportunity. You don’t always have to be Mr or Mrs. Sunshine, but you should never be the constantly negative one. If you’re always negative, you’ll make yourself miserable.

Focus on the future

Focus on the future

The quote: “Don’t let yesterday take up too much of today.”

– Will Rogers

What people think it means:

Forget the past and focus on the present. If you think about the past at all, then you’re letting it take up valuable time in the here and now.

What it really means:

Don’t let the nastiness of the past ruin your present and future. You should always cherish the good parts of the past and learn what you can, though, to make your present and future better. If you never think of the past, though, you can’t learn from it. And if that happens, you’re bound to make the same mistakes again.

It’s ok to be crazy

It's ok to be crazy

The quote: “People who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are often the ones that do.”

– Rob Siltanen

What people think it means:

If you aren’t a “crazy” person, you won’t change the world. That being “normal” means you’re not helpful or effective.

What it really means:

Being “crazy” is simply the belief that you can make a difference. It doesn’t need to change the whole world. It can be as easy as changing your home world, or your world of friends and family. Your world is whatever you define it as. If you don’t want to change everything on the planet but you want to be a good person, that makes you one of the “crazy” ones, too.

Learn then do

Learn then do

The quote: “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Wishing is not enough; we must do.”

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

What people think it means:

You have to learn something then do it to be successful. If you don’t learn first, you won’t accomplish anything.

What it really means:

While you won’t get anywhere without action, this quote is telling people that using your knowledge is more important than knowing something. You can also learn more along the way. So it’s about quickly understanding what you have to do – read more, try something, etc. – then going to do it. You can’t wait for the world to come to you.

Take action

Take action

The quote: “We generate fears while we sit. We overcome them by action.”

– Dr. Henry Link

What people think it means:

You should never take a break or else you’ll develop fears about what you’re doing. Sitting idly is how you end up developing worries and fears.

What it really means:

If you’re sitting idly and doing nothing, you may start to stir up fears. But if you are taking a rest or working on new ideas, that’s a very productive use of time that counts as “action” in this quote. If you don’t rest, you won’t ever recharge – and that will make worries and fears come faster.

Be creative

Be creative

The quote: “Creativity is intelligence having fun.”

– Albert Einstein

What people think it means:

Only creative people are fun – everyone else is either boring or stupid. And if you are smart but you aren’t having fun doing your work, you aren’t creative.

What it really means:

Creativity is just about looking at something differently. If you think about a challenge you’re facing and see two different ways to solve it, that’s creativity. Or if you did your research and know there’s only one way to solve it, that’s also creativity. Fun is subjective in this case, so it doesn’t have to be you laughing every minute of the day. But if your work makes you happy, then that’s enough.

Give it your all

Give it your all

The quote: “Do what you can with all you have, wherever you are.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

What people think it means:

No matter what you’re doing, give it your all. If you aren’t giving it your all, you won’t accomplish much.

What it really means:

Don’t settle. Too often, it’s easy for people to get lost in “doing their best” but not realizing that there’s more to it than that. If you’re not in a position to do your best, then do what you can… but look to find a place where you can do your best. And when you’ve found it, go there.

Take it as it comes

Take it as it comes

The quote: “Things work out best for those who make the best of how things work out.”

– John Wooden

What people think it means:

Take life as it comes and don’t complain – you need to make the best of things.

What it really means:

Making the best of something doesn’t mean you settle – it means you do what you can to turn what you have into what you want. And if it can’t be done directly, then you use what you have to move you along the path of getting what you want. Life may not be perfect, but you don’t have to settle for something just because it’s what is happening at the moment.

Look for examples of success

Look for examples of success

The quote: “For every reason it’s not possible, there are hundreds of people who have faced the same circumstances and succeeded.”

– Jack Canfield

What people think it means:

Anything is possible – and you should ignore people who are negative and say that things can’t be done.

What it really means:

Surround yourself with people who have accomplished what you want to accomplish. if you can’t do that for any reason, then surround yourself with people who believe in the possibility of the world and are working towards their own goals. You may not be doing the exact same thing as them, but being around their work ethic and unwavering beliefs will help you achieve your own dreams.

Set tough goals

Set tough goals

The quote: “Goals should never be easy. They should force you to work, even if they are uncomfortable at the time.”

– Michael Phelps

What people think it means:

Goals must be hard in order to be worth it. If they are too easy, you’re lazy.

What it really means:

A big goal can, and should, be difficult. Especially if you’re talking about a long-term thing like where you want to end up in your career. But this quote is also referring to making smaller goals along the way. That’s what motivates you to work – getting little win after little win will add up to big wins pretty soon.

Be yourself

Be yourself

The quote: “Stay true to yourself and don’t let what somebody else says distract you from your goals.”

– Michelle Obama

What people think it means:

Ignore the haters and keep pushing ahead. If you listen to them, you’ll end up failing.

What it really means:

Focus on your own path. If you think too much about ignoring negative people, you don’t necessarily move in the direction you want to. Instead, think about what you want to accomplish and put all your energy towards that. Then “ignoring” negative people becomes passive – you do it not because you’re thinking about it, but because you’re too focused on the work you have to do.

Work then work some more

Work then work some more

The quote: “You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”

– Zig Ziglar

What people think it means:

You can only learn something by doing it. Otherwise, you’ll never master a subject.

What it really means:

Take action on your goals. Action could mean a lot of different things, though. For example, if you wanted to build a rocketship, the first thing you should do is read about it or talk to someone who has done it before (like Elon Musk?). If you tried to just build it, you’d fail. “Action” doesn’t always mean doing something physical – know what your task requires.

Tenacity wins

Tenacity wins

The quote: “Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.”

– Robert H. Schuller

What people think it means:

Be tough and you’ll get through anything. If you aren’t tough, life will crush you.

What it really means:

Have perspective about tough times. You don’t need to always be a tough, hardened person. Instead, knowing that tough times never last is a way for you to take the challenges you face in perspective. They will eventually go away if you take action, so you shouldn’t let the bad times ruin your spirit. Instead, realize it won’t last long enough to ruin you and then go about your day.

Be courageous

Be courageous

The quote: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”

– Ambrose Redmoon

What people think it means:

Be courageous in everything that you do and you will be successful. If you don’t act with courage every time you do something, you may not succeed.

What it really means:

Understand that courage is a choice. It’s not that you are either born courageous or not. In every single situation where you’re a bit fearful or worried, choosing to act anyway is courage. That could mean a big test all the way up to asking for a promotion or starting a new job.

Overcome fear

Overcome fear

The quote: “Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.”

– George Addair

What people think it means:

Overcome fear once and for all. After that, you can have everything you ever dreamed all at once.

What it really means:

Overcoming fear is a process. Every single time you try something new, you’ll face a different kind of fear. Maybe it’s about money. Maybe it’s about love. Or maybe it’s about something else entirely. But you need to identify the fear in every scenario then do what you can to overcome it. Then you can work towards achieving your wildest dreams.

Always try again

Always try again

The quote: “A problem is a chance for you to do your best.”

– Duke Ellington

What people think it means:

Take advantage of every problem. If you don’t go through it all the way, you don’t learn anything.

What it really means:

Problems do happen, but sometimes the best thing you can do is learn what happened so you can avoid it the next time. Or do what you can to minimize the damage of the problem in the present moment. When problems arise, you get the chance to act again – but don’t think you have to suffer through it every time.

Be your own hero

Be your own hero

The quote: “Hard times don’t create heroes. it’s during the hard time when the hero within us is revealed.”

– Bob Riley

What people think it means:

That you have to protect yourself. No one else is going to come and protect you or the people you care about.

What it really means:

Sometimes, being a hero is about being selfless. When your family, loved ones, or friends need help, that’s you being their hero. Or when you push yourself to get out of bed so you can deliver for your team, that’s you being the team’s hero. You may end up doing some work – and benefitting – but it’s not about being selfish and only thinking about how to protect yourself.

Don’t let fear stop you

Don't let fear stop you

The quote: “We must embrace the pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.”

– Kenji Miyazawa

What people think it means:

If you want an easy life, be prepared to never achieve anything. The only way to achieve things is through pain.

What it really means:

While pain may be inevitable, you shouldn’t seek it out. In fact, you should do everything you can to maximize progress while minimizing pain. However, when it does come, don’t think of it as a setback. Think of it as motivation. If you can get through this pain, you’ll only get stronger. And then the next time, it won’t be a pain at all.

Never stop trying

Never stop trying

The quote: “It’s not about perfect. It’s about effort.”

– Jillian Michaels

What people think it means:

Don’t worry about how good you are at something. Your only focus should be on starting the thing you need to start. Everything else is useless and won’t help you.

What it really means:

In reality, you should always be looking to get better. You may never reach “perfection,” since perfection doesn’t exist. However, if you don’t think about how good you are at something, you’ll also never improve or get better. If that happens, you’ll grow stale and eventually stop caring about what you were doing.

Stuff happens

Stuff happens

The quote: “You are so much more than what you are going through.”

– John Tew

What people think it means:

You’re better than your problems. You should ignore them and focus on the good parts about your life.

What it really means:

Your problems make up who you are. Not only the problems themselves, since they can shift your life, but also how you solve them. Your reactions to problems – and the actions you take – are what make you the person you are. If you only think about problems as things that are not actually about you but things happening to you, then you forfeit control and you can’t fix them. Own your problems so you can own the solutions.

Act with passion

Act with passion

The quote: “Passion first and everything will fall into place.”

– Holly Holm

What people think it means:

Find something you’re passionate about before you do anything. Once you know your passion, then everything else is easy.

What it really means:

Finding passion is something that takes time. It’s also not something that will be all encompassing. You may have a passion for something but still hate parts of it… that’s totally natural. So it’s not about not taking action until you have “passion” but finding things you like and doing them. If you find out later that the bad parts outweigh the good parts, then you can move onto something else and try again.

Be a dreamer

Be a dreamer

The quote: “Goals may give focus, but dreams give you power.”

– John Maxwell

What people think it means:

Be a dreamer. If you don’t dream, you won’t be successful because you won’t have the power it takes to succeed.

What it really means:

Goals and dreams are not opposites, but two sides of the same coin. You need to be a dreamer (at least a little bit) to create your future in your mind. Then you have to make goals in order to take action towards those dreams. If you only have one or the other, you may get a little bit ahead but not much. When you combine them is when you truly get power to succeed.

Focus on improving

Focus on improving

The quote: “Don’t wish it were easier. Wish you were better.”

– Jim Rohn

What people think it means:

Become strong enough and you can overcome anything. If something is hard to you, that means you’re not strong enough to handle it.

What it really means:

You don’t have to handle everything on your own. While you should always look to improve yourself and work to overcome challenges, you don’t have to go it alone. Asking for help is a strength unto itself. It means you are strong enough to admit when you need assistance and smart enough to select people who can help you. That’s a powerful thing to be able to do.

Work hard

Work hard

The quote: “Hustle until you no longer have to introduce yourself”

– Unknown

What people think it means:

Work so you can get famous.

What it really means:

Fame is just one path to success – and in some cases fame doesn’t lead to success at all. While you may become successful so you don’t have to introduce yourself in some rooms, it may be difficult to get to a level of fame where you never have to introduce yourself. And the path to get there, if that’s what you want, could be really, really painful. Think of the people who are globally known… then think of the things they have to go through on a regular basis.

Create your future

Create your future

The quote: “Don’t wait for opportunity. Create it.”

– Unknown

What people think it means:

Opportunities are like products that can be developed at any time.

What it really means:

Sometimes, you can’t make your own opportunity directly. For example, if you want a promotion, you can’t just make a promotion for yourself. However, what you can do is create an environment where opportunity can come to you. If you want a promotion, for example, work so you’re qualified for the senior level job and make sure that your boss knows you’re interested in the promotion. Then when it becomes available, you’re ready for it. 

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