I started this article with a benign task. I’ve seen how popular motivational memes have been these past years online. People, me included, feel something when the words of others speak to us.

So rather than a traditional thought-piece, I thought I’d just quote two items of wisdom I came across this week that together, offered a complementary pathway to success.

The first by philosopher and writer, Henry David Thoreau (1854), reads:

If one advances in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life that he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

The second by former CEO and Chairman, Roberto Goizueta (1995), reads:

The moment you let avoiding failure become your motivator, you’re down the path of inactivity.

Fairly straightforward stuff really. And I’d planned to pretty them up, show off some cute art, then put them up for all to share. But a recent experience in social media regarding these so-called memes pulled me back.

The noun “meme” in social media, by the way, refers to a visual idea, concept, or behavior that spreads person-person via the Internet. In fact, what people call memes like those motivational quotes found on LinkedIn, aren’t technically, memes at all. They’re really just … Photoshopped quotes. So in effect, I was really aiming to add to that white noise.

But when someone the other day posted a quote on LinkedIn and attributed it to the prolific author J.K. Rowling I knew something wasn’t right. First off they’d parenthesized one of its words. That to me that was sufficient to send alarm bells ringing. You see, why would Rowling ever use punctuation like that? Had the quote been “tweaked”?

So off to Google I went and lo and behold not only did the original quote not have any parentheses, the words posted on LinkedIn were totally different: sufficient enough to change the entire quote’s meaning. And that’s very bad.

Said this LinkedIn quote verbatim:

It matters not what (a person) is born, but who they choose to be.

That’s a really nice sentiment huh? From the gutter a person can become great.

But this quote is actually an excerpt from a longer dialogue in the book, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”—and it really reads:

It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow up to be.

Now, that’s something totally different altogether, especially when read in context.

The real quote is in fact, a criticism of aristocracy. It’s a sentiment that observes that leadership isn’t born in blood: rather, it’s earned and its fruits derive only through a labor of maturation guided by experience. Here’s the actual scene as written by J.K. Rowling:

“You are blinded,” said Dumbledore, his voice rising now, the aura of power around him palpable, his eyes blazing once more, “by the love of the office you hold, Cornelius! You place too much importance, and you always have done, on the so-called purity of blood! You fail to recognize that it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow up to be!”

Without this context—that is, it’s dialogue—the quote’s real meaning can’t be known. That someone intentionally or otherwise then re-wrote that quote while still attributing it to J.K. Rowling, makes the importance of researching every quote’s basis all the more important.

*****

So we come to the quotes I’d chosen for today. In Thoreau’s words (pronounce his name “thorough”) I saw a wisdom that’s often forgotten in life.

In summary he implied: Don’t listen to the dream-squashers. Be yourself, believe in yourself, and great things will follow. I love it.

But on researching Thoreau a little deeper, I discovered that this piece of philosophical advice could also be construed as don’t listen to authority. You see Thoreau to many, was actually a poster-child for anarchy.

Was this at all obvious in the quote I’d intended to post? No. And it’s from this lesson, we learn how easy it is to give the words of yore the wrong meaning today.

Thoreau, an American though, wrote his quote as his country was about to implode over the issue of slavery, leading to the US Civil War. Taken in that larger context, I think it’s perfectly right to illustrate his true intent as being live your beliefs and you’ll succeed.

In the case of Roberto Goizueta, however, we learn something too. I’ll repeat his quote:

The moment you let avoiding failure become your motivator, you’re down the path of inactivity.

Again, this quote to me oozes power. If you’re not trying, you’re losing—its sentiment reads. But who was Robert Goizueta?

Goizueta was the Cuban-born, Chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola from 1981, until his smoking-related death in 1997. In 1985 he gave the world one of its worst corporate marketing disasters in the shape of “New Coke”.

How bad was this disaster? Consumers-marched-the-streets-demanding-its-withdrawal-from-store-shelves kinda bad.

And it’s from a Fortune interview ten years later, reflecting on this fiasco and the marketing manager he’d employed who’d concocted it, that this quote actually flows. It’s chutzpah (that’s Yiddish for you’ve gotta be kidding) in its best guise. For that marketing manager had become Coke’s Chief Marketing Officer.

Rooted in this context, the quote’s legitimacy bedazzles. So much so, that if action speaks louder than words, Goizueta would prove himself correct and later give cola lovers some brilliant marketing campaigns like: “You can’t beat the feeling” and “Coke is it”.

*****

What have we all gained through this essay? Maybe I can sum it up in a quote of my own, context fully supplied:

Words ain’t always what they seem.

To get the most out of life, we’ve got to dig: deeply until we tap what we believe is essence.

Part of that process includes a reliance on the lessons of those who’ve come before us, like quotes. But when it comes to these quotes, only with context can we begin to fathom what on earth they’re trying to teach.

So don’t take words at face value. Use the Internet, research, read.

Better prepared is the person who carries life’s true lessons by the side.

© 2015 Adam Parker. You’ve just read a Parkerpinion.