Motivational Tweaking: Why motive matters when telling your story

"Why are you tryin' to harsh my mellow, bra? The dude was a lawyer! From New Jersey!!" You can commit treason, rob a corporation of billions in potential revenue, and even try to beat a man to death with a hatchet and the public will still love you … as long as they think your motives are pure—or pure as they define it. But God help you if the public thinks you misled them. Consider:

Caleb “Kai” McGillvary became an Internet celebrity after he stopped a crazed maniac from killing some guy by smashing a hatchet into his skull. (“Smash, smash, suh-MASH,” as Kai recalled it.) But when he was arrested and charged with beating a New Jersey lawyer—this time to death—the fickle public quickly stopped the clock on Kai's 15 minutes of fame.

When Edward Snowden figuratively outed ol’ Uncle Sam as a crazed creeper who had naked pictures of every one of us hidden in his underwear drawer, many hailed him as a hero and a patriot. Ironically, his halo lost its shine when he revealed his egomaniacal messiah complex with such quotes as, “I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.”

And now comes the fall of the evad3rs, a merry band of hackers who gained Robin Hood-like cult status last January when they released a “jailbreak” code that allowed iPhone and iPad owners to override Apple’s many security features and buy apps somewhere other than Apple’s iTunes store.

But the Huzzahs! turned into “hand me that pitchfork” last month when people downloaded evad3rs’ latest jailbreak and found that it automatically uploaded a Chinese app store onto their devices. Worse still, this digital Walmart known only as Taig sold pirated software. The fact that this auto-upload only happened on devices preset with the Chinese language did nothing to calm the enraged mob.

Rumors that Taig paid evad3rs to be bundled into their hackware forced the assiduously low-profile hackers to come up out of their mom’s basement and post not one, but two strikingly unconvincing letters explaining how they had gotten themselves into this mess.

Now consider Ducks Unlimited. The sportsmen’s group boasts of being “the world's leader in wetlands and waterfowl conservation,” which is true. And, as a result, “Ducks Unlimited does more than any other organization to put ducks in the sky,” which is also true. But they also shoot more ducks out of the sky than any other organization.

There are relatively few organizations that are going to publicly support an organization dedicated to blasting birds out of the sky. But a number of groups—from environmental activists to bird-watching societies—find the quest to preserve wetlands and waterfowl appealing and worthy of support.

So what can we learn from all this? It’s fine to have a self-serving motive tucked just behind your public-facing motive as long as it is palatable to the public … and you’re candid about it.