January 2

23 social work motivational quotes



First week of 2021 … and you’re looking for motivational quotes already?

Finding quotes that will do the trick in upping your motivation to return to work, after the long break? To see clients again? To find out why you continue in this difficult sector?

Well, if you’re looking for that here, look no further.

You won’t find it.

I don’t have it.

You might wonder… so why am I writing this?

As Professor Steve Peters, the author behind the wildly successful book, ‘Chimp Paradox’, once said,

I don’t do motivational talks. At the end of the day, it’s your commitment, not your motivation.

Motivation is pointless.

Yup, you didn’t read that wrongly.

I’ll say that again.

Motivation is POINTLESS.

Why is motivation not useful?

Let me hazard a guess.

You’ve probably watched motivational talks on YouTube or Ted. You know them. The ones that say – BEST Motivational Talk of 2020!

Here’s a question.

What happens after that?

Do you go Tony Robbins-style, beating your chest and feeling ready to conquer the world?

I would hazard another guess.


Here’s why.

Commitment matters more than motivation.

You’ve had those days when you hear the alarm, hit snooze… hoping for another lie-in.

Then the alarm rings again.

And you think to yourself – gosh! That snooze was too short!

social work quotes
Here we go again…

How do I extend the snooze time? (If you do know, please tell me too.)

Still, you drag yourself to the office, put yourself in front of your desk, and start working again.

What helped you turn up?

Was it motivation?

Nope. It was commitment.

You commit to turning up, whether or not you like it. You aren’t depending on another hit of motivation from Tony Robbins to push you out of bed and into the office.

The commitment to show up, whatever the situation, pushes you to do more work than motivation does.

Motivation starts after, not before.

James Clear, in his bestseller Atomic Habits, shares about this mistake many of us make.

We think we need motivation before the activity, to do the activity.

But the truth is that motivation begins after the activity.

Think about the last time you went to exercise.

And yes, by this I mean you exercised (past tense), not thought about exercise.

What happened for you to put on those trainers, and go for exercise?

Did you have to beat your chest, and yell, “I can do this!”?


It was more likely that you put on your trainers, started running, and… continued running.

Next time you face that outstanding stack of case notes you’ve not done…start.

Don’t think about starting. Or wait for motivation to strike.


And wait for motivation to kick in after.

Again, why am I writing this?

To spur focus and action.

I’m not here to motivate you. Because at the end of the day, motivation is a poor predictor of action.

You can feel motivated, psyched-up and not take any action.

Or you can read these quotes, and begin to reflect.

Write down some action-points.

And start acting on them.

At the end of each quote, I write down my reflection and an action point that you can think through.

Don’t think too hard. Try it.

How is this organised?

As social workers, we face different challenges. Rather than organise the quotes according to who wrote them, I’ve organised it according to the unique challenges we face in social work.

For example, when you feel like quitting because of a difficult client.

Or when unsure of what to do next.

When you feel unproductive.

Where are the quotes from?

I am a firm believer that not all wisdom comes from the west.

Thus, whilst there are a number of quotes from Americans, English and Europeans, I’ve tried my best to include alternative voices as well.

These include Singaporean authors such as:

  • Jason Wong, the founder of Dads for Life and the Yellow Ribbon Project
  • John Ng, conflict mediator
  • Teo You Yenn, researcher and author of This is What Inequality Looks Like
  • Daniel Wong, author of The Happy Student

When handling conflict

John Ng (Smiling Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Managing Conflict at Work and Home)

We need to pick and choose our battles.

Not every issue is worth fighting for.

If it is not critical, it is important to comply or express no opinion.

Some people enjoy being right in everything and expend unnecessary energy and time over unimportant issues.

We have to be careful that we do not fight over nothing and for nothing.

When the issue is not important to us, it is better to avoid or comply with the conflict.

Angry about a colleague in social work? Or a client’s behaviour? Tempted to confront the person and make a scene?

Ask yourself: how important is it?

The Arbinger Institute

If we can’t put an end to the violence within us, there is no hope of putting an end to the violence outside.

Outer, organisational change begins with inner change.

Start from within.

  • Where do you hurt?
  • Can someone accompany you through processing this hurt?

When tempted to give up

Jason Wong (Trash of Society: Setting Captives Free)

Faith energises, fear paralyses.

If we are afraid of trying, afraid of making mistakes, afraid of how others perceive us, nothing will happen.

We must have faith if we want to see change happen.

Giving up is easy. Write a resignation letter, throw it, and leave.

Sometimes, change might not happen whilst you are there.

And it’s not about having blind faith. But it’s about recognising that things take time, and time takes patience, and that patience takes faith.

That things will work out.

Antonio Camacho

Caminante, no hay camino.

Se hace camino al andar.

Traveler, there is no path.

The path must be forged as you walk.

When there is no path for where you want to go, invent your own.

Look past the career path in your agency. Find a tribe of like-minded people that encourage you. That play in your team.

That have your back.

African Proverb

Life is like eating an elephant. You need to do it one mouthful at a time.

One day at a time. When overwhelmed with work, break it down into its constituent parts. When confused about where to start with the huge workload, write down 3 priorities for the day.

Only work on those.

RW Johnson

Failure is our most important product.

You might have experienced a personal failure. Missed the promotion. Gotten a performance improvement plan.

That’s painful, isn’t it?

Don’t waste the pain.

Ask yourself:

  • What happened? What did I do?
  • What can I learn from this?
  • How can I put this lesson in place from here on?

Theodore Roosevelt

Far better to have done mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though chequered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

If you want an easy job, social work is not the job.

It’s a meaningful job. Social work refuses to accept mediocrity. It’s a calling.

With clients, you’re going to have failures. So… are you going to give up?

But here, remind yourself:

  • What is a recent memory of significance, however small? Remember, it’s a moment of significance, not success. It can be as small as a client turning up for an appointment, and refusing to give up yet.

When wondering if there is a point to social work

Teo You Yenn (This Is What Inequality Looks Like)

What is dignity? It is a sense of being valued, a feeling of being respected, a sensation of esteem, of self-worth.

How and from where does one get it? From everyday life…

This dignity does not have an expiration date tied to economic productivity. It affirms the worth of personhood.

In Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s dialogue at the Institute of Policy Studies 30th Anniversary Dinner, he pointed out in his closing remarks,

The culture of interactions, the ease with which we interact and the way we treat each other, whether we treat each other as equals, as we grow up, and as we go through life, also shapes social mobility, because it spreads aspirations.

Aspirations shouldn’t just be the province or the habit of the upper middle class or the wealthy. Aspirations spread through interaction and by having a common culture. 

Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Senior Minister, 25 Oct 2018

In your daily work, how can you give dignity to the person you’re seeing? Not identifying the person as another problem to be fixed, but another person.

With an identity. A name. A story.


To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.

Let’s face the reality.

Not everyone is going to like you.


It’s true.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not about confronting or looking for criticism. But it’s about accepting that whatever you do, it’s going to turn up.

Father Murray Powell

When you look away from a homeless person, you diminish their humanity and your own.

When you see need on a daily basis in social work, you’re tempted to look the other way, especially when you see more need.

Don’t avoid it. Accept it.

Acknowledge that need and suffering is going to a human reality, however long we are on earth. When you see pain, don’t try to mask and squash your emotions.

Allow yourself to feel.

Edmund Burke

All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing.

When unsure about what to do next

You may be tempted to change jobs. Change an organisation.

Not sure if you should.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.

You will never know if your decision is good.

Well, don’t fall into the trap of analysis paralysis. Decide, and move on.

There will never be a perfect decision. There will only be decisions you learn from.

If you’re stuck, try a simple pros and cons list. It adds rational thought to an emotional decision.

Warren Buffett

Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

Anaïs Nin

And then the day came

When the risk

To remain tight

In a bud

Was more painful

Than the risk

It took

To blossom.

Carl Jung

I am not what has happened to me, I am what I choose to become.

When struggling to lead

William Deresiewicz

What makes him a leader is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself.

Look back at a decision you made 6 months ago. How has it turned out? More importantly, how did you arrive at that decision? Was it something someone advised?

Knowing how you come to decisions and the influences behind those decisions help you see if you’re making your own decisions… or whether you’re following what people tell you to do.

Try not to.

Be 100% responsible for your decisions. After all, it’s you who’s going to live with the consequences of them.

Peter Bernstein

The future is not ours to know. But it helps to know being wrong, is inevitable and normal, not some terrible tragedy, not some awful failing in reasoning, not even bad luck in most instances.

Being wrong comes with franchise of an activity whose outcome depends on an unknown future.

Sometimes, social work can feel like you’re persistently fire-fighting.

Crises, problems, meltdowns, happen everyday.

You’re going to make a mistake.


Don’t try to be perfect. Accept that you’re not perfect as a person, and that making mistakes are part of the job description.

You can try your best not to make them. But when you make them, rather than beating yourself over them, teach someone with that mistake.

Yes, learn from it. But teach someone too. You’ll be amazed at how that experience turns out.

When trying to focus

Richard Feynman

To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time…it needs a lot of concentration.

If you have a job administering anything, you don’t have the time.

So I have invited another myth for myself. That I’m irresponsible. I’m actively irresponsible. I tell everyone I don’t do anything.

If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admission, ‘no’, I tell them. I’m irresponsible.

It’s tempting, isn’t it?

To keep doing more. To have an ever-growing to-do list, rather than making a stop-doing list.

Why not try that today?

Have a stop-doing list.

Arnold Bennett

What? You say that the full energy given to those sixteen hours will lessen the value of the business eight? Not so.

On the contrary, it will assuredly increase the value of the business eight.

One of the chief things of the mind which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of continuous hard activity: they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change – not rest, except in sleep.

It’s been a long day of social work. Seen clients, talked to colleagues, and spoken to bosses.

You’re tempted to kick up your legs, and binge on another Netflix series.

Try something else.

Jim Collins

Good is the enemy of great.

When trying to self-care

Scott M Peck

If one wants to climb mountains, one must have a good base camp, a place where there are shelters and provisions, where one may receive nurture and rest before one ventures forth again to seek another summit.

successful mountain climbers now that they must spend at least as much time, if not more, in tending to their base camp as we do in climbing mountains, for their survival is dependent upon their seeing to it that their base camp is sturdily constructed and well-stocked.

Where’s your base camp? What do you do at base camp?

Do you even return to basecamp?

Maybe it’s time to.

Michael Neill

Why do we lose sight of base camp? Because we live in a world of unrecognised thought.

Thought is the architect of both hope and despair, the source of every color in the emotional rainbow.

Without thought, there would be no delineation in our world, like the pure clarity of light before it passes through our prison and bursts into a kaleidoscope of color.

But unrecognised thought demands our attention and fills our consciousness.

And when we get caught up in thought, we lose our way.


Remember, it’s not motivation that matters.

It’s commitment.

As you read through these quotes, ask yourself: what is one action I can do moving forward?

Commit to that action.

Your thoughts?

In the comments below, let me know your favourite quotes! Or are there other quotes that have inspired you too?

Further reading

Liked these quotes?

Together with Singaporean calligrapher Alyletters, we recently created a series of postcards, with 22 different quotes, to encourage you during these strange times.

Be lifted.


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