There’s a reason why we start hearing stories from the time we’re toddlers. The world’s obstacles and inevitable setbacks are portrayed in countless literary works, whether they are children’s books, short stories, memoirs, or biographies. Inspirational stories provide motivation and encouragement while offering a perspective that helps people contextualize their own adversities.
In fact, research in neuroscience suggests that reading fictional works helps people develop critical thinking, empathy, and theory of mind.
The best short stories, in fiction and nonfiction genres, inspire people to pursue their dreams and overcome obstacles. They can remind people that they are not alone in their struggles and that others have persevered through similar challenges. Motivational stories can also help foster a sense of community and connection, creating a ripple effect of positivity that encourages people to support one another in their personal growth and development.
Reading and sharing short inspirational stories can be a powerful motivating tool that helps create a more positive and supportive world. In this article, you’ll learn about some of the most impactful short stories and memoirs that are often used to teach lessons and drive motivation.
Top 10 Must-Read Inspirational Stories
1. The Parable of “The Elephant Rope”
“The elephant was conditioned to believe he could never break away. He believed the rope could still hold him, so he never tried to break free.”
Summary: “The Elephant Rope” is a short motivational story about a young man who observes elephants at a circus and is amazed at how they are held in place by a simple rope tied to a stake in the ground, despite their massive size and strength. It was clear that the elephants could break away from their bonds but chose not to because they were conditioned to believe it wasn’t possible.
Theme: “The Elephant Rope” is a story about limiting beliefs. The young man learns that the elephants were conditioned from a young age to believe that they could not break free from the rope. As a result, the elephants never tried to gain freedom again, even when they were fully grown and capable of doing so.
Moral of the story: Limiting beliefs can hold us back from reaching our full potential. We may have been conditioned by our past experiences or beliefs to believe that we cannot achieve something, but in reality, we may be more capable than we think. By breaking free from our limiting beliefs and challenging ourselves, we can achieve great things.
2. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
“And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days, let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.”
Summary: “The Gift of the Magi” is a short story written in 1905 by O. Henry. It’s about a young couple, Jim and Della, who are struggling to make ends meet during the Christmas season. Despite their financial difficulties, they each want to buy a special gift for the other. They end up making sacrifices to do so, each giving up something they treasure to please the other.
Theme: “The Gift of the Magi” displays the true meaning of gift-giving, which is about the thought and love behind the gift rather than its material value. The couple’s gifts to each other are ultimately meaningless in terms of their practical use, but their representation of love and sacrifice proves to be invaluable for both Jim and Della.
Moral of the story: The story highlights the benevolent spirit of gift-giving and reminds readers that the value of a gift is not in how much money was spent on it but in the thought and love behind it.
3. “The Man Who Planted Trees” by Jean Giono
“For a human character to reveal truly exceptional qualities, one must have the good fortune to be able to observe its performance over many years.”
Summary: “The Man Who Planted Trees” is a short story by Jean Giono, first published in 1953. The story is a fictional account of a man named Elzéard Bouffier, who lives in a remote valley in the French Alps and spends his life planting trees. Over the course of several decades, Bouffier single-handedly transforms the barren and desolate landscape into a lush and thriving forest, which has a profound impact on the surrounding environment and community.
Theme: “The Man Who Planted Trees” highlights the power of individual action and the importance of environmental stewardship. The story emphasizes the transformative power of nature and highlights the impact that even one person can have on the world.
Moral of the story: The story shows that small actions can have a big impact on the world. It serves as a reminder of the importance of preserving and protecting the natural world, and of the power of individual action. It also encourages readers to take responsibility for the environment and to work toward a more sustainable and harmonious relationship with the natural world.
4. “The Three Questions” by Leo Tolstoy
“Remember then: there is only one time that is important—Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.”
Summary: “The Three Questions” is a short story by Russian author Leo Tolstoy that was published in 1903. The story follows a king seeking answers to three questions: What is the best time to do things? Who is the most important person? What is the right thing to do? He offers a reward for the answers to these questions and consults with various advisors and wise men, but none can give him satisfactory responses. Eventually, he learns the answers to his questions through his own experiences and actions.
Theme: “The Three Questions” portrays the importance of living in the present moment and taking personal action. The story emphasizes the futility of worrying about the past or the future and highlights the importance of engaging fully in all of life’s moments.
Moral of the story: The story teaches that the answers to life’s big questions can only be found through action and experience rather than through intellectual inquiry alone. Tolstoy shows that the best way to live is with compassion and kindness toward others. It also encourages readers to cultivate a sense of mindfulness, rather than being preoccupied with the past or the future.
5. “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant
“She was one of those pretty and charming women whose infatuation with luxury is their one form of heroism.”
Summary: “The Necklace” is a short story by Guy de Maupassant, first published in 1884. It follows the life of a woman named Mathilde Loisel, who is unhappy with her modest lifestyle and longs for wealth and luxury. One day, her husband secures an invitation to a fancy ball, and Mathilde borrows a diamond necklace from a wealthy friend to wear to the event. However, after the ball, she discovers that she has lost the necklace and spends years working to pay off the debt incurred by replacing it, only to learn that the original necklace was fake.
Theme: The theme of “The Necklace” is the danger of materialism and the pursuit of social status. Mathilde’s obsession with wealth and status blinds her to the comforts she has in her current life and leads her to make poor decisions that ultimately ruin her chances of happiness.
Moral of the story: The story is a cautionary tale that teaches readers that material possessions and social status are not the keys to happiness. Mathilde’s relentless pursuit of luxury leads her to a life of poverty and misery, and her true happiness is found only when she accepts her circumstances and learns to appreciate the blessings in her life.
6. “To Build a Fire” by Jack London
“The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all.”
Summary: “To Build a Fire” is a short story by Jack London, first published in 1908. The story follows an unnamed man traveling through the Yukon wilderness on foot with his dog. Despite warnings from an experienced old-timer, the man sets out alone in frigid temperatures and attempts to build a fire to keep warm. However, when he encounters several setbacks, he ultimately succumbs to the cold while his dog manages to survive.
Theme: “To Build a Fire” portrays the power and indifference of nature. It highlights the brutal conditions of the Yukon wilderness and the harsh reality that even the most prepared and experienced individuals can be no match for the forces of nature. While it’s not inspirational in the traditional sense, it offers an important lesson about human fragility and our role in the world.
Moral of the story: London’s story highlights the importance of respecting and understanding the power of nature while limiting overconfidence. This is a cautionary tale against arrogance and hubris, and it emphasizes the importance of caution and humility when facing the unpredictable and unforgiving forces of nature.
7. “The Parable of the Good Samaritan” From the Bible
“But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.”
Summary: “The Parable of the Good Samaritan” is a story told by Jesus in the Bible, found in Luke 10: 25–37. It tells the story of a traveler who is beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite, who were both considered to be religious leaders, passed by the man without helping. Then a Samaritan, who was an outsider and often looked down upon, stopped to help the man, tending to his wounds and providing for his needs. The Samaritan put the traveler on his donkey and brought him to an innkeeper, who he paid to look after him.
Theme: “The Parable of the Good Samaritan” is meant to teach people about the call to love and serve others, regardless of differences in background or status. It emphasizes the importance of acting with compassion, kindness, and generosity toward those in need.
Moral of the story: The parable shows readers that everyone is our neighbor, and we are called to love and serve others without discrimination or prejudice, even to those who are considered an enemy.
8. The Pursuit of Happyness by Chris Gardner
“The future was uncertain, absolutely, and there were many hurdles, twists, and turns to come, but as long as I kept moving forward, one foot in front of the other, the voices of fear and shame, the messages from those who wanted me to believe that I wasn’t good enough, would be stilled.”
Summary: The Pursuit of Happyness is a memoir by Chris Gardner that was published in 2006. It’s an inspiring story that details Gardner’s journey from homelessness to success as a stockbroker. The memoir describes the challenges he faced as a single father trying to provide for his son while struggling with poverty, homelessness, and no college degree.
Theme: Gardner’s rags-to-riches story portrays a life of resilience and perseverance. Despite facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles, he refused to give up on his dreams and continued to work hard toward achieving them. He showed incredible resilience in the face of adversity and remained determined to create a better life for himself and his son.
Moral of the story: This story shows that with hard work, determination, and a positive attitude, anyone can achieve their dreams, no matter how difficult or impossible they may seem. It encourages readers to pursue their passions, never give up, and believe in themselves, even when others may doubt them.
9. The Story of Colonel Sanders
“I made a resolve then that I was going to amount to something if I could. And no hours, nor amount of labor, nor amount of money would deter me from giving the best that there was in me. And I have done that ever since, and I win by it. I know.”
Summary: The true-life account of Harland Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), is an inspiring and motivational story of success despite many rejections. Sanders was born in Indiana in 1890 and worked a variety of odd jobs to support his siblings after his father’s death. At 40 years old, he began cooking and selling fried chicken out of a gas station in Corbin, Kentucky, in the 1930s. He developed his own blend of 11 herbs and spices, and after that, his business grew steadily over the next few decades, leading to the creation of the KFC franchise.
Theme: The story of Colonel Sanders portrays perseverance and determination, even in the face of numerous setbacks and obstacles. Sanders refused to give up on his dream of creating a successful fried chicken business, and he continued to work tirelessly to achieve his goals.
Moral of the story: Sanders’ achievements teach us that success often comes from hard work, perseverance, and a refusal to give up in the face of adversity. Even when things seem bleak or impossible, it’s important to keep pushing forward and striving to achieve your goals. With dedication and determination, anyone can achieve their dreams, just as Colonel Sanders did with his fried chicken empire.
10. Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
“The cowards never started and the weak died along the way. That leaves us, ladies and gentlemen. Us.”
Summary: Shoe Dog is a memoir written by Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike, Inc. Published in 2016, this story is an inspirational depiction of Nike, from its humble beginnings as a small startup company to a global giant in the athletic shoe industry. Just out of business school, Phil Knight borrowed fifty dollars from his father and launched what would become one of the world’s most iconic and profitable brands.
Theme: The motivational story of Phil Knight highlights themes of perseverance and determination. Knight and his team faced numerous challenges throughout the company’s journey, including financial difficulties, legal battles, and intense competition. However, they persevered and never gave up, ultimately achieving great success.
Moral of the story: Shoe Dog shows that success comes from a combination of passion, hard work, and perseverance. Knight’s story is an inspiring reminder that no matter how difficult the road may seem, if you believe in your vision and are willing to put in the effort, you can achieve great things.
What Makes for an Inspirational Story?
An inspirational story is one that motivates, encourages, and uplifts the reader. It’s used to teach a lesson and break barriers of false perception.
Some key elements that can make a story inspirational include:
- Overcoming Adversity: An impactful story often features protagonists who face significant challenges or adversity. They may struggle, fail, and experience setbacks, but ultimately find a way to overcome their challenges and achieve their goals.
- Positive Messages: A motivational story often conveys a positive message of hope, perseverance, and resilience. The story should leave the reader feeling empowered and motivated to take action in their own lives, which is made possible when a relatable character or figure makes their own personal realization.
- Realistic: While an inspirational story may be fictional, it should be grounded in reality. The characters, situations, and challenges should be believable and relatable so that readers can see themselves within the story.
- Emotional Impact: An effective story should elicit an emotional response from readers. Whether it’s laughter, sadness, fear, or joy, the story should have a powerful emotional impact that allows its message to shine through.
- Empathy: An inspirational story should create empathy between the reader and the characters. The reader should care about the characters and their struggles and feel invested in their journey.
- Universal Themes: When authors use universal themes that resonate with readers, such as love, courage, sacrifice, and self-discovery, they allow for inspirational real-life connections.
- Transformation: An inspiring story often features a protagonist or central figure who undergoes a transformation. They may start out feeling defeated or hopeless, but through their journey, they discover inner strength and achieve personal growth.
- Memorable: Impactful stories should be memorable and leave a lasting impression on the reader. They should stick with the reader long after they finish reading it and inspire them to take action or make positive changes in their own lives.
Telling or reading empowering stories that are grounded in reality and convey positive messages is an impactful way to boost motivation, whether it’s at home, in the workplace, or for your own self-growth.
To continue reading timeless literary works with powerful characters and themes, check out these top Ernest Hemingway books.
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