Online, Steve Maraboli looks like the trope of a motivational speaker—photos of him speaking onstage, podcasts, apparent endorsements by celebrities, frequent mentions about best-selling books. He spent the last two decades crafting this image, building an online empire of self-mythology. He has falsely presented himself as a doctor, a United Nations humanitarian program director who won an award from Vice President Joe Biden, and an orator who has been quoted by the pope. He’s built his brand on an abundance of lies. Recently, that brand allowed him to be involved directly in an industry that works with vulnerable people—drug rehabilitation patients in Florida.
When I asked Maraboli about discrepancies related to his professional career, he eventually told me that he had been lying. But when I first saw Maraboli’s online presence, I had no idea of the extent of his fabrications.
Maraboli has 149,000 Instagram followers, 180,000 Twitter followers, and 651,000 Facebook followers. On these platforms he shares the sort of platitudes that you’d expect to see at a boardwalk T-shirt stand or on the wall of a Christian CrossFit gym. Some recent examples include:
- “The tiger and the lion may be more powerful, but the wolf doesn’t perform in the circus.”
- “Sometimes your knight in shining armor turns out to be an idiot wrapped in tin foil.”
- “Don’t condemn me to the prison of your bullshit.”
Maraboli’s quotes are widely dispersed throughout the internet. His phrases come across as profundities presented as proverbs—which means they serve as perfect captions for Instagram posts of workout looks, yoga poses, motivational rants, selfies, and lifestyle portraits. An Instagram search for #stevemaraboli brings up more than 58,000 posts.
If someone stumbles upon one of Maraboli’s quotes and it resonates with them, they might follow him on social media or check out his website, where they’ll see that he appears to be one of the most accomplished gurus they’ve never heard of. In the photos of Maraboli posted on his site, on social media, and in articles referencing him, he’s tan with an athletic build from competitive jiujitsu. He often appears standing in a power pose, with a microphone. In most of the images he’s wearing a sports coat or a martial arts uniform. He comes across as a Joe Rogan for business conferences.
“Be careful...not all are what they seem. Some people pretend to be the beach, but they’re actually quicksand.” —Steve Maraboli.
According to Maraboli’s social media and online articles about him, he is the “most quoted man alive” and has even been quoted by the pope.
In several social media posts, Maraboli’s account has shared what appears to be a transcript of a speech from Pope Francis in which a Maraboli quote has been photoshopped in. The accompanying captions reads: “#flashbackfriday To when the #Pope quoted me in a speech about Humanitarianism.”
The blurred words above and below the portion referencing Maraboli are from an actual speech Pope Francis delivered to an audience in January 2017. But a report on this presentation by the Vatican’s official broadcast service, Vatican Radio, which someone clearly copied and digitally altered for the Instagram post, contains no mention of Maraboli. The Holy See did not respond to Gizmodo’s requests from comment about Maraboli’s claim that the pope quoted him.
An article that Maraboli often references in his promotional material and social media is an Inc.com article that calls Maraboli the “Most Quoted Human on the Planet.” But the piece itself wasn’t based on any specific metric or written by a member of the Inc. editorial staff. It was posted by a guest contributor, Dave Kerpen, who is a CEO of a digital marketing firm, and Maraboli’s neighbor. Inc.com did not respond to a request for comment, but a notice buried at the bottom of the post states, “The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.”
In his post, Kerpen repeats the claim that Maraboli has been quoted by the pope. His citation for the pope reference leads to one of Maraboli’s Instagram posts.
The article also says that Maraboli has been quoted by Oprah. The hyperlink citation for this claim leads to Maraboli’s own website, which shows an endorsement from Winfrey: “Steve Maraboli has wisdom beyond his years and will help you reconnect with your bountiful beauty and potential.” A spokesperson for Winfrey attempted to help me determine if this was a real quote, but did not say for certain if Winfrey said it or not.
It’s not just the pope and Oprah who have been inspired by Maraboli, according to Maraboli. His website and social media posts also suggest he has been endorsed by Leonardo DiCaprio. Maraboli claims that DiCaprio believes “Dr. Steve Maraboli” to be “an expert of the mind” whose “understanding of human behavior is remarkable.” DiCaprio’s publicist did not respond to requests for comment on whether or not DiCaprio has endorsed or worked with Maraboli.
Other claims that have appeared in Maraboli’s social media and on his website are that he is director of the UN Program for Literacy and Education and that he won a UN award for philanthropy three times. These claims are both fabrications (and were removed from his website over the course of my reporting this story, along with many other false and dubious honors and positions). A spokesperson for the UN secretary-general told me he could find no records of Maraboli or the Program for Literacy and Education that Maraboli claims to lead, but suggested I check with United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. A spokesperson for UNESCO told me the organization also doesn’t have records of Maraboli or the program. Maraboli initially insisted the program was real, but did not respond to a request to provide proof. He also chose not to directly respond to discrepancies related to the UN awards he claims to have won.
The veracity of the awards was slightly more difficult to pin down, as Maraboli’s claims about winning a UN award have shifted over time. In 2010, Maraboli’s company A Better Today put out a press release that said he won the 2010 United Nations Award for Global Leadership in Helping Humanity. A post on his Facebook page says he “was awarded a UN High Honor for” designing “a Rapid Response System for the United Nations in order for it to be able to effectively respond to international humanitarian needs,” a program that his page claims “was successfully implemented to help those affected by the earthquake in Ecuador” in April 2016. “Thousands have been helped this week in record time,” the post claims. The earthquake caused at least 676 deaths and left 16,600 people injured. In November 2017, Maraboli posted several photos on Instagram that seem to show him in or near a UN Association of New York humanitarian award gala dinner with a caption that reads: “I was honored to be selected for the prestigious United Nations Award for Leadership in Education and Literacy 😊 Presented by Vice President Joe Biden.”
One of the photos does show Biden at a podium. But Ann Nicol, executive director of the UN Association of New York, told me that Biden was actually a recipient of a humanitarian award given that night. “I can confirm that Steve Maraboli did not receive an award from UNA-NY, ever,” Nicol told me. “In fact, I checked if Mr. Maraboli was in attendance at the dinner, and he was not on our guest list.”
The chairman of science publishing company Elsevier also won an award at the UN event. Both Biden and Elsevier were recognized for their contributions to cancer research that night. Elsevier confirmed that Maraboli was not recognized. “I do not know this individual. He was not on the guest list or honored in any way,” Elsevier executive publisher Lily Khidr told me in an email. “100 percent false.”
“Lie to yourself if you want, but you’re not fooling me. Your excuses tell me that you didn’t really want it.” —Steve Maraboli
Maraboli’s used to claim (before it was changed during the course of my reporting) he has multiple honorary Ph.D.s from universities. This is dubious at best.
It’s unclear what universities he’s referring to, as his entire academic history is murky. A listing for Maraboli on ContactOut says that he received his Ph.D. for social and behavioral science at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, his international business master’s degree at New York University Leonard N. Stern School of Business, and his bachelor’s degree at Long Island University Post. Since ContactOut is a data aggregator of online profiles and public records, it’s likely that Maraboli posted this information about himself somewhere online, possibly LinkedIn. In interviews, like this recent conversation during the “Menace and The Man Show” podcast, Maraboli has said he attended LIU Post, NYU, and Johns Hopkins.
NYU told me it has no record of Maraboli attending or earning a degree or an honorary degree. Johns Hopkins also could not find Maraboli in their system. LIU Post did not respond to multiple fact-checking requests. Maraboli chose not to comment directly about why these institutions contradicted what he has said about his education.
Bios on Maraboli’s HuffPost and Everyday Health author pages, and his Tumblr page, state that “Dr. Steve Maraboli is a life-changing Speaker, bestselling Author, and Behavioral Science Academic. His empowering and insightful words have been shared and published throughout the world in more than 25 languages.” But this is just the beginning of the bizarre humanitarian doctor cosplay. A scroll through Maraboli’s social media shows that he is trying to manifest his dreams through bad photo editing. His posts include what appear to be screenshots of fake or altered articles featuring him.
“Thank you Forbes! 🙏 Mindset matters... Your agreement with reality defines your life. 💪” he writes in a post that seems to show one of his quotes along with a photo of him in a Forbes article, “Top Seven Habits Of Mentally Strong People.” However, the actual article doesn’t mention Maraboli at all. A post about the Vogue article, “10 Contemporary Authors Who Speak to Our Soul,” seems to praise the quote-master: “From fierce motivation to heart melting romanticism, Steve Maraboli’s words will pierce your soul and awaken your spirit.” However, Vogue never published these words, and the article itself doesn’t exist. Maraboli chose not to comment about these social media posts.
Some articles about Maraboli are real. For instance, a search on A Better Today Media, a “personal growth” outlet run by Maraboli, shows that the site has at least 29 articles about Maraboli, including “7 Steve Maraboli Quotes Every Woman Needs to Read” and “Become Your Best Self with These Steve Maraboli Quotes.” There are also many articles about Maraboli on Thrive Global. Most of these articles are listicles about successful business people, leaders, and celebrities that also include Maraboli—including 7 Famously Influential Behaviorists, 6 Habits Practiced by Extraordinarily Successful People, Famous People Who Served in the Military, 11 Famous People Who Master the Art and Philosophy of Jiu-Jitsu. The posts feature Maraboli among the likes of Oprah, Jay Z, Abraham Lincoln, and Bill Gates. Most of these articles have been written by three mysterious authors who don’t seem to be published anywhere else. And many of the online articles that praise Maraboli have been published on HuffPost, Thrive, and Inc., where virtually anyone can become a contributor and post articles without the scrutiny of an editor or fact-checker.
“I used to worry about the labels others placed on me, until I realized my limitations weren’t coming from their labels, but from my own.” —Steve Maraboli
Creating a fictional version of yourself in order to spread inspirational messages may seem relatively harmless, but a couple of years ago Maraboli began working with an addiction treatment center in Florida. In June 2018, Clean Recovery Centers announced it was partnering with Maraboli, describing him as “a life-changing speaker, author, and leading Behavioral Scientist.”
When Maraboli announced he was partnering with Clean, he said he would “create and shape a highly effective Recovery Program designed to maximize the individual experience and ensure lasting results,” adding that he would adapt the “behavioral methodologies that I have successfully used around the globe to impact and enhance countless lives,” to create “what I envision to be the world’s most effective rehabilitation and recovery program available.” At the time, Maraboli’s website said he was Clean’s “chief behavioral scientist.”
Clean’s founder and president, Nick Cuneo, told me Maraboli worked with Clean for almost a year. “He’d speak with patients one-on-one,” Cuneo said, adding that Maraboli’s role was to give people “a little gasoline of motivation” once they were on their way to recovery. Cuneo confirmed that Clean paid Maraboli a stipend, but said the amount was confidential.
Cuneo admitted that one reason Clean partnered with Maraboli was his popularity. “We thought, who better than a human condition guy to come here and help us out. And a lot of his was the star power, too,” Cuneo said. “Steve has a big megaphone.”
Clean chose to amicably end its partnership with Maraboli. Cuneo explains that Maraboli, with his “advanced degrees,” was too accomplished for his message to resonate with people in recovery. “We just overestimated how much of an impact he would have on that particular group,” Cuneo told me, adding that he might welcome Maraboli back in the future.
John Lehmann, director of the Florida Association of Recovery Residencies, told me he is familiar with Clean. FARR has played a major role in addressing fraudulent and predatory practices in outpatient centers and sober-living homes—primarily patient-brokering schemes that take advantage of drug users in order to guzzle their insurance money, what is now known infamously as the “Florida shuffle.”
When I spoke to Lehmann in December, he said that FARR had approved Clean as a low-level recovery residence, but now that the company provides more services, it has applied to be recognized as a top-level service provider—one that offers clinical services and employs credentialed staff. Lehmann said FARR was reviewing Clean’s application.
Clean has also created its own ethics board—the Council for Addiction Recovery Ethics. Until recently, Maraboli’s “about” page said that he was a member of the board of CARE. Cuneo, Clean’s founder, said CARE is in its “infancy stage,” but he hopes it will become “a self-policing ownership model” for treatment centers and healthcare providers “to hold each other to a standard of ethics and codes of conduct.”
Sometime in between my first interview with Maraboli and my last, Maraboli’s position with Clean and CARE, and all other “professional memberships” and “notable awards and honors” were removed from his “about” page.
Lehmann told me addiction-treatment centers like Clean may not have the resources to thoroughly vet every person they partner with, so they shouldn’t be blamed for working with Maraboli, who has lied about having a non-medical doctorate. But he was also blunt about whether someone who has lied about their credentials should be working in the industry. “Should Clean have invited him into the process? No,” Lehmann said.
Ryan Marino, an emergency medicine physician and medical toxicologist at the University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, echoed Lehmann’s concern, as he read through Maraboli’s social media and website during our phone conversation. “All of his stuff seems to link back to ways to either hire him or buy his book,” said Marino, who is an outspoken critic on Twitter of unethical practices and misinformation within the addiction recovery industry. “I would not want to associate with someone who is lying about their background or frankly seems to be kind of profiteering off of an addiction crisis in this country.”
“I will not apologize for refusing to be disrespected, to be lied to, or to be mistreated. I have standards; step up or step out.” —Steve Maraboli
When I first called Maraboli to talk about his unusual career, it took a while until I could ask any pointed questions. He speaks quickly in a Long Island accent, moving seamlessly from one inspirational anecdote to the next—many of which I had already read on his blog or heard in podcast interviews he’s done. Every time I was about to ask about specific details, he would launch into a new dizzying yarn. But then he brought up the pope.
“I tend to bleed on paper. Look at me. You said, ‘Hello,’ and I haven’t shut up in 45 minutes,” Maraboli said. “If you say things that resonate, it starts popping up everywhere, and then you get some big hits. I had the pope quote me…I think he was giving a talk on humanitarianism somewhere in the Philippines. The pope wants to inspire and he uses my words. I mean, that’s, to me, insane because I’m a kid from Long Island.”
That’s when I asked why his social media accounts use an image of a pope transcript in which a reference to Maraboli and one of his quotes appear edited in. For the first time his energy diminished and he mumbled out a denial. “Oh. N...No. I don’t know which specific p...time that he, that he did...” Maraboli trailed off.
Then I asked why the United Nations challenged his claims that he had won UN awards and was the director of a UN literacy program. He also denied he had lied about any of this. “Our literacy program is real, effective, and impacting millions of people around the world,” he said. “I’d have to dig through the awards and tell you exactly who and what and give you names, or you can reach out to them specifically.”
Earlier in the call he had mentioned attending New York University and Johns Hopkins, so I took this opportunity to ask why both schools had no records of him attending. “I study programs at those schools and numerous other schools,” he said. “If you give me your info, I just shoot you them.”
He has yet to send me any other information that verifies he won any UN awards or attended any NYU or Johns Hopkins programs.
After a few basic questions about his career, he said I should have told him before the call that I was going to be asking him about specifics. “I would rather be able to answer you than sound unprepared,” he said. “Because I am unprepared. I don’t like sounding unprepared. Sounding unprepared gives the illusion of something that I don’t want to give.”
Following our first call, I emailed him a list of questions about his education and career. Then I sent multiple follow-ups over email and text. He finally agreed to talk to me again more than a month later. He expressed that he had no interest in reading my email of questions, and admitted he had lied about his credentials.
He said he started lying at the beginning of his career to do things he wouldn’t be able to without certain previous accomplishments.
“At that time, if they said, ‘In order to speak to this audience, you need to have been an astronaut.’ I would have said, ‘Of course,’ and then told them how beautiful space was. That’s just what I would have done to get in that room,” Maraboli told me. “Let me in that fucking room. I will tell you whatever you want. Let me in that room. And it made for such an interesting thing because you want to keep good to your lie. How sick is that? You want to keep good to your lie.”
One of those lies, he told me, was that he was a doctor. However, according to Maraboli, years after he started lying about being a doctor, he reconciled that (sort of). “This company reaches out to me. I forget who they were. But they do like, you can marry people online, like one of those. So they reach out to me,” Maraboli said, explaining that at the time he was researching “neurotheology.”
“So they send me this thing, the church of fucking whatever. ‘We’ll make you a doctor of theology,’” Maraboli said, adding that since then “a million companies” have reached out with the same thing. “It’s actually quite possible if I did digging, I’m actually a doctor, doctor, doctor, doctor, doctor, doctor, doctor Steve.”
I pressed for details about the organizations that sent him these degrees and he said that he didn’t remember and doesn’t keep track. Then he told me he just remembers feeling a sense of relief after allegedly receiving a doctorate because, “Now when I say it, I’m not lying.”
But is he? By Maraboli’s own admission, he lied for years about being a doctor, and then some sort of “church” or “company” offered him an honorary doctorate. Since Maraboli won’t share proof, it is unclear what kind of or “degree” that entity could offer or what sort of accreditation the institution has.
He did at least admit he’s still not being honest. “So if they’re asking me, ‘You’re doctor, right?’ And I say, ‘Yes.’ I’m not lying,” Maraboli told me. “Now, I know I’m misunderstood as fuck. But I’m not lying. I call that being happily misunderstood. So it was sneaky. But he got me in the door.”
But Maraboli told me he now feels he is beholden to his other lies. “Unfortunately, for as long as you do it, you have to maintain it…If someone fudges their resume to get a job? They’ve got to keep that lie the whole time they have that job.”
Of course, that doesn’t explain why he’s continued to generate new lies. I ask why he posted pictures of Joe Biden winning a UN humanitarian award with captions claiming that Biden gave him an award that day—something that is very easily Google-able and requires very little fact-checking effort.
That’s when things got more personal. He started using my name repeatedly, as if he was trying to turn things around on me.
“Jennings is the first guy at the sausage factory asking, how’d you make this shit? Damn it Jennings. Shit Jennings, you’re good, dude.” Maraboli responded. “There are things that are complete amplifications, Jennings. There just is. I wish I had another poetic way to say it, but there isn’t...In 20-plus years, of trying to get into some doors, it’s understandable,” he told me. “But it’s still wrong. It’s wrong as fuck.”
Then he compared himself to historical leaders and luminaries who have been accused of being unethical or predatory. “I never did the shit that MLK did, right?” Maraboli said. “I lied to get into a room to help you. I didn’t take your money and then go fuck your wife. I didn’t say God is going to forgive you and then bang your children like the church did.”
He soon switched tactics, perhaps trying to encourage me to rethink the story. “What happens to Dr. King if there’s a Jennings Brown…? What if there’s a Jennings Brown for Gandhi? Do we have Gandhi?” Maraboli asked, referencing sexual misconduct allegations about both of those figures. “I say no. I say absolutely not. Especially in today’s polarizing climate. I say no. I say that Dr. King’s a preacher from the south we never hear about if there’s a Jennings Brown.”
Maraboli said I could also be imparing children. “What would completely break my heart is the idea of one of the millions—let’s say New York City public schools, that always have me come speak in May,” Maraboli said. “For me, the heartbreak comes that they read some shit on Google that’s negative. They’re like, ‘No, let’s not have Steve come in.’ And you did that to those kids. I’m fine. You did that to those kids.”
Maraboli pitched me an alternative version of this story: “We have to agree that if it was a positive article, it would be like—holy shit, this guy tells you that he had to fudge his way into those rooms. And because of that he had to study his ass off so people would believe him, and turns out he is fucking quoted in millions of millions and millions of households every day.”
I could have done that. But that wouldn’t be an honest portrayal, and I’m not going to lie to you.
Jennings Brown is a journalist and podcaster based in New York.