Telling others your goals might be a terrible idea

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

This is Part 1 of a two-part essay on how seemingly harmless behaviours can sabotage our ability to achieve our goals. Part 2 is here.

‘I’m working on a novel.’

‘I’m setting up a business.’

‘I plan to quit smoking’.

I don’t know about you, but the first thought that comes to mind when I hear someone say such things is ‘We’ll see about that’.

Now, I’m no pessimist and I do wish that more people achieve their goals. But having made more than a few missteps in life myself, I’ve come to understand an important truth about motivation:

At a party (it’s always a party) when someone talks about their intention to do something without having anything to show for it yet, I just wish them luck while mentally shaking my head. I recall all the half-baked projects that I once announced to my well-wishers with great enthusiasm, only to quietly bury them when no one was looking.

Could it be that telling others about our goals, before we have made any significant progress, makes us less likely to achieve them? At the face of it, this is a startling proposition. But as it turns out, a significant amount of research has shown that there might be some truth in it.

There is something about sharing our intentions with others that acts as kryptonite for our motivation. Understanding that link could make all the difference between consistently achieving our goals or forever wondering why we can never get anything done.

Our most important goals are inseparable from our identities: achieving them is to get closer to becoming who we think we really are. To strive towards our goals is therefore an attempt to acquire the symbols of that chosen identity. Once we possess those symbols — a title, uniform, bank balance, or public recognition — we can confirm both to ourselves and others that we’ve ‘made it’.

This entire dance of striving for and achieving our goals is played out in front of others. Rather, it makes sense only when it is done in full public view, because identity is a social concept: it is meaningless if you are the only human on the planet.

Which is why we feel we have achieved a certain goal, and therefore our ideal identity, only when others are witness to it. After all, it’s no good being an artist, doctor, entrepreneur, mother or philanthropist if others aren’t aware of these specific identities we’ve built for ourselves. Simply put, our identities exist in a social reality that is, they are real only because others recognize them as such.

So what does this have to do with telling others about our dreams? When you tell others what you intend to achieve, you jump straight to the part where others are witness to symbols of your ideal identity, without actually achieving those symbols in the real world. You basically receive the reward of having your desired identity reinforced without doing any of the work.

In a fascinating bit of research done in the 80’s, psychologists showed that when people don’t possess the real symbols of a desired goal, they are more likely to look for this fake approval from others. For instance, most true experts rarely talk about how great they are, because they have their performance to speak for them. An amateur on the other hand, will attempt to replace a lack of real identity symbols with symbolic symbols achieved through others’ approval.

The corollary is that when you talk about their intentions you are less likely to make them happen. By announcing your plans to others, you satisfy your self-identity just enough to make you less motivated to do the work required. Telling others about our intentions creates a social reality, which in our minds is as good as actual reality.

By sharing our goals with others, we trick our subconscious brains into thinking that we have already reached the endgame: the acknowledgment of others. Which is why it does not think it important to allocate any further energy to the goal: why spend extra energy when the goal of social approval is already achieved?

To bypass this harmful effect, we need to create a bridge between our stated goals and actions. How do we do it? By sharing not just our wishes, but also committing to specific goals and ensuring we’re held accountable.

So instead of saying “I’m planning to write a book” to a stranger at a party, say “I will be self-publishing my book in six months” to a friend or family member and ask them to hold you to the promise. If you’re feeling adventurous, announce it publicly on social media.

All said and done, the act of sharing our dreams is not always a bad thing. Done with the right intent, it can provide us with useful feedback and motivation.

However, talking about goals without holding ourselves accountable for them is an act of self-sabotage. We might get a momentary burst of pleasure, but it will come at the cost of the more enduring satisfaction of success.

What’s comes next

That telling others about your goals can mar your chances of achieving them is unnerving enough. But you don’t even know the half of it. Read about it in Part 2.

I read like a man possessed | I write to understand the world | Twitter: @DhawalHelix

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