People can have remarkably keen
insights into their own behavior. Then
again, people can also be remarkably wrong
about why they, and everyone else, do the things that they do. And some of those people turn out to be
motivational speakers and authors.
No doubt their intentions are very admirable
— many genuinely want to help others to reach a higher level of success. But too often, they simply end up
reinforcing false notions (albeit intuitively appealing ones) about how
motivation works. Here are
three of the most firmly entrenched motivational myths:
Just Write Down Your Goals, and Success is Guaranteed!
There is a story that motivational
speakers/authors love to tell about the Yale Class of 1953. (Google it. It’s everywhere.) Researchers, so the story goes, asked
graduating Yale seniors if they had specific goals they wanted to achieve in
the future that they had written down.
Twenty years later, the researchers found that the mere 3% of students
who had specific, written goals were wealthier than the other 97%
combined. Isn’t that amazing? It would be if it were true, which it
isn’t. (See the 1996 Fast Company article that debunked the
I wish it were
that simple. To be fair, there is evidence that getting specific about
what you want to achieve is really important.
(Not a guaranteed road to fabulous wealth, but still important.) In other words, specificity is
necessary, but it’s not nearly sufficient. Writing goals down is actually neither–it can’t hurt, but
there’s also no hard evidence that writing per se does anything to help.
Just Try to Do Your Best!
someone, or yourself, to just “do your best” is believed to be a great
motivator. It isn’t. Theoretically, it encourages without putting on too much
pressure. In reality, and rather
ironically, it is more-or-less permission to be mediocre.
and Gary Latham, two renown organizational psychologists, have spent several
decades studying the difference between “do your best” goals and their
antithesis: specific and difficult goals. Evidence from more than 1,000 studies
conducted by researchers across the globe shows that goals that not only spell
out exactly what needs to be
accomplished, but that also set the bar for achievement high, result in far superior performance than simply trying to “do
your best.” That’s because more
difficult goals cause you to, often unconsciously, increase your effort, focus
and commitment to the goal, persist longer, and make better use of the most
Just Visualize Success!
Advocates of “positive thinking”
are particularly fond of this piece of advice. But visualizing success,
particularly effortless success, is
not just unhelpful–it’s a great way to set yourself up for failure.
Few motivational gurus understand
that there’s an awfully big difference between believing you will succeed, and
believing you will succeed easily. Realistic optimists believe they
will succeed, but also believe they have to make
success happen–through things like effort, careful planning, persistence,
and choosing the right strategies. They don’t shy away from thinking
“negative” thoughts, like what obstacles
will I face? and how
will I deal with them?
Unrealistic optimists, on the other
hand, believe that success will happen to
them, if they do lots and lots of visualizing. Recent research shows that this actually (and once again,
ironically) serves to drain the very
energy we need to reach our goals.
People who spend too much time fantasizing about the wonderful future
that awaits them don’t have enough gas left in the tank to actually get there.
You can cultivate a more realistically
optimistic outlook by combining confidence in your ability to succeed with an honest assessment of the
challenges that await you. Don’t
visualize success – visualize the steps
you will take in order to make success happen.