It is amazing to learn about people who truly follow their dreams, especially when they do it against the odds. There was nothing about the early beginnings of Barack Obama that suggested he would be so successful in his quest to serve others - yet, despite mixed reviews, he was the one last night delivering the State of the Union address. Recent news coverage told us the story of Harriet Richardson, who is a poster "child" for the adage, Never too late. The day before she died, just weeks after turning 100, she achieved her goal of graduating college. And, who would have guessed that Grant Desme, a top prospect for baseball's Oakland A's, would leave baseball for the priesthood. Yet, not only did he do so, he did it with passion - living up to his statement that "above all, my faith comes first and I dedicate myself to church."
Psychologist Tony Higgins has conducted a line a research, called self-discrepancy theory, that helps to understand the motivation of such individuals. According to Higgins, even though each found success by pursuing their dreams, they might have been motivated in very different ways. And, they might have experienced their successes differently, too - from inside their own skins.
Higgins explains that people who are guided by their aspirations and a desire to accomplish follow an ideal self-guide. They have a promotion focus that strives for growth and well-being. Such individuals focus on the positive outcomes from their efforts, and they tend to be eager. Studies have shown that this promotion focus is associated with people developing numerous ways to attain their goal. They create and are open to new possibilities (and, don't close off options). When they do attain their goals, they experience joy in their life.
In contrast, people who are less in tune with what they want are likely to be guided by what they "ought" to do. The ought self-guide focuses on duties, responsibilities, safety, and security. Those with this self-guide are vigilant to avoid problems; thus, they have a prevention focus. This approach inclines them to limit the possible ways that they would try to achieve their goal; in an effort to avoid making a mistake. Although I haven't read this in the literature, my experience with patients is that those who are guided by "oughts" are usually worriers - frequently fearful that things will go wrong. Surprisingly, research has found that when these people do achieve their goals, they are likely to feel peace in their life. The way I make sense of this from my clinical experience is that these worriers find a temporary respite from their anxiety in their successes.
Only the details of a person's motivation can distinguish one who is guided by oughts from one guided by an ideal self. Clearly, Desme's comment about valuing his faith leads us to believe that he follows an ideal self-guide. President Obama's presence and his slogan "Change we can believe in" also suggest that he is motivated by an ideal self-guide. As for Harriet Richardson, I simply don't know enough about her to even hazard a guess. But, in whatever way each of them was motivated, I hope that they have found the joy that they've clearly earned.
Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ