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If You Want to Succeed, Don't Tell Anyone

It is better not to tell people who you want to be.

I am a regular reader of the New York Times obituaries. It fascinates me to read about the lives of people who have devoted their lives to something and have succeeded to the point where they were recognized by their peers, even if their names were not widely recognized.

One reason why this interests me is that I also spend a lot of time around college students, who are typically at the front end of their career paths. Most students are just starting the process of committing themselves to a course of study or a career that will be interesting, fulfilling, and successful (though hopefully, they won't appear in the Times obituaries any time soon).

As a result, I'm interested in what makes people succeed at becoming the people they want to be. You might think that the best way to ensure this success would be to announce it to the world. Some recent research suggests that a public statement of your intentions may not be such a good idea.

Peter Gollwitzer, Paschal Sheeran, Verena Michalski, and Andrea Siefert published an interesting paper on this topic in the May 2009 issue of Psychological Science. They argued that important goals like pursuing a career path involve a commitment to an identity goal. Identity goals are goals that ultimately influence a person's concept of who they are. Career choices are one kind of identity goal, but committing to a hobby, being a good parent, or taking on a volunteer or charity position may also be identity goals.

They suggest that when people announce an intention to commit to an identity goal in public, that announcement may actually backfire. Imagine, for example, that Mary wants to become a psychologist. She tells Herb that she wants to pursue this career and that she is going to study hard in her classes. However, just by telling Herb her intention, she knows that Herb is already starting to think of her as a psychologist. So, she has achieved part of her identity goal just by telling Herb about it. Oddly enough, that can actually decrease the likelihood that Mary will study hard.

Gollwitzer and his colleagues provided evidence for this point. In one clever study, they had students interested in becoming psychologists list two activities that they would perform in the next week to help them achieve that goal. Half of the people handed what they wrote to the experimenter who read it over and acknowledged reading what they had written. The other half were told that the exercise of writing down their intentions was given to them in error and that nobody would be looking at it.

The following week, all of the participants were contacted again and were asked to remember the goals they had written down the previous week and then to write down how much time they had spent on those activities. The people whose goals were read by the experimenter actually spent less time pursuing those activities than the people whose goals were not read. A number of follow-up studies were presented as well that ruled out other explanations for this finding.

These research results suggest that wanting to have a particular identity is an important motivator in carrying out the activities one needs to perform to succeed. When those activities are the only marker that you and others have that you have taken on a particular identity, then your motivation to work hard will be strong. When there are other ways to communicate your identity to others, your motivation to work hard will not be as strong. So when you are just starting out on the road toward a big undertaking, it is probably best to let your actions express your intentions louder than your words.

More from Art Markman Ph.D.
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