Contrary to popular belief, repeated studies have shown that sharing a goal with others makes your goal less likely to come true1. Telling someone about your goals makes you feel better about yourself and the goals you have, and once you have this nice feeling, your desire to put forth the effort to achieve the goals is lessened. Psychologists call this a social reality (also called substitution by Kurt Lewin). In other words, the mind partially mistakes the pleasure you get from talking about the goals and from getting approval from others about the goals for the actual doing of the goals.
I think of goals as gifts. It is no fun to tell a person what you’re getting them for their birthday weeks before you purchase the item for them. All it does is ruin their surprise, and it spoils any satisfaction you might get out of handing the gift-wrapped box to them. In fact, why even wrap such a gift at all? It no longer seems special. Goals are gifts once they are achieved: they are gifts to ourselves, and they are often also gifts to others.
I suspect there would be at least three exceptions that would make it okay (or even advantageous) to share your goal with someone:
- Burdensome Goals – If a goal seems more like a burden than a source of excitement, we might call it a task rather than a goal: it is not something we want to do but instead something we must do. Example: The goal of landscaping the front and back yard during the summer can probably be shared with everyone in advance without fear of losing motivation since the goal is so burdensome. Telling people about such goals may have no effect or may even motivate us further since public failures are always worse than private ones.
- Audience Doesn’t Care – Keeping in mind the above gift analogy, if the intended recipients of your goal “gift” are different from the people you share your goal with, sharing probably won’t make any difference. Example: Telling your family about your goal of getting published in a neuroscience journal won’t spoil the “gift” of the goal, because they’re not capable of understanding what you write anyway. However, this can become poisonous if the audience is hostile, such as sharing the neuroscience goal with people who find academic prestige to be repulsive.
- Audience Is Necessary – If someone’s support will help you to achieve your goals, it becomes advantageous to share your goals with them. Example: a music student of yours declares that they want to compete in next year’s MTNA competition. They would need your help in selecting the right repertoire and in planning each week of practicing.
What unifies these three exceptions? In each case, we don’t get much (if any) pleasure from sharing our goal, and if we do get any pleasure, it is dwarfed by some other higher purpose for the sharing of the goal.
For me, one of the most immediately obvious applications of this psychological phenomenon is performing on stage. When I walk on stage, I want to feel like I’m unleashing my playing upon the audience. I don’t want the audience to be thinking, “I’ve heard this before.” I want to delay the audience’s (and my own) gratification for the actual performance. That is why I never practiced various sections of my pieces for recital audiences before recitals began, even if there were only three people in the audience and it was a full 20 minutes before the performance was to begin. Not only did I feel it was tacky, I also felt it would spoil the pleasure that I and the audience would receive during the performance.
This is the same reason I didn’t allow anyone to purchase my Ostinato album until after the first concert I gave playing the music live, even though I had the CD a month before the concert. It’s the reason I have always felt so bashful about composing music when anyone else is in the room. And, it is the reason I am currently… well… if I told you, I would have to kill you so that I could recover my motivation to complete the goal.
This concept has many applications in life, performance and composition being one of them. Another unlikely candidate is humility. Judith Martin (or “Miss Manners”, a weekly syndicated columnist for the Washington Post) sums this up in one of my all-time favorite quotations: “It is far more impressive when others discover your good qualities without your help.”
An adult piano student of mine spent months trying to figure out why he suddenly lost motivation to practice. He eventually figured out that practicing in a part of the house (and at a time of day) when a lot of people were around was killing his motivation. This wouldn’t have been as big of an issue (or may not have been an issue at all) if all he had been working on was the assignments I gave him in his adult method book. Since such pieces still linger in five-finger positions and sound simpler because of it, this music feels more like a chore to him than a joy – the music doesn’t sound to him like “real music” yet, even when played very musically. But ever since day one, he has worked on harder movie and video game music that he picked out for himself. He was intrinsically motivated to practice these more difficult pieces. Or so we thought.
As it turned out, his intrinsic desire to learn this music was motivated on a deeper level to share it with people around him, and when his practice environment changed — supposedly for the better, because his family bought a piano to replace his electronic keyboard — his motivation was squelched! His gift recipients were essentially watching him construct their gifts in front of their eyes on a daily basis. The headphones on his electronic keyboard ended up being his most powerful motivational practice tool, because they allowed him to achieve privacy that wasn’t possible at the piano.
A former high school student of mine had bounced around the studios of various teachers before finally landing in my studio. He declared to me that he was going to be a Silver Medalist in our local music festival. I told him this was a very bold goal considering that he was essentially skipping five levels since the last time he participated in the event (at least he didn’t want to be a “Gold Medalist”, which would have required a movement of a concerto). I was not in favor of this path, but he didn’t want to study music at all unless we took this path. So, I gave him the highest quality instruction I could every week. And literally every week, there was always some reason why he just couldn’t practice nearly enough. After the first year, he was barely 25% done with each piece.
He convinced me to let him try this path for another year. Again, his practicing was abysmal. I finally realized that he had already done way too much basking in the glory of his premature title of “Silver Medalist”. He told everyone about this goal, milking the title in advance for all that it was worth. I felt that the only way I could help him get back his motivation was to somehow strip him of this false reality. So, I told him he needed to find a different teacher. I made the failure in his mind more real, which had the effect of “resetting” his motivation. Sure enough, the very next year, he was a silver medalist under the study of a different teacher. Sometimes the greatest thing you teach your students has absolutely nothing to do with music. Too bad I had to be the bad guy.
Extrinsic motivation is hopefully present for the vast majority of what we do each day. Just how much of what we do each day would be done still if we were the last surviving person on Earth? If the answer is nothing, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, one could argue that only a selfish recluse spends their entire day engaging in activities where oneself is the sole beneficiary of those activities, even when those activities are widely considered “good” (yoga, reading, meditating, etc.).
After reading this blog entry, surprising people with results of goals they didn’t expect is something they now know to expect from me. That is why I truly feel a very small temptation to prevent everyone I know from reading this. Fortunately, they still don’t know exactly what things I’m working on, and I know that’s still good enough for me. A new composition? A concert? A new website? Maybe I’m just trying to survive life at the moment. They can only guess.
- Vera Mahler found that when getting validation of our goals from others, these goals feel more “real” in the mind. Also see The Psychology of Action: Linking Cognition and Motivation to Behavior (Gollwitzer and Bargh, eds.) and The Psychology of Goals (Moskowitz and Grant, eds.). ↩