CSI: TED Talks – What Derek Sivers Was Really Saying
Posted by-Bassam on August 29, 2012
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The Problem

About once every other day someone sends me Derek Sivers’ short TED Talk: Keep Your Goals To Yourself, telling me something to the effect of, “See, I don’t have to make my goals public! What do you think about that?”

And now in Daniel Coyle’s The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, he cites the same study that Derek Sivers mentioned in his talk, the same study that is causing all the fuss in my inbox.

First off, let me say I freaking love Derek Sivers. He's extremely successful and he does everything from the heart. His book Anything You Want is a gem that I’ve read twice. If you haven’t read it, do so.

I haven't read Daniel Coyle’s stuff yet but from what I’ve heard, he’s sharp as a tack. And from the reviews of his book on Amazon, I was prompted to buy his new book today.

But the study they are citing is being hijacked a bit and I don’t feel it is getting correctly summarized. If you’re so inclined, you can read the actual study here.

Below is a summary of what Derek and Daniel are presenting. Again, this is what they are saying the study says:

  • 163 subjects were given a difficult project and 45 minutes to work on it. Each person was told to write down their personal goal to the project. Half the students announced their commitment to the goal to the group while the others were told to keep their goals to themselves. The people who announced their goals to the room before starting the project, only worked for 33 minutes and reported feeling satisfied with their work. Those who didn’t share their goals before starting put in a full 45 minutes of effort and felt like they still work to do but were motivated by it.

Ergo: The lesson we should take away is to not share our goals with people since we trick ourselves into feeling like we’ve done something just by saying we want to.

Que: Everyone going ballistic and emailing me this study asking me how I feel about it or telling me that they shouldn’t make their goals public.

Hold on, folks. This is not exactly what the study said.

 

The Facts

Here are the facts of the study:

  • The study was broken up into four different tests with completely different subjects testing different things each time. The results of the specific study that Derek Sivers and Daniel Coyle are talking about, the one where people had 45 minutes to work on their goals, was using the data of only 30 law students who were committed to a career in law, not 163 people.
  • The students didn’t utter their lifelong goals, nor did they announce anything to “the room”. The study had to do with seeing how long these law students would work on researching random case work in a 45-minute period after they had previously responded positively to the statement: ‘‘I intend to make the best possible use of educational opportunities in law” on a questionnaire.

The catch was that half of the 30 students anonymously answered this question, and the other half had the answer to the question reviewed and acknowledged by the researcher before the research assignment started.

  • The students were told they could finish before the 45 minute window, if they wished.
  • Those students who were recorded as stating that they were going to make the best possible use of educational opportunities worked on the case work for an average of 41.52 minutes while the group whose answer to that question was ignored by the experimenter worked on the casework for an average of 45.65 minutes.
  • I have no idea where this 33-minute number comes from in both Derek Sivers’ talk and in Daniel Coyne’s book.
  • Nowhere in the study does it say anything about the students saying whether they felt closer or further from their goals. But maybe there is other literature which states that.

What can we take from this information?

First, always question everything you hear or read. Second, we need context and definitions before we understand any study.

 

So What IS The Study Saying?

The study shows that when someone takes note of an identity goal of ours, such as:

  • I want to become a scientist
  • I want to become a lawyer
  • I want to be skinnier
  • I want to be a good parent

We very often - in the words of the actual study:

make efforts to acquire alternative identity symbols (e.g., describing oneself as having the required personality attributes, engaging in identity-relevant activities, showing off relevant status symbols). When other people take notice of one’s identity-relevant behavioral intentions, one’s performance of the intended behaviors is compromised...the simple matter of identity-relevant behavioral intentions becoming public undermines the realization of those intentions.

 

OK, What Does THAT Really Mean?

When other people know of this identity goal we are chasing, we often substitute actually doing work towards that goal with the intent of doing that work.

It’s what is called the Self-Completion Theory. We complete the task in our head through substitutive manners which are usually personality attributes we say about ourselves to bolster our self-esteem. 

Although we should be doing the work towards becoming a lawyer, the fact that we already told everyone we want to be a lawyer ends up being the rationalization we need to not work as hard as we should be on a given task. It is “substitution as means of attainment.”

After all, if we say we want to be a great lawyer, we will do anything to convince ourselves that we are on our way to being a great lawyer. We like to feel consistent with things we convince ourselves of, and saying that we want to be a lawyer is vague enough for us not to have to really be on the hook for any work that would help us become a lawyer.

This is fascinating stuff. Think about the implications of this for a second!

But does this mean we should keep our goals to ourselves? No.

 

Why We Should Make Our Goals Public

Derek Sivers stated in his talk, “Telling someone your goal makes them less likely to happen.” Ok, but we need to define someone and we need to define goals for this to mean anything.

In this particular study, someone was a researcher and goals were identity goals - that the individuals didn’t even come up with on their own - such as: I want to find a job in psychology, or I intend to make the best possible use of educational opportunities in law.

What I stand behind and what Colipera is all about is that you should be sharing short term S.M.A.R.T goals with people who you respect and who also are putting something on the line.

To share a goal publicly, and for it to matter, you have to be held accountable to that goal. Derek Sivers touches on this at the end of his talk by saying, “If you do need to talk about something, you can state it in a way that gives you no satisfaction. Such as, ‘I really want to run this marathon so I need to train 5 times a week. Kick my ass if I don’t.’”

What he’s talking about here is: accountability and consequences. It’s when you give someone permission to check on you and keep you in line if you sway.

Identity Goals = Big Hairy Audacious Goals = Dreams

Dreams are what we work towards, they are not goals that we can control. They lack digestible accountability. Accountability is the key.

This particular study backs up the power of accountability and says that we should caution ourselves from creating general terms for our goals:

Making intentions public is said to make a person accountable to the addressed audience, and research has shown that various accountability-related features of the audience (e.g., competence, power) and the individual (e.g., identifiability, expectations of having to explain oneself) affect the strength of public-commitment effects...Lewin (1926) and his colleagues (e.g., Mahler, 1935; Ovsiankina, 1928), however, argued that people often construe behavioral intentions in more general terms, thus allowing substitution of means for attainment.

In other words, a public proclamation has adverse effects when we make a far-fetched commitment to an identity goal without putting anything on the line, such as, "Hey everyone, I want to be a doctor!" This is when you should “keep your goals to yourself” as Derek Sivers put it.

Furthermore, if you are trying to stay motivated to the goal that was put in your mouth of: “I intend to make the best possible use of educational opportunities in law”, you have other problems.

Rule #1 of goal setting: Goals should always be set by the individual, never the group. - Daniel Pink, Drive

 

In Support Of The Public Commitment Of Goals

In my experience, having a group proclaim their actionable goals to each other and creating room for feedback and accountability will keep you more on-track to your goal than not saying anything at all.

I’m not the only one who supports the public commitment of actionable goals (and I don't think Derek Sivers or Daniel Coyle would disagree with the above statement either).

When you publicly commit yourself and take on risk to make an idea happen, you garner what I have come to call “Committal Benefits.”  Committal Benefits represent the increased likelihood of others to take a risk of their own - financially or with their reputations - to support your project - Scott Belsky, Making Ideas Happen

Your accountability to your own ideas is greatly amplified when you “go public” on any project - and even more so when you publicly proclaim your goals. - Scott Belsky, Making Ideas Happen

The more public a stand, the more reluctant we will be to change it. - Robert Cialdini, Influence

It appears that commitments are most effective in changing a person’s self-image and future behavior when they are active, public, and effortful. - Robert Cialdini, Influence

The hothouse environment of a collaborative circle can make the ideas and achievements of the participants develop faster than if the participants were all pursuing the identical goals without sharing.  Our ability to simultaneously pursue our own goals while being mindful and supportive of other people’s goals is fundamental to human life - so fundamental, in fact, that we actually have trouble turning it off. - Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus

Community adds accountability.  If you’re like most of us, it’s a challenge to motivate yourself.  You’re faced with the contradiction that the same self who has been making all the excuses about why you’re not accomplishing certain goals in life is now attempting to convince yourself to get moving.  You’ll sabotage yourself, but not when you’re accountable to others. - Sarano Kelley, The Game

Our vision is only actionable if we share it. Without sharing, it’s just a figment of our imagination. - Simon Sinek             

The conclusion in the paper supports the idea of consistency and accountability in trying to combat the self-completion theory when publicly stating an identity goal:

Future research might address [the identity related behavioral intentions] by exploring various routes. First, might it suffice to increase the need for consistency (Cialdini & Trost, 1998) by attending to relevant norms? Or is it also necessary to increase perceived accountability (Lerner & Tetlock, 1999) by considering relevant attributes of the audience (e.g., power) or by specifying one’s behavioral intention in a particular way (e.g., spelling out specific frequency or quality standards vs. stating only that one wants to do one’s best; Locke & Latham, 2002) so that the audience can more easily check on its enactment?

So make your goals public, but make sure they are the right kind of goals and the people you are sharing them with can hold you accountable to those goals.

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