We were in the subway on our way to dinner when during our conversation my best friend Brandon reminded me of a particular habit both him and I have had for years. “Don’t tell anyone where you’re applying to,” he said. It wasn’t due to competition nor to be scorched earth. “Or else you’ll get all these questions.”
We were about to have dinner to celebrate the master’s degree in journalism I received that day. Though I feel fulfilled and joyful, I graduated with no job offers. Ergo, my blessed situation invites questions about my career goals and future direction, which came in droves (and are still coming): “How’s the job hunt going?” “What’s next for you?” “What are your plans?” I’m now writing a standard response. My best friend and I have maintained the habit of not sharing our goals to anyone.
Our habit could well be rooted in superstition so as not to solicit any comments that would “jinx” our aspirations or as he noted to dodge questions or more inquiry. But it turns out, the question on whether it’s helpful to disclose your goals publicly or not leads to some interesting answers.
In 2009 New York University Professor Peter Gollwitzer and colleagues published a study in the journal Psychological Science that revisited the goal setting theories of Kurt Lewin, father of social psychology, and proposed “that social recognition of an identity-relevant behavioral intention may have negative effects on its enactment.” Noting a 1926 conclusion from Lewin, Gollwitzer, et. al, wrote, “people often construe behavioral intentions in more general terms, thus allowing substitution of means for attainment.” Simply put: our ability to work towards our goals (something personal to us thereby identity relevant) is compromised when we disclose them to others, because the response (social recognition) we get by doing so is interpreted by our minds that we have already realized our “intention” (the goal). The social recognition served as a substitute for attainment.
Derek Sivers, in a TED talk titled “Keep your goals to yourself” which has been viewed 5 million times, explained Gollwitzer and company’s experiment that led to their conclusion:
“It goes like this: 163 people across four separate tests. Everyone wrote down their personal goal. Then half of them announced their commitment to this goal to the room, and half didn’t,” Sivers explained. “Then everyone was given 45 minutes of work that would directly lead them towards their goal, but they were told that they could stop at any time. Now, those who kept their mouths shut worked the entire 45 minutes on average, and when asked afterward, said that they felt that they had a long way to go still to achieve their goal. But those who had announced it quit after only 33 minutes, on average, and when asked afterward, said that they felt much closer to achieving their goal.”
Sivers, who has started two companies and wrote two books, advised the audience to resist the temptation to announce their goal. “You can delay the gratification,” Sivers said, “that the social acknowledgment brings, and you can understand that your mind mistakes the talking for the doing.”
But the TED speaker acknowledged that to keep mum on what you hope to achieve contradicts the celebrated notion of accountability. Entrepreneur Thomas Oppong said that having an accountability system of sort helps “increase the odds of reaching your goals by 95%” citing a study by the American Society of Training and Development. He recommends choosing your spouse or a reliable friend to share what your goal is and its significance. He even suggests blogging about your goals and publicly sharing progress reports.
“When you are accountable to someone or a group of people for doing what you said you would do, you can easily get stuff done,” Oppong wrote on Medium, “because you engage the power of social expectations.” He said that when you have a goal but tell no one about it, “you are less likely to do it.”
Shaka Smith, a fitness model, actor and podcast host received his law degree at George Mason University after completing undergraduate studies in politics at Princeton. Though by the time he finished law school, he wanted to become an actor. He thought people will think he’s absurd for wanting to be in Hollywood after all the effort and resources he invested in academics. “I’m a huge believer in energy,” he said, and thus did not want to share to people what he hope to do next to avoid negative comments. “There was a certain point for me though that sharing my goal to people became essential to motivating me,” Smith said. He felt he was stalling by not telling anyone he wants to move West to pursue acting. “When I started telling people about it, things aligned.” He made the big move shortly after graduation. According to Smith, making his dream public made it real for him.
Jeliza Olaguera, a friend who I’ve known for a decade has been an achiever throughout her financial career. She’s a former country manager for a foreign bank in the United Kingdom and an alumnae of the most prestigious accounting firm in the Philippines. She graduated with honors when she received her MBA and now works as a financial manager at a hospitality firm and runs two small businesses on the side. “My goals are realized sooner when I tell it to Charlie (her boyfriend),” she said. “I feel pressured to make it happen because I told it to someone.” She also says Charlie encourages him to pursue her aims, which only helps.
Goal theories suggest that a multitude of variables are involved on how a goal is attained: From the specificity of the task, the incentive to accomplish it, the motivation and commitment level of the individual or team working towards the goal, and the environment are but several factors. No one approach fits all, though self-control and the determination to actually get it done are primary drivers on how a goal evolves to a fulfilled aspiration.
In 2014, in a play of both circumstance and opportunity I decided to moved back to the Philippines after living in New York City for seven years. But I told Brandon I would apply to the Columbia Journalism School at some point to get my master’s. Only him and two other friends know of such goal. The day of my flight five years ago, Brandon gave me a going-away present which he purchased from the Columbia University bookstore— a Columbia hoodie and cap. While I was living in Manila, he and I would talk over the phone on weekends and would occasionally discuss my plan to attend graduate school. I finally submitted an application in Dec. 2017 and on Mar. 2018 was admitted to Columbia. After four and a half years, I saw my best friend again on Jul. 2018, ten days before my program at Columbia started. And on May 22, less than a month ago, that goal to get my master’s was achieved and Brandon was there to witness it, when he attended my graduation from J-school.