Shut Up To Succeed

Should you tell people about your goals, or just get on with them?

Shut Up To Succeed

There’s this skit at the opening of the Tenacious D song “Kielbasa” that starts with KG saying “Dude, we gotta fucken write something,” and because I got into the D at an impressionable age and the lyrics are burned into my hippocampus with letters of fire, I think of this song every damn time I’m behind on a deadline, which is most of the time. And yet I resisted writing this piece, for a few reasons.

One is that I’m spooked by success. A few years back, I did a tight five minutes at a comedy open mic. I’d done stand-up sets before, to varying results, including quite a lot of laughter and at least one obligatory crash and burn. This time I was determined to get it right and I did. I learned the material backwards, including a few alternative paths should a particular punchline flop, the crowd laughed their collective asses off and I left the stage on a high. “That was brilliant!” I thought. “I can’t wait to do that again,” and I never have.

The other reason I’ve been avoiding writing this particular piece is that I’m not sure that telling people about what I’m looking to achieve is a good idea. You may have heard, as many who’ve read self-help have, that you need to make your goals public, or tell people what you’re trying to achieve, for reasons of “accountability.” Many, including Tim Ferris, suggest publicly announcing your goal, or making a bet with a friend (if I don’t do X by Y, you get to keep $Z dollars.)1

The idea is that publicly announcing a goal will help hold you accountable. But, as is usual in the field of self-help, the advice is wildly conflicting. Many authors suggest telling no-one (or as few people as possible) about what your goal is or what you’re working on. According to numerous sources, some of them credible, telling people your goals can affect the likelihood of achieving them.

Naturally, I’ve just Googled the topic, and I’ve immediately hit someone taking the bit way too damn far, because that’s always how it goes in this ridiculous field. “Why telling your goals is a fatal mistake” screams one of the first Google hits. Fatal? Really? Unless the goal is “skydive without training” or “build an electric blanket from scratch” I doubt it’s going to be deadly, but let’s find out. The piece, which I nearly stopped reading in the second paragraph when it mentioned neuro-linguistic programming, is by a bloke called Peter Shallard. He describes himself as “a renowned business psychology expert and therapist gone renegade.” This last seems accurate: his “About” page contains no formal qualifications.

It suggests that if you tell people about what you’re up to, it can give you the same kind of mental reward as actually doing the thing you’re telling everyone about. Just because I’m cynical about Shallard’s qualifications doesn’t mean it’s all a load of rubbish, though. Other pieces by more credible authors — like Atomic Habits mega-seller James Clear — suggest the same effect.

If that’s right, it’s a bit cooked for me, because I have a newsletter that’s about all the different self-help shit that I do, and telling you about it may be dooming everything I try. Having an audience for my stuff hasn’t helped me achieve my big goal, which was to post regularly: if anything, it’s made it harder. Some people pay me actual money for this writing, others seem to like it enough to hang around for each epistle, and this frankly freaks me out a bit. I always worry that I’m disappointing you.

Fortunately, when you dig into the research it gets both vague and highly specific. Good science tends to come loaded with caveats, and the original paper that everyone references, by a bloke called Peter M Gollwitzer, is no exception. As you can read for yourself, the experiments in the study have a rather tangential connection to reality. They measured whether students would do stuff like “watch videotaped study sessions for slightly longer” or “compare yourself to variously-sized cartoons of lawyers and indicate which one you feel most similar to.”2

I’m not mocking this. It’s real science, the conclusions are both interesting and valuable, but they’re not necessarily broadly applicable to the real world. That never stops self-help writers from immediately making it so, though.

Where does that leave us? Is it a yeah or a nah on telling people about your goals? How about: why not both, or neither? I think the answer depends on what sort of person you are, or what kind of goal you have in mind. If you’re the sort of person who really needs others to give you a rev up, by all means tell a few specific people about what you’re trying to achieve. Or if you thrive on working on something in secret to surprise people later down the line, do that. Curiously, this approach gels with some of the research I mentioned above, which suggests that if your goal is founded in identity — “I wanna be a gym guy/gal/nonbinarino” — then telling people about it is likely to reduce the effectiveness of the goal. But if it’s founded in something more specific — “I wanna bench press 100 kilos” — then the identity condition might not apply, and perhaps it’ll be helpful to tell others or otherwise have people help you out.

All the above is my long-winded way of telling you that, somehow, I’ve managed to consistently go to the gym for a few months now.

Again, caveats. I am using the word “consistently” slightly outside of its conventional calibration. I’ve noted the date of each gym session since August, during which I managed to go a grand total of four times. In September I went three times, a 25 percent decline, but October picked up nicely with seven attendances. In November I went nine times, and so far in December I’ve managed to go every other day.

Improbably, I love it.

I can’t quite put my finger on what changed: the nearest thing I can compare it to is the same buzzy “I hate this, but I like it” feeling I get from taking cold showers — and I’ve been doing those for well over a year now. I’ve also refined my workout a bit: I followed a plan one of the gym trainers set me for a while, and now I’ve shifted to a strength-building workout that’s easy to understand, hard to master, and never stops getting harder.

The other reason I like the gym now is that it’s working. A while back I noticed that a bunch of my favourite t-shirts were getting too small. I’d definitely outgrown shirts before, usually around the tum region, but this was a bit different. They were pulling up at the shoulders and into my armpits. Never mind, they were going to holes anyway. I consigned them to the painting-rag box.

Then it started happening to younger shirts, and I couldn’t pretend that it was anything to do with the age of my shirts or our washing machine. I’ve got bigger, in a way I wanted and planned and worked to get bigger, and that is very satisfying. Much more importantly, the numbers on the Heavy Metal Things are going up, too. In August I was knocking around a 40 kilo bench press and drawing this not-smiley face next to it: 😐

Today, my best bench press is close to double my August numbers. The emoji has changed to this: 🤨

The "They said I could be anything, so I became a cloud" meme, featuring a muscular gentleman surrounded by admirers.
This isn’t the plan, but the meme is timeless so I made sure to include it.

Back when I started this newsletter, I was using how many pull-ups I could(n’t) do as a success metric. I stopped updating progress because I was embarrassed the number wasn’t going up, which is what happens when you don’t, uh, work out. But I do now, and the numbers are in: I’m doing 20+ pull-ups in a given gym session — and that’s in between my other exercises. I’m pretty pleased with that. Pull-ups are hard. But it’s still early days. I have a specific and quite ambitious goal in mind for how much I’d like to be able to lift: the goal is to bench-press 100 kilos, and to be able to do a muscle-up, which is probably the most aptly-named callisthenic exercise in existence.

No-one except Louise and my t-shirts has noticed that I’m going to the gym, but I’d like to think that’s not why I’m going. I read once that, one day, you pick up your child for the last time, and — as an older dad — I want to delay that day for as long as possible. If I keep tracking the way I am now, I’ll still be able to yeet my boy Leo well into adulthood, and that’s exactly how I want it.

Hopefully telling you about it won’t stop it from happening.

I originally titled this newsletter “Harder, Better, Faster, Shorter” not just to get the Daft Punk song in your head but because it was meant to be shorter than normal. That hasn’t worked out, but oh well. Substack lets you do surveys, so I’ll pop this one here - I want to find out what kind of newsletter frequency you’re actually after here.

And, as usual, I look forward to chatting in the comments.

  1. Hilariously, Tim suggests 1 percent of your income as a decent amount to wager, which gives me a great idea for a business taking advantage of serial over-committers.

  2. It’s almost always students. No-one else is at enough of a loose end to voluntarily do psych research.