Shh! Keep Your Big Goals to Yourself.
The Triple Crown is the ultimate prize in thoroughbred horse racing. To claim this fabled title, the horse-and-jockey team has to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. Back in 2008, one horse, Big Brown, had already won the first two races and was favored 4-1 to take the crown.
Days before Belmont, trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. was already preparing for victory. “I feel like it’s actually a foregone conclusion,” Dutrow told the Associated Press. “To me, I just see the horses he’s in with, and I see our horse so I expect him to win this race.”
If you follow the sport, you already know what happened. Big Brown placed dead last. The winner was a 38-1 long shot named Da’ Tara.
Overconfidence is rarely appealing, but Dutrow’s words live on as a cautionary tale. First, there’s the old maxim “don’t count your chickens before they hatched.” But take away the bluster, and there’s another subtle lesson for founders and entrepreneurs: Think twice before you share your goals.
Why early praise feels like winning.
There’s nothing wrong with setting and sharing our goals per se; the danger lies in receiving approval just for setting the bar high.
Some experts argue that praise before accomplishment can actually prevent us from reaching our goals. In 2009, researcher Peter Gollwitzer asked the question, “Are scientists more likely to write papers if they tell colleagues about their intentions or if they keep their intentions to themselves?”
After completing a series of studies, Gollwitzer and his team found that when people set a goal that’s closely tied to their identity and share their intentions with others, they’re less likely to achieve that goal. In converse example, telling friends that you’re going to start taking vitamins likely won’t affect your follow-through. That’s because vitamins probably aren’t deeply tied to your personal identity.
If, however, you share plans to write a book about your startup journey, that public declaration could hinder your progress. Your business experiences are highly personal, and for most people, your career is closely intertwined with your personal identity. So, when people praise you for writing the book, before you’ve even made an outline, you might be less likely to finish a single chapter.
Staying quiet, however, can feel counterintuitive, especially when we’ve been repeatedly told by teachers, coaches and mentors to make goals and share them in the name of accountability. But Gollwitzer and his team aren’t the only advocates for silent ambition. In 2010, CD Baby founder and serial entrepreneur Derek Sivers gave a TEDGlobal talk on the same topic.
Sivers began by telling the audience to imagine their biggest personal goal, then to picture how it would feel to share it with someone they met that day. “Imagine their congratulations and their high image of you,” Sivers said.
“Doesn’t it feel good to say it out loud? Don’t you feel one step closer already? Like, it’s already becoming part of your identity? Well, bad news. You should have kept your mouth shut. That good feeling will make you less likely to do it,” he said.
When you tell someone your goal and they acknowledge it, there’s a “social reality” that tricks our minds into believing we’ve reached the finish line, says Sivers. We experience a feeling of success that’s usually reserved for completing a major task. As a result, we don’t pursue the targets we set. We don’t have the motivation to tackle the tough, day-to-day work required to achieve ambitious goals.
Abandoning our goals altogether is clearly not the answer. Success still comes from setting the bar high and doing what it takes to clear it. But while it’s tempting to bask in the praise of sharing our big plans, I’d like to offer two alternative approaches.
1. Try fear-setting instead of goal-sharing.
In a powerful TED Talk from 2017, author, entrepreneur, and investor Tim Ferriss explains how we can use a technique he calls “fear-setting” to chase major goals, instead of relying on praise or outside accountability. According to Ferriss, we need to confront the fears that could prevent us from fulfilling our aspirations.
For example, imagine you want to turn your side hustle into a full-time career. Ferriss recommends writing down all the fears associated with taking the leap. Envision them in living color. Make sure the stakes are high. You might list “draining my entire bank account,” “burning bridges at work,” or “embarrassing myself by failing spectacularly.”
Once you’ve written down all your fears -- no matter how big or small -- the next step is to list how you would prevent these scenarios from happening, or at least, how you can mitigate the likelihood of seeing your fears become reality.
To prevent a zero bank balance, you might write a prevention step like, “I will invest just $2,500 for the first three months, so I can’t lose it all.” Then, outline how you could repair each worst-case scenario if it actually happened. For example, you might plan to “take on five freelance assignments until I earn the $2,500 back.”
Tackling fear head-on is a great way to dissolve its power. By addressing each possibility, no matter how minor or how drastic, those progress-blocking worries begin to fade out of the spotlight.
2. Get competitive.
Healthy competition revs up our drive and can give us a push in the right direction. In a 2016 study published in Preventive Medicine Reports, 800 University of Pennsylvania undergraduate and graduate students completed an 11-week exercise program where each participant worked out either alone or with a team.
Teams were also segmented to be either supportive or competitive. The researchers discovered that students in the competitive teams were 90 percent more likely to attend their scheduled exercise sessions than the other groups. As entrepreneurs, we can also use competition to deepen our commitment and chase down big goals.
To clarify, you don’t have to share your goals with even friendly competitors. There’s no need to tell the people in your mastermind group, spin class or softball league that you’re writing a book. Simply by placing yourself in a competitive environment, you’re more likely to push harder and show up regularly, which are two factors that can contribute to real (versus social reality) success.
At my company, JotForm, we often use healthy competition to stretch our skills and creativity. Hack weeks, for example, pit teams against each other as they work to solve tough problems. The friendly battle helps us to achieve our product release goals, while developing features that serve our customers in new and innovative ways.
Don’t stop reaching.
The science of goal-setting and achievement is often debated. While some entrepreneurs, like Basecamp’s Jason Fried, don’t believe in goals at all, many of us would feel adrift without a clear target on the horizon.
If there’s one lesson I’ve learned over the last 13 years, it’s that entrepreneurship is never one-size-fits-all. Self-awareness is critical. You need to take everyone’s advice, mine included, with a healthy dose of skepticism. Test, analyze and adjust, in everything from product development to goal-setting.
After all, it’s not like the four-legged Big Brown was planning to take the Triple Crown, or boasting about the win to a room crammed with reporters. Still, it’s hard not to see the social reality effect (or a dose of karmic justice for Dutrow) in that lost race.
We all know that success isn’t a “foregone conclusion.” But it might be worth keeping our lips sealed until we’ve handed in that book proposal -- or a finished manuscript.