Secret Behind Successful People
Sunny • onManagement 10 years ago • 3 min read

Peter Gollwitzer, Paschal Sheeran, Verena Michalski, and Andrea Siefert published an interesting paper on this topic in Psychological Science. They argued that important goals like pursuing a career path involve a commitment to an identity goal. Identity goals are goals that ultimately influence a person's concept of who they are. Careers choices are one kind of identity goal, but committing to a hobby, to being a good parent, or to taking on a volunteer or charity position may also be identity goals.

They suggest that when people announce an intention to commit to an identity goal in public, that announcement may actually backfire. Imagine, for example, that Mary wants to become a Psychologist. She tells Herb that she wants to pursue this career and that she is going to study hard in her classes. However, just by telling Herb her intention, she knows that Herb is already starting to think of her as a Psychologist. So, she has achieved part of her identity goal just by telling Herb about it. Oddly enough, that can actually decrease the likelihood that Mary will study hard.

Gollwitzer and his colleagues provided evidence for this point. In one clever study, they had students interested in becoming Psychologists list two activities that they would perform in the next week to help them achieve that goal. Half of the people handed what they wrote to the experimenter who read it over and acknowledged reading what they had written. The other half were told that the exercise of writing down their intentions was given to them in error, and that nobody would be looking at it. The following week, all of the participants were contacted again and were asked to remember the goals they had written down the previous week and then to write down how much time they had spent on those activities. The people whose goals were read by the experimenter actually spent less time pursuing those activities than the people whose goals were not read. A number of follow-up studies were presented as well that ruled out other explanations for this finding.

These research results suggest that wanting to have a particular identity is an important motivator in carrying out the activities one needs to perform to succeed. When those activities are the only marker that you and others have that you have taken on a particular identity, then your motivation to work hard will be strong. When there are other ways to communicate your identity to others, your motivation to work hard will not be as strong. So when you are just starting out on the road toward a big undertaking, it is probably best to let your actions express your intentions louder than your words.


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  • Guest 10 years ago

    I have been lucky to know many successful people in business and if there is one common denominator between them it is a single minded, almost one dimensional approach they take when they have a goal in mind.

    Most of them are not academics, but have bags of street smarts and literally focus on a goal with blinkers until they reach it.