The #1 Reason Why People Fail at Their Goals

goal makingIn light of New Year’s day and goal-making (I used to be an obsessive goal-maker), here are two stories that relate to motivation and desire.

Story 1: Socrates

A young man visits Socrates in search of wisdom. To the young man’s surprise, Socrates takes him out to a lake and dunks his head under water. As the man’s struggle to come up for air, Socrates holds him under. Later, after recovering, the young man asks Socrates why he nearly drowned him.

Socrates replies, “What is it you most wanted when you were under water?”

“Air,” the young man replies.

Socrates responds, “When your desire for wisdom is as great as your desire to breathe, you will find wisdom.”

(Here’s another version of the story.)

Story 2: The Rat

In a bizarre scientific experiment, a researcher found that a rat preferred a sense of pleasure to food or water, even to the point of self-exhaustion. Adam Keiper provides more detail:

James Olds was a Harvard-trained American neurologist working in Canada when, in 1953, he discovered quite by accident that a rat seemed to enjoy receiving electric shocks in a particular spot in its brain, the septum. He began to investigate, and discovered that the rat “could be directed to almost any spot in the box at the will of the experimenter” just by sending a zap into its implant every time it took a step in the desired direction.

He then found that the rat would rather get shocked in its septum than eat—even when it was very hungry. Eventually, Olds put another rat with a similar implant in a Skinner box wherein the animal could stimulate itself by pushing a lever connected to the electrode in its head; it pressed the lever again and again until exhaustion. (The New Atlantis

(This story was mentioned in “History’s Strangest Science Experiments,” a Science Friday podcast. For a more detailed explanation of the experiment, see this article on the Brain Connection or this book from Amazon.)


These stories contrast nicely. In the first example, the young man in search of wisdom lacks real motivation. His quest to find and interview Socrates may seem genuine, but his motivation is shallow. His desire is milk-warm. Socrates shows him that when his desire for something is intense enough, he’ll find way to obtain it.

In the second example, the rat has a strong motivation to push the lever. The rat’s motivation stems from the pleasure it gets from the activity, and it continues to perform the task nearly until death because of the pleasure it finds. Unfortunately, the task has no real value — it’s a worthless way to spend a rat’s time. :)

The problem with goal-making is that our desires and pleasures often contrast with each other. What we desire often has no pleasure connected with the activity, and what we find pleasing is often at odds with our desires.

For example, look at exercise. Almost everyone makes goals to exercise more at New Year’s. We may truly desire to exercise, but the activity lacks the pleasure that would see us through. Consequently, we do what is more pleasing — sit around watching movies. But deep down we don’t desire to watch so many movies; it’s just pleasing.

Another example is finances. Many people desire to spend less and save more, but there’s not much pleasure in frugality. Naturally, we do what’s more pleasing to us — make a bunch of unnecessary purchases at the mall. However, while pleasing, few people really desire to spend all their money on unnecessary things and rack up credit card bills.

To make good goals, you have to align your desires with pleasures — either by making the activity you truly desire fun, or by turning pleasurable activities into something you actually desire.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.


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  • Beth

    Good stuff–mostly because it resonates with a ring of truth. So good, in fact, that I’m sharing it with my regular readers at my blog: –since this week’s theme is goals!Beth

  • Lisa Gates

    Yes! Love this post. My 2 cents is that we are often so in love with the “future” of an idea, we have no idea what it feels like to be “present” with one.

    How about just “this day.” And then the next. Set your sights, your goals, and experience each step in the now.

    Then success and failure are all just information. Learning.
    What do you think?

  • Tom

    Beth, I’m glad you liked the post. Thanks for sharing it with your readers.

  • Joshua

    This is an interesting post. Which socratic dialogue is the first story from?

  • Tom

    I wish I knew. Unfortunately, I think it’s an anecdotal myth. If you find the source, let me know. I searched for a good 20 minutes before giving up, but I liked the story anyway.

  • Tom

    Thanks for the comment, but aren’t goals always future oriented? If you live in the now, how can you have a goal for tomorrow?

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  • Elvis

    That first story is fantastic. Setting goals does require a certain degree of tension. The difference from where you are and where you want to be. When its not present there’s no real desire to reach the outcome.

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