All posts by pierssteel

Are You Killing Your Motivation?

If a single motivation technique is all you need to become successful, then you must have a very easy job. Of course, most likely your job isn’t that simple and that single technique isn’t enough. So when you hear about big hairy audacious goals, Everest goals or just plain stretch goals, let me reassure you that your job is going to require a lot more than a single motivation technique.

Goals are indeed the core of motivation. If you don’t have a goal, then your actions are essentially random. Goals give purpose and direction. If used in moderation, they point you towards the finish line and propel you on the way. And as in medicine, the dosage makes the poison, so too much goal setting can kill you, at least metaphorically.

If you are like most of us, you have heard about S.M.A.R.T. goals way too many times. It wasn’t a bad way of organizing goals based on what we knew at the time – up to 1981 when George Doran summarized the work of Locke and Drucker in an issue of Management Review. I will skip over the S.M.A.R.T. acronym, which was again great for the time before home computers, and give us something a little more today.

Here’s how goals work. Ask yourself – when do you have the most motivation? If it is just before the deadline, welcome to the human race. Even more than that, this reservoir of motivation seems to be tapped into just before something is due, and is a characteristic shared by almost everything alive, from pigeons to chimpanzees. So we know we have motivation when under the gun or in the eleventh hour. Goal setting techniques mostly reverse-engineer that moment and create artificial conditions that mimic the deadline. Goals work best when they are something we have to do, otherwise you don’t get the benefit of the short-term pressure..

Problems happen when your goal setting hammer makes everything become a nail. Your job is complex, meaning there are a whole lot of things you need to do and a bunch of unexpected tasks on top of that. When you overemphasize your goals, you’ve directed your attention to just those goals, often to the exclusion of everything else.  If your company is communicating an all important goal, maybe it is also communicating that it is alright to ignore everything else and that you should take horrendous risks to accomplish it.

In the Academy of Management Perspectives paper, “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting,” Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer, Lisa D. Ordóñez from the Eller College of Management, Adam D. Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Max H. Bazerman from the Harvard Business School, review the problem and provide a selection of goal setting induced disasters. These include GM’s stretch goal of capturing 29 per cent of market, which they pursued even after cutting margins to the point they were losing money on a per-unit basis. Or the late Roberto Goizueta, former CEO of Coca Cola made a commitment to the board and shareholders to increase earnings by 18 per cent and volume by 7 per cent annually. Eventually, he had to resort to balance sheet maneuvers to hit these targets.

So, when our goal is to maximize sales, salespeople sell for the short term and damage long-term client relationships. When our goal is to maximize the amount of work completed, quality is sacrificed for quantity. And in your complex jobs, where it is almost impossible to specify everything in terms of goals, you can probably think of a few examples right top of your head almost immediately.

While goals are handy to create motivation specific tasks, it is not a panacea. It does not replace a broad understanding and truly caring for the organization.

So I recommend that you make that your goal, if anything,  care for your organization! How do I get people to really care about this place and to want it to do well? If you can accomplish that big hairy audacious goal, you might not ever need to set another one.

(Repost from

The Original Myth: Procrastination as a Source of Creativity

Procrastination is, by definition, “Putting off despite expecting to be worse off.” When people talk about the creative benefits of procrastination, I usually rant about oxymorons, but let’s examine this a tad closer. Certainly, this is an old idea, having been put forth a few times, such as Van Eerde’s (2003) “Perhaps procrastination is functional to creativity because it may serve to incubate ideas” or Cohen and Ferrari (2010) “Prior research supported that procrastination may prolong the incubation period for creativity.” Most recently, in his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World and, for good measure, accompanied Ted Talk and mass media campaign, Adam Grant revives the notion that procrastinators are more creative than non-procrastinators because they are given a chance to incubate their ideas. Incubation requires a delay between when you start and finish, like leaving cookies to bake in the oven. Unfortunately, the research on this isn’t exactly supportive, with lots of “maybes” and “perhaps” at it’s usually strongest. At its weakest, well here’s what I came up with when I myself wrote on the topic:

The most common excuse I hear from people who procrastinate at work is that they are more creative under pressure. I can see how it might appear this way. If all your work occurs just before a deadline, that is when all your insights will happen. Unfortunately, these insights will be relatively feeble and few compared to the insights of those who got an earlier start, since under tight timelines and high pressure people’s creativity universally crumbles. The bleary-eyed 3:00 a.m. crowd scrambling to finish a project will usually come up with routine, unremarkable solutions. Innovative ideas are typically built on the bedrock of preparation, which includes a laborious mastery of your topic area followed by a lengthy incubation period.

And the research I relied on seemed to be rock solid, coming from these two sources, the pinnacle of academic journals that publish this sort of stuff (at least when I get anything in there, I am pretty happy about it):

  • Baer, M., & Oldham, G. R. (2006). The curvilinear relation between experienced creative time pressure and creativity: Moderating effects of support, support for creativity and openness to experience. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 963–970.
  • Amabile, T. M., Hadley, C. N., & Kramer, S. J. (2002). Creativity under the gun. Harvard Business Review, 80(8), 52–61.

But things change. Maybe I got it wrong. Grant is an excellent researcher (he really is), so this was very possible. Thumbing to the reference section at the back of The Originals, there it was: “The Research Base.” An unpublished manuscript by Jihae Shin. Must be some study I thought. Unfortunately, I don’t know and neither do you. No one does as no one is allowed to look it. Asking Jihae for copy, especially given that they are trotting it around in the media like a prized pony, I got this polite but surprising response:

Hi Professor Steel,

Thank you for your email. The research with Professor Grant is in preparation, so we are not able to share it at this stage, but we will gladly circle back when it’s ready.

Best wishes,


Piecing together pieces from newspaper articles, magazine spots and other flotsam, this was I could glean. Jihae did a survey showing those who procrastinate are reported as more creative by their supervisors. Though I would really like to know the exact measures she used, especially as there are dozens of good and bad ones for both creativity and procrastination, let’s assume good. And add her results to the pile. When I said this was an old idea, I was being factual. There have been a few scores of systematic reviews and meta-analyses such as Feist’s (1998) on the topic of individual differences and creativity, with a more recent one by Ma (2009) comprised of 111 other studies.

Things get a little complicated here as there are different types of creativity, especially the artistic versus problem solving split, and that procrastination is usually studied under terms like low conscientiousness, lack of persistence or impulsiveness. But altogether, they paint a coherent picture. Summarizing this jumble is Feist’s (2010) chapter in The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity, “The Function of Personality in Creativity.”

If those who have a desire to produce works that leave a mark on the world are to succeed, they also need to be driven, focused and ambitious. They are not the kind of person who gives up easily in the face of hindrances and roadblocks. And that is generally what the research on drive and creativity continues to show: Creative artists, businesspeople, and scientists are driven, ambitious and persistent.

Not quite the description of a procrastinator. But still, we haven’t seen Jihae’s manuscript. Let’s further give this mystery paper the benefit of the doubt and assume this one unpublished study undid or updates that which was done before. This can happen and maybe this is one of those times. Jihae and Grant offer another follow-up study to help cement their case.

As Adam describes it in the NYT magazine article, Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate, Jihae asked people to come up with new business ideas. Some had to start right away while others had to delay five minutes by playing Minesweeper or Solitaire. The punchline: “The procrastinators’ ideas were 28 percent more creative.”  Timothy Pychyl does an excellent job dismantling the piece in his post “Procrastination As A Virtue For Creativity, Why It’s False: All procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination.” Aside from “What is this creativity scale that allows anyone to determine something is 28% more creative?”, essentially Jihae found that those who were forced to delay had more good ideas. This is a classic incubation study, among hundreds previously, but as Timothy Pychyl stresses, it isn’t a procrastination study. Procrastination requires delay, but this delay has to be voluntary and knowingly dysfunctional to be procrastination, and that five minute Solitaire break is neither. Again, for incubation to work, you start early, get really familiar with the project and then take a break. That isn’t procrastination, which starts with the break and then does the work only towards the end. Furthermore, if you want to generalize waiting five minutes playing a game to people putting off projects for months, it is much like concluding that taking a five-minute rest improves subsequent physical performance so it follows we shouldn’t exercise much at all.

Even if we let all of this go, we run in one further problem. Let’s assume, against the bulk of the body of science, that procrastination is causally related to creativity; remember, procrastination is still putting off despite expecting to be worse off. Expectations are usually borne out so procrastinators are often less happy, less healthy, less wealthy and usually just plain less.  So if you are recommending procrastination, you are also recommending all that pain and productivity loss associated with it. It is a bit like suggesting another way of increasing creativity: cultivating certain types of mental illness. Consider this nugget by Ma (2010), “The results showed that a person with a higher score on psychopathological traits had higher scores on divergent creativity than a person with a lower score on psychopathological traits.” In many ways, counseling someone to procrastinate to be more creative is like counseling someone to be have more psychopathologies so they can be more creative too.

What can we make of this? A co-author of Adam Grant is Barry Schwartz, who while recently justifying why the findings of his own famous book “The Paradox of Choice” failed to replicate, gave this reply:

It is no doubt true that scientists sometimes seek popular audiences prematurely — before their claims have been adequately tested by peers. I, myself, may have been guilty of this when I wrote “The Paradox of Choice” a decade ago. I believe that in most cases, the reason for this is that the scientist believes she has found something out that, while hardly certain, will improve the lives of at least some people.

I expect this is the case, that this is simply benevolent oversight. Adam Grant is a remarkably productive researcher, with the same organization that I am a Fellow, the Society of Industrial Organizational Psychology, giving him a well deserved early career award. Furthermore, he seems like a fantastic guy, almost obsessively good, as best as I can judge from NYT Sunday Magazine article featuring him. Presently, he has far exceeded the popularity of anyone else in my profession and achieved this by popularizing the science from my field. He writes with style and a great sense of narrative, with collaborators like Sheryl Sandberg (i.e., CEO of Facebook). With his way with words, his scholarly reputation, and the media connections he now commands, he has a vast and trusting audience that will listen to him. All this doesn’t precludes he occasionally gets it wrong though, as I argue he did here, but it does mean when he messes up that it will still be widely accepted as the final word of science.



Deadline gorillas. They chase us to get that assignment done or to fill in tax returns. Unfortunately for them, we soon learn how to avoid them. In our heads, we somehow make the less urgent ones seem smaller and less significant. This mental trick is called hyperbolic discounting but the result is all too familiar; procrastination.

Hyperbolic discounting is the fancy scientific name given to the way we prefer something sooner than later even if, objectively, waiting is better. It’s because we don’t tend to value future rewards properly and instead we are in love with the “now”.


I know that hyperbolic discounting sounds like it reduces things but that’s not always the case. Think of it as dividing. In general, dividing makes things smaller. However, if the number you divide by is small enough, it actually makes things bigger. Let’s say this number you divide by represents the time you have left until the deadline. If there’s an uncomfortably short amount of time to finish the task, then that number we’re dividing by is also uncomfortably small. Wait long enough and hyperbolic discounting sees to it that deadlines get big and scary.

Procrastination expert Piers Steel in his book the Procrastination Equation tells us that impulsiveness is the main reason people procrastinate. His equation states that our motivation to perform a task is equal to thevalue we place on it adjusted by its likelihood or expectancy divided by the time that we have to wait or itsdelay and by how impulsive we are. Impulsive people are addicted to their hyperbolic discounters and use them every chance they get. For them, life can be a rollercoaster; at times they are dodging important tasks to pursue short term distractions and at other times they rush to meet deadlines when things become urgent.


Oh, and did I mention, not only do we have our deadline gorillas but we also have our distraction monkeys who pull us away from what we know we should be doing? They play video games with us, they check out social media sites, and they persuade us to hang out with our friends. They steal our time and prevent us from working on our long term goals.


Ask one person why he or she procrastinates and you get one answer, ask someone else and you get another. There are so many differing theories about procrastination that it reminds me of an ancient parable originally from India but has since passed into the lore of many cultures. It goes like this. Once upon a time, some blind men are introduced to an elephant for the very first time. The first grasping the elephant’s tail declares it to be like a brush. The second putting his arms around one of its legs, claims it to be a tree. Yet another feeling the trunk, confidently announces an elephant is like a snake. The fourth holding the ears, describes the elephant as a sheet of leather. None of their opinions are entirely wrong, the men have just approached the animal from different angles. As each blind man feels his way around the whole of the elephant, they discover that there is truth in what each other had said.blind-elephants-1

Gorillas and monkeys may not be as elegant as an equation but they are a different and colourful way of understanding the how and why of procrastination. These characters form part of the My Many Me’s theory. A theory that proposes different parts of our brains have different agendas and they compete to control our behaviour. How hard they push or pull are based on thought processes optimised for an environment very different to our current one and hence our behaviour often appears irrational. Applying a more primitive mentality to a situation often gives us an insight into why we behave the way we do. Well, that’s the grey matter of the idea; this then evolved into a series of comics in glorious 24 bit colour.

The characters from My Many Me’s are used to explain our motivation to do a particular thing over everything else. At any given time we are subconsciously applying the Procrastination Equation to all the different things we could do. Each monkey or gorilla represents a motivation or de-motivation and each is working out his or her own answer to the equation. Whoever comes up with the biggest number wins and gets to decide what we do. It’s a tug of war between all our monkeys and gorillas as they pull or push us in all directions like invisible forces.


My Many Me’s and the Procrastination Equation help us identify specific causes and the most effective solutions are the ones that target the underlying causes. No one has come up with a single foolproof method to cure procrastination. No one has yet devised a diet that works for everyone either. The real world offers too much temptation so it’s not really possible in a single post to add much to what has not already been covered by many other posts giving advice and tips. The key takeaway here is that we need review the reasons for our delays. Once this is done, practical steps can be found in Piers Steel’s book or at the My Many Me’s website.

Piers Steel tells us his advice is pharmaceutical grade. And like some of the most potent medicine, you take it because you know you need it. It’s the injection, the bitter pill, the enema. However, procrastination affects almost all of us and prevention is better than a cure. In the same way, we live healthier lives by cutting down on smoking, alcohol and high fat/sugar diets. My Many Me’s is what you find at the end of the aisle or next to the checkout. It’s mind candy. It’s the patch, the sugar coated pill, the strawberry flavoured suppository. You take it, not because you have to, you take it because you like the taste.

You can find out more about My Many Me’s at

PS. In this case, that PS stands for both Piers Steel and Post script. This is a guest post by Adrian that puts my posts to shame. Strongly recommend you back up a few sentences and click on that link. You won’t be disappointed. 

Living in the Candy Store… And Moving Out

Despite wealth and progress, life seems to constantly test us. Want to know why? I can do it in one paragraph, specifically from an upcoming book chapter, The Building Blocks of Motivation, written by myself and Justin Weinhardt:

As civilization advances and prosperity becomes widespread, we remove most of the external maladies that were once major contributors to our misery (e.g., predation, starvation, lack of shelter). By default, the source of our failures increasingly becomes ourselves. Ainslie (2005) argues, “We smoke, eat and drink to excess, and become addicted to drugs, gambling, credit card abuse, destructive emotional relationships, and simple procrastination, usually while attempting not to do so” (p. 635). Stanovich (1999) believes it is even worse; we exist in an increasingly artificial or built environment that has sporadic overlap with the environment of evolutionary adaption. Since, our motivational impulses are fine-tuned to the latter, rather than the former, we increasingly find ourselves motivationally adrift, knowing what to do but not being motivated to do it. Steel (2010) stresses that this built environment is not necessarily motivationally neutral; free market capitalism ensures it is constructed with considerable design, including features that can coax maladaptive behaviors, particularly overconsumption. Putting candy and lottery tickets by the checkout counter is an example of an insidious but common motivational praxis. Building on this line of reasoning, Heath (2014) makes an extended case that this will likely get worse, that “absent conscious guidance, cultural evolution will produce an environment that is more hostile to human rationality.” We need conscious, rational guidance, which must be based on a firm understanding of our motivational foundation.

The world we live in is motivationally toxic and this explains why procrastination and other self-control problems have been reaching stratospheric and pandemic proportions. Almost everyone, everywhere, puts off almost everything every day and, for good measure, ever more every year. And often we are blamed for these failings or blame ourselves. We didn’t exercise, eat right, get that home project or our taxes finished. Though taking responsibility starts with ourselves, it also extends to taking responsibility for the way we are building our world. The built world, the one we live in the way that fishes live in water, has a praxis or purpose to it. In the same way as hackers tame a computer’s operating system to do what they want, we are being trained, guided, shaped for consumption, regardless of whether it gibes with our own long-term best interests. All of us are trying to diet inside a candy store and being blamed for giving in and getting fat. On the other hand, consider the possibility there is really nothing wrong with us, including being the product of a 100 million years of evolution that favored those who knew a good energy source when it came around. What’s wrong is the candy store.

young girl looking in awe at rows of sweets

Think of the candy store as itself an evolving, living machine constructed to elicit buying behavior from us. It constantly refines itself until it develops into the perfect combination of product, promotion, placement and price to get us to chow down. For the rational consumer, it is a great system, ensuring we get what we want. Spock, and other creatures of pure reason, would experience a perfect symbiosis between desires and choices. However, for those with an emotionally driven limbic system (e.g., you), with at best quasi-rational components, the system starts to design itself to exploit seemingly minor flaws and hiccups in our decision making. As it learns more about us, as per Heath noted above, it hacks and the world gets worse, not better. It coaxes addiction, distraction and overconsumption, all to our detriment.

This dystopic observation has progressed through three stages. First came the warnings, such as Aldous Huxley (1958) in Brave New World Revisited. Second came the social commentaries that this is happening, such as Neil Postman (1985) in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Third came the critiques that this has happened and with a vengeance, such as Daniel Askt (2011) in We Have Met the Enemy. Grim but now we are starting to enter a fourth and possibly better stage. It isn’t quite the Age of Aquarius but we do respond effectively and systematically.

I’m not talking about self-help books, though that can be part of the solution too. There are lots of good techniques and, if you are lucky, you will find the sources that will convey effective principles, absorb them and practice them. Still, for all your efforts at self-improvement, you remain in the candy store. A momentary lapse of willpower and there you are stuffing your mouth with truffles and triple berry fudge. What really would be effective is if we could change the candy store itself.

In the same way that your software is frequently patched and you have a good antivirus programming running in the background, we need the same for our world. And as per a recent New York Times Sunday Review article, these patches are finally becoming available for your smart phone. Like an antivirus program, they filter out the temptation ahead of time, allowing you to be here now and focus on the present. For example, “Ringly does this by connecting its rings to a smartphone filter so that users can silence Gmail or Facebook notifications while preserving crucial alerts, like text messages from a babysitter, which cause the ring to light up or vibrate.” Priced at $195, it shows how eager people are to acquire breathing room from the bombardment of notifications.

Nir Eyal, author of Hooked, makes a similar observation, writing, “Having written a book on what makes technology habit-forming, I believe technology is becoming harder to resist.”   Hooked is basically a how-to-guide for product developers to make their services addictive (the byline to Hooked is “How to Build Habit-forming Products”), and it is becoming a bible in Silicon Valley. Having helped create the problem, he recommends a solution, Saent, (pronounced “saint”), as per “Saent is a step forward — helping us regain control so we can be more productive.” Saent combines software and hardware to attack the problem of a motivationally toxic world. Consider what it does:

  1. Stop distractions: The Saent app locks users into apps and websites that are productive for their work (based on a predefined list), while blocking out distractions (like social networking sites or app notifications). Over time, Saent will learn users’ work patterns automatically and associate productive apps with specific tasks.
  2. Optimize work rhythm: Studies show that frequent breaks keep the brain agile and creative, so Saent enables users to work in 30, 50 or 90 minute blocks with breaks in between.
  3. Rewards for good work: Just as activity trackers reward users for taking steps to stay healthy, Saent awards you points for each ten-minute block of focused work you’ve completed. The Saent score provides a window into productivity over time and enables competition with colleagues and friends.
  4. Create a physical connection to productivity: The Saent button is a physical reminder to stay focused. Because human memory works by forming associations between stimuli and objects and places, a physical device will be more effective at “locking in” a new behavior than an app alone. As psychology and behavioral neuroscience professor Daniel J. Levitin notes in his book, The Organized Mind, many people find physical objects effective for behavior change. “Place memory evolved to keep track of things that didn’t move,” he writes. “Use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done.”

Having looked into it, I am agreeing with Nyal and particularly enamored with these technological assists. With students from my University, we will be testing how well Saent works over the next year and, being science based, the question isn’t whether it is effective but how much. Really, what we want is for good decisions to feel like natural decisions. As this and other platforms expand and refine, rationality is going to be an optional feature you can install into your life. We can all finally move out of the candy store and visit it just when we want to, as a treat.

Beyond the Coffee Crutch: The Secret to Vitality at Work

iStock_000002195003XSmallWhat’s the number one reason for procrastinating? Survey says: low energy. Tackling tasks or chores when we are already tired is a surefire recipe for putting stuff off. Don’t we deserve to rest our feet, to have moments to recuperate after a long day? No argument here; that’s what I want too. The only problem is that we are probably going to be equally tired the next day and yet the task still remains, perhaps made even worse by the wait. Since chores rarely do themselves, we often have to find a new way to eke a little more energy from ourselves each day.

Promising to help us out with this is the recent research by Charlotte Fritz, Chak Fu Lam, and Gretchen Spreitzer, titled “It’s the little things that matter: An examination of knowledge worker’s energy management.” Science to the rescue once again.

Surveying 200 plus working professionals, the research team assessed the workers’ levels of both vitality and fatigue along with strategies that people use to up their energy. What they found wasn’t exactly what you would expect. These techniques were the ones that those with high vitality used:

  1. Learn something new
  2. Focus on what gives me joy in work
  3. Set a new goal
  4. Do something that will make a colleague happy
  5. Make time to show gratitude to someone I work with
  6. Seek feedback
  7. Reflect on how I make a difference at work
  8. Reflect on the meaning of my work

These techniques are value seeking and value creating activities, looking for what is enjoyable in your job or trying to frame the work in a way that creates value. On the other hand, the list below details the activities that are connected to workers with lower vitality and higher levels of fatigue.

  1. Drink a caffeinated beverage
  2. Talk to someone about common interests (e.g., sports)
  3. Listen to music
  4. Surf the web
  5. Check and send personal email or text messages
  6. Make plans for the evening or weekend
  7. Day dream
  8. Shop

Which of these lists do you belong to? If you are doing more of the latter, it likely means that you are chronically tired or fatigued. You need to tend to your energy levels. You have options, including getting more sleep, eating better, exercising, all the stuff you already know. But in addition to that, there is all the tactics from the vitality list. Value and energy are closely related as we always seem to have the energy to do what we like. How often did you not have the energy to write for work but were capable of novella long email messages to friends? Is shopping really less energy intensive than what you are avoiding? No, it is just more enjoyable.  Here’s a supporting excerpt from Chapter Eight of my book, The Procrastination Equation:

Whoever we are, we are likely to put off doing whatever we find excruciatingly dull. Boredom signals that what we are doing is irrelevant, and so the mind slides off the task. It makes sense, then, that procrastinators are much more likely than non-procrastinators to perceive life’s daily tasks as drudgery. Of all the boring tasks that fill the world, the one that tops most people’s hate list is routine paperwork. The busywork— filling in timesheets, submitting expense reports, and supplying the data that companies and governments endlessly require—seems pointless, even when it isn’t. Fortunately, however, boredom isn’t inherently part of any job—anything can be made more interesting simply by the way we treat it.

It seems pretty simple, “reflect on the meaning of my work” or “do something that will make a colleague happy,” but simple doesn’t mean ineffective. You might get an energetic boost by reflecting on how others depend on you, by being a hero to your boss, or honing a new skill that advances your career.  Of course, there are other techniques for increasing the value of your work and I cover a few more in Chapter Eight of my book, like “Games and Goals” and “Double or Nothing,” but that’s enough for now. Take another look at that vitality list and decide to do one thing. And in the spirit of seeking feedback myself, tell me how it worked for you. I’ll bet you it does better than that second cup of coffee you were thinking of getting.

Fritz, C., Lam, C. F., & Spreitzer, G. M. (2011). It’s the little things that matter: An examination of knowledge workers’ energy management. Academy of Management Perspective25(3), 28-39.

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Hard Work Beat Talent (But Only If Talent Doesn’t Work Hard)

76370-66978In a world where we are ridiculously overcommitted to making sure everyone is equal in every way, a new study just published in Psychological Science contains some sobering news you might not like. In their paper “Limits on the Predictive Power of Domain-Specific Experience and Knowledge in Skilled Performance ,” David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz kill the myth that talent doesn’t matter. We would love to believe, of course, that all we need to do to be the best is to try hard enough. You can be anything you want as long as we really want it: rocket scientist, pop icon, sport hero. There is no shortage of popular pundits promoting this myth. As Hambrick and Meinz point out:

Malcolm Gladwell (2008) commented that “The relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point. Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real world advantage” (pp. 78–79). In his own bestselling book, The Social Animal, David Brooks (2011) expressed the same idea: “A person with a 150 IQ is in theory much smarter than a person with a 120 1Q, but those additional 30 points produce little measurable benefit when it comes to lifetime success” (p. 165). Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks are simply wrong. At least in science, a high level of intellectual ability puts a person at a measurable advantage—and the higher the better.

The people peddling this notion that talent is irrelevant often cite a 1993 paper by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tech-Romer regarding deliberate practice in which the researchers argue that success is usually built upon purposeful, thoughtful and intense efforts to improve performance over about 10,000 hours. This is true; hard work does pay off. The Beatles got to be so good because they had to perform their music four hours a day (eight days a week) during their two year stint in Hamburg. Bobby Fischer became a grandmaster at chess after years of honing his skills at the Brooklyn Chess Club. But that wasn’t the question. What we want to know is whether hard work makes talent irrelevant. Will every group that jams together for 10,000 hours become the Fab Four and every chess obsessed child become a world champion?

Hambrick and Meinz showed the basic relationship between hard work and talent in this chart. The vertical axis measures your level of performance. Higher up means spectacular. The horizontal axis charts your innate talent, in this case cognitive ability, what the rest of the world refers to as “intelligence.” Further to the right means super smart. The two lines refer to different levels of deliberate practice. The red line refers to those who have put in the hours while the blue refers to those who haven’t made the effort.

There are two things to take away from this. The first is that being smart is a useful thing to inherit, right up there with a large trust fund. The more smarts you have, the higher your performance. And despite what Gladwell and Brooks say, intelligence’s benefits don’t disappear; the more innate talent of any sort you have, the better off you are going be.

If you take a careful look, however, you will notice that those of us with more modest abilities do have a chance. Even if you weren’t born with genius in your genes, you can outperform the smartest of individuals as long as you work hard and the latter doesn’t. Also, the differences between the smart and the not-so-smart shrink quite a bit if they both work hard. That means that talent still counts, but hard work puts you right up there.

Unless you are in a profession where there can only be one winner, like going for Olympic gold, this is pretty good news. With hard work, at the bare minimum you can be good at what you do. And though you might never be the best, you can give the best performers a run for their money. On the other hand, if you have chosen a career where only the very, very best succeed, you better be born with a lot of talent.

Necessarily, people who are exceptionally talented are also exceptionally rare. But from what we know about the prevalence of procrastination, people who work hard are also pretty rare too. Most of the time, you are going to be end up competing against rivals with one of these attributes, talent or hard work, not both. Those with natural aptitude and the willingness to put in the effort are as rare as diamonds, and twice as valuable. If you see one, take a picture, get an autograph, and wish them good luck. This world has problems and we especially need people like them.

As for us mortals, let’s take one more look at the chart. Is it better to be hard working with modest talents (the low end of the red line) or smart but lazy (the high end of the blue line)? The answer is cut and dried: hard work wins out. I told you might not like the news. But if you are ready to work hard, to change procrastination into motivation, you now know where to get started. by being here, you are already there.

The Motivational Wisdom of Lady Gaga versus The Secret

GagaVs2As a guest judge on the television show So You Think You Can Dance, Lady Gaga had this to say: “That’s good that you won a lot of trophies, it’s nice, but you know what? After I sell a bunch of records, I take all the platinum ones off the walls and pretend I haven’t sold a damn one and I’ve got to go do it all again.”

Just like Lady Gaga herself, her motivational advice is controversial. Essentially, she suggests that images of success (e.g., trophies) can take the place of actual successes (i.e., more victories). So instead of going out and making it happen, we reflect on past or imagined glory and do nothing. The symbol replaces the reality. On the other hand we have Rhonda Byrne, the Australian TV ad executive who wrote The Secret.  A perpetual bestseller, The Secret advocates creative visualization, whichinvolves creating vivid and compelling pictures of your heart’s desire, with the aim of drawing this vision toward you. If you believe and even act as if your accomplishments have already happened, Byrne argues, then happen they will.

Who’s right? Lady Gaga has multiple Grammy awards, several world records (e.g., most consecutive weeks in the top 75 music chart), and her sales are approaching 100 million. She is also a master of fantasy, able to imagine herself to sexual culmination at will (a very neat trick indeed). Then again, The Secret has been on the New York Times bestseller list for about 190 weeks and it is endorsed by the undisputed queen of self-help, Oprah Winfrey herself. And though Rhonda Byrne might not have Lady Gaga’s facility at fantasy, her advertising background gives her top marks in understanding the power of images. Let’s let psychological science decide the winner.

The first clear voice on this issue of fantasy was that of Sigmund Freud, who wrote about the “irrational libido,” the part of our psyche that lives for immediate pleasure. To accomplish this, the libido uses what Freud termed a “primary process,” where it “produces a memory image of an object needed for gratification in order to reduce the frustration of not having been gratified yet.” So we imagine everything from revenge to accomplishment and then, without doing anything more, receive pleasure from the image alone. When we mature, we put primary processes in check and graduate to “secondary processes,” which deal with reason and reality. So as adults, we are able to delay gratification and endure the pain necessary to bring our plans to fruition. In short, Freud is definitely a Lady Gaga fan. Images and symbols, such as trophies, may be pleasurable to gaze upon but they can prevent us pursuing the real thing.

Alright, psychoanalysis is more than a century old and not exactly cutting edge science. But we can do better. Over the last decade, Gabrielle Oettingen of New York University has done a string of studies that test the power of fantasy on everything from romantic success to getting your dream job. Her basic design is to have three groups of subjects: a fantasy group, a control group, and a mental contrasting group. Fantasy groups are just that: essentially, proponents of The Secret who imagine they already have their desired outcome. The control group is the baseline, people left alone to their own devices. Then there is the mental contrasting group, basically following a form of Lady Gaga’s recommendation. They mentally contrast by fantasizing about what they want but then immediately afterwards compare where they are now with where they want to be. So if they want a better relationship, they fantasize about being with that gorgeous guy or gal but then deeply reflect afterwards on how they don’t have him or her. The mental contrasting group always ends by contrasting fantasy with reality.

Who wins? Lady Gaga or The Secret? It wasn’t even close. Oettingen’s results show that Lady Gaga-styled mental contrasting always does better than pure fantasy à la The Secret . In fact, they suggest that The Secret is motivationally misguided. The pure fantasy group did worse than the control group, people who were left completely alone. In other words, dreaming actually gets in the way of realizing your dreams.

Does this mean that those who follow The Secret will never get what they want? Of course not, but they won’t realize their dreams as often as the rest of us. That is unless they break the rules; I’ve heard some people gush about how The Secret has worked for them, but what I see is people who have positive expectations about success and then actively go out to pursue their goals. This isn’t The Secret, which advocates that you believe you have already achieved your dreams. As Gabrielle Oettingen puts it, “positive expectations (judging a desired future as likely) predicted high effort and successful performance.” On the other hand, she saw just the opposite with positive fantasies, which led to less effort and worse performance. In short, believing you can do it works; fantasizing you already did it doesn’t.

So here’s the scoop. Fantasy feels good, but when practiced in isolation it gets in the way of accomplishment. It is the motivational equivalent of pornography, where we allow fantasy to take the place of reality. However, if you are good at fantasy, like Lady Gaga, here’s how to make it work the way she does. After fantasizing, focus on your present world and how it lack the things you crave. There will be pain and discomfort because what you long for is no longer in your grasp, but don’t turn away from these emotions; they are a source of power that you can harness to get stuff done.

For more, there is always chapter 7 from my own book The Procrastination Equation. It is dedicated to exactly this subject. And to help you get going, here’s a little more mental contrasting. Think about how helpful it would be to have all these motivational tricks at your fingertips, how much easier your life would be. Now reflect on that it’s going to be same old slog as yesterday because you haven’t read the book yet.

Do you have other celebrity motivational advice? Perhaps some words of advice from LeAnn Rimes or Reese Witherspoon? Let me know and we will give it the same treatment, determining its scientific standing and origins.