I’m running. The iPod is blasting. “The Spirit of Radio” by Rush comes up with its classic opening riff; my fingers twitch. Before long, I am attempting air guitar while continuing to run. Vehicles whiz by. I imagine some of the occupants are staring and thinking, What a weirdo.

Being a great guitar player is my recurring fantasy. Run after run. Bike ride after bike ride. At a concert or even in the car. I hear some amazing six string, and in my head, it’s me playing, and my awesomeness causes crowds of women to spontaneously ovulate.

I played electric guitar for a bit in high school, but not well. I didn’t have the determination to master it. It didn’t come easily and I gave up. I have a Fender acoustic. I could tune it up and find videos on YouTube teaching me to play. I could spend an hour a day and within a couple of years be passable. A few years more and I might even be good.

And yet, the Fender gathers dust. I don’t want it enough. It’s sufficient to remain a fantasy.

But I’ve converted enough other fantasies into reality to know something of the process, that such dreaming of an idealized future hinders the ability to achieve it. If you spend a lot of time imagining how great it will be when you lose weight / start a new career / launch that business / find love, it actively damages your motivation to achieve those goals.

Dafuq? I thought we were supposed to keep our eyes on the prize?

Isn’t The Secret to success—that stupid book/movie about wishing for shit millions bought into—to think positively about what you desire, and then you will “attract” it, or something? Aren’t we supposed to think happy thoughts then the universe would throw cool shit at us? Ask-Believe-Receive and all that? If that’s the case, I guess the millions of people who die from starvation each year didn’t think positively enough to attract food.

Hopefully you don’t believe the pseudoscientific “law” of how “like energy attracts like energy.” But isn’t positive thinking a requirement to achievement?

No. Not a requirement, a hindrance. Actual chicken soup nourishes the body. The metaphorical kind via inspiring stories doesn’t do much for your soul. Because a fantasy of an idealized future, while enjoyable in the short term, depletes the mental energy necessary to prompt you to action.

In 1991, Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at NYU, first discovered that people who fantasized about a positive outcome were less likely to achieve said outcome. Published in Cognitive Therapy and Research, her study looked at 25 women with obesity, and found that “Optimistic expectations but negative fantasies favored weight loss.” Conversely, “Subjects who displayed pessimistic expectations combined with positive fantasies had the poorest treatment outcome.”

What does this mean? Let’s look at those who weren’t successful at weight loss first.

They were pessimistic about their ability to lose weight, but they fantasized about it a lot. They regularly imagined how great it would be to transform their bodies. Guess what happens when you do that. It relaxes you. It alleviates the bit of good, motivational stress you feel about not having realized your ambitions. It takes away that drive that prompts action by giving you the feeling that you already achieved that desired goal, so there isn’t the desire to strive for it.

The most successful ones in Oettingen’s study were confident in their ability to achieve the goal, but didn’t spend much time fantasizing about the outcome.

Oettingen faced backlash from the scientific community. How dare she question the power of positive thinking?

Nevertheless, she persisted. Working with colleague Doris Mayer out of the University of Hamburg, they published a compilation of four studies in 2002. In it, they evaluated graduates seeking employment, students with a crush on a fellow student, students anticipating an upcoming exam, and patients about to undergo hip replacement surgery.

It was the same kind of study, to ascertain motivation to work toward a goal (getting a job, date, high grade, or successful rehab) based on the participant’s attitudes going into it. The results? Positive expectations = good. Positive fantasies = not good.

In other words, when you “expect” to work and focus on what is needed to achieve, and have confidence in your abilities to do so, you’re gonna kick some ass. Conversely, when you focus on daydreaming about how awesome life will be once said goal is achieved, it saps your willpower to do … anything.


Because in your mind, you already kind of achieved it.

In my mind, when I’m out for a run and imagining what an amazing guitar player I am, fingers twitching to that righteous solo, I’m immersed in an imaginary sense of achievement. It’s relaxing, and therefore the good stress needed to do the work to achieve the goal in the first place is removed. Oettingen and Mayer explain positive fantasies “lead people to mentally enjoy the desired future in the here and now.”

Without having to work for it.

The bestselling business book Good to Great has an extreme example of this, referred to as “The Stockdale Paradox.” It’s the tale of Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest ranking American officer imprisoned in the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War. Taken in 1965, he was tortured over twenty times during the next eight years. But he made it home.

Many of his fellow prisoners did not.

Author Jim Collins asked Admiral Stockdale about those who never got to come home. “The optimists,” he replied. Collins was confused, because moments before Stockdale said he never lost faith he would make it home. The admiral elaborated: the “optimists” were the ones who said they’d be home by Christmas, but then Christmas would come and go. Then they would say, “Home by Easter,” and that holiday would also pass, yet they remained imprisoned under horrible conditions.

Admiral Stockdale said such men died of broken hearts.

Then he offered this advice to Collins: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Another study Oettingen was involved in was published in 2011 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found positive fantasies about an idealized future “sap energy” and directly relate to “poor achievement.” And another study she was involved with was published in European Journal of Social Psychology in 2012 and specifically looked at academic achievement, found that positive fantasies about the outcome of their schooling was related to higher absenteeism and lower grades. From the study: “positive fantasies, which allow people to indulge in images of a bright future, predict poor achievement.” Professor Oettingen has conducted many other studies in this field as well as written a book titled Rethinking Positive Thinking.

“Positive dreaming is not only not helpful for wish fulfillment, but it actually can hurt,” Oettingen told me in an interview. But she was clear that it’s okay to wish for an improved future, but in a manner that energizes you to action rather than glues your ass to couch.

“But I like my fantasies,” you say. Yeah, so do I. I enjoy imagining being able to play guitar more than I relish the idea of endless hours of practice. I’ve accepted that I’ll probably never learn to play. Or, at least not any time soon, while I’m so busy with my career. And it’s okay because my lack of guitar-playing ability isn’t affecting my health, my finances or my happiness. It’s not an important goal for me to achieve.

What about when the goal is important?

“The first step is important is to come up with your wish,” Professor Oettingen told me. “A real  wish that is not just what you think other people are wanting you to strive for. Come up with a wish that is dear to you.”

I have an MBA and was doing well in my business career. “Other people” would have told me to stay the course. But I had this overwhelming desire to be a writer. Writing was a skill I’d developed over several years that served to advance my career. I’d seen the power I could wield, but wanted to switch from writing about how to transform and grow a business to how to transform and grow individuals.

You own the controlling interest in your life. How do you maximize shareholder value and achieve “your wish”? Professor Oettingen suggests you engage in what she calls “mental contrasting” to achieve that which is “dear to you”.

“We often just respond to the environment and rush through all the ‘shoulds’ we have in our lives,” Oettingen said. “We don’t let ourselves imagine the best outcome.” This isn’t about the fantastical daydreaming that saps energy, but imagining—using rational strategizing—what you want from your life that is achievable and where you really want to go.

How to find it? “Allow yourself a bit of calm and focus,” Oettingen said. She says to relax, take some time, and just … think. Keep your wish to three or four words of what you would most desire. Think about your most positive possible outcome. “Keep it in front of your mind and allow yourself to imagine and experience the outcome,” she said. “Just let your mind go and ponder that.”

Next, Oettingen says, you must determine what is stopping you from achieving the wish. This is the setup for lightning to strike. You did the part of finding what you want, fantasized a little how wonderful achievement will be, but now it’s time “to circumvent the calming effects of dreaming and mobilize dreams as a tool for prompting directed action.” Copy that? Mobilize those dreams!

“Find the main obstacle that stands in your way,” Oettingen told me. “You’ll have to dig deep.” She explained this with the example of “lack of time” for pursuing a specific goal, which then requires uncovering why you don’t have time, and what could be reprioritized to provide it. It may be lack of organization, or anxiety over capabilities, or whether you feel as though you deserve to do something for you …

But what if the way is revealed as impossible?

Oettingen wrote in her 2012 paper that uncovering impossibility comes with its own benefits. “It de-energises people when their wishes are beyond their reach, thus promoting disengagement, freeing people for alternative pursuits.”

If it’s impossible, it wasn’t the right goal. Not the droids you’re looking for. Move along. Oettingen told me this freeing allows people to let go of a goal with a clear conscience. Because of the realization of the lack of achievability, failure to attain no longer plagues. It means you have increased clarity to focus on a more appropriate and attainable goal.

What if the goal is not impossible, but merely implausible? This can give you a giant kick in the ass. I’m a fan of chasing the implausible. Lofty goals are awesome, so long as you ground them in reality. Dolly Parton said, “You need to really believe in what you’ve got to offer, what your talent is—and if you believe, that gives you strength.” Who are you to deny Dolly?

“When they find that main obstacle that is holding them back, people often have an epiphany,” Oettingen told me. “They finally realize, ‘Yes! This is it! This is what has been preventing me from fulfilling my wish.’”

She explained this is an opening of a path, where suddenly, people know what to do, where to go. The positive fantasy provides initial direction; finding the obstacle and how to overcome it—to turn it into the way forward—is what energizes so they feel compelled. When you learn how to conquer that obstacle, you come to feel as though you must.

Professor Oettingen said this “is not a rational process whatsoever.” Finding the wish is emotional. It’s an imagination exercise intended to generate passionate pursuit. “Once you find the obstacle and how to overcome it, this can be a very emotional experience because you finally know what’s been hampering you.” Sometimes, this obstacle has been in your way for years, yet you never realized it. Sometimes, it’s not a flattering thing you learn about yourself, what this obstacle was. But it is unburdening.

“It’s unburdening because now you know how to overcome this obstacle,” Oettingen said.

It’s not a “secret.” It’s about finding a way around barriers to get the most out of life.



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James S. Fell, MBA, writes for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, AskMen, the Guardian, TIME Magazine and many other fine publications. His first book was published by Random House Canada in 2014. He is currently working on his next book, which is about life-changing moments.

IMAGE: Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12053945