A couple years ago, I was talking to my dad on the phone and asked about his plans for the next weekend. He said Saturday he was going to go golfing, but he had to wait to pick up my mom and her friend Ann because they were going to try to bicycle 100 miles.
And then he said, “Whoops, shit, I probably wasn’t supposed to tell you that. I think she wanted to keep it a secret.”
The next Saturday evening, my mom texted me a photo of her bike computer: 109 miles. When I called her the next day, I asked her why she hadn’t told me about her plan to ride a century for the first time in her life at age 65. She said, “Well, I didn’t want to jinx it. I wasn’t sure we’d make it.”
This is not about my mom and Ann being badasses and for no reason just deciding to try something huge like pedaling a hybrid bike in the July humidity in Iowa for an entire day, although that is arguably pretty neat. It’s about planning to do big things, and not telling anyone until you’ve finished the big thing. (It also may be a story about my dad not being able to keep secrets that well.)
I don’t know if I get this from my mom or if she gets it from me, but I’m also a secret goal-planner. If I’m trying to do something big, like writing a book or climbing a mountain, I don’t say anything until it’s finished. Yes, you should positively affirm to yourself your intentions and definitely think “I can do this” instead of “maybe I can do this.” But if you, for example, intend to climb Mt. Rainier for the first time ever, lots of things can happen up there before you get to the summit. Unexpected weather, for one, can make it impossible, even if you have done 100 percent of everything in your power to prepare beforehand. You can get horrible blisters, or a stomach virus the day before your climb. Hopefully none of these things happen to you, but let’s be honest: Until you have both feet on the summit of a mountain, you have not climbed that mountain—you are attempting to climb the mountain.
A couple of psychology studies have shown that telling your goals to people makes you less likely to achieve them (some takes on that here, here, and here), and others have argued against that idea (here), saying we’re going to fail at 99 percent of our goals, whether we tell anyone or not.
Sure, privately telling someone close to you about your Big Idea can help you be held accountable to it, especially if they’re a good friend who won’t let you off the hook that easily. But that’s different than telling all your Twitter or Instagram followers about it because you’re excited about your idea—social media posts are pretty ephemeral, and most of us have too much noise in our lives to hold anyone we “follow” accountable to anything. When’s the last time you commented, “Hey @bobxyz, didn’t you tweet one time last year that you were going to write a book this year?” We have a million ways to communicate nowadays, and talk is becoming cheaper and cheaper.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is from artist Chuck Close, who spent hours and hours (but only a half-teaspoon of black paint) creating his nine-foot by seven-foot, mind-blowingly photorealistic “Big Self Portrait” in 1967. Close said: “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” He was talking about the process of making art, but I think that quote also captures how fleeting inspiration is—with big ideas, inspiration can only power you through a very small percentage of the work required to get something done. Drive is what gets you to the finish line, the final edit, or the summit.
For me, it all comes down to one thing: The joy is in actually doing the thing, not saying you’re going to do it.