How Visualizing Success Actually Sabotages Success

Sound the alarm bells, Happy Smurf.

You might be shooting yourself in the foot with your daydreams about the life you long to live . . . because fantasizing about the things you want to happen can fizzle the sizzle of the dreams.

[Here is where I would insert an illustration of a wet blanket if I could draw something that resembled a wet blanket.]

Allow me to explain this counterintuitive, sucks-to-be-true nugget of psychology research with an example.

Animal playing the drums. It's excellent.Let’s say you’ve been amped up at the idea of learning how to play the drums. You’ve indulged the fantasy of getting quite good—maybe not Animal-from-the-Muppets level of good, but respectable enough to maybe play at that little dive bar downtown. You’ve visualized high fiving your bandmates at the end of a successful set and you’ve for sure imagined the applause from an audience still sober enough to appreciate your drumming ability. And all that feels good to think about, right?

Psychologists call delicious daydreams like this free fantasies—they’re notions about goals or ideas without consideration of “the how,” or how likely they are to actually happen in the busy cacophony known as our lives. If we just focus on the warm and fuzzy feelings of our intentions, we’re actually less likely to invest effort into realizing our goals. We actually lose steam for our ideas if we bask in the positive glow of the idea. That means no drumming your heart out to the Best of Blondie.

Positive fantasies are ironic because they often drain the energy we require to make them come to life. We turn into Fantasy Vampires, sucking our own take-action-juice dry. One psychologist poignantly said that “positive fantasies are seductive. But like temptresses of myth, they sap the hero’s energy and waylay him on the path to his desire.”

Guys. We are all on hero’s journeys, and we must resist the temptation of energy-sucking vampires temptresses along the way.

Random examples of how we sabotage our good intentions:

  • Researchers note that students who “indulged in positive fantasies about getting together with their ‘crush’ were more likely to passively wait until the crush discovered them than actively approach the adored persons.” Silently nourishing their positive fantasies put the kibosh on intention for action. No prom night action for those kids! (Except in their fantasies.)
  • Oreo dream killerFantasizing about landing that big job feels So! Empowering! Except it’s totally not. Reveling in that feel-good buzz about how you’ll for sure ace the Q4 strategy in your new role, in your snazzily decorated new office—yeah, that can throw a wet blanket over any inkling you might’ve had for action. [Still no wet blanket drawing. Sorry.]
  • Imagining how fabulous you’re going to look in your high school reunion outfit after you get So Freaking Fit is another example. We think this visualization will motivate us to get So Freaking Fit but no . . . it creates a just-pleasing-enough feeling that melts us into the couch with the help of five more Double-Stuf Oreos. [I did draw you this Oreo though.]
  • Here’s a doozie: fantasizing about how accomplished you’ll feel when you polish off that business plan and press “PUBLISH” on your website. Thinking about how proud you’ll feel by launching your own business feels like a warm bear hug, right? And that hug just might smother your ability to take action.
  • Here’s a simple example. I regularly fantasize about how I’ll respond to unanswered texts and emails from friends. In a random moment of the day I’ll draft thoughtful, witty, caring responses in my mind—maybe with a few choice gifs or pictures of Andy the Cat—and oh! I feel quite pleased with myself! I’m certain I can feel the serotonin swirling around in my brain, feeling good about myself for being the kind of person who knows how to maintain relationships. And then I ride that feel-good wave over to the next thing I do which has NOTHING AT ALL to do with the messages I just crafted in my head. It’s as though I check the box of being a good friend off in my head, tucker myself out with the fantasy of it all, and then go answer a work email. Ugh.

How Dreams Get Done: Pipe Dreams vs. Life’s Getting Lived Around Here

Welcome to Fool's Paradise, baby!!So where do positive fantasies fit into a life worth living? Because I don’t want to live in a world where I can’t indulge in daydreams about the amazing things that are going to happen in my life someday. I love fanciful notions! I live for pies in the sky! And yet I don’t want to live a life of wishful thinking that goes nowhere in a hurry. We must burst the free fantasy bubble for just a moment.

Psychology researchers invented Fantasy Realization Theory to help make our fool’s paradise a little less foolish, if you will. Fantasy Realization Theory involves thinking about the obstacles that might get in our way and prevent us from making our dreams come true.

Yes, you read that right.

We need to veer over to the dark side of Things That Could Go Wrong Amidst Our Flights of Fancy. We must do the thing called mental contrasting, which involves comparing and contrasting both the positive and negative possibilities of an imagined future or goal. Gobs of research studies have shown that people are likelier to take action on their dreams if they pre-plan how to jump over any possible hurdles.

Back to our drumming example. To take the idea from a fantasy to a reality, you might need to pause and think about how you’d handle getting to Thursday night band practice, how you’d grapple with possible stage fright, and how you’d figure out what to wear (because OMG, do you put on a concert t-shirt or go shirtless??). This seemingly basic—and Debbie Downer-ish—step is precisely what can shift you from free fantasy into reality.

My own goofy example about texting friends back would look like this:

  • Fantasize about my stellar responses
  • Feel good about the friend I think I’m going to be
  • BEFORE I GO PAY MY AMEX BILL . . . stop and imagine how I’ll need to actually make this a reality: “I’ve got to feed Andy the cat soon—but I could send the message after Tiny Tuna Tasters Time . . . and I realize I’m afraid that the text will initiate another text that I can’t handle right now, so I guess I could just be honest and admit I’m in over my head with work stuff right now.”
  • Then go send a friend text (because according to research this little exercise of mapping out how to bust through challenge makes All The Difference between being a friend with dreamy good intentions and one who actually types messages and presses Send)

You can dream it, but you still gotta lace up your shoes and DO IT. (These are the things that shoe ads are made of.)

Where can you catch yourself losing energy to execute because the dream you were dreaming was just satisfying enough? Where can you ask a few “obstacle busting” questions? Give it a go, and watch your ideas and goals become less like delusions and more like the fabulous life you’re living.

Jodi Wellman

P.S.: We can connect here on Instagram!

P.P.S.: Oh and just in case you missed it… I’d love you forever if you took 16 minutes out of your life to watch my TEDx talk!


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