How Most People Fail (Before They Even Start)

A few days ago, I got an email from a woman named Lynita. It’s what today’s post is about.

Here’s what Lynita wrote to me:

I’m four weeks into the Marathon Roadmap training!! I felt the need to tell someone…but preferably someone who has no vested interest in my life in case it turns out to be an epic bust!! icon smile

I ran my first and only half marathon August of last year. I’ve been running regularly since but haven’t had anything to train for until now and my running, even though enjoyable, had been stagnant. So, I decided I needed a goal, and if you’re going to set one, set one BIG, right??

I thought [the half marathon] would suffice! But, apparently I was mistaken. Something inside me desired to do so much more. I’ve set my sights on running a full 26.2 miles. I haven’t had meat in four weeks and am continually trying to clean up my diet. I feel the foods I eat affect me possibly even more than the typical person.

So, we’ll keep this on the down low for now – you know, in case of that epic failure thing. However if these crazy joints carry me 26.2 miles across a marathon finish line, you’ll be one of the first to know.

Thanks for the inspiration! Keep it up…please icon smile

Lynita

On the surface, these look like the words of someone destined for success. But if Lynita doesn’t change something, I’d bet against her.

Lynita has done a lot of things right. She set a big, inspiring goal. She’s got strong reasons (which I omitted when I shortened her email), for wanting — no, needing — to do this. And she made an investment in it. The fact that it’s my program doesn’t matter, what matters is that she bought any program — committing actual money to something tends to motivate us, if only to avoid feeling dumb for never using something we spent good money on.

But there’s one thing wrong with Lynita’s plan, and as minor as it might seem, it has the power to undermine the whole thing. (I told her this in my reply, of course, and got her permission to use her email in this post.)

“If you want to take the island, burn your boats”

iStock 000012367328XSmallThis cliche gets tossed around a lot, especially in business books, but I love it.

When we set goals — especially, the big, scary, exciting ones that move us to act — our natural tendency is to leave ourselves an out. Just like Lynita did here, right before she put her first smiley face.

We’ve learned that sometimes we fail, and it’s not much fun. We’ve also learned that when we fail publicly, in front of our friends, it sucks even more.

And so when you set that crazy goal, the one that has the potential to change your life or even define it, there’s a decision you make at the outset, often without realizing it.

The decision is to either bet on yourself — by telling every single person who will listen to you what you intend to do — or to bet against yourself, by keeping it a secret.

You know, just in case you fail. Smiley face.

“I’ll surprise everyone,” we say. “I’ll make all these huge changes in secret, and one day, when I run my marathon / finish my triathlon / celebrate my year as a vegetarian / quit my job, then everyone will see what I’m capable of.”

This, of course, is total bullshit. It’s fear, and all that stuff we tell ourselves is just rationalization.

So what do you do instead?

Tell everyone. Put it on Facebook. Put it on your blog. Set up a public Google Doc where you’ll track your progress, and invite the people you most respect to keep you in line. Find a partner. Write it on your forehead if you have to. Make a deal with a friend that you’ll pay them 100 bucks if you quit. Or that you’ll donate that money to a charity that you hate.

Whatever your boat is, burn it. Instead of protecting yourself so that failing won’t hurt, use that fear of failing as one more reason not to fail.

And if you fail — and make no mistake, you might — I promise it’ll be good for you. While everyone was sitting on the couch watching Dancing with the Stars, you were out there trying. Making progress towards something that matters. Doing instead of watching.

If it doesn’t work out, is that really something to be ashamed of?

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Comments

  1. As the wise sage said, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.”

  2. Bill Garrett says:

    This is a great post and point!

    I just ran my first half marathon a month ago, and really had no business doing it with only 4 weeks of training, but I finished it and had such a great time I knew I wanted to make this a regular part of my year. Two weeks later, I decided that I would run a full marathon this coming spring, but it has been important to me that I announce it, let people know, and talk about it on Facebook, because then I am accountable. It makes me run when I don’t feel like it and continue when I think it’s too cold or my knees feel too tight. I still, as with the half marathon, only say that my goal is to finish.

    But just between you and me, my real goal is to finish in under 4 hours.

  3. Telling people allows the people that care about you to support you. (Or if they don’t, it can be motivating to show them you can)
    Don’t hide it! People will suprise you! :D
    I didn’t run until I signed up for my first marathon. Everyone thought I was crazy, but my sister signed up and did it too! (Also not a runner- her first race of any kind). It was a great bonding experience for us both, and we supported eachother all through training. Now we are both runners and do other events together. :)
    Good luck with your race!!!

  4. “There is no try, do or do not” – Yoda
    I think this sums it up perfectly. If you are going to do something, go for it 100%. If you fail, so be it. If you gave it everything you had then you should not have any regrets. Figure out why you failed, change, then go for it again.

  5. I like the idea of donating to a charity you hate. I’m doing a nutrition challenge now that ends next month. I want to keep going but was worried about how to stay accountable. That might just do it for me. I even have a perfectly hideous group in mind to give to if I fail that will keep me motivated.

    • Heather, yeah it seems good doesn’t it? I’ve never tried it myself. I think the key is you need to make an arrangement with a friend who will keep you accountable (or use a site like stikk.com) because it’d be tough to find the willpower to actually hold yourself accountable to that promise.

    • OMG what an awesome idea! I don’t seem to mind failing because at least I’m DOING but if my failure profited Romney? EEWWWWW!!! LOL!!!

      • Haha. That’s why it works! But like I said, I think you really need to make sure there’s someone who will hold you accountable to that promise, otherwise it’s too easy to tell yourself you’re just going to back out of all of it. I’ve done it!

  6. LOVE LOVE LOVE this post! I just on Monday celebrated reaching a 100-pound weight loss…and when I proclaimed it on Facebook, most friends from college (people who don’t see me in person ever) said something like, “Wow, I had no idea you had that much to lose.” That’s because I never told anyone about my 100-pound goal–I was way too afraid that I wouldn’t make it, and then I’d be embarrassed. I’ve done the same thing with my “eventually I want to run a full marathon” goal–I haven’t really told anyone. But no more–I will shout it from the rooftops! Thanks for calling us out on our bullshit. :-)

    • Congrats on dropping 100lbs! That’s fantastic!

    • Congrats! That’s some serious hard work :)

    • Well, if you lost 100 pounds without telling anyone, that’s some pretty good evidence that NOT telling people about big goals works for you (which other people have mentioned in later comments). Still, if the idea of telling people, especially now that you’ve got a track record, motivates you, then give it a try.

  7. Huge fan of your website but I reject your premise that telling everyone is the best path for all people. And I even have a source :-) m.lifehacker.com/5921478/shhh-keeping-quiet-may-help-you-achieve-your-goals

    • I also thought of this concept when I read this post. It has to do with getting all the good feelings of people congratulating you/being excited for you when you tell them your goal before you’ve done any of the hard work. Sometimes it is good to tell people to have encouragement, but I agree that sometimes it’s best to keep your goal a secret!

      • Good stuff Alyssa and Tom; thanks for pointing this out and linking to Derek’s article. I especially like the reason they cite, that declaring something gives people some bit of satisfaction and change of identity, and that’s enough that they stop there.

        Here’s my take on it. I think it definitely could be the case that some people do better by not telling others their goals. But I suspect that the studies cited didn’t consider people who didn’t just tell other people, but actually found a partner or set up some system (like a Google Doc) to keep them accountable.

        Either way, it seems clear that making your goals isn’t the best path for ALL people. But there’s almost nothing that is best for everyone, without exception.

  8. I love your site Matt and I love this post. I recently decided to start training for a triathlon (I don’t actually know how to swim, don’t own a bike and run on and off). After I put a lot of thought into why I wanted to train for one, making sure I was doing it for the right reasons, I told almost everyone I know. And I convinced my Dad to train for it as well (he’s been having major health issues but recently has gotten much better). We’ll hopefully race it together in July! Knowing that I’m doing this for myself, but also for and with my Dad, is quite the motivation. So totally agree with you on making your goals known. Just wanted to add that training with/ for someone adds some pressure, but also builds support, and makes it a bit more fun talking training progress and sharing workouts.

    • That’s the great part about this approach — you find partners who you otherwise wouldn’t have. Good luck to you and your dad with your training! Now I need to convince my dad to train for something …

  9. Love this post! Accountability, baby! I learned the hard way that I had to tell everybody for anything important. The first was quitting smoking. So many times I thought I’d surprise everyone with me, the non-smoker. Never worked. Next time, I told everybody. And now I’m a non-smoker and have been for almost 25 years.

    So when it comes to big plans, I totally agree with you. Tell the world!

  10. I think I’d been quiet about my goal to do a half that’s been nebulously lurking in the background for a couple of years, and I hadn’t signed up for a half marathon for that amount of time. I’d only been asking my friends what they were doing.
    But, the other day I signed up for my first half and I shouted it out on facebook… I want a buddy to do this with, if I can, and if not then I want people cheering for me even if it is just on the interwebs.

    • Knowing that people on the interwebs, who I’ll likely never meet in person, are paying attention has absolutely kept me from dropping out of some ultramarathons when I really, really wanted to quit. That’s a great thing about having a blog, and it doesn’t matter whether you have 10 readers or a million.

  11. I love Nicole’s comment about telling everyone you know, and then proving the doubters wrong. I ran my first half marathon with NMA’s training map this summer, and there were a few people who kept asking me “well if you’ve never done it before, how do you know you even can?”

    It felt so good to just decide in the face of my own doubt, and other’s that I’ll do it, even if it means crawling at the end! (Thank God that wasn’t the case though).

    I’m in the process of picking out my first full marathon next year, and my first sprint tri. I wonder how many new doubters I’ll have this year?

  12. Public accountability works wonders, but even if one gets no support from their friends and family, that should never be an excuse for not achieving ones individual goals.

    My “former” family was never supportive. Once when I came home after running an ultra, their comment was “How was your stupid race”. I was not deterred.

  13. I think this is why I made it to the starting line of my first marathon last year. 1) I joined the Runner’s World Challenge, which was about $100 on top of the marathon entry fee. It provided me with a training plan (which I stuck to), and online forums and help. 2) I told everyone I was training for a marathon. Granted, I was probably overly obsessive about running (and probably am this round as well), but I posted my runs on Facebook, tweeted them (#marathontraining) and talked to lots of people about how I was training for this marathon. It definitely pays to commit, both feet in the water, the whole nine yards. :) Best of luck to Lynita and all the other first-timers. Just do it!

  14. Donald Trump’s selling his wigs now!!! Who knew.
    The return to some of your old style philosophising has been a refreshing read.

    • For people who must think this is a weird spam comment — the Donald Trump reference is to my Halloween costume, which I mentioned in the email newsletter I send out about certain posts.

      Phil, it’s actually not an officially licensed Trump wig (and I doubt they exist…). It’s a “You’re Fired Guy” wig!

  15. haha….hopefully Lynita’s friends/family/etc. don’t read this blog post.

  16. Public accountability at its best. Its one way i got myself back in shape.I posted pictures of myself when i was 60-70 lbs over weigh once i posted those pictures i didn’t want my next progess pictures to look worse or the same.

  17. I could not agree with your logic more. I have found that making my goals public knowledge keeps me in check until I accomplish what I have set out to do. If I give up, then I have to deal with that awkward “Hey, how’d you do in such and such that you were telling me about?” So far it has worked well for me as I have only bailed from one event and that was because I sorely underestimated how much of my time our first born would take :)

    Good luck Lynita! There’s no giving up now, we all know about it!!

    • I’m exactly the same way. But it really seems that for some people, that’s just not the case, as I’m learning from the comments here. See some of the ones above and the link to the article on Lifehacker.

  18. Wow so timely. My hubby and I just did a pretty extreme cleanse. My motivation to stay true to myself and the cleanse was to post it everywhere, especially on Facebook since I knew my friends would see what I was doing and hold me accountable. Today is the Last day of the cleanse and I can honestly say I haven’t cheated, not even a bit. I give credit to myself and my husband for our willpower, but I know part was putting out there and not wanting to disappoint everyone else that knew what we were doing. Yes it’s scary because failure is always a possibility , but wow… how much better does it feel when you put it out there and succeed. Great article, thanks for the inspiration!

  19. I would tend to agree with this 100%, that is, before I heard speaker, Derek Sivers on Ted Talks talk about this very subject. Derek Sivers says it’s better to keep goals secret. He presents research stretching as far back as the 1920s to show why people who talk about their ambitions may be less likely to achieve them. Whereas it would seem that you would encourage yourself to succeed the more people you inform of your ultimate goal, your brain, in fact often interprets this ” goal announcement” as having already accomplished it. It can in, a sense, feel as though you have already put forth the effort to achieve it and hinder you in reaching your goal. I would have called BS on this had I not experienced it first hand. 2 years I have tried to loose weight joining every club, blog and group you can imagine. I told everyone I was on a diet, working out, and that I eliminated this that and the other and I always failed. After seeing that Ted Talk, I tried it, completely thinking I would fail, but here I am… 40 pounds lighter and people are always complimenting me at how I look now…. and not out of pity because they know I’m trying, because I genuinely look better and they had no idea of my goals.

    • This is interesting. Derek Sivers was the author of the article linked to in a previous comment, too. I’ll have to watch his talk (I’ve only recently started watching TED talks, and I love them.) Thanks!

  20. I believe this depends on the person. Some people thrive off of public support, while others (me!) are intrinsically motivated.

    When training for this year’s Chicago Marathon, I didn’t post any specific goals on social media. I did post, especially on twitter, about runs or workouts after I did them. Never by a specific time and rarely by distance. I did get a lot of wonderful support that way (and in person from family and friends), but I never put my specific goals out on social media to be accountable to it.

    Putting a goal out there and not achieving it would be negative for me. Heck, I missed my marathon time by 9 minutes, and even though I set a massive PR, I don’t want to tell people my marathon time until I run another 25 minutes faster.

    My point is – I certainly think it’s important to go out there, work hard and try. If you fail to meet your goal, that’s OK. There are absolutely worse things out there. That doesn’t mean I want other people to know about it. In the end, I’m a little too proud to put a goal out there and risking telling people I barely know or complete strangers I didn’t make it. It doesn’t matter. I am going to get there regardless.

    • After reading some of the comments on this post, I believe too that it depends on the person. For me, the “failing” each time that I told everyone I was going to qualify for Boston hurt. But while some people would be damaged by that, for me it made me want to get faster so that I could one day be proven right. (I’m not judging or saying that either is “better,” just that people respond differently.)

      Good thoughts here!

  21. Thank you for this. I excitedly signed up for a big HM (2013 Disney Princess) few months ago. I’ve read a dozen running books, downloaded several apps, and started a run/walk plan. But going from Couch to HM is harder than I thought it would be, and I am not getting the pace, distance, and time goals the program requires. The race is in four months, and I’m afraid unless I see huge improvements, I will be ‘swept’ by the slowpoke bus, and not earn my medal. I don’t care about time, but I just want a chance to finish. Part of me wants to downplay how important this race is to me. But you are right. I need to shout it from the rooftops. So even on days when I am exhausted, I will keep going – if only to ‘save face’.

    • Well, you’re right that couch to half marathon is no joke! You have my respect for trying, and probably that of anyone who you let in on it. Regardless of how it turns out.

      But four months is still a long time, longer than most half marathon programs! I wouldn’t be surprised if you notice some big improvements between now and then, especially since you’re a new runner.

  22. I can see both sides of this argument, but I’m pretty sure I had read Matt’s earlier thoughts on this and at least one other author’s ideas (Dawn Dais -wonderfully funny and encouraging) and so decided to tell EVERYONE last year when I started training for a marathon. Well, I ended up with a stress fracture and a very sad multiple month hiatus when it looked like I wouldn’t be able to run. At the end, though, it was the encouragement of one friend in particular who had understood how important it had been to me, who suggested I just give it a try and see what might happen. At that point my only real goal was to finish vertically, and thanks to my big mouth and that very true friend, I DID IT! My time was lousy, my feet (and just about everything else!) hurt, but I fulfilled my life-long dream. And I’m still running (only now I’m vegan and not just a vegetarian!). So I’d say, tell the world and hope for the best.

    • Margaret, I thought you were going to say the stress fracture kept you from running, and as a result of telling everyone about your goal, you suffered more embarrassment than you would have otherwise. (Which would be an interesting point to think about.)

      But I’m so glad you were able to finish. Make sure give that thing time to heal though; I rushed back from my stress fracture when I was training for my first marathon and I think it bothered me for many more months than it needed to.

  23. Wanderer159 says:

    Caution must be taken to the “one size fits all” approach. While I find Matt’s article full of encouragement, inspiration, and a bit of a butt kickin’… it also leaves a feeling of – What is wrong with me??? It should be so simple to make a grand, loud proclamation to the world of this feat someone has set out to accomplish, but for some, it is just not that simple. A few in this world do not like the spotlight, attention in sweet success is uncomfortable and plain devastating in “epic” failures. Each person must approach their mountain in a way that motivates them to achieve their absolute best which probably includes a little trial and error along the way. This life we lead, this journey we’re on is our own…no one else’s. Ultimately I’m the only one that matters. I have to live and cope with the accomplishments and defeats – and I should be enough. If someone finds out along the way that I don’t eat meat or that I’m training for a marathon or etc., so be it. It’s not time for me to go jot their name down in a “must please” journal. “So and so” knows…who gives a crap. Be honest with yourself in all you do – proclaim that!

    • You’re right. As we’ve seen from other commenters, this is a case where one size does not fit all. But as I said before, that’s how pretty much everything is. And this blog, any blog, would be really boring if every possibility was allowed for and covered in every post.

      But you make great points, and yours is a philosophy that I’m slowly coming to appreciate as I get older and learn from new perspectives.

  24. One of the reasons that I tell others what my plans are is so that perhaps this will motivate them too.

    I find that writing down my plans helps me even if no one else reads what I have written. I vocalize my plans as well, and this is helpful even if no one else listens.

  25. Hi Matt,
    I understand what you are saying but I am not sure that I fully agree with you. I agree that telling people can get you supporters you may not get otherwise but putting it on Facebook sounds like torture to me. I think the best motivation is what comes from within. A fear of public humiliation can get you to do something once but it may not be enough to keep you doing it again and again.

    I ran my first marathon in 2007. It was my third attempt when I finally made it to the starting line (after having failed twice before). Since then, I have run 4 more marathons and am training for my 6th one (Philadelphia next month). I think I continue because I really like it.

    Right now, I am trying to start a business in Sub Saharan Africa (of all places) and it is incredibly hard. I have failed multiple times in my work-life before, this is my first start-up and I sure as hell do not want egg on my face. But, what really keeps me going is not the desire to avoid public humiliation but the knowledge that what I am doing is really important and if I can get it done, it will impact thousands of lives. Funny, when I am very down, I think of the quote I have seen on marathon t-shirts,’ Pain is temporary, Pride is forever.’ Right now, I am doing fundraising and I have to talk to people about what I am doing. But, do I need to put it on Linkedin and torture myself? I don’t think so.

    So, no, I don’t think I need the fear of public humiliation to motivate me. Instead, I would take the motivation that comes from within.

    Kapil

    • Hi Matt,
      I am happy to report that I successfully finished my 6th marathon 10 days ago and eked out a PR as well. I have posted about this year’s marathon experience on my blog – http://tidingsfromnearandfar.wordpress.com/

      And, despite what I wrote earlier, I accepted your advice and posted about my start-up on both Linkedin and Facebook. That is the big mountain I am trying to climb right now. We will see how that goes.

      Kapil

  26. I agree completely. I’ve always been the kind of person that kept things private. Last June I decided to go vegan, quit smoking, signed up for my first marathon (using your plan) and a 50 mile trail run in March. To make sure I would follow through I let my family and friends all know my plans (all of them think I’ve lost my mind). I’ve gone one further by documenting my journey at http://veganultrarunner.wordpress.com/. I have found a lot of support through the blog, and now I feel that I won’t only be letting myself down if I fall short, but everyone that reads my posts. There’s a lot of support out there for anyone that wants to go outside of their comfort zone. No Meat Athlete is one place I turn to when I’m feeling like I might not make it. I will be proudly wearing a No Meat Athlete shirt in both runs.

  27. Thanks for the pep talk! I needed to hear that. I had set my 1st Marathon goal for last May. I told everyone about it, fought through a couple injuries and a major surgery, but I was still determined. I put it on facebook and wrote it in my blog, but ended up on the sidelines of what was to be my first marathon due to yet another injury, a stress fracture and a second, unrelated major surgery. Even still I was determined and started training again as soon as I was allowed. I’ve had to walk parts of the last two half marathons I was scheduled for, because I was still recovering. Today I sit, just 6 days away from the next 1/2 I’m signed up for. I’m looking at my taped up knee, a new injury that three weeks ago brought my training to yet another slow down and my running schedule was reduced from miles to minutes. Sunday is going to be “iffy”. The Physical Therapist isn’t sure I can do it. It’s all so frustrating! My 1st marathon is now reset for January, and I have to admit, I’ve started to let some doubt creep in. But today, that stops! I can do this and I will! Just watch me!

  28. Wow, I’m jealous of the people with supportive friends! When I first started trying to lose weight, even my TRAINER would shake her head and discourage me from my goal size/weight (it was 145, and I’m 5″8…nothing earth-shattering).

    When I began training for a half-marathon, people tried to discourage me be warning me about all the “dangers” of running, and how it will wear me down, etc. So, when I wanted to run a 50k trail run for my first marathon, I kept it to myself. Not because I’m afraid of failing, but b/c I’m afraid of so much negativity!

    Btw, my 5″8 now vegan self is 135lbs, and a size 2, and completed 5 half-marathons in 2 yrs. I’ve never been stronger or healthier in my life. My ultra marathon (my first marathon of any kind) is in 5 wks and I feel totally prepared for it. Screw them.

  29. Matt Frazier. Your blog is my favorite! Several months ago, I set out to train for my first half marathon. Failed… I’m not a runner (not a good excuse) and I just thought it was too hard. At 3 miles I’d say to myself, there’s no way in the world I’d be able to run 10 more miles at some point. Hoping to try again for the OKC memorial half marathon. Your blog always inspires me. Hoping I can really commit this time.

Trackbacks

  1. […] been a long time since I have set a goal for myself to accomplish. I really liked this article on No Meat Athlete about how to set goals.  There have been too many times where I set a goal and […]

  2. […] initially get me fired up about this was Matt’s post over at NoMeatAthlete, basically about how if we don’t balls-up (excuse the crude and vulgar language; it’s […]

  3. […] set a lofty goal for this race, but wasn’t willing to let it go. If you want to take the island, burn the boats. I know all too well from coaching and personal experience that as soon as you give yourself an […]

  4. […] you need to set a new goal – and then, as Matt Frazier at No Meat Athlete points out, you need to communicate that goal, to burn your boats. And yes, I think the argument that you need to keep your goals to yourself […]

  5. […] these quotes, as well as what Matt wrote earlier, in 2012, about burning the boats and going balls-out with our goals-setting, is so appropriate, and I think pretty universal, for any runner aspiring to realize any […]

  6. […] I get fired up about a goal that I have, my mind always leads back to Matt’s awesome post on burning the fucking boats (my paraphrase). If I don’t give myself the opportunity to go all in, to put it all out there […]

  7. […] I’ll never really know what I can do. There really is something to saying fuck it and just burning our boats, […]

  8. […] always link to Matt’s article about burning your effin boats when it comes time to goal-set, and while starting completely anew in the Bay isn’t exactly a […]

  9. […] further ado, going after your crazy-ass goals. And, as always, many thanks to Matt for putting this idea into my head many, many months […]

  10. […] thing about being vulnerable, about putting ourselves and our goals and our unicorns out there, and navigating the very real possibility that we’ll fail in front of all of humanity, all those thousands of people who know our goals and what we’re […]

  11. […] performance for the weekend” metric, I’m an avid, super-enthusiastic  proponent of burning our boats and setting goals, especially those of the crazy-ass variety, because fuck it, why not. You never […]

  12. […] reasonable performance for the weekend” metric, I’m an avid, super-enthusiastic  proponent of burning our boats and setting goals, especially those of the crazy-ass variety, because fuck it, why not. You never […]

  13. […] And then Matt Frazier over at the No Meat Athlete slapped me in the face with it in his post, How Most People Fail (Before They Even Start): […]

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