Years ago I learned a fundamental lesson about goals.
I was helping a company create a goal-based social network.
Users would sign up, tell us what they wanted to do, and update their progress on a daily or weekly basis.
But there was a problem: people weren’t logging in as much as we wanted them to.
We tried a bunch of things.
We added new features.
We made it easy for them to join social goals (goals that other people were also pursuing).
We added some new Facebook integrations & email notifications.
But the needle didn’t budge all that much.
To figure out what was wrong, I decided to interview a bunch of our users.
After a few conversations, I had an a-ha moment! I felt like a young Dr. Freud.
That what people say they want is *very* different from what they *actually* want… especially if others can hear what they’re saying.
Want to see this in action?
The next time you’re out at dinner with a group of colleagues (or friends) ask them about their New Year’s resolutions.
“Oh, I want to eat better.”
“I want to get into better shape. Beach body for the win!”
“I want to travel more.”
“I would love to read more books.”
Then, later, have a candid conversation with one of those people about how their life’s going.
I’ll tell you what you won’t hear in that conversation: regret over how many pages they read last year.
You’ll hear about their worries that they “won’t find the right partner”. You’ll hear about the lack of meaning they feel in their work. You’ll hear about the health scare they had last year, and their hopes that it won’t relapse.
In other words: You’ll hear about the real, burning problems that they have.
These are the *real* motivators in each of our lives.
But we don’t like talking about them.
Why? Because we’re ashamed of them.
We think that they’ll make us look weak and unsuccessful… and we’re worried that this will make us less attractive to others.
And, in some ways, that’s true. We all look up to those seemingly perfect people in our lives. They make it all look so effortless. They’re remarkable. We want to spend more time with them. We want to learn from them. We want to soak in their energy.
But no one is perfect, even if they project that image. They’re just masters of signaling.
We’re all signaling all the time (even if we don’t know it). Some of us are better at it than others, but we’re all born with the instinct.
We know to act like we’re strong and unbothered (even if we’re hurting). Why? It makes us look tough, healthy.
We know to force a laugh and tell our colleagues that we’re enjoying the project, even if we’re dying inside. Why? Because it makes us seem in-control, competent. It makes us seem stress free. “Psh, that silly little project? No problem!”
But while signaling may help us attract new friends and lovers, it’s not a good tool for self improvement. For self-improvement to occur, you need to first have a realistic picture of who you are.
You need to know the truth about yourself: your strengths, your weaknesses. And you have to own up to those unflattering truths. It’s only then that you can make the necessary changes in your life.
But, as you can tell, this isn’t a social activity. It’s a solitary one. It’s also a difficult, often shameful, one.
Which is why social goal systems will (pretty much) always fail. Unless they’re built on a foundation of honesty and truth, they will alway fall short of the mark.
After all, it’s human nature to impress others… and the only time the truth comes out to play is in those moments of solitude. That’s when we’re free to stare at our imperfections. That’s when we’re free to come up with a realistic plan for a better future.