The Dark Side Of Motivation: How Fantastical Visualization Is Killing Your Dream

When you dream something worthwhile, whether it be starting that side project, writing that book you have within you, attaining your ideal physique, hitting a financial target, getting the promotion, or making an impact in your community, you really only have two ways to go about it.

You fight like hell to find shortcuts and put forth the minimal amount of effort with hopes to arrive at the goal. Or, you do the work required to give you the best chances to succeed. The latter is far more difficult. It demands that you do what is right, rather than convenient.

Even though this reads well on paper, it falls on deaf ears most of the time.

Emotions and feelings seem to be dominating our culture – it seems as though we’ve validated the idea that regardless of what is right, our emotions serve as our GPS, overriding any kind of logical thinking.

We’ve masterfully figured out how to separate ourselves from responsibility, ownership and commitment.

The end result?

You feel awesome. But there’s little to show for it.

Over the last few decades, there has been an explosion of self-help books that sweep across the country selling millions of copies. Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich was the breakout text in the 1930’s. Then, Norman Vincent Peale wrote The Power Of Positive Thinking a few decades later. In the 1980’s, Tony Robbins hit the scene and published Awaken the Giant Within.

The latest piece of self-help work that was massively received was Rhonda Byrne’s, The Secret – a concept grounded in the law of attraction.

When you read through these pieces, you’ll notice the connective tissue amongst them: Broad strokes of similar concepts that include goal setting and positive thinking.

However, you’ll notice that each piece of work undeniably showcases a nuance.

Think and Grow Rich was a manual that was published after the Great Depression, teaching people on how to make money. After World War II, The Power Of Positive Thinking was aimed to help its readers create a happy life and nurture healthy relationships. Unleash the Giant Within was geared towards teaching its readers effective strategies and techniques for mastering their emotions.

And then The Secret came along.

In the previous work from the self-help giants, substantive advice was offered. But, The Secret hit the scene and fed the part of our souls that whisper “I’m the most important thing on this planet and I deserve to get everything I want without having to do any real work to get it.”

It’s a manuscript for entitlement.

This is no way an attack on Byrne as a person. In fact, I respect the effort that was put into making The Secret. I just don’t agree with the concept.



What Is The Secret?

It’s delusional positive thinking that easily motivates us. And, it can also be a debilitating way for us to shackle ourselves.


Because it removes any kind of responsibility or commitment on our end in regards to achievement – or failure.

The Secret is a polished up version of the law of attraction. It states that whatever consumes your thoughts you will inevitably get in life. The concept isn’t discriminate towards desires you don’t want either.

So, if you think about all of the things you want in life, then you get what you want. If you think about all of the things you don’t want, consequentially, you’ll get all the things you don’t want. Therefore, The Secret advocates that you never indulge, consider, or nurture negative thoughts, setbacks or challenges.

For example, if you want to be strong, lean and healthy, visualize yourself as such. And then, the universe will respond to those thought frequencies and provide you with the outcome you visualized.

If you want to advance your career, visualize yourself occupying that corner office with a sweeping city view. The universe will respond to these vibrations and will provide you with your desire.

If you want to meet prince charming, visualize him picking you up in a chariot on your first date. The universe will notice your energy and align things to transpire as you wish.

On the opposite end, if you think you are fat and unhealthy, the universe will conspire to keep you that way.

If you think you can’t advance in your career the universe will close the door on all opportunities for advancement.

If you think you’ll never meet the beautiful woman to court as your wife, you’ll forever play call of duty in your basement while you eat hot Cheetos.

Or whatever.

Either way, this strips your capacity to focus on your own behavior. You shift the responsibility to the universe. Therefore, whether it’s good or bad, you don’t have to do anything to transpire a result.

Having a vision is something that high performance trainers, coaches and pastors all preach. Visualizing has a deep history, it can be traced back to the Old Testament: “With no vision the people parish.”

Undermining or completely neglecting the value of visualization is not the aim here. Rather, it’s the incompleteness of visualization that has crippled so many people into frustration, confusion and hopelessness.

Imagine this: On your kitchen counter you have 1 cup of cocoa powder, 2 cups of flour, 2 cups of sugar, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, 3 eggs, 1/4 cup coconut oil and 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract.

Each of these items are just stand-alone ingredients by themselves. However, when you mix it all together and bake it in the oven, you get a delicious chocolate cake.

Similarly, visualization, is not the whole recipe to goal achievement – it’s simply an ingredient. And when paired together with some other strategies (which we’ll get into later) you set yourself up for the best possible outcome.

Unfortunately, visualization has been elevated as the vessel for goal achievement. Meaning, we’ve forged the idea that visualization alone, is the ticket to reaching our goals.


Does Visualizing  Work?

Visualizing your ideal outcome has been leveraged and promoted in the self-help space for years. The claims are vast, stating that the simple exercise can help you lose weight, quit smoking, find prince charming and manifest the career of your dreams.

However, research shows that visualizing in a fantastical manner will motivate you, but the technique itself is ineffective for actually achieving goals.

In one study, Gabreile Oettingen and Thomas Wadden, at the University of Pennsylvania keep surveillance on a group of women partaking in a weight loss program. During the study the women were asked to imagine how they might behave in different situations that proved to be tempting – like going to a friends home with pizza being served.

Each answer was categorized on a scale that scored positive (for example a women might say “I would stay away from the pizza and I won’t touch the cake or ice cream) or negative (“I would probably indulge and have a hard time stopping”).

The women were then tracked for one year. The results showed that the women who had visualized themselves with a more positive fantasy of being perfect around tempting foods had lost, on average, twenty-six less pounds than those who visualized themselves with a less-than-perfect disposition around tempting foods.

Visualizing how righteous they were made them feel good, but it did not help them achieve the best result.

In another experiment done by Lien Pham and Shelly Taylor at the University Of California, they took a group of students and prompted them to spend a few moments each day visualizing themselves getting high marks on upcoming exams. They were instructed to form a clear picture in their mind about how great it would feel do well on this test.

The experiment had another group of students who were prompted differently for the same test. Both groups were asked to make a note of how many hours they studied each day.

The group that was instructed to visualize about an ideal outcome, studied less and achieved lower marks on the exam. The simple exercise of visualizing motivated them, but it did not help them do better on the test.

This same effect of visualization has been witnessed in career development too.  Gabriele Oettingen noted her students to document how often they visualized about landing that dream job after graduating. On a two year follow up the students who had spent more time visualizing fantastical outcomes reported back some interesting data points:

  • they had applied for fewer jobs
  • they had been offered fewer jobs
  • if they were able to find work, they had lower salaries

Visualizing about the dream job made them feel good, but it did not help them transpire the goal.

If visualization is promoted as positive, how can it be so detrimental to progress and achievement?

Those who drown themselves in fantastical visualization are typically not equipped for the inevitable setbacks and challenges that are encountered on the path to achievement. So when the storm hits, these people don’t have the resolve to whether the blow. Additionally, if they do make it through, they haven’t thought about how to respond – leaving them stuck, plateaued.

Secondly, daydreaming with visualization offers an easy escape from reality – therefore we become reluctant to work hard when visualization feels so good.

Anecdotal evidence shows us that visualizing without executing behavioral commitments doesn’t make any sense. But research is proving the same.

In an article in Psychology Today entitled Positive Thinking Leads to Economic Decline, scientist Matthew Hutson touches on visualization this way:

If you vividly picture a desired outcome (weight loss, a job offer), without also thinking in detail about what stands in your way, it’s a bit like you already have the prize, so you don’t strive so hard… all those vision boards that readers of The Secret have constructed—covered with magazine cut-outs of mansions and beach vacations and slim waists (but never world peace)—are likely to remain mere visions dancing in their heads.

Visualizing about your perfect world will make you feel good, but it’s unlikely that it’ll help you engage in the daily behaviors needed to transpire a dream into reality.

Now that we know visualization alone is a dangerous exercise to indulge in, lets understand why we do it even if we know it doesn’t work.


Why Do We Do It, Even If It Doesn’t Work?

Fantastical visualizing offers a reward that doesn’t fully satisfy.

In each case, the thought of achieving your desired outcome increases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates receptors in the brain called the nucleus accumbens.

Daniel Pink, author of Drive puts it this way:

The mechanism of most addictive drugs is to send a fusillade of dopamine to the nucleus accumbens.

The wave of dopamine raises levels to three to fives times higher than normal, providing temporary relief and pleasure. Dopamine, is the chemical basis for feeling excited, motivated, and energized.

Whenever a goal is set and fantastically visualized it triggers a dopamine release and sudden feelings of excitement and pleasure is induced. The process is intoxicating. Naturally, we want more of this.

The consequence however is that without any behavioral commitment execution to augment the excitement caused by visualization, is that nothing really happens.

You’re just sophomorically motivated, until you aren’t.

And then, you go daydreaming for the next thing to visualize so you can get feel energized again.

So here is the disconnect:

Fantasizing on your goals gets you high from a motivational standpoint, but it detracts from the inherent pleasures of the activities you need to pursue RIGHT NOW to achieve those goals.

This is known as creating a new social realityBy visualizing the goal over and over, it provides a false reassurance that you’ve already achieved the goal. Our brains, as remarkably unique as they are, actually have a hard time deciphering what is real and what isn’t.

Jeremy Dean, a psychological researcher at UCL Longdon says this:

The problem with positive fantasies is that they allow us to anticipate success in the here and now. However, they don’t alert us to the problems we are likely to face along the way and can leave us with less motivation—after all, it feels like we’ve already reached our goal.

It’s one way in which our minds own brilliance lets us down. Because it’s so amazing at simulating our achievement of future events, it can actually undermine our attempts to achieve those goals in reality.


The facade of achievement with fantastical visualization blinds us to the obvious shortcomings of this method. To break free, it’s important to highlight the collateral damage this tactic causes.


The Seemingly Obvious Shortcomings Of Visualization


Less Substantive Motivation

When you invest tons of energy to convince yourself that the hard work has already been done, and now all you have to do is wait for the goal to transpire, it influences you to step off the gas and wait for the good results to show up – much like ordering pizza on a Saturday night and waiting for the pizza boy to drop off the pie at your door.

If you’ve already achieved success in your mind, you don’t need to bother with the process of success.


Lack of Preparation

Relying solely on visualization influences you to neglect from preparing. The law of attraction states that if you draw up plans to prepare how you will achieve your goal,  it translates to you not having faith in the universe – thus defining the act of preparing as a negative. This makes you believe that it’s not your job to prepare.


A Sense of Entitlement

When the law of attraction take a foothold and you allow fantastical visualization to guide your journey, it’s nearly impossible to avoid a disposition of self-absorption – entitlement.

It burns a belief into the mind that “I am exempt from responsibility and I am owed special treatment. I deserve everything I want without having to do the work to get it.”

And if you don’t get what you want, you don’t dare evaluate where you could have done better – instead, you blame the universe.

But there’s a better way to motivate, and it doesn’t exclude visualization – it just properly leverages it in a way that is useful.


A Better Way To Motivate

Up until this point we’ve looked at how slippery and ineffective visualization on its own can be.

Fortunately, there are strategies on motivation that are not all phony and weightless.There’s a better way to motivate. Here are some strategies to try:


Be focused. Not Busy.

When you forge the habit of relying on visualization to transpire your goals, it’s painfully easy to become busy – busy dreaming about what could be.

And since fantastical visualization doesn’t require any real work or effort, it’s easy to pull a grab-bag of goals out of thin air and claim them as achieved. This leads to a mental circus of goal-setting multitasking. You just keep stacking goals on top of goals with no filter.

There’s no potency in this method. No focus.

Henry David Thoreou said:

It is not enough to be busy. The question is: what are we busy about?

Goal setting feels casual when you think it’s simply choosing it, visualizing it and then waiting for it to mature.

But goal-setting that carries substance requires effort, attention, perseverance. Meaning, you have a limited capacity to pursue goals – you simply can’t do everything. But we act like we can when we’re busy setting goals with no meaning.

Get focused on a few, and possibly just one goal.

In doing so, you won’t be able to commit to a lot of things, but the goals and commitments you do keep will get your full attention and effort.



Have a plan. 

Richard Wiseman, a psychologist and author of 59 Seconds, Think a Little, Change a Lot, conducted a wide scale study on more than five thousand participants who were attempting to achieve a broad stroke of personal goals.

The first finding he noticed was the successful participants had a plan – a playbook on how to tackle the goal. Author Zig Ziglar said this:

People don’t to wonder around and then find themselves on top of Mount Everest.

You may not be trying climb Mount Everest, but your goal is a figurative mountain that you won’t peak unless you have a plan of action to climb it.

Wiseman goes onto reveal some examples from his study:

  • A group of participants set out to find a new job, but the successful people rewrote their resume in week one and then went out for one new job interview every two weeks for the next six months. The unsuccessful participants did not devise a plan on how to go about getting a new job.
  • A handful of successful participants looking to gain more happiness in life scheduled time in their evenings to spend two nights a week with friends and visit one new country each year. The unsuccessful participants seeking the same contentment in life had no plan on how to do so.



Be an Optimistic Realist.

The fantastical visualization concept is attractive to the idealist. It disregards any potential setbacks or challenges that are probable along the path of goal achievement. The undertone is to expect a smooth ride.

However, being a pessimist isn’t the aim either.

Instead, positioning yourself as a realistic optimist will combine the positive outlook of an idealist with the clear eyed perspective of a pessimist.

Realistic optimists choose accuracy over entitlement.

Interestingly, realistic optimists are reported to have high levels of resiliency in the face of difficulty. They adapt to reality and are malleable enough to devise creative ways to breakthrough plateaus, bounce back from setbacks, and realize that failure is a real possibility (causing them prepare and work hard to succeed).

Realistic optimists believe that they have control over their behaviors – and thus, impacts the outcome of the result. This allows them to feel in control and empowered about the goals they set.



Kill it in Your Current.

Visualizing about a goal, sends you into the future. As we touched on, this robs you of the ability to find joy in the tasks you need to do right now.

Meaning, you shuffle the menial and boring work under the rug as a form of escapism in order to dance in your own head about that grandiose goal you have.

Brad Lomenick, author of Be Humble. Be Hungry. Always Hustle,  says this:

If you’re a second string full back, you better show up to practice like you’re a first string starter. You never know when your number will get called.

Kill it in your current situation.

In other words, give your best effort and present your foremost work regardless of circumstance.



Visualize Behavior Commitments, Not Outcomes. 

Earlier in this post, I touched on a study done by Lien Pham and Shelly Taylor on the effect visualization had on students preparing for an upcoming exam.

I purposefully left out an important piece of that fascinating study.

Another group of students were prompted to spend a few moments each day visualizing the process of when, where, and how they intended to study.

Compared to the students who were prompted to visualize the outcome (getting high marks on the test), the students who imagined themselves going through the process and doing the hard work of preparing spent more time studying and thus, earned higher grades.

The takeaway here is that visualizing is not inherently foul – if used properly. Visualizing the process (and not the outcome) for the students proved effective in reducing exam-anxiety and allowed the to prepare better.

This effect of visualizing extends beyond the classroom too. In sports, research shows that athletes benefit more from visualizing themselves training, instead of winning.

Visualizing behavioral commitments and witnessing yourself in the process, prompts you to take action on the tasks needed to be done in order to give yourself the best chance of success.


Wrapping Up

I didn’t write this piece to showcase that I haven’t fallen for The Secret.

In fact, I read the book and watched the movie. My ego has a huge appetite and the promise of this concept, The Secret, seemed too delicious not to try.

So I did.

I think you can figure out if it worked for me.

However, I’m not writing off visualization completely and I don’t think you should either.

Just always keep in mind that it’s an ingredient – not the whole recipe.