Subtitle: “How I Earned an All Expense Paid Trip to the Dominican Republic”
There’s a well-known study in behavioral psychology about the 1953 graduating class of Yale University. 3% of that class, upon graduation, committed their goals down to paper. 20 years later, follow up on the alumni from this group found that those 3% had acquired more wealth than the other 97% graduates combined! This study is frequently cited as a powerful testimony to the power of the written word.
Unfortunately, the study never happened. Yup, just like many urban myths that proliferate through email forwards and websites, there’s not a parcel of truth to this study.
Or is there?
Both Yale and Harvard (who is sometimes listed as the graduating university in variations of the story) have both confirmed that this study never existed, despite the fact that consultants, coaches and business managers have been quoting it as a foundational principle for achievement and goal setting for years. The persistence of this belief, to me, indicates that it is an idea that does still resonate with us, even despite the apparent lack of empirical data to support it.
I’ve always personally subscribed to the power of the written word, whether it’s using day to day logging (like food logging, or tracking exercise) or journaling for more long term goals and self-reflection. Recently, I’ve been cleaning out a filing cabinet that contains at least four years worth of papers and documents. In my paper shuffling, I came across some interesting pieces of evidence about the power of writing things down.
The first was a pretty heavy-duty piece of self-reflection that I had to complete as part of my coaching training, about 3 years ago. The questionnaire was an exhaustive 20 pages, but of course, I couldn’t help but dive in to see what had changed in the time that had transpired. One of the exercise involved evaluating how you spent your time vs. how you would like to spending your time, and as I read through exercise I saw that I had written that “I feel like I am living on adrenaline, constantly rushing from one thing on my to do list to the next and never feeling like I was actually present in the moment. If the only thing that changed after coaching training was this feeling, it’d be worth every dollar I’m paying to be here.”
I re-read that statement three or four times before I realized that I had really written that, and felt that way. I don’t feel like that at all anymore. I can’t say that I consciously came up with a plan to put in to place to slow down my life, although I could probably attribute the change to regular gratitude journaling, somewhat regular meditation, and saying “no” more often. I was amazed to see that while I had not consciously focused on creating that change, I had indeed created that change. (Guess my coaching training WAS worth every dollar I paid for it.)
The next thing I found was a “wheel of wellness” that I had created a few years ago to use with clients. It’s a wheel with various aspects of wellness (food choices, emotional eating, energy balance, etc) and the client rates their satisfaction on a scale of 1-10 in each wedge of the wheel. It gives you a picture of how balanced their life is, and it also helps identify areas to start working on. I had “tested it” on myself about 3 years, and had written on the back that the only area I was dissatisfied with was my food choices, in particular the amount of processed foods I used. I had written that my primary goals would be to cut back on diet coke (which was an at least once a day addiction). I shoved that paper into a drawer and never looked at it again.
But what happened? A few months ago, my husband and I decided we would stop buying soda to keep in our house. It’s still my ‘go to treat’ but now instead of having one every day for lunch, and sometimes again after work, I have 2-3 a week. I didn’t consciously make that decision remembering the wheel, but nonetheless, my written down goal has come true, again without really a great deal of effort!
Okay, you want to know how I went on an all expensive paid trip to the Carribean don’t you? The last piece a paper I found was entitled “BIG WIGS.” WIG stands for “Wildly Improbable Goals,” and comes from Martha Beck’s book Finding Your Own North Star. (A fantastic “soul-searching” book that I highly recommend.) Beck’s premise is to write down goals that are SO wild, so improbable, so crazy that you can’t even imagine how they’d come true. This gets you out of the “yeah, but….” self talk that tends to circle Somewhat Probable Goals (not very catchy, I know). I won’t tell you what all my WIGs were (because the other ones are going to come true, I know now)… but I had written “All-expense paid trip to somewhere warm and tropical with my hubby.”
WELL. I heard the Twilight Zone music start to play when I read this. Last year, I was talking to a friend who told me about a program where Personal Trainers could go work a week at a number of different resorts in exchange for their and guest accommodations and food. As I still had my personal training certification active, I signed us right up and last May, Matt and I lounged around in the Dominican Republic, all expenses paid, in exchange for 2 hours working as a personal trainer ever day.
Now, my WIG didn’t exactly mention I’d be working for 10 hours that week, but do yout hink I’m complaining? NOPE!
The last piece of paper was what struck me the most, because at the time, when I wrote it, I couldn’t foresee any possible way that we’d be headed somewhere warm and tropical … and not pay a dime. But that’s the magic… I couldn’t imagine it, so there was no doubt or anything to get in my way. There’s something powerful that happens when we write things down, and tuck them away.
Look, some goals need to be SMART goals. They need specifics, they need plans, they need follow-up. But some goals are either so big and too wild to tame (like my trip), or they’re a little fuzzy around the edges to create a how to plan (my “less adrenaline, please” goals.) And some goals fall in the “would be nice” category – you’d like to make them happen, but maybe they lack a little bit of the urgency that creates an “okay, what’s next?!” kind of plan. These goals might not need the same kind of systemic, SMART style plan that clearly defined, specific, and time-oriented goals need.
Some goals need plans, and some goals need incubation. The latter – the wild ones, the fuzzy ones and the non urgent ones, are the perfect types of goals to incubate. To write down, to dream about, and then to put away to hatch. I’m not promising that everything you write down on a piece of paper comes true, but I’m a firm believer that the actual act of committing your dreams or goals to paper is one of the very critical pieces in creation. It’s an act of intention. Taking it out of the mind, putting it consciously on to paper. Putting words to the dream.
Someone once said “a goal is just a wish until you write it down.” It may not have been a Yale graduate who uttered those words, but it’s sage advice nonetheless.
You don’t have to know how to make a goal happen yet. But writing it down is the first step towards committing your intention to making it happen.
I challenge you to write down 3 goals:
(1) one BIG WIG goal. Fairly specific, but so wild you can’t even imagine how it would happen goal.
(2) a fuzzy goal – a feeling or experience or a state of being you’d like. Again, you don’t have to know how it’ll happen.
(3) a non-urgent goal. Something you’d like to do, but don’t feel stressed about.
Write it down in a journal. Write in a piece of paper you fold up and tuck into the back of your filing cabinet. Leave it in the comments. Send it to me an email. (If you do, I promise to email you in 2 years and see where you are!)
Just begin with the intentional act of committing your goals to the written word, and let the magic take hold. Trust me, you’ve got nothing to lose and maybe a vacation to go on…. Endless pina coladas by the poolside? Yes, please!