How to Achieve Goals

There’s a reason most people never achieve their dreams. The main reason is because they don’t have a clear idea what they want. Ask most people what they ant and they’ll give vague goals like “I want to be rich” or “I want to be happy.”

The problem with these types of abstract goals is that they aren’t specific. What does it mean to be rich? What kind of life would you ant to be happy? Each person’s idea of being rich or happy is different.

In the book “Mind Hacking,” author Sir John Hargrave suggests ways to change your life by changing the way you think. It’s far too easy to coast through life on inertia, and then forty years goes by and you suddenly wonder what happened. While it’s better to wake up later than never, it’s also better to wake up now than later.

The “Mind Hacking,” book offers one interesting technique to change your life as related by Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip:

Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic empire, is one of the most successful cartoonists of our time. In addition to being published in thousands of newspapers worldwide, Dilbert has been spun off into several bestselling books, an animated series, and hundreds of Dilbert-themed toys and games.

But at one time, Scott Adams was just another midlevel office drone in a large, bureaucratic organization, just like Dilbert. Adams had always dreamed of becoming a cartoonist: from an early age, he adored Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, and felt that drawing such a strip would one day be his career. As an adult, however, he found himself working a “number of humiliating and low-paying jobs” in northern California. He was continually looking for a way out, so he could make his cartooning dream a reality.

A friend told him about a repetition technique, where you write down your positive mental loop, fifteen times each day. His friend claimed that it worked for her. “The thing that caught my attention,” he related, “is that the process doesn’t require any faith or positive thinking to work.” Just the act of writing down your loop, she claimed, was enough to make it happen. In the spirit of self-experimentation, and figuring that he had nothing to lose but time, Adams gave it a try.

His first attempt was the straightforward:

I, Scott Adams, will become rich.

In his books The Dilbert Future and How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, he tells the story of making two ridiculously lucky stock picks that came to him out of the blue that year.95 Both were long shots, and both ended up being among the top market stories that year. He sold both stocks immediately, so he wasn’t rich, but the odds of an amateur picking two red-hot winners seemed unlikely.

He was less skeptical of the technique, but still not quite a believer. He decided to try the technique on another goal: getting an MBA from University of California at Berkeley. He had already taken the GMAT test that’s required for MBA applications, and scored in the 77th percentile: not good enough for UC Berkeley. So he began writing down this positive loop, fifteen times each day:

I, Scott Adams, will score in the 94th percentile on the GMAT.

In the weeks leading up to the test, he bought GMAT study books, and took plenty of practice tests. Each time he scored at about the 77th percentile. Still, he patiently wrote down his positive loop, over and over, fifteen times each day.

The day of the test came. He took the test, feeling that he had scored about the same. He kept up the repetition technique as he waited for the GMAT test scores to arrive in the mail.

Finally, the test results came. He took the envelope out of the mailbox, opened it, and looked at the box he had pictured in his mind so many times before. He scored in exactly the 94th percentile.

Adams recounts:

That evening, I sat in a chair with the GMAT results next to me, alternately staring at the wall and then staring at the ninety-four. I kept expecting it to change. It didn’t. And that night I knew that nothing would ever be the same for me. Everything I thought I knew about how the Universe was wired was wrong.

After earning his MBA, still working his day job, he began repeating a new loop. Each morning, before he left for work, he would get up at 4:00 a.m. to draw what would eventually become Dilbert. He also began to write this positive loop, fifteen times each day:

I, Scott Adams, will become a syndicated cartoonist.

Despite a number of setbacks and rejections, and through a series of unlikely coincidences and lucky breaks, he eventually became a syndicated cartoonist. In fact, he’s arguably the most syndicated cartoonist alive today: Dilbert is published in 2,000 newspapers worldwide, in 65 countries and 25 languages.

With his analytical mind, Adams tried to reverse-engineer why this technique works in his books,and in various posts to his blog.

While he called his experiences with the repetition technique “fascinating and puzzling,” as well as “wonderful and inexplicable,” he also was careful not to attribute them to “voodoo or magic.” Instead, he theorized about a logical explanation, even acknowledging that it might be nothing more than “selective memory” (perhaps he tried the repetition technique multiple times, but only remembered his successes).

Adams points to research done by the psychiatrist Richard Wiseman, in which he studied people who described themselves as “lucky.” It turns out they didn’t have any special powers, except for one: they were more likely to notice opportunities. As Adams puts it, “Optimistic people’s field of perception is literally greater.” If you are methodically repeating your goals each day, you are more likely to notice the people and situations that can help you achieve those goals, as they present themselves.

In my experience, this is absolutely true. When you repeat your goals daily, you set your expectations accordingly, and you begin viewing situations in a different light. If you’re repeating your goal of losing weight, and someone invites you to a kickboxing class, you see it as an opportunity, not another way to embarrass yourself. If you’re repeating your goal of becoming an entrepreneur, and they’re going through layoffs at your day job, you might see it as an opportunity to take the severance package and strike out on your own.

Adams also points out that repeatedly writing things down takes effort. Because you are investing time and energy in this small goal, you are committing yourself to investing time and energy in your larger goal. It is a way of kickstarting your mind into achieving your dreams, a kind of mental bootstrapping.

“My favorite explanation … also has the least evidence to support it,” Adams concludes, “i.e., none.” In this explanation, reality is so mind-bogglingly complex, that our minds simply deliver a “highly simplified illusion that we treat as facts.” In this model of reality, the constant repetition of our goals may be a “lever” that we use to create some natural chain of cause and effect, but not a chain we are capable of understanding. So when the results come, by what appears to be luck or coincidence, it is simply by natural laws that are not yet fully understood. “While this view is unlikely to be correct,” he admits, “it has the advantage of being totally cool to think about.” (It is also similar to the ideas of Plato and The Matrix: a deeper reality lies behind this one.)

In the end, Adams’s repetition technique is one of the easiest self-experiments you can try: it’s totally free, and you have nothing to lose but your time. “Here’s a good test of your personality,” Adams concludes, in response to the skeptics. “If all of your friends told you that they win money on the slot machines whenever they stick their fingers in their own ears, would you try it? Or would you assume that since there is no obvious reason it could work, it’s not worth the effort?”

Why would this repetition method work? Here’s one reason. By clarifying what you want out of life, you’ll be more likely to spot opportunities to achieve that goal. If you aren’t clear about what you want, opportunities will pass by and you won’t even recognize them.

By constantly thinking about what you want, you’ll steer your life towards not only spotting opportunities that will help you achieve that goal, but also take action everyday to make that goal a reality.

If your goal is to become a cartoonist like Scott Adams, then one action you’ll eventually need to take is to start drawing cartoons. Far too many people have a dream and do nothing to achieve it. By constantly writing down your goal, you’ll remind yourself to take action daily to work towards that goal.

Every positive action towards your goal will help, much more than not doing anything at all.

So try this repetition technique. You literally have nothing to lose.