Why Visualizing Success Is Bad For You

Photo by Bobby Lim

When one starts a project, it’s natural to imagine the outcome first. After all, a little fantasizing can’t hurt. Once the project succeeds, the trappings of fortune and fame shall be all mine!

In self-improvement circles, this is called “goal setting” and “visualizing success”. We are told that this is the right thing to do, yes? Begin with the end in mind, right?

On the contrary, this kind of thinking can indeed hinder your progress. Here are three reasons why.

ONE: Once you start on your project, you will inevitably hit road bumps. The grind involved in getting your project off the ground has little resemblance to the vision of grandeur in your mind. You get discouraged. This is not what I signed up for.

TWO: Visualization “tricks” your brain into thinking that you have already achieved your goals. Remember that your mind can’t consciously tell the difference between your imagination and reality. This will probably hurt your drive, because in your mind, you are already at the (successful) end of your journey.

THREE: The longer it takes for you to complete the project, the more dissatisfied you will be with your progress. Visualizations of success make it difficult to delay gratification.

The better thing to do is to approach the project from the other way. (I learnt this from Robert Greene’s 50th Law – pages 229 of the first edition.)

Start by immersing yourself in the details of the subject of your project, reading, writing and thinking about the material as deeply as possible. This research phase of your project is intense and mentally draining.

With this foundational knowledge, you can then design your project grounded in reality instead of the unrealistic projections in your head.

Projects fail because they are completely imagined in our minds through visualizations and projections of eventual success. By grounding our work in reality, we can dramatically increase our chances of success.

You can have high ambitions, but imagining yourself to be successful before the work is done can be counter-productive.