You deserve a big hug

One of my fencing coaches told me today, "You're one of the people on the fencing team who deserves a big hug at the end of the season for your hard work."

I appreciated this comment. I appreciated it far more than I expected. What I appreciated was not the implicit compliment (nice as that is), but that someone had noticed the time, effort, and thought I put into the team and into improving my own fencing.

Back to ambition

If you take a look at my recent rambling on ambition, you'll find I think it's up to you to achieve what you want to achieve. You're the only person you'll have to blame if you're not satisfied with how you've lived your life, be it a sport that you'd like to excel at, a dream job you want to have, a novel you plan to write. The only person who can get you the places you want to go is you.

I call this drive and determination to do the work needed to do the things I want to do ambition. A friend of mine, though, noted that "ambition" often has negative connotations. It's associated with evil overlords and corporate weasels. And "work," that's associated with external imposition. It's something to be avoided. This comment made me think: Why do I approach work (and ambition) differently?

Fencing coaches give good advice

The most prominent influencing factor that came to mind was my first fencing coach, George Platt. He was a cheerful, positive man, and he explained the difference between achieving success and achieving excellence to all his fencers. Success, he said, is how good you are in relation to the rest of the world.

Success is job promotions and high salaries and winning medals in competitions. Excellence is how good you are in relation to how good you individually can be. Achieving excellence is being the best you can be, regardless of how good anyone else is. And that should be your goal: being the best you can be. Doing what you enjoy and putting effort into the things that are important to you.

Most of us, we'll never be The Best at anything. The hard part is not letting failure to achieve success dissuade us from continuing to pursue excellence. It's easy to be discouraged. It's easy to fall into the trap of "I work, but no one else does and no one appreciates it, so I'm going to stop." It's easy to lose motivation. So in a world increasingly full of lazy slackers, we need to acknowledge the people who do work hard, no matter what results they garner. That acknowledgment may be exactly what they need to keep going.


I don't understand people who don't have ambition.

I was talking to a friend yesterday about my summer plans. I'm currently applying for a variety of internships and summer research programs. Another student happened to be listening in, and he said, I don't want to do anything with my summer.

I can understand the desire for a lazy summer. I find free time (which I inevitably fill with my own projects and activities) just as appealing as the next person. But this guy, he's a senior in college. What's he going to do, bum off his parents when he graduates? That'll look great on his resume:

Coach Potato - Hometown, A State. June 2010 - August 2010. Sat on couch, wasted time on the internet, smoked pot, watched TV, ate chips, played video games.

But it doesn't make sense to me for a person who wants to succeed and excel to not work towards that goal. Sure, maybe not everyone has high-flung aspirations. But everyone wants to do something. If you could be paid to be a professional coach potato, then absolutely, spend the summer doing that. But if you want to do research, if you want to be a lawyer, if you want to be a film director or work a high-salary job in the pharmaceutical industry... If you know what kind of experience you'll need to get that dream job... why aren't you looking for the opportunities that will let you achieve what you want to achieve?

It's your life, do what you want

In the end, all that matters is whether you're satisfied with how you've lived your life. Me, I know that the only person I'll have to blame if I'm not satisfied is me. It doesn't make sense to not put in time, effort, and thought.

Conclusion: The world is full of stupid, lazy, and boring people. If you don't fall in one of those categories, I applaud you.



I'm not one to make New Year's resolutions.

mean, sure, I could take my pick of popular New Year's resolutions; I could decide, on the first day of the new year, that this year, I'll start exercising more and eating better, or that I'll spend more time with my family and friends, or that I'll learn a new skill. And if I chose to make resolutions, I'd be far from alone--a 2008 survey on found that 66% of the 2000+ adults polled had made resolutions at some point (though only 17% managed to keep them).

Making resolutions: It's about self-control

The question Anirban Mukhopadhyay of the Hong Kong University and Gita Venkatarmani Johar of the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University asked is this: What determines how many goals a person will set, and how successful a person will be at achieving those goals? They performed a few studies in 2005 to look at the relationship between self-control, goal setting, and goal achievement. They suggested that what you believe about self-control affects the goals you set and achieve [PDF].

In the paper, "self-control" is used to mean a sense of willpower. Mukhopadhyay & Venkatarmani discuss various lay theories of self-control, noting that the amount of self-control a person has can be seen as either an inherently limited or unlimited resource, and that this resource can be seen either as malleable or as fixed (the amount of self-control a person has can change over time, or not). An important premise to note here is the idea that the probability of choosing a goal or making a resolution increases if a person thinks that goal can be attained. So if you think you'll be able to achieve a goal, you're more likely to set it. Combine this with theories of self-control, and in general, if you believe you have unlimited stores of self-control, you'll set a larger number of goals. If you believe self-control is malleable but limited, you'll set fewer goals.

Mukhopadhyay & Venkatarmani also discuss self-efficacy: belief in one's capabilities, the perceived ability to carry out a desired action. They propose that people with high self-efficacy--people who believe that failure is the result of insufficient effort, and thus exhibit increased commitment and persistence--will achieve more of their goals than people with low self-efficacy, who tend to view failure as the result of deficient ability, and thus may simply give up.

The studies

In the first study, 85 participants (all college students) each read one of four passages presenting lay theories of self-control. Each passage contained two paragraphs; the first discussed self-control either as limited or as unlimited, and the second discussed self-control as either malleable or fixed. The participants then answered questions about their belief in each of two theories presented, followed by a second questionnaire to assess motivation, in which they listed all their current goals.

The study was testing whether a belief in unlimited, malleable self-control would result in most resolutions, and indeed, this is what was found. The experimenters had some concerns about participants' natural beliefs in relation to the passages they read, however, so in study two, the order of the two measures (lay theories and motivation/goal listing) was varied. Data from 130 new participants revealed that, as hypothesized, if the motivation & goals questionnaire were assessed first, then among the people who believed self-control is malleable, those who also believed self-control to be unlimited (vs. limited) set more goals. When lay theories were assessed first, this result reversed. The people who believed that self-control is fixed were unaffected by order.

The third study moved on to examine goal achievement, adding a measure to look at self-efficacy. The study had two sessions, in November then February. In the first session , the 159 participants read passages about lay theories (much like in study one, but with longer passages to strengthen the manipulation), listed the resolutions they were planning on making at New Years, rated how disappointed they would be if they failed to keep their resolutions, and filled out individual difference measures (which included a self-efficacy scale). Only 86 participants successfully returned for the second session, during which they indicated how much success they had had at keeping their resolutions.

What does this mean for your resolutions?

The resolutions made by participants across all conditions were qualitatively similar (take a look at any list of popular New Year's resolutions, and you'll see the majority of the goals). As shown in the first two studies, more goals were set by people who believe self-control is unlimited and malleable than by any other people--that is, if you expect more success, you may increase the difficulty and number of tasks that you set for yourself. Self-efficacy did not have a significant effect on goal-setting.

As far as success goes, only the interaction between lay theory and self-efficacy was significant. If participants believed in limited self-control and were low in self-efficacy, they tended to give up more often, failing to achieve their goals. But if participants believed in unlimited self-control, self-efficacy had no effect; participants achieved just as many goals regardless, and people who set more resolutions were marginally more likely to succeed.

Mukhopadhyay & Venkatarmani realize that their research does not directly look at the relationship between lay theories of self-control and beliefs about one's own amount of self-control and self-efficacy, and propose this as an area for future study. But in general, lay theories about self-control can determine how much success you'll expect (and thus, how many goals you'll set), and self-efficacy beliefs can determine how much success you'll actually have.


Mukhopadhyay, A. & Johar, G.V. (2005). Where There Is a Will, Is There a Way? Effects of Lay Theories of Self-Control on Setting and Keeping Resolutions. Journal of Consumer Research, 31, 779-786 [PDF]