Book Impression: “Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals”

Book Impression: “Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals”

Reader Eugene Meidinger left a comment on yesterday’s post Optimizing Later, where I pondered some of the difficulties I felt in starting tasks that I knew were useful yet unexciting. He mentioned the book Succeed: How Can We Reach Our Goals by psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D, as being an amazing book. Although the title of the book turned me off—I’ve seen soooo much mediocre goal-setting advice—I grabbed a Kindle sample to flip through. I bought the complete book 5 minutes later.

Although I’m just 20% through a fast read, I’m already planning to go buy a physical copy of the book for my shelf of canonical reference material. Perhaps I just haven’t been paying enough attention to the “motivational science” book scene, but I found this book to provide a WEALTH of new-to-me concepts that I’d half-stumbled over for years, but have been unable to define beyond gut feeling and personal experience. As a bonus, it’s much more readable than Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, which has a wry academic cadence interwoven into the material that keep me guessing as to his intent. Maybe this is by design, building plausible deniability into the material in case mobs of “serious academics” were to peer-review him behind his back…but I digress.

While I plan to do a full review sometime in the next year (or ten, given my current progress on this), here’s some takeaways:

  • Some people believe in FIXED levels of intelligence, while others believe it is MALLEABLE. I’m totally on the MALLEABLE side, which gives rise to belief I can do things. There is research that shows that the mere belief gives rise to increased success.
  • Believing that ACHIEVING is EASY, though, has a negative correlation with success. Apparently, we’re far more likely to succeed if we believe it’s going to be difficult.
  • Willpower is like a MUSCLE. It can be exercised and developed. It has a limited store of energy that must be replenished.

I’ve written about various aspects of this over the years, as I’ve experienced the ups and downs of trying to achieve my own vision of what it means to be happy. The above (which is just from the introduction) seems to fit, AND it is based on research observations. The upshot is that I am NOT BROKEN. I’m just human.

Flipping randomly through the remainder of the book (I’ll review this fully at some later time), it seems filled with the familiar material one might expect from a goals book, except steeped in psychology. If you are of an introspective nature and enjoy understanding the differences in mindset that give rise to certain behaviors, you’d find this book fascinating. If you’re looking for a DO THIS THEN THAT book, probably not. I’m of the former persuasion, so I’m jazzed about filling in some gaps in my own personal approach to productivity.

For example, somewhere in the beginning of the book there’s a description of the ways we think of goal choices that are easy versus difficult: we tend to think either in terms of WHY or WHAT. As a dreamer that looks for meaning in everything, I often think in terms of WHY I do something. However, this turns out to be a less effective approach than WHAT to do when the goal is DIFFICULT. There’s an interesting study cited about coffee drinkers and heavy mugs that show the mental proclivity to think one way versus the other, depending on how much effort is required to drink the coffee. There may be a correlation between this and my own stuckness relative to goals, and how I find writing to be the way that I get through things. I often just write what I’m doing to keep continuity and context. This worked, I thought, because my memory and attention needed backup…but perhaps it’s related to WHY and WHAT approaches given a particular kind of task.

Anyway, check it out:

Thanks, Eugene, for pointing this book out to me.


  1. Harry @ GoalsOnTrack 12 years ago

    Thanks for the review. I read this book a year ago. It was indeed a great book on goal setting, with research and study based advice, some of which are pretty valuable.

    It’s sad that people go around trying to achieve goals, without first learning a little about what works and what doesn’t. A lot of times is not us who failed to reach a goal, but rather the method we used.

    Great book, highly recommended!

  2. Eugene Meidinger 12 years ago

    Thanks so much for the post and backlink! This really made my day. This really is the best self-help book I’ve ever read and I’ve read a lot. It’s great to hear that you may be able to use some of these concepts in your design.

  3. Jackie Flaherty 12 years ago

    I found your blog through a mutual acquaintance on LinkedIn and was intrigued by what you do- Creating Functional Stationery. Being a letter writer and lover of stationery and supplies, I felt compelled to check out your blog.

    It so happens I’m listening to this book on tape and am loving it, so was pleased to see you mention it and give it such a good review (I still have 2 CDs to go). I happened to find it in the library while I was looking for a new audio book to listen to in my car. I’m very glad I did. I’m going to try the “If this happens, I will do that” approach.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  4. Baker 12 years ago

    Good review. Many inspirational messages here on this post.

  5. Peter Knight 12 years ago

    It’s interesting you mention both the ‘will power as a muscle analogy’ and growth mindset. Carol Dweck has been one of the main researchers studying the growth mindset vs fixed phenomena and she has also done an interesting study on will power which in some ways attacks the idea of will power as a muscle. Here’s a NY times article by Dweck that touches on it a bit

  6. Author
    Dave Seah 12 years ago

    Peter: Great counter-article! I tend to believe, without having much proof, that a lot of this is trickery. I can trick myself once into accomplishing something, and then after that it doesn’t work again. What Dweck and Co wrote in the NYT article seems to be similar. My extended takeaway is that willpower, as a control function with a corresponding biological mechanism, may not exist. Willpower, perhaps, is more of a value word, an assessment of our reaction to our self-observed efforts to make some kind of change in our environment.

    Maybe the useful realization to come from this is that “things happen” regardless of what we do. More things happen, though, if we apply effort of any kind. Successful approaches are discovered, and this may adjust the way we apply our effort. Witness squirrels and bird feeders. The difference between squirrels and humans is that we make up stories and assign the idea of will + cause + effect to everything. Squirrels just bombard the feeder with everything that they try until they find something that works.

    Concepts like willpower, courage, intelligence, belonging, community…these are concepts that are in our collective heads, and we look at them as empowering parts of our life. I suppose if it comes down to it, they aren’t necessary to consider unless they are limiting one’s belief about what is possible in non-fatal situations.

    To me, that suggests a universal set of doing principles:

    • You watch anything long enough, it will change.
    • You apply any effort to a task, it will change.
    • Your ability to observe, assess, and then cause the change empowers you.
    • Your ability to harness the change on your behalf sustains you.
  7. Peter Knight 12 years ago

    I like your take on willpower. It’s definitely interesting to figure out what willpower because it’s central to how we think about goals and how we get things done. I think the biological mechanism that scientists have been looking for (and haven’t quite found) is forcing a rethink on willpower.

    It’s fascinating to me that beliefs about willpower can influence our ability to sustain efforts without the resistance we associate with the breakdown of willpower, which Dweck appears to have proven through her studies. I think therein lies the key, working against resistance I think is what depletes willpower. If our willpower is stronger we are more capable of grander feats to overcome this resistance. I think that’s why thinking of willpower as a trainable muscle is compelling.

    But just looking at the resistance part of the equation, that comes in multiple flavors, much of which is psychological. Playing a very difficult, mentally taxing game can be incredibly addictive and hours can fly by without really impacting willpower levels. Pushing oneself to do a tedious task that by comparison is less taxing but can quickly deplete our willpower. I think this work-play contrast demonstrates the impact of psychological resistance on willpower. An activity that conjures resistance taxes our willpower levels. If you can modify and reduce psychological resistance, it follows that we probably would need less willpower to get things done.

    Dweck did that with her studies by implicitly illiciting a belief that the activities that the subjects in the study were doing were energizing versus depleting. As a result it seemed as though the subjects weren’t showing the depleting effects current willpower theories would have predicted. I think her main point was to show that a belief in willpower being limited vs unlimited makes an impact, much like having a fixed or growth mindset. I would say that willpower has everything to do with the force of resistance and resistance is so often based on beliefs and expectations, all of which are of course adaptable. The group that experienced less resistance in her studies didn’t show the same signs of willpower depletion (at least that’s my theory). The empowering thing is that the studies demonstrated how easy it is to modify psychological resistance by triggering different expectations. I think the trick with reaching goals is as much about figuring out ways to reduce resistance as it is to build willpower.

    Regarding the WHY/WHAT you mentioned, that strongly reminds me of Simon Sinek’s material but I haven’t quite connected the dots there yet. Interesting stuff