When it’s good to be bad
Delistraty (Cody)
Source: Aeon, 10 March, 2016
Paper - Abstract

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  1. It is a common belief that to achieve a goal one must work at it constantly – not taking a circuitous path towards it when a straight one is available. … In order to achieve a goal, the thinking goes, one must not deviate from the straightest course; to allow for mistakes or failures is to torpedo your chances of attaining your goal.
  2. And yet a new school of thinking is challenging these received ways and arguing that straying from the path, even engaging in hedonistic behaviour, might be the surest way to success.
  3. Rita Coelho do Vale is an assistant professor at the Católica Lisbon School of Business and Economics, where she researches the human decision-making process with respect to self-regulation. She says that we not only can but should engage in behaviour antithetical to our ultimate goals.
  4. In experiments conducted with Rik Pieters and Marcel Zeelenberg, and published in January 2016 in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, do Vale surveyed the way people go about achieving their goals. She concluded that it is better to make plans to fail intermittently – to splurge on occasional luxuries when saving for a house; to have a slice of chocolate cake when trying to shed a few pounds – than to end up failing anyway and getting so demoralised you give up your goal altogether.
  5. In June 2007, Angela Duckworth published a revolutionary study, where she found that the personal quality of ‘grit’ was the single most important factor in success – more important even than socioeconomic background. The world of pop psychology was set ablaze.
  6. Duckworth’s findings are relentless. To a certain extent she’s right: people who are able to persevere despite repeated failure do tend eventually to find success. Yet this approach to goal-completion and this negative view of setbacks (they are to be overcome, not planned or revelled in) puts this version of success out of most people’s reach.
  7. The truth is, most people aren’t extremely gritty; they won’t be able to study for 15 hours a day for a spelling bee, or complete punishing military training courses in the summer heat. And not even the grittiest are guaranteed success. In fact, the mindset needed to maintain persistent forward motion can be its own setback. People who are obsessive and who want the very best for themselves tend to be the grittiest; they also tend, as University of Texas psychiatrist Monica Ramirez Basco writes in her book Never Good Enough (2000), to be ‘more vulnerable to depression when stressful events occur’.
  8. Plus, much as we may want to achieve our goals – and be willing to work for them – there are limits to our capacity for work and will. That’s because willpower is a finite resource, according to Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, who coined the term ‘ego depletion’. Ego depletion (or a dwindling reserve of willpower) is the reason that you may feel less keen to exercise after a hard day at the office; it’s the reason poorer people, after expending energy on finding the best price on basic goods at the grocery store, may then buy bags of Skittles and lowbrow magazines at the checkout counter. You only have so much willpower to use before you need to take a break from decision-making and let it replenish.
  9. ‘Slack’, which allows a person to use more of their cognitive and emotional resources, comes from having a cushier social and financial safety net, …
  10. You soon see how privilege can exert influence in goal-driven behaviours. In this light, the notion that hard work and passion are all that is necessary for success begins to seem woefully naïve. In almost every case, but particularly where slack is in short supply, it’s advisable to plan for a setback. ‘It’s important to plan in advance to fail,’ do Vale told me. ‘Perhaps we should call failure something different – a moment of indulgence, a moment of rest, a saving of willpower.’


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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
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