Sigmund Freud wrote a lot about sex but he also made one observation that is relevant to business: the energy of the id can be discharged either by doing or by fantasising.

Modern bookstores are full of pap offering shortcuts to wealth and success through positive visualisation. They are porn for your ambition. Do not buy them.

Recent academic work by Gabrielle Oettingen outlines that positive visualisation decreases the likelihood of you achieving what you are visualising. The act of dreaming discharges ambition. A central part of the success fantasy is to mentally airbrush the work needed to get there.

Irrational positive thinking encourages half-hearted steps toward unobtainable goals and diverts personal resources away from what is achievable.


Oettingen describes the act of dreaming of success in isolation as indulging. She talks about mental contrasting, in which subjects consider their ambitions then their present situation and the obstacles between them. This forces a focus on what is obtainable and channels efforts into productive activities.

In a 1996 study, one group was asked to visualise success in a darts competition, the other to reflect on past mistakes and what could be done to correct them. The latter did much better than the former. Focusing on past failures produces better work than dreaming of future successes.

Many readers will be familiar with James Collins' Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG), outlined in his 1994 book, Built to Last. What has been lost since is that Collins did not say fantasising about a BHAG was enough. There were years, sometimes decades, of toil between formulating the BHAG and its achievement.

Today's fetish, the power of positive visualisation, with nonsense slogans like "Impossible Is Nothing", deludes the weak of mind that success need not come through combined inherent talent, hard work and luck, but will be delivered at no cost merely by thinking of success.

We overestimate the prospects of success and tend to ignore our failings. Better to face the truth. Failure is everywhere. Almost all childhood dreams go unsatisfied and the girl of our dreams is just that. Focus on what is likely to go wrong and you are more likely to succeed.

The act of fantasising about success has the same effect as fantasising about sex. If accompanied by certain repetitive movements, the fantasy can lead to a release, making you more relaxed, giving a sense of satiation and an absence of desire to achieve your actual goals.

Stop it. And do some work.