There’s an old Korean saying that my mother is fond of repeating: “You have nothing to fear from someone who threatens that he is going to kill you tomorrow.” In other words, if the speaker’s true intention were to kill you, he would have done it already. He would not have told you he was going to do it, unless he’s socially maladjusted or a natural over-sharer. There would be no reference to “tomorrow.” He’s not going to kill you tomorrow; he is not going to kill you at all. The mere fact that he said such a thing makes him an unreliable narrator.
It’s the same with people who tell everyone that they are working on a book. (Let’s assume I’m not talking about previously published authors who want to talk shop.) As with most writers, regardless of obscurity level, I often get approached by strangers who stupidly tell me about their projects. Be warned: When you say “I’m writing a book,” I think (but do not say), “No you are not.” And if you try to convince me you’re serious by adding, “I’m in a writing group,” I think, “You are really never going to finish your book.” So far, I have never been wrong.
This might at first blush seem like an obnoxious claim, but I’m sure you noticed this same phenomenon many times yourself, in different contexts. A common one that I used to pull often is, “I’ll finish this pack and then quit smoking tomorrow.”
The declaration of intention paradoxically reveals the lack of intention.
I’m not the only author advocating a vow of silence about one’s work. Also adhering to this practice was the late John Hersey, author of the 1946 New Yorker article “Hiroshima“—one of the seminal pieces of literary journalism. In an interview with Hersey’s son Baird, which the New Yorker ran last year, Baird recalled of his father:
[John Hersey] had this theory that you should never talk about a book you were working on… He felt that writers would lose the energy of their stories by talking about them. So we didn’t even know what he was writing. Then there would be a dinner after he had sent the manuscript to the publisher, and he would share with the family what the book was about.
Why does talking about a big goal, such as writing a book or quitting smoking, sabotage your ability to complete it? Because every time you talk about an unfinished project with someone, you are tricking your brain into thinking you’ve done some of the work. Talking about writing a book gives you the same mental fatigue and satisfaction that you’d get from actually writing for an hour. It’s demotivating.
What I’m advocating is hardly restricted to book authoring, nor is it an original idea (In fact, there are no original ideas, which is another reason why you shouldn’t expect people to be impressed by your dumb book idea). Digital music entrepreneur Derek Sivers made the same point in his controversial 2010 Ted Talk, “Keep Your Goals to Yourself.” Telling people your goals makes you less likely to achieve them, he argued, referencing a 2009 study in the Journal of the Association of Psychological Science entitled “When Intentions Go Public.”
In one of the experiments cited in that paper, psychology students at a German university were asked to tick boxes on a written questionnaire, which included the statement, ‘‘I intend to watch videotapes of therapy sessions to learn more about therapeutic techniques.” The students were asked to rate the strength of this intention on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 9 (very much). The students were then asked to view a 40-minute video of therapist-patient interactions and were told they should feel free stop the video whenever they wanted.
The authors of the study found that those students who gave a high number to their “intention” to view training videos in fact had a greater tendency to stop watching the training video before the 40 minutes were up.
By way of analogy: If your goal is to put aside $100 in savings, you should not be spending money on motivational crutches, such as packets of gold stars and inspirational office posters that say “Hang in there!” You might get to your $100 goal, but much more slowly than someone who is adult enough not to need the constant dopamine bursts.
One of the biggest mistakes people make in life is assuming that intangibles are in greater supply than money. All resources are finite—all of them—including the three traits that separate people who finish books from people who don’t: ambition, stamina, and your ability not to tire of hearing your own ideas. (Note that I did not include “writing ability” as an essential trait. Talent is a nice thing to have, but is literally not even tertiary in importance.) All three of these resources get depleted every single time you talk about your book.
There is of course the argument made by the ever-popular “intentionality” school of thought, that talking about your dreams out load helps you realize them into existence. I can’t speak for everyone, but I have literally never found this to be the case unless the goal can be accomplished all in one go, without sacrificing another goal, and with zero risk to the ego, such as “I’m going to the CVS this afternoon to buy more toilet paper.”
Intentionality does work, but only as a promise to oneself. Broadcasting your intentions to friends, family, and strangers does nothing to further your project; on the contrary, you are actively truncating it by misallocating mental resources.
For those who have been blabbing, fear not; the damage is not irreversible. Take a vow of silence on the project till you are finished. As for those with whom you’ve already discussed your project, don’t mention it again. If they bring it up, say you’ve put it aside for the time being, got busy, or just that you don’t want to talk about it because of this thing you read one time on Quartz.
Source: I’ve had two books published, and I didn’t tell anyone I was even working on a book until I had a firm contract from a publisher and a decent first draft. There are better writers out there than I with better ideas who have never been published. There’s nothing special about me except for my ability to keep my mouth shut.
Euny Hong is the author of The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World through Pop Culture (Picador 2014). Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.