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Is Success a Secret Or Is “The Secret” Just Positive Snake Oil?

written by Caroline Adams Miller 8 April 2007

Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP, ACC is a performance coach, author, and motivational speaker who specializes in helping people design and achieve their life goals. Full bio.

If you would like to reprint a Caroline Miller column, please email Caroline Miller for permission. Caroline's articles are here.

It’s hard not to notice the non-stop enthusiasm on television shows and in mainstream media for the phenomenon called, “The Secret,” which purports to tell us what we need to do to get more of what we really want in life, whether it be happiness, money, cars, better health, or any variety of desired outcome. 

I’ve cringed at the show/book’s premise, which flies in the face of much of what I learned at Penn in the Masters in Applied Positive Psychology Program, and that I’ve gleaned through study of goal-setting theory and many of the affiliated research topics. “The Secret” would have us believe that all we need are powerful intentions and a positive attitude to get more of what we want in life.  In fact, Jon Haidt, the author of “The Happiness Hypothesis” and winner of the Templeton Prize in Positive Psychology, exploded in anger when I asked him last week about “The Secret,” calling it “malpractice.” To hear more about Jon’s new book, his thoughts about “The Secret,” his Character Improvement Project for UVA students, and much more, listen to my interview of him.

Powerful Intentions Are Not Enough

The problem is that having powerful intentions is only a fraction of what is required to achieve important goals. The Secret overlooks one of the most important factors: getting what you really want is often just HARD WORK.  In fact, Angela Duckworth’s work at Penn with Marty Seligman and other research colleagues has shown that it is persistence in the face of long-term challenges that fosters “grit” and ultimately leads to success.  To hear Angela talk about her research on grit and why it is important to living a flourishing life, listen to my interview of her.

As a performance coach, I love to study high achievers in any domain — sports, medicine, education, parenting — because I always learn about traits of excellence that can frequently be “unpacked” and shared with clients who want successful change in their own lives.  And because successful change wrought by hard work is a mood-booster, it behooves those in the Positive Psychology field to understand how goals can be accomplished, but with the rigor of science behind it.

I teach a “Success Boot Camp” with my partner, Steve Kraus, PhD, who helped to debunk the myth of the Harvard/Yale goals study of 1950, and we have found a number of teachable points that can help people take control of goal accomplishment, which I will detail in this and upcoming columns on this site.  If you haven’t figured this out by now, all of the points we teach involve working hard at creating new habits, following through successfully, measuring progress, changing circles of friends, and learning how to persevere through discouragement.  I wish something as simple as powerful intention could do all of these things, but, alas, that hasn’t been found to be the case!  (Oprah — when are you going to air the “scientific” side of “The Secret”?!)


One of my favorite tools that has been studied by researchers is accountability.  This has been found to be one of the powerful ways we can accomplish goals and create more incentives, particularly if our goals are written and posted.  Let me give you a few examples.

In one study of a competitive swim team, researchers found that problems of chronic tardiness and absenteeism were dramatically improved by putting up a public dry erase board where swimmers would enter their own attendance rates when they arrived.  Within one year, absenteeism was reduced by 45%, late arrivals were reduced by 63% and early departures were completely suppressed (McKenzie & Rushall, 1974).  A follow up study was done to see if this type of public accountability and self-monitoring would increase work output at swim practices, which it did.  The swimmers who had public accountability for the number of yards swum at each practice averaged increases in output of 27.1%!

One more fun accountability report involves page output by writers/novelists.  I think that some people might believe that books get written whenever a writer is simply “inspired” and feeling particularly energetic, but that’s not the case (nor do they simply intend and desire that their books get written!).

Author Accountability

Irving Wallace, a well-known American novelist, said that charts on a wall, with recorded page counts, were the only ways he could think of to promote successful “discipline” that “encouraged” him.  Anthony Trollope, another popular author, created weekly diaries for recording his progress so that he wouldn’t slip into “idleness.”  He averaged 40 pages a week, but was careful to say that a page had to consist of 250 words so that he wouldn’t kid himself into thinking he was writing more than he was.  Even Ernest Hemingway had a technique like this; Hemingway posted daily word counts on the side of a cardboard packing case and set it up under a mounted gazelle head.

One writer takes the cake for creating a form of accountability that worked for him, and that would probably provide similar results in any other desperate writer.  Victor Hugo apparently used to confine himself to his study during regular “working hours,” and would instruct his valet to take every stitch of clothes from him during those hours, and to only return them when the block of time reserved for writing had passed.

The bottom line in any type of successful goal accomplishment — which is one of the standard features in the lives of happy, optimistic people — is that it involves clear intentions, hard work, accountability, written clarity, grit, persistence, pre-commitment, and much more. 

It’s Not Easy.

In a nation where kids are often allowed to quit sports midway through a season because they change their minds, or people fail to make good on promises because it’s “too hard,” a book like “The Secret” is seductive because it makes everything sound so easy.  But take the time to study what actually creates success and you’ll find that there are no short-cuts to getting what you want, and that you’ll feel even more delighted by what you actually achieve if the goals are challenging enough to push you outside your comfort zone, they force you to persist harder and longer than you want to, and they build confidence that you’re one of the “gritty” ones.

I don’t know about anyone else, but that type of persistent path just seems a lot more character-building, joyful and enduring than closing your eyes and hoping for the best, but given the sales figures from “The Secret,” it’s going to be a long time until that’s a popular notion.


Duckworth, Angela (2006). Interview by Caroline Miller. Angela’s podcast is the third one in the series.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Haidt, Jon (2006). Interview by Caroline Miller. Jon’s podcast is the fifth one in the series.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). Interview by Caroline Miller. Sonja’s podcast is the second one in the series.

McKenzie, Thomas I. & Rushall, Brent S. (1974). Effects of Self-Recording on Attendance and Performance in a Competitive Swimming Training Environment.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 199 – 206.

Wallace, Irving. (1977). Self-Control Techniques of Famous Novelists.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 515-525.

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Jeff Dustin 8 April 2007 - 10:53 pm


I’ve read a bit of the goal literature out there and it seems that a goal’s perceived utility or the happiness you expect to receive from a goal is a prime motivator. Yet if you haven’t achieved some imagined ideal, how can you reliably judge what is going to make you, personally, happier?

If you set a goal, but you have to become unhappy and miserable achieving the goal, even if you are happier at the end, have you really achieved anything at all? Is the tail wagging the dog?

Look, I wish I could say this is just theorizing, but actually I’ve wrestled with this idea for as long as I’ve entertained goals. The times I’ve spoken with self-styled high achievers and their lives appeared unbalanced. They sacrificed family time for a successful business or they went the other direction and are charitable souls with a net worth of 100 bucks.

Other examples are: the marathoner who hates marathons but runs because she’s afraid of getting fat. Victor Hugo stripping naked for accountability. If he was intrinsically motivated, would he have needed to lock himself up? And just how happy was his work life? Ernest Hemingway killed himself. There must be a golden mean somewhere and a method for arriving there. What good is an impressive trophy if afterwards you are still a miserable Wittgenstein?

I wonder if you can just shoot for the happiness directly as a goal. The positive achievements might just follow. Maybe then the dog will wag its own tail.

Adam Morris 9 April 2007 - 6:07 am

Hi Caroline,

The Secret also bothered me, because I felt it didn’t adequately address the “doing” part of creating what you want. At the same time, I think writing that getting what you want is “often just hard work” is also misleading. In my mind, hard work sounds difficult and not fun – something I would force myself to do.

When I focus on what I wish to manifest and let go of the notion that it is hard to achieve, then it opens me up to more possibilities present in the world. The journey to getting what I want then becomes easy and natural. Just as Csikszentmihalyi describes with the concept of flow, finding the right balance between your skills and the level of challenge can make the work you need to do highly enjoyable and engaging.

Jeff – the marathoner who runs because she’s afraid of getting fat sounds like someone who is acting out of fear. I think that’s very different from Viktor Hugo holding himself accountable. Perhaps Hugo loved writing, and wanted to write so much that he found a way to keep other distractions out. Holding yourself accountable seems to be another tool for making personal growth and achievement easier.

Jeff Dustin 9 April 2007 - 8:30 am


I don’t know the context of what Victor was thinking, but at first blush it seemed like a punishment more than holding himself accountable. Its hard to say not speaking with Vic directly. Maybe he liked to write nude. For me, though, not having access to even a pair of underwear and a bathrobe or something would seem very restrictive.
What if I wanted to pick up the newspaper or take a brief break?

Keeping in the spirit of flow, I think that if you really love doing something, accountability is often a liability. Accountability is a monkey on your back, an impediment to merely doing what you proport to love. People don’t need accountability to eat, have sex, listen to good music, do drugs or pursue a favorite hobby. Allegedly there are many who love these activities. The flow state is often achieved solitarily through painting, rock climbing, meditating Koreans and prancing ballerinas. If somebody was nagging me to do any of these activities it would suck much of the fun out of it. Then its not a hobby, just a job, like washing dishes or taking out the trash.

Its when you dread some aspect of your goal that accountability really shines. It is a boot to the bum that makes you take action. Does it belong in the toolkit of an achiever? Probably, but I ask myself what do I want so badly that I don’t want to go through the painful process of obtaining it?

Usually the answer is a long-term achievement I perceive will help me in ways other than happiness. I’m pursuing a Master’s because I want to give better service to others and make more money, have more control. I in no way believe that getting a degree will make me happier.

That’s the sticking point about accountability. You probably will get what you wish for, but will you want it when you have it? Will be better off for the sacrifices you made to get it?

Jeff Dustin 9 April 2007 - 8:32 am

Oh, and the Secret proves that a Sucker truly is Born Every Minute.

Adam Morris 9 April 2007 - 11:42 am

Jeff –

For those activities which I’m not intrinsically motivated to do, I think holding myself accountable can increase my enjoyment in the activity by helping me focus. It’s like saying, “this is what I have committed to doing right now”, and cutting out the distractions.

For certain things there is a gap between my capabilities and the skill level where I need to operate – and that leads to stress and procrastination… even if the project is part of something larger that I want. My objective is to turn the situation into one that I can enjoy while I am doing it.

If being held accountable for such an activity helps increase my productivity, chances are I’m going to feel better about it too.

Kathryn Britton 9 April 2007 - 1:11 pm


Your discussion reminds me of the flow channel in Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow, p. 74 — flow is made more probable by being in the flow channel where one has the right balance between skills and challenge, but that staying in the flow channel is very dynamic. People are always popping out on one side or the other — too much challenge –> anxiety or too much skill –> boredom (or both, as one person suggested in a recent workshop).

I’d heard a lot of talk about the skill/challenge balance before I read Flow. What it brings in addition is the idea of a dynamic process that needs ongoing readjustment and where the activities become more complex & rewarding as the skill & challenge both increase.

In my experience, his picture of the flow channel makes a great employee/manager coaching tool — at least in an environment where admitting anxiety doesn’t turn into getting taken off the job or otherwise dinged and admitting boredom doesn’t turn into just greater quantity of the same job.

Caroline Miller 9 April 2007 - 1:39 pm

These are all great questions and comments, and I thank all of you for reading the blog and responding. I do believe that intrinsically rewarding goals must have challenge that is slightly beyond our grasp (Locke & Latham, Koestner, etc)and that much of the reward comes from going outside our comfort zone and becoming engaged in the task (grit, flow, etc).

On the “if it’s hard it isn’t a worthwhile goal” point, check out the new issue of “Scientific American” where Lyubomirsky says that staying happy is “hard work” http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?SID=mail&articleID=5B76E630-E7F2-99DF-3958811DF98CBC37&chanID=sa006 Hard work seems to underlie much of what is good and worthwhile in life!

Jeff Dustin 9 April 2007 - 7:36 pm

I want to clarify something. I don’t mean if a goal is hard, it is unworthy. Not at all! On the other hand if pursuing the goal makes you miserable, wouldn’t a more happiness inducing goal make more sense? In other words, if you are not obtaining flow, pleasure and meaning, and the goal is inauthentic to you, there are better ways to spend your time.

Some goals just fit better than others.

April Rubino 9 April 2007 - 10:10 pm

I don’t believe anyone in “The Secret” says directed action is unnecessary to accomplish anything. The primary message I got from the movie was that people are more effective at creating the life they want when they actively manage their mood by consciously shifting their perceptions, interpretations and expectations in a more positive direction. That, in itself, is a lot of work. However, the payoff is considerable because when people are able to reframe or let go of distracting thoughts about their past, present or future that cause bad feelings, they can focus better on what they’re doing–i.e., work more efficiently and even move into ‘flow’ more regularly. The ability to repeatedly redirect your focus onto what you DO want (your goals) is what underlies persistence. It also allows you to progress toward those goals with more ease and enjoyment, no matter how much ‘work’ is required to accomplish a given intention.

Caroline Miller 10 April 2007 - 7:08 am

I agree that redirecting your thoughts away from rumination is more effective because you can initiate a spiral of well-being, that can enhance goal-directed focus (Sonja Lyubomirsky has done terrific research on this, all available at her website: http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~sonja/papers.html).

But that is only a small piece of what “The Secret” offers, unfortunately. It’s like watching the Olympics and seeing people stepping onto a podium to get gold medals, and assuming that one of the key pieces of accomplishment is simply showing up at the Olympic venue with the right attitude and good health is necessary for winning, as opposed to knowing what it REALLY took to get there.

There is SO MUCH MORE to high accomplishment than what “The Secret” offers that it is very difficult to watch it and not react — not to mention the abhorrent parts of the movie that suggest you attract — and deserve — bad things because of your attitude. I will never forget one of the classes I was in during Coaching school when the leader told the entire class that I was “inviting” lawsuits to my business because I carried liability insurance! This is the type of thinking that is difficult to comprehend, and that’s another piece of the “blame the victim” simplistic mentality that is in “The Secret.”

April Rubino 11 April 2007 - 4:57 pm

I would agree with you that “blaming the victim” is cockeyed logic. A twist to the whole paradigm offered in the Law of Attraction, however, is that there is no concept of judgement/punishment/blame connected with it. Removing that concept from the equation makes it easier to consider the possibility that we attract what we focus on or expect and are then led by the tone and content of our dominant focus or belief to act in ways that are congruent with drawing the object of our focus.

One important point to add is that we are all frequently a mass of contradictions in terms of the thoughts we have on various topics. What some would call subconscious, and what I now see as ‘less conscious’, beliefs and motivations (programs) born out of difficult situations in childhood tend to run our lives at times, sabotaging the best intentions of our adult mind and putting us in more difficult situations. That means those childhood programs, born out of fear and powerlessness, are a form of focus. They can still be attracting things we don’t want simply because we haven’t brought those beliefs into full consciousness and updated them and their associated coping strategies to reflect our mature resources and innate personal power. This ‘updating’ defuses negative framing of past, present and future circumstances and events, allowing us to be more able to meet each moment with full presence, making optimal use of whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.

Margaret 15 April 2007 - 8:06 am

Caroline – thank you for writing about “The Secret” — several people have approached me with “have you read that new Positive Psychology book?” I cringe at the thought that Positive Psychology – so steeped in science/empirical data – could be viewed as simply positive thinking. Thank you for taking on something like The Secret. Warm regards, Margaret

Caroline Miller 15 April 2007 - 8:21 am

And I’m so proud to know you and Dana, and to see how well-received your work on employee engagement/managers has been! Congratulations on advancing the ball the down, lady! Aloha to you and Dana!

Senia 15 April 2007 - 3:44 pm

Caroline, very glad that you’re addressing this discussion of believing and the Secret, and comparing to the many goal-centered ideas from Positive Psychology. Ok, it is very, very important to believe, and at the same time – it is so fabulously important to DO! Merci, S.

Geri 16 April 2007 - 5:15 pm

I think April has the more full understanding of the Law of Attraction and ALL that means in one’s life.

I also think people who are attacking the Secret above are misunderstanding the concepts and drawing conclusions based on a stoic belief in goals and hard work, coupled with a focus on the film/book’s marketing and a few single thoughts in the entire production taken out of context that can make the whole thing sound ridiculous. But these things can’t discount the validity of the Law.

I’ve been involved in this concept for 20 years and am amused by the backlash. Funny how “What the Bleep” didn’t elicit this reaction, but it espouses and promotes the same principle.

The thought that joy, happiness, fulfillment and abundance can come easily simply disturbs people.


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