I shared an office at one time with David, another psychologist, and not his real name. His wife, Susan (not real name) would call from time to time and ask to talk to him. Sometimes he was between sessions, but if I picked up the phone and he was in session, I’d see if he could call her back. She didn’t like that.

One day I got a call, and Susan clamored that she had to talk to David immediately. She preempted my usual response saying it really was an emergency and she had to talk to him right then. “Sorry,” I replied, “David left a half hour ago with Lou. They were going to go for a run, so I don’t know when they’ll be back.” In those pre-cell phone days, David might as well have been on the other side of the moon.

Susan was silent for a moment. “Well, then,” she said, “I guess I’ll just have to handle it myself.”

I was struck by how David being gone on his run was a blessing in disguise. Susan discovered an inner decider, and by expressing it she honored her unappreciated strengths. I’d like to say that one experience helped her turn a corner. Perhaps it did. She seemed to call less after that. Or perhaps I was busy and missed the calls.

But all too often feeling helpless and unable to deal with something is an inner decision. Simply recognizing it as a decision helps. For example, college students hanging from a bar were told to inform the researcher when they were about to let go, when they were simply unable to hold on for even a few minutes. When they announced they couldn’t hang on longer, the researcher commented that was too bad, since they could have won $20.00 for holding on for two more minutes. It was surprising how many were able to hang on longer.

A few years ago a researcher found that when college students (isn’t it peculiar how often great psychological studies are based on college students?) read an essay on how free will is an illusion, they were much more likely to cheat on a skill test. If I believe in free will, I behave myself better than when I feel I am helpless or controlled by outside forces.

All of this leads to the point of my essay. There are many motivational speakers who preach the value of intense and sustained positive thinking. A negative thought will defeat you, but total positivity will deliver. They say that if you intensely believe you are going to achieve something, the universe will arrange itself in such a way as to present that very desirable goal to you. It is called a secret, although it is hard to see how it would very secret be since everyone talks about it.

Now there is some value in vividly imagining a goal, seeing it as if it already present. There is leverage that comes from keeping that goal vividly in mind every day. But social psychologists, a group of wet blankets if there ever was one, contradict the notion that there is magic in such visualization.

In fact, researchers at New York University and Columbia found that simply visualizing the goal as already achieved actually reduced the chances that the person would ever achieve their goal. They tried less hard. Perhaps they found imagination so vivid that it was enough. You will never meet anyone interesting while watching pornography but people still do it.

However, when people were led to believe that achieving their goal – whether it was losing weight or getting A’s in their classes – would be difficult, when they wrote down plans for dealing with those challenges and setbacks, they achieved three times better results than when people simply wrote down their goals and thought about the advantage of achieving them.

In the first condition people act as if they believe in magic. If they attune themselves to their goal, mysterious forces in the universe will deliver that goal. In the second condition people assume there is no magic, and they will have to work pretty hard to make their goal come about. It should satisfy us to know that the second group is much more successful.

There may be something to magic, but I have not found it so far in my life. I don’t imagine I understand everything about the universe. I know the universe is a very strange place. The world is full of strange events, most of which happen late at night to people who have been drinking heavily. There may be ghosts, although they probably do not have anything of value to tell us. Things have happened to me that boggled my mind. Certainly black holes, quantum entanglement, and the behavior of photons going through slits are strange and mysterious.

But it is better to assume that those things have little or no value to us, and that to be happy and successful, it is necessary for us to assume, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” Plan on goals being hard to achieve, and fraught with twists, turns, and surprises. Set challenging difficult goals, write down how you’ll keep going when all looks lost, and start to work. Success will come.

That isn’t a secret, but it is something helpful to know.