Mirror Neurons: Why Watching Others Succeed Won’t Help You Succeed

When I first started becoming interested in cooking, I went through a short period where I watched a lot of programming on Food Network. The idea behind it – in my own mind – is that I could learn about cooking through watching and then I could immediately apply it in the kitchen.

What I found is that I would absorb a few good ideas or techniques, but I would have absolutely no desire to go out in the kitchen and actually employ these new ideas and techniques. Instead, I always had this vague sense that I had somehow already accomplished the cooking effort for the day, so instead I would prepare something incredibly easy and call it good enough.

My only success, in fact, came when I would actually be in the kitchen preparing the meal at the same time as the hosts. I would do this by using the DVR, pausing when I needed to. If I didn’t do that, I usually wouldn’t bother. Not always – there were rare exceptions to this – but usually.

What I found instead is that if I actually wanted to prepare a meal in the kitchen, I was a lot better off reading about the technique and visualizing myself doing it. If I had no idea, I could always watch a YouTube video, but usually a passage from a technique-heavy cookbook like Joy of Cooking and some imagination would do the trick.

I never really thought about this again until recently, when I had a long chat with a guy who has a side business revolving around home repair and remodeling. He related a very similar experience to my own. Whenever he’d catch a show or two of a program like This Old House, his motivation to actually get out and do something went straight downhill.

What do these two experiences have in common? After watching someone else accomplish something, we felt much less compelled to go out and accomplish the same thing ourselves and, often, felt a subtle sense of having actually accomplished something merely by watching someone else do it.

There’s a biological explanation for this: mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons are neurons (i.e., pieces of the brain) that fire both when a person acts and when a person observes the same action performed by another. In other words, parts of our brain respond exactly the same when we do something or when we watch someone else do that same exact thing. Like, for example, preparing a meal or watching Paula Deen prepare one, or do a home repair project or watch Bob Vila do that same project.

To put it simply, we often get the same feeling from watching someone else do something that we would get from doing things ourselves.

When you think about it this way, it pops up time and time again in our lives. We feel happy when we read about someone else experiencing happiness and sad when they experience sadness. We feel a sense of accomplishment and joy when the hero overcomes adversity. We feel fear when the monster is sneaking up behind the hero on screen, even though there’s no monster in the room with us.

And, quite often, those emotional rushes are enough to fulfill us, reducing our drive to actually accomplish things.

Let me put it as simply as I can. If you want to succeed, do. If you want to follow, watch.

After a period of watching a lot of Food Network shows, I began to realize that I wasn’t actually becoming a better cook or, frankly, cooking much of anything at all. Instead, I began to read a lot more about cooking, often in the kitchen with the book open in front of me as I mixed something up and threw it in the oven.

The same phenomenon repeated itself when I dug deep into my own personal finance recovery. I would read lots of tips and often feel a strong sense that my finances were already in better shape because I had read it. It was only by continually pushing myself that I was able to actually improve my financial life, not just rely on mirror neurons to give me a sense that it was improving.

Watching and reading about someone else’s success is a great starting point for your own success. But that’s all it is, a starting point. It’s up to you to take the next step and actually do something. Don’t trick yourself into a false sense of accomplishment just because you watched someone else succeed with these tactics.

What are you going to do today?

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