[Level 2: Comfort]
We all feel the need to achieve. We want to master a skill and show other people something that we think is a significant accomplishment. It’s our way of proving that we are useful. The more useful we appear to other people, the more we think people will want to be our friends, appoint us to positions of responsibility, and marry us.
But we also want to appear useful to ourselves. When we achieve one goal, it gives us the confidence to pursue bigger ones. Of course, the whole point of this book is to encourage you to pursue achievements that will result in MPI on your life and on the world, as opposed to just accomplishing for the sake of accomplishment.
However, one way or another, you need to achieve something, because that contributes significantly to your own sense of self-worth. This can sometimes be somewhat circular because our self-worth often involves calculating the extent to which we matter to other people.
Behavioral scientists have observed that some people have a more intense need to achieve than others.11 David McClelland and his associates at Harvard University have researched this urge to achieve and have found that “the need for achievement is a distinct human motive that can be distinguished from other needs.”
McClelland conducted an experiment in which participants threw rings in an attempt to cover pegs, and were given no guidelines as to how far away they needed to be from their targets. Achievement-motivated subjects measured the distance so that the task was neither too simple nor too difficult.
In summary, they set themselves goals they could conceivably reach, which is a term in biology known as the overload principle. McClelland uses weightlifting as another example: “Strength cannot be increased by tasks that can be performed easily or that cannot be performed without injury to the organism. Strength can be increased by lifting weights that are difficult but realistic enough to stretch the muscles.”
One question that McClelland asked was whether people with a high need for achievement always behave this way. His answer? “Only if they can influence the outcome. Achievement-motivated people are not gamblers. They prefer to work on a problem rather than leave the outcome to chance.”
In regards to why they behave this way, McClelland writes: “Another characteristic of achievement-motivated people is that they appear to be more concerned with personal achievement than with the rewards of success. They do not reject rewards, but the rewards are not as essential as the accomplishment itself.”
So, the feeling of accomplishment comes from their performance rather than from money, prizes, or even praise. In fact, the research indicated that money was only valuable to the extent that it could be used as a measurement of performance.
Achievement-motivated people tend to value specific feedback on their work, but not necessarily whether they are considered helpful to colleagues.
McClelland studied college students and found that those who are driven to achieve tend to get higher grades than other students who are just as bright but not as driven.
He proposes that this is because such people habitually spend time thinking about doing things better. Achievement-motivated people tend to get more raises and be promoted in less time. Companies that have many such people tend to grow faster and become more profitable.
It is important to consider whether this is something that can be taught. McClelland is convinced that it can and has designed training programs specifically to increase achievement-motivation for business people and others.
Achievement-motivated people can be the backbone of most organizations, but do they also make good managers? It’s common in organizations to promote superstar sales people into management positions because they do tend to get things done.
However, as managers, their success is not solely dependent on their own actions, but also on those of a group. Because of their own high expectations of themselves, they may be less patient with others, who may be perfectly capable but don’t have the same drive to produce.
An overemphasis on results can hinder a group from doing its best work. So, the answer is that people who crave achievement are critical in organizations, but may not be the best managers if their people management skills have not been sufficiently developed.
Another finding from McClellan’s study is that achievement-motivated people are more likely to come from families where the parents have certain expectations for their children. He writes: “These parents expect their children to start showing signs of independence between the ages of six and eight, making choices and doing things without help, such as knowing their way around the neighborhood and taking care of themselves around the house.”