Need achievement theory is the theory of motivation that explains the difference between high achievers and everybody else. The need-for-achievement psychology of high achievers demands that they seek out challenges that are right at the edge of their abilities.
Arnold Toynbee chronicled the dominant worldviews in dozens of civilizations over thousands of years and divided them into cultures that saw winners and losers and cultures that focused on responses to challenges instead.
— Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception
What the Achieving Society Does Differently: McClelland Achievement Motivation Theory
In 1961, Harvard psychologist David McClelland published The Achieving Society. In it, he argued that some societies experience economic growth and others experience decline due to one motivational factor: need for achievement.
McClelland’s achievement theory of motivation suggests that cultures that celebrate achievement spur on entrepreneurial ventures and technological progress, which in turn become the engine of rapid economic growth.
This might all seem obvious, but our policies and our educational system haven’t caught up to the research. Need achievement theory is acknowledged but not practiced in real life. We teach compliance and drill standardized tests into children’s brains when they’re in school. When they get out into the “real world,” they’re taught to aim for comfort and security, not achievement.
What Is Need for Achievement?
You might have seen me mention that I “help high achievers embrace change.” Some people wonder what a “high achiever” is. Does it mean a person who’s always successful at what they do? No, of course not. A high achiever is really a ”high need-to-achiever.”
As you can see, this is a pretty clunky handle. So I shorten it to high achiever.
People with a high need for achievement like to both set and meet high standards of achievement. They might be motivated intrinsically or extrinsically, but they like to seek challenge for its own sake.
High achievers often avoid low-risk tasks because easy wins don’t feel genuine. At the same time, they often avoid high-risk tasks because the outcome depends largely on luck. High achievers seek challenges that are right at the edge of their abilities.
In this way, high need for achievement has a lot in common with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, a state of complete absorption in an activity that is perfectly matched to the skills of the performer.
The need for achievement is such a dominant personality feature that it pops up everywhere. Even in make-believe.
As chronicled in The Icarus Deception, McClelland had an interesting technique for measuring individual need to achieve.
He asked thousands of subjects make up stories about a series of pictures. He then counted how many achievement-related ideas each person included in their made-up story. The higher the count, the more likely that person had better working memory, volunteered more, and resisted social pressure, all traits that correlate with need for achievement psychology.
Would it surprise anyone if it turned out that these individuals represented the 80/20 rule of progress in society? Are high achievers the 20% that shape 80% of our world?
Which group would you rather be in?
An Internal Locus of Control
Highly successful people have what psychologists call “self-efficacy” or an “internal locus of control.” In a nutshell, they believe that outcomes mostly depend on what they do.
What’s interesting is that that folks who have an internal locus of control are more likely to succeed, even if they are a bit wrong about how much control they really have, researchers find.
It turns out that this finding about self-efficacy plays out on the macro level too. 71% of Americans believe that hard work can turn into higher income. By comparison, a mere 40% of Europeans professed belief in the same idea.
Not surprisingly, Americans on the whole are a bit better off than most similarly situated Europeans. This even holds true for the poorest 10% in the United States.
Here’s journalist Megan McArdle’s take on the phenomenon, from her book The Up Side of Down:
In a society where people think that hard work is useless, few people will work hard, and everyone will be poor. In a society where people believe they can get rich just by working harder, many people will put forth enough effort to make this come true.
What McArdle’s talking about here isn’t “the magic of positive thinking” or some other BS. What she’s saying is that the belief in the power of hard work to raise your circumstances will lead more people to work hard. Some of those folks will go on to have massive success (some), even if they’re a bit deluded as to how much their hard work contributed as a factor versus, say, luck.
What is clear is that hard work is a prerequisite for any type of success. And people with high self-efficacy are more likely to put in that hard work.
The Dark Side of the Need for Achievement
The United States of America is the land of rugged individualism. I’m not sure if we invented that term, but it feels earnestly American, doesn’t it?
In his 2009 book The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, journalist and author Matt Miller makes the argument that there’s a downside to all this belief in high achievement and “meritocracy.”
The corollary principle being that if you can’t make it, it’s your fault:
Over the course of the nineteenth century, the historian Scott Sandage observes, “Financial failure went from being an event that happens in your life to being something that defines your identity. A ‘loser’ in 1820 was literally a person who lost money in a business—the person who got the short end of the stick, the loser by the deal. But by the end of the nineteenth century, a ‘loser’ is a person who is completely worthless in every way.” One can draw a line from this evolving perception to the popular antipathy toward the “undeserving poor” in the debates over welfare reform in the 1980s and 1990s.
Sandage’s observation affects everything from how we talk about failure (not well), whether we encourage entrepreneurship and independence (we don’t), and why we tolerate massive income inequality (”It’s poor people’s fault they’re poor!”).
All of these harmful effects are byproducts of The Achieving Society. In cultures with high belief in self-efficacy (your results are the direct products of your efforts), whenever anyone fails at anything, it’s a stain on their character, not just a momentary bump in the road.
That can be a major stumbling block to learning how to fail fast and get past failure. But look, nobody gets to anywhere worth going with a “clean sheet.” This is what high achievers intuitively understand: Playing small and settling for easy wins isn’t the same as genuine achievement. You have to risk sticking your neck out there to get real opportunities to come your way.
So what can you do when you know you need to take the initiative, but don’t know how to go about it?
The Internal Solution: Distinguishing High Achievers from Average Achievers
In The Tom Peters Seminar: Crazy Times Call for Crazy Organizations, Tom Peters mentions the work of researchers at Bell Labs who studied average and top performers.
Reporting in Harvard Business Review, they found that both groups agreed that taking the initiative was the most important factor in their career advancement. And both the average performers and the top performers claimed to take the initiative on a regular basis.
The difference boiled down to two disparate views of what “taking the initiative” meant. The average performer told the researchers that it meant dealing in information — for example, “writing a memo to [a] supervisor about a software bug.” The stars, on the other hand, said that taking the initiative meant “fixing [the] bug yourself.”
The top performers weren’t afraid of a challenge. They saw their role as larger than merely identifying the problem—they felt compelled to fix them as well. This is classic high need-to-achieve at work.
In The Art of Learning, multi-time chess champion and high achiever Josh Waitzkin discusses the role of setbacks and challenges in the learning process:
When aiming for the top, your path requires an engaged, searching mind. You have to make obstacles spur you to creative new angles in the learning process. Let setbacks deepen your resolve. You should always come off an injury or a loss better than when you went down. Another angle on this issue is the unfortunate correlation for some between consistency and monotony. It is all too easy to get caught up in the routines of our lives and to lose creativity in the learning process. Even people who are completely devoted to cultivating a certain discipline often fall into a mental rut, a disengaged lifestyle that implies excellence can be obtained by going through the motions. We lose presence. Then an injury or some other kind of setback throws a wrench into the gears. We are forced to get imaginative.
What Waitzkin is saying here is that difficulties and setbacks are a part of the process of improvement. This tracks with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s idea in Antifragile about stress tests and the need to expose system to shocks. Taleb’s example is drinking small amounts of poison routinely in order to develop an immunity over time (not a recommendation)!
Waitzkin goes on to add that we shouldn’t wait to learn the lessons of resilience after we’ve been injured. He gives the following instructive examples:
- A right-handed basketball player shooting with his or left hand for a few months
- A right-footed soccer player refusing to shoot with his right for a period of time
- A rule-abiding competitor training with a partner who uses dirty tactics
As you can see, Waitzkin’s examples tend toward the sports/competitive world. But the lesson is universal: “Once we learn how to use adversity to our advantage, we can manufacture the helpful growth opportunity without actual danger or injury.” Adversity becomes a source of personal growth and creativity. Waitzkin refers to this approach as The Internal Solution.
Living a life of agility requires finding these Internal Solutions when we’re faced with genuine challenges that stretch the limit of our abilities.
Are you willing to rise to the occasion?
- People with high need for achievement seek out challenges that are right at the edge of their abilities.
- They do this because they have a strong belief that their outcomes depend on what they do.
- The downside of this way of thinking is that failure reflects on your character. Embracing continuous improvement means overcoming this bias.
- High achievers internalize setbacks and difficulties in order to grow. This is The Internal Solution.