Seeking feedback. Taking calculated risks. Setting the bar high.
These are some of the defining characteristics of an achievement-oriented professional as theorized by Harvard Psychologist David McClelland in 1961. Decades later, his theories are still relevant today and can help us better understand ourselves, so we can better achieve our goals.
Being achievement-oriented means constantly striving for improvement. It means that the motivation to achieve is driven by achievement itself. At the surface, a seemingly desirable trait — however, mastering motivation as an achievement-oriented professional is more of a clever balancing act than a one-way ticket to success. The constant need for challenging work means becoming easily disengaged, while a preference for working alone can lead to social isolation. But it’s greatest threat, in my opinion, is in learning to govern the balance between challenging yet realistic goals.
The Achievers Dilemma
Unless you’ve somehow managed to self-actualize within the first few years of your career, you probably have goals that are intended to help get you there. Often, personal goals like these aren’t always achievable while working your nine-to-five. Having a day job provides income, but it also means the time you have to spend working on your side hustle becomes inherently limited, which hinders progress. As an achievement-oriented professional, not seeing enough progress is like motivational kryptonite, potentially bringing what is actually steady progress to a dramatic halt.
In my own professional life, I had to learn to overcome this inevitable hurdle. But not without learning the hard way. I was at a point where I felt like I was working tirelessly at my goals but barely cracking a dent. Over time, it became increasingly difficult to find the motivation to keep going, and instead, I began succumbing to my own (unproductive) vices. To make matters worse, I became trapped in a negative feedback loop where I would lack the motivation to work on my goals, succumb to my vices, and then put myself down for it, which ultimately hurt my motivation even further.
Once I recognized what was happening, I knew that to pull myself up from this downward spiral, I had to shift my mindset. The prerequisite was I learned three humbling lessons:
- To become more at ease with my life as it is right now.
- To appreciate the journey over the destination.
- And… To stay on the path rather than to be kept on it.
Shifting Your Mindset
Our brains are wired for motivation by way of progress. As we achieve our goals, we become increasingly motivated to achieve the next one. That’s one reason why setting small goals is an effective method for achieving larger ones. This is especially true for achievement-oriented professionals. But proper goal setting isn’t exactly revolutionary, and while it’s a crucial step in making consistent progress, it’s not the holy grail of motivation.
Achieving goals helps us cultivate intrinsic motivation — a type of motivation that comes from within (in contrast to extrinsic motivation, which comes from external factors). Achieving goals that are personal to us is just one way of cultivating intrinsic motivation. But this type of motivation can be achieved in other ways too. And because it comes from within us, we can utilize certain techniques to harvest it. One, in particular, that helped me get back on track is what I call, zooming out.
Similar to what goals can do for our motivation, zooming out works like a catalyst for bringing out what is already within us. It is a form of self-reflection, which is said to have positive effects on our psyche. However, zooming out has a slightly more directed approach. It simply entails taking a mental step back to reflect on how far we’ve come. But further, the goal of zooming out is to assess our current path in order to understand if it is taking us where we want to go. And then, if necessary, we can make adjustments to our goals to ensure we are staying on the right path.
How many times have we heard someone late in their career say something like, “I spent so much time on x I never got the chance to do y”? Our natural reaction is to say, “Well, I definitely won’t let that happen to me!” But how often do we actually put practices in place to ensure that it doesn’t happen? Zooming out is that practice, and it helps us cultivate intrinsic motivation in two ways:
- By reflecting on the progress we’ve made, we gain the much-needed reassurance to remind us that we are making progress after all, which keeps us pushing forward.
- By assessing past decisions, successes, and failures, we grant ourselves the opportunity to see where we can make adjustments to optimize our strategy — while helping us stay on the right path.
If that sounds all too simple, it’s because it is. Too often we fail to recognize the importance of self-reflection techniques like zooming out. As we progress through our lives and careers, our beliefs and values naturally evolve. By zooming out, we give ourselves the chance to consider that our current path may no longer align with who we are today.
I like to think of zooming out as the mindful equivalent to rebalancing an investment portfolio. A smart investor begins with a set of investment goals and a strategy for how to achieve them. In time, markets, economics, politics, and even the investor’s own psychology will inevitably change. After all, change is a fundamental part of our world. As the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus once said:
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Realizing this, the intelligent investor rebalances their portfolio by assessing how far they’ve come and where they still want to go. Then, if necessary, the investor develops a revised strategy, optimizing their ability to achieve their investment goals.
We should think of ourselves in the same way. But instead of investing money into assets, we are investing time and energy into ourselves. And while the world is in a constant state of flux, failing to adapt is simply a failure to realize that we are no exception to that rule. Thus, success becomes an iterative process of recognizing where improvements can be made and adapting in a way that best suits our personal philosophy. Zooming out is simply a tool that can help us achieve that.
For me, zooming out was the key to learning to shift my mindset. When we reflect on how far we’ve come, we begin to see the journey for what it is. We begin to understand that our experience as it is right now, is the only experience. That the past is not just a memory, but a learning tool to help us continue on the journey ahead so that the journey becomes more enjoyable as we push forward. But most importantly, zooming out allows us to recognize that sometimes, we need to make adjustments. Hence, staying on the path, rather than being kept on it.
We should recognize that this iterative process starts and ends with ourselves. Every journey comes with obstacles we must face and decisions we must make. No matter how difficult that obstacle or decision may seem, we should always remember to look inward in order to move onward.
“When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstances, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep on going back to it.”
- Marcus Aurelius