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The fundamental desire to achieve, and its price

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011


It is difficult to walk through a bookstore without encountering numerous books about achievement.  Some are general, concentrating on what it takes to be a winner, while others are specific to certain types of business or certain types of investments.  Sprinkled throughout these shelves at regular intervals will be biographies and autobiographies of highly famous or highly successful people.  Implicit in all of these stories is the "formula" that these people used to achieve success.

The reason why these types of books are so popular is because people want to achieve success themselves.  Everybody naturally wants to do better than they are doing today and acquire more than they already have.  This fundamental desire is what drives the constant improvements of a capitalist economic system.  This desire for achievement is fundamental to the human condition, and is worth studying.

This concept is explored deeper by two books that were both published in 2008.  One is "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell, and the other is "Talent is Overrated" by Geoff Colvin. Both of these books explore the science of achievement in much greater depth than the traditional beliefs that most people have come to accept. The fundamental thesis communicated throughout the book was that aside from physical characteristics, talent or ability is principally a function of dedicated, targeted practice. The people who are hailed to the world as “child prodigies” frequently begin a regimen of intense practice at a very young age. This means that by the time they reach adulthood, they will have practiced far more than their peers. This is what serves as the foundation for the skills of great musicians, and other people who are regarded as being highly talented at a young age.

Another important characteristic of most child prodigies is that they specialized in an area where their parents possessed considerable knowledge or ability, and their parents were willing to make extensive sacrifices for the sake of their training. Within the social circles of high achievers, this secret has never been a secret. All people who achieve great heights and develop exceptional skill are aware of the time, effort, energy, and practice that is required. As more people are becoming aware of what really creates great achievement, it has spawned a new question that is equally important to answer. Namely, whether singular focus on a particular line of achievement and mastery is the best way to live your life.

In keeping with this train of thought, what happens when the dreams and ambitions of a highly skilled and practiced artist are realized, but their personal and financial life are ruined because of neglect in pursuit of greater artistic prowess? What happens when the corporate executive receives multiple promotions, and then is divorced and re-married multiple times? What about when a championship caliber athlete incurs a career-ending injury and is unprepared for a career that is not playing sports since their education, personal life, family life, and financial skills were all sacrificed to gain greater sports prowess?

In response to these tales of caution, most people will reply that people should live a balanced life. And this is where the point hits home. Becoming a great achiever requires that your life be markedly un-balanced … otherwise there is no possible way that you can acquire enough practice and experience to develop elite skill. Thus, the question becomes more than a simple one of how I can achieve great things, and develops into one of whether I should make the sacrifices that are necessary to achieve great things. Fundamentally, there are two paradigms at work. One is the paradigm involves the relentless pursuit of achievement, and the other paradigm is driven by the priority of your achievements.

This is the “ends justify the means” school of achievement, and is the implicit pre-requisite for most people who have biographies written about them. Under this paradigm, nearly all other aspects of your life are subordinated to the one singular goal upon which your mind has been fixed. An example of this may be to be a world class pianist, or to be president of the United States. In order to reach what most consider to pinnacle of achievement, there will be many areas of your life that must be sacrificed. If you aspire to be president, you must attend many campaign functions, you must associate with many people whom you would otherwise prefer to avoid in order to raise funds, you must place the acquisition of political objective above your spouse, family, friends, and most other associations not directly tied with your goal. If your goal is achieved, the office must come before everything else in your life. When you finish your term of service, you will never have the option of becoming anonymous. The consuming desire to achieve a great goal will eventually result in becoming consumed by that which you originally sought, once it is achieved.

It is important to note that this is not intended to be a “hatchet piece” that rips apart great achievers. Rather, it is intended to highlight the sacrifices that are necessary to reach very high goals, and understand that the effort spent in pursuit of a single magnificent obsession is effort that cannot be spent on other aspects of your life. Thus, in order for one to be “great” it is necessarily impossible to be well rounded. Similarly, if one is to be well rounded it will be exceedingly difficult to become what most consider to be great.

An alternative paradigm to the relentless pursuit of achievement is placing a priority on your achievements. In this mode of thinking, each aspect of your life has a separate priority weighting. In some cases, family may be the top priority and in others it may be finishing your degree, or achieving the next step in your career. The important aspect of these priorities is that they are consciously decided, and they are fluid. What this means is that your priorities should drive your decisions, and those priorities are likely to change over time as your personal, professional, and financial life evolves.

In a tangential way, relentlessly pursuing a particular achievement is a variant of priority based achievement. The only wrinkle is that the one singular goal stand by itself as the top priority, and the priorities never change. The hallmark of priority based achievement is to decide what things (plural) are most important in your life, and pursue them simultaneously with the understanding that some of them will have to wait until later, and that it is extremely unlikely that you will develop world class skill in any of them. It should be noted that one can be far short of world class skill and still possess exceptional skill. One can be far from the best and still be very competent. One can pursue many priorities and be successful at them, even if they are not the best at any. The point that is most important for us to consider is whether we are living the kind of life that we want to.

This is where a bright ray of sunlight shines for all the "normal" people of the world. Most people in the business world make very minimal efforts to improve their skills and abilities as they go throughout their career. This means that it is very possible to develop a substantial competitive advantage with a modest amount of carefully focused practice on the key skills and competencies that will allow you to succeed in your career. The key is to ensure that your practice is very careful, very focus, and very concentrated in key competencies that are critical to success. For those who are willing to learn the focus and discipline necessary to hone and develop the specific skills that are critical to success in their career, it is quite possible to achieve a level of success that is vastly greater than what is considered to be ‘normal’ while still maintaining the balance that is necessary for a complete life.

The real world is a place where we all need to make choices. Every choice that we make represents a different choice that we cannot make. Every hour that we spend doing one thing is an hour that cannot be spent doing something else. Reaching the pinnacle of accomplishment for world class achievers is a goal that requires much more effort and energy than most people imagine. Each person must decide where their personal priorities should be placed, and adjust their decisions accordingly.

Douglas J. Utberg is the founder of the Portland-based Business of Life.

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