Positive affirmations are a staple of the self-help industry, but there is a problem with standing in front of the mirror every morning and saying something like: “I prosper wherever I turn and I know that I deserve prosperity of all kinds.” “I am my own unique self—special, creative and wonderful.” Or “I will be king of the world in just five days, I just know it.” It makes you feel kinda silly (and sometimes worse).
What does research show about how high achievers really think? High achievers are often marked, unsurprisingly, by a strong motive to achieve. Less accomplished individuals are often more motivated to avoid failure.
Achievement motivated individuals have a strong desire to accomplish something important, and gain gratification from success in demanding tasks. Consequently they are willing to expend intense effort over long timespans in the pursuit of their goals.
Failure-avoiding individuals are more focused on protecting themselves from the embarrassment and sense of incompetence that can accompany failing at a valued task.
Consequently they are less likely to attempt achievement-oriented tasks, and may give up quickly if success is not readily forthcoming.
Where total avoidance of tasks is not possible, failure-avoiding individuals may procrastinate, give less than their best effort, or engage in other self-handicapping behaviour that provides a face-saving excuse in the event of failure (e.g. drinking heavily the night before the morning of an important exam).
Of course, achievement motivation versus failure avoidance motivation exist on a continuum, with most of us falling somewhere in the middle. In the research literature, this continuum is described as Relative Motive Strength.
An individual’s relative motive strength does not exist in a vacuum, but is associated with an elaborate matrix of beliefs that justify the commitment of intense effort toward goal achievement, or the relative lack thereof. The core beliefs that differentiate achievement motivated individuals are:
1. Success is your personal responsibility
Achievement motivated individuals tend to believe that initiative, effort, and persistence are key determinants of success at demanding tasks. Failure-avoiding individuals are more likely to view success as dependent on available resources and situational constraints (e.g. the task is too hard, or the marker was biased).
2. Demanding tasks are opportunities
Achievement motivated individuals tend to see demanding tasks where success is uncertain as ‘challenges’ or ‘opportunities’.
Failure avoiding individuals are more likely to see them as ‘threats’ that may lead to the embarrassment of failure. An achievement motivated individual might tell a failure avoiding individual, “Anything worthwhile is difficult, so stop acting so surprised”.
3. Achievement striving is enjoyable
Achievement motivated individuals associate effort on demanding tasks with dedication,concentration, commitment and involvement. Failure-avoiding individuals categorise such effort as overloading or stressful. They see perseverance in the face of setbacks and obstacles as slightly compulsive.
4. Achievement striving is valuable
Achievement motivated individuals value hard work in and of itself. Failure-avoiding individuals may mock achievement striving as uncool (e.g. the attitude that the L on learner plates stands for Loser). They may associate achievement striving with lack of a social life or even early death by heart attack.
5. Skills can be improved
Achievement-motivated individuals have a strong belief that they can improve their performance on demanding tasks with practice, training, coaching, and dedication to learning. Failure-avoiding individuals tend to see skills as fixed and/or dependent on innate talents.
6. Persistence works
Achievement motivated individuals are inclined to believe that continued effort and commitment will overcome initial obstacles or failures. Failure-avoiding individuals are inclined to see initial failure as a sign of things to come.
So the achievement motivated individual says, “Don’t assume that you can’t do something until you’ve tried. And I mean really tried, like tried 3000 times, not that you tried three times, and ‘oh I give up.'”
And the failure-avoiding individual responds, “You really need to learn when to quit.”
The beliefs held by achievement-motivated individuals are not necessarily more logical or objectively correct than the beliefs held by failure-avoiding individuals, certainly not in all situations. However, they are empirically associated with high levels of achievement.
Once you understand the modes of achievement motivated versus failure-avoiding thinking, you will recognise them in the way that others talk about their goals, dreams, successes, and setbacks. You will also recognise them in your own thinking, and you can choose to cultivate the beliefs that will support you to achieve your goals. This is more effective than just trying to think positive and relying on the law of attraction to provide you with what you want.
How do you know when you might be overdoing the achievement motivated thinking a bit, to the point of being unrealistic and not acting in your own best interests? I’ll cover this topic in a forthcoming post.