I have a cowboy friend who competes in rodeo events. When he wins an event, he brings home a huge belt buckle. I'm not quite sure why anyone would want to wear such a piece of hardware, but make no mistake, these are highly coveted items. Napoleon said, "A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon." Cowboys will fight even harder for one of these garish belt buckles.
There's a large body of research that highlights the short shelf life of external motivation. We know rewards motivate, so we sometimes assume that more rewards motivate more. Not true. There's a steep curve of diminishing returns where people hit a saturation point. A few cowboy belt buckles may be a good thing. But at some point, you just put them in the drawer. So how do we teach the true principle of achievement? Here are two observations to address both sides of the issue.
The motivation to achieve should not be confused with the high-need-for-achievement pathology, which is an unhealthy addiction in some people. For people afflicted with this malady, achievement doesn't bring the normal rewards. Rather, it brings "relief in the accomplishment of tasks," as American writer Kim Girard observes. "Moving immediately to the next task on the list, (individuals) never savor accomplishments for long. This creates a vicious cycle marked by a feeling of little or no real sense of purpose and 'flatness' — in career and life." This cycle is based on achieving for the wrong reasons, and results in serious imbalance.
Achievement can become a profoundly selfish activity, driven by ego or insecurity, in which a person obsesses on building a resume of accomplishments as a means of showcasing one's self. In this case as well, the motivation is off the mark. Achievement is a moral obligation, but the responsibility to develop gifts and potential is to be done for simple enjoyment and in the service of others. Achievement brings greater depth and breadth to our offerings.
The maxim goes, "If you want what you never had, you must do what you never have done." One of the things that concerns me the most is the latest strain of entitlement that we see in society, in which people prefer leisure to performance, and security to risk-taking — "as if having enough money to satisfy one's desires were a human right rather than something to be earned," as British writer Anthony Daniels asserts. Entitlement is the beguilement of low expectations. It's the treachery of believing you can violate the principle of work to achieve something worthwhile. It is the irony of claiming unqualified rights to things as the environment becomes more intensely competitive. These ideas are imitations of the real principle of achievement. They are inversions of truth.
Another common masquerade for genuine achievement is to rely on connections and credentials instead of competence, character and real effort. If you're less willing to sacrifice, you're easily seduced with alternative routes to success. This wrong thinking can lead to ethical misconduct. It's easier to grease a palm or enter an unholy alliance than to get out there and sweat your way to a goal. When the seed of entitlement grows, it begins to crowd out initiative and healthy ambition. You start to tell yourself that effort really isn't the source of success, and you go looking for substitutes.
Calvin Coolidge said it well, "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful individuals with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."
Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark Partners, a training and consulting organization. He earned a doctorate from Oxford University and is the best-selling author of "Epic Change" and "The Leadership Test."