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The Psychology of Achievement

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Everyone seeks or has sought to achieve something. Yet, few of us are aware of, or have been taught about, the full psychology of achievement. 

What are the factors that influence or even determine achievement? Of those factors, which are most important?  

Almost everyone is aware that setting goals is central to the psychology achievement. A clear goal allows us to focus our minds, to direct our resources, to trigger us to imagine methods that will make success possible. 

There are at least two broad kinds of goal: purpose and objective. 

A purpose is a never ending goal. If we take the amazing Marie Curie we can imagine that her purpose was to understand radiation. She focused on that purpose for her entire life. After each breakthrough she continued to seek further understanding of radiation. Her work has saved and improved countless lives. 

An objective is a goal that has an end point. For instance, Nelson Mandela sought to create equality of voting rights for all in South Africa. He and many others, together, achieved that objective. Apartheid was ended and South Africa is now a democracy. Many young people there, now refer to themselves as the ‘born free generation’.

It is possible to have a purpose and objectives, that is, to set objectives towards one purpose. After each objective is achieved, another is started, and each objective follows the same purpose.  We can imagine that Walt Disney had the purpose, to entertain, and that each output was created after setting an objective.

Having been coaching leaders and other peak performers for so long, a factor I have observed, which is common to high achievers, is that they have overcome multiple adversities, any one of which would have crushed others. 

It seems that adversity equips future achievers with abilities that they will need to harness in order to achieve their goals: emotional resilience, problem solving and persistence. What I am about to say may go too far, but it makes the point: overcoming adversity may even be the school necessary for high achievement. 

Another essential achievement ingredient seems to be the development of an absolute commitment to an objective or purpose. Most of us have regular casual wishes, which go no further. A few of those throw away wishes make it to the desire stage. Even fewer reach the motivation threshold that must be reached to take action. 

Even when that threshold is reached, it is not enough to succeed, in most cases. A low level of motivation to achieve anything will be deterred by the first inevitable obstacle that is faced. What is required for high achievement is motivation to, or beyond, the point of absolute commitment. 

Here is how three of the factors in the psychology of achievement come together: when there is absolute commitment to a goal, and exceptional levels of persistence, success becomes much more likely.

Almost every achievement requires the presence or acquisitions of the appropriate skills, knowledge and resources. Rarely is it fully clear, at the start of a journey towards a goal what will be required for that achievement. Even when there is clarity, few of us have the assets required. That double whammy, lack of clarity and assets, stops many potential achievers in their tracks. 

Yet, some people set off on their journey, in full awareness of that they lack the necessary clarity and resources. Why? Expectation. They expect that along the way they will acquire clarity on what skills, knowledge and resources are required. They also expect that when they have that awareness that they will, somehow, be able develop or acquire the skills, knowledge and resources when they are needed. There seems to be an awareness in high achievers that they don’t need to know the answers to all problems at the beginning, and that each challenge can be addressed when it needs to be. That seems to contrast with many others who will not begin a journey to achievement unless they have certainty that everything required for success is in place and available to them. 

Under-achievers tend to see all the obstacles and have low expectations of finding solutions. High achievers know there will be barriers, and expect that they will, somehow, find a way to address them. 

In the psychology of achievement, there is a fine line between barrier anticipation, and barrier induced inaction. Anticipating that barriers are insurmountable will end any potential achievement before it starts. 

When high achievers meet what to others seem like insurmountable barriers, they find a way through, over or under, or, they change their method.  Achievers seem absolutely committed to their goal, and flexible on their method. That enables them to adjust course on route. 

When achievers experience what others call ‘failure’, they see it as a learning experience. They have learned that the method being used, or the means of implementation of that method will not deliver the outcome they sought. Accordingly, they learn what didn’t work, and why, and change method, or the means of implementation. 

Journeys to achievement are rarely quick. Along the way, I have observed, high achievers take time to celebrate their incremental successes. Why? To keep their morale sufficiently high for the inevitable “not to plan experiences.” They will celebrate apparently small achievements, such as completing the first step of a plan, or achieving a sub-goal, or acquiring a necessary skill, or any step that takes them closer to the goal. 

Achievers tend to be optimists; they have a positive outlook on life, at least in the area they are striving towards. There is a big difference between having a positive mindset and being a Pollyanna. Achievers are realists who are committed to a goal; they are realistic positive thinkers. That means recognising problems, set-backs and barriers, not denying their existence. They know that to achieve any goal, there will be problems and the best way to achieve any goal is to be realistic about recognising the problems and positive about finding solutions. The highest achievers I have the honour to serve, solve one problem after another, all the way to success. And when they arrive, set another goal and solve problems all the way to that success, too. 

Part of their psychology of achievement is protecting their psychology of achievement. They surround themselves with supportive people. That does not mean ‘yes people’. It means people who will challenge and support, critique and create. I know of several CEOs who ensure they have someone in their support team that they can turn to, in order to be made aware of everything that could go wrong with any plan. High achievers know that some people are very skilled at anticipating problems, real problems, which others are blind to, and the best leaders I know harness that talent. 

That is not to say that achievers do not remove people from their lives who are toxic to their psychology of achievement. Negative influences and people are a real impediment to achievement. No athlete would want someone discouraging them just before competing, or during their training. That is the case for achievers, too. While they want feedback, it must be constructive. If their supporters can see that something is about to, or could go wrong, the achiever wants to know, and know what to do to put things right. Indeed, that may be a big difference between achievers who want to contribute and faux achievers who want to be seen to contribute. The genuine achiever wants to know the truth and how to solve any problems. The faux achiever wants to be told everything is perfect.

A factor common to all the achievers I have coached is: self-responsibility

High achievers take total self-responsibility. They take responsibility for their thoughts, their emotions, their behaviours… But they don’t go too far; they don’t take responsibility for things beyond their control. Achievers find the sweet spot; they focus on what they can control, and ignore what they can’t. That enables them to make the best use of what they have; it empowers them. High achievers do what empowers them to achieve, and avoid what disempowers them. 

The psychology of achievement is an area of life that is surprisingly and hugely under-researched, given its centrality to all our lives. All of us can improve our psychology of   achievement if we know the factors.

Which factors can we say are most important in the psychology of achievement? If I was to place a bet on what future generations of researchers would be able to prove, my top three, in order, would be:

  • Setting goals
  • Persistence
  • Taking self-responsibility

What will you do to improve your psychology of achievement?

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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