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Making Achievement a Habit

Posted by Aubrey Warren on 19 September 2017

It wasn't that I forgot my new coffee KeepCup this morning. I just haven't yet developed the habit of taking it with me. (It was a Father's Day gift.)

More important than coffee cup habits are the habits that either enable us to achieve our aspirations or hinder us from pursuing them successfully. And that's a central point of Bernard Roth's book, The Achievement Habit.

"Fear of failure," he says, "often keeps us in an unsatisfying routine. Instead of daydreaming about change, reach out and attempt new things. Small steps with accompanying successes lead to major life transitions."

Roth's bio is extensive and impressive. The short version is that he's the academic director and one of the founders of the Stanford's d.school (Design School). He's been a professor of engineering, is a leading expert on the science of motion (kinematics) and a pioneer in robotics. And his classes (which the Wall Street Journal called "the hottest graduate program"), are about applying design thinking principles to "encourage students to think differently about how they achieve goals in their lives - to get them to stop thinking wistfully about possibilities and start actually doing".

That message comes through loud and clear in The Achievement Habit: "Having talent and good ideas is only part of the equation. The next step - the harder step - is the doing, taking the responsibility for designing success in your own life".

This includes applying design thinking principles like:
Making sure you're working on the real problem (i.e., not simply trying to make an assumed solution fit the real issue). "Experience has shown me that one of the main causes of losing sleep over a problem is that we think we are dealing with a question when in fact we are dealing with an answer (a solution) that turns out not to be a good fit to our actual problem. A way around this dilemma is to ask, 'What would it do for me if I solved this problem?' The answer to this can then be converted into a new, more generative question."

Reframing issues by challenging our assumptions and "automatic thinking" by deliberately considering alternative points of view (not something we do naturally due to habits of thinking).

Prototyping: using "trial balloons" to assess the workability of ideas and get feedback. "The road to a final solution is strewn with ideas that have been prototyped as ways to get information, directions to take, ideas to modify, and ideas to abandon." Prototypes allow for small failures that produce valuable insights.

These and other design thinking principles remind us of one of the d.school's basic principles: a bias toward action; and one of Roth's central points: "there is a big difference between trying to do something and actually doing it ... Doing takes intention and attention."

This bias towards action is the essence of making achievement a habit. But it's also one that is easy to counter by arguing that we're not yet "ready". So one of Roth's class challenges is: "Do something you have really wanted to do and have never done, or solve a problem in your life".

The ten-week projects put the pressure on and his students experience the powerful reality that they do not need to wait for ideal circumstances or time in order to take command of their lives.

All too often, Roth argues, we put counterproductive energy into generating "reasons" for what we do (or don't do). "The problem with reasons," he says, "is that they're just excuses prettied up."

"Reasons exist because if people didn't explain their behavior, they would seem unreasonable. So we are faced with a paradox: we need reasons so we appear reasonable, yet when we use reasons we are not taking full responsibility for our behavior.  Reasons are often just excuses. We use them to hide our shortcomings from ourselves. When we stop using reasons to justify ourselves, we increase our chances of changing behavior, gaining a realistic self-image, and living a more satisfying and productive life." Roth says that one of his favourite workshop activities is to ask people to think about who stops them from achieving the things they want to. We know the answer. After initially listing the usual suspects and circumstances that serve as obstacles we typically arrive at the same conclusion: "these perceived obstacles are simply excuses; in almost every case, when you really dig down, it's you who are sabotaging yourself".

Removing the "reasons" leaves us ready to start the process of achieving. Roth quotes one of my favourite actors, Hugh Laurie (House, The Night Manager), to remind us that achievement depends on doing, not having ideal circumstances or feeling ready.

"It's a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you're ready," Laurie said. "I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There's almost no such thing as ready. There's only now. And you may as well do it now ... I'm not a crazed risk-taker. But I do think that, generally speaking, now is as good a time as any."

I'm working on making my coffee KeepCup a habit. More importantly, we can make achievement a habit by breaking the routines (habits) that often arise from the fear of failure and prevent positive change. Bernard Roth's decades of experience in applying design thinking principles suggest they offer some valuable keys to developing - individually and collectively - the achievement habit.

If you'd like my free three-page summary of Bernard Roth's book, The Achievement Habit: Stop wishing, start doing and take command of your life (2015), just email me your request and I'll be happy to send it to you.

Aubrey Warren
Situational Leadership® Master Trainer and Australia and New Zealand Affiliate for the Center for Leadership Studies

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