The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life

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Published: 7/7/2015
The co-founder of the Stanford d.School introduces the power of design thinking to help you achieve goals you never thought possible. Achievement can be learned. It’s a muscle, and once you learn how to flex it, you’ll be able to meet life’s challenges and fulfill your goals, Bernard Roth, Academic Director at the Stanford d.school contends.

The Achievement Habit By. Bernard Roth

Key Insights

In “The Achievement Habit” by Bernard Roth, you will learn how “design thought” can help you solve all of life’s many problems.

There are five important steps that must be followed in order for this to be successful:

  1. Emphasize - Try to see the problem from the perspective of the other person.
  2. Define Problems - Figure out what the exact problem is.
  3. Ideate - Brainstorm multiple solutions.
  4. Prototype - Create a plan-of-action. But make it flexible!
  5. Test/Feedback - Do it!

“In life, typically, the only one keeping a scorecard of your successes and failures is you, and there are ample opportunities to learn the lessons you need to learn, even if you didn’t get it right the first—or fifth—time.”- Bernard Roth

By following these steps, you will see how excuses can hinder your outcomes, how to change your image of self, and how you can solve personal problems by utilizing good language habits.

Key Points

  • The Topic of Nothing

Everything we experience in life comes to us without any initial meaning.

The things in our life, we must apply meanings to. And it is possible to change those meanings.

Here’s an exercise for you:

  • Look at different objects around you.
  • Every time you look at something new say aloud, “This (item) has no meaning.” Replace the word “item” with what you are looking at such as a chair or a lamp. You can also perform this with people instead of objects.

By doing these two steps you will begin to see how you assign meaning to objects and people in your life. For example, your partner means a great deal to you because you have given them meaning in your life.

“Next time you find yourself playing right and wrong, remember: You give everything in your life its meaning, so you can choose to end the game. It does not matter how right you are or how wrong they are; you lose just by playing.”- Benard Roth

You must be able to see objects and problems from multiple perspectives. Only then will you be able to make decisions that lead to positive outcomes.

Once you have accepted this, you can start redefining problems.

  • The Problem With Reasons

People, by nature, make a lot of excuses. And that’s because you see the reasons for your behaviors. For example, you were late for a meeting because your child’s basketball game ran late.

“Reasons are bullshit. I know it sounds harsh, however, it’s a good categorical stand to take, as you’ll see. Reasons exist because if people didn’t explain their behavior, they would seem unreasonable.”- Bernard Roth

Reasons are really just excuses. For example, you commute during rush hour and you get to work late but blame it on traffic. But is it really the busy road’s fault? Couldn’t you have planned better by leaving earlier? The fact is getting to work on time wasn’t a priority to you and that’s why you showed up late.

Excuses only encourage our destructive behavior. Think of them as security blankets that help us feel better about remaining mediocre rather than achieving our highest potentials.

Excuses prevent action. They make us keep thinking rather than start doing.

  • How To Get Unstuck

Design thought is all about asking the right questions. When we ask the wrong questions, we get stuck. And a lot of times we think we already know the answers to all the questions.

For example, a man named Fred drives to work every day. But, his car is starting to show some signs of distress. Fred decides that even though he is not a mechanic to go out and buy the tools to try to fix the issues he has observed on his commutes. Once Fred is frustrated and mentally exhausted from playing mechanic, he goes to the car dealership and buys a new car.

It is obvious at this point that Fred was asking the wrong question. He was asking, “how do I fix my car?” when he really should have been asking “how can I get to work every day?”

By asking his initial question, he was giving himself only one solution: fix his car. But, by asking a more open question, he would have had multiple solutions. Fred could have taken a bus, a train, carpooled with a co-worker, the list goes on and on.

“If you can’t find the answer, it is often because you are not asking the correct question.”- Bernard Roth

We do this all the time in our everyday lives. We have a problem, find a solution, and then treat the solution as if it were the question.

We must be honest with ourselves about the true problem in the situation. Ask more open questions and think of every creative solution before getting fixated on one resolve.

  • Find Assistance

As humans, we like to be independent. But it’s hard to do everything alone. We often need the help of others.

Here are some tips for finding help when you need it:

  • Learn something from absolutely everyone. For example, a rude server at a restaurant may not seem like someone you would want to learn a lesson from, but you can find lessons everywhere. Their behavior could teach you not to treat people disrespectfully or to always be on your best behavior when you’re at work.
  • Be honest about where you stand with people. And always remember using others just for your own gain will indefinitely backfire.
  • Use the information that’s out there. New ideas are usually formed by old advice.

Be sure to look for ideas from everywhere around you and from everyone you encounter.

  • The Magic of Doing

It’s important to take action instead of taking your time thinking about things.

No achievement has ever happened without action. Really, every little single thing you do throughout the idea leads to achievement, even if it’s small. For example, your action is walking to the mailbox, your achievement is getting your mail.

In all situations, people tend to think of the pros and cons of the action. And they waste so much time doing that they end up talking themselves out of the action altogether, so no achievement is made.

If you think about something without actually doing it, you are just making an excuse.

There is a huge difference between “trying” and “doing.” When you “try,” you start a process but do not finish. It’s easy when “trying” to lose sight of the end goal and motivation. When you “do,” you go into the process intending to complete it.

When you “try” you might achieve something in the end. But if you “do,” you’ll always end with an achievement.

  • Your Language

Language is a major influencer on how we see things. This is very apparent in the work of con artists and advertisers. They often omit words, use vague terms, and call things by other names in order to make us perceive things differently.

But it’s not just con artists and advertisers that use this, we often do it to ourselves. We often subconsciously limit our options and solutions by using these tricks on ourselves.

“The question of intention lies behind all communication. What is it that you intend to communicate?”- Bernard Roth

To reach achievements, we must eliminate these option-limiting tricks.

One of the hardest things as humans is to say “no.” For example, an employee named Molly just started a new job, she was completely overrun with work, but her boss asked her to take on a task for the week. She finished the task, but it was of poor quality. When confronted about it Molly said she had no time because she had a lot of work. He responded with, “then, why didn’t you say ‘no’?”

Molly thought she could have just said ‘yes’ or ‘no’. But, really there were other options. For example, Molly could’ve offered to do the task over the weekend instead of when she was dealing with her other tasks.

These everyday language habits, such as the ‘yes/no’ dilemma, often hide options from us.

The word ‘but’ is huge when making excuses. For example, you tell a friend you want to meet for lunch but you can’t because you have to clean the house. However, the truth is that you could do both, you just have to think of a solution on how to get both things accomplished.

If you switch out the word ‘but’ with ‘and,’ you will start to see your options become clearer.

  • The Truth About Group Habits

Having the input of others will help you to reach your highest potential. Despite popular belief, not many people make it to the top on their own.

You must learn how to give and take. You must have mutual respect for the people you’re working with in order to work constructively to grow.

Constructive criticism is an important skill to learn. When you offer someone a piece of constructive criticism, a good rule-of-thumb is to say two things that you like about what they did before letting them know what you thought they could do differently. That way, you will get your point across without any tears or hurt feelings.

“Part of working well in any group is the ability to have hard conversations.”- Bernard Roth

Another part of constructive criticism is the ability to build on ideas. For example, if someone in your social circle mentions you should host a BBQ instead of saying ‘no’ because you don’t like to grill, focus on the word ‘and’ to add something positive to the idea.

  • Self-Image

When dealing with self-image, the design process begins with empathy. Most people are empathetic towards others, but often we forget to be empathetic to ourselves.

To be empathetic towards yourself, you must see yourself from an outsider’s perspective.

Start by looking at the people who have influenced you throughout your life. Take note of what these people believe about different topics such as careers, politics, love, and life itself. Then ask yourself the same.

When you start to understand how you have been influenced, you will begin to see how you think about yourself as a whole.

“Unfortunately, many people are in the same trap—and not only in academia. We are influenced by our teachers and parents to the extent that we spend our lives trying, as best we can, to mimic them, and all too often we end up being second-rate replicas.”- Bernard Roth

A good exercise is to ask yourselves questions regarding the future and where you want to be. These questions will bring you answers on how to reach the goals you want to achieve.

  • The Overall Picture

Life is constantly throwing curveballs at us. But to help you stay grounded and focused, you can rely on these two tips:

  • Any time that you get sidetracked or lose sight of your goals, refocus and remember that there are multiple solutions to reach your end goal.
  • When you are working towards your big dreams, remember not to take things for granted. Make note of the little daily things you do in order to help you build your self-image.

Both what you are working toward and what you actually do on a daily basis are reflections of the person that you are.

The Main Take-Away

To be a designer of your own life, you must ask yourself what you want. You must redefine the different meanings in your life. Remember that if you didn’t have problems to solve, then you wouldn’t have achievements. Failures are not final, you can always find another way to your goal. And most importantly, take action and just do it!

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