I was as guilty as anybody of chasing achievement. I defined myself by my job and the money I was making. Had someone asked me who I was without those things, I would have had no answer. As with the overwhelming majority of my clients, my life had been an achievement race to secure a sense of personal value. As with so many of them, much of my value became linked to external markers of success. If I work with famous people, then I must be someone special. If the world’s best athletes request my services, then I must be someone of value. If I build my own successful business, then I must be a success as a person.
But the more I listened to my successful clients, the more I noticed something very odd: their impressive achievements and the satisfaction reaped from them were usually not related. The chase itself had become obsessive, devoid of lasting enjoyment or fulfillment. Regardless of the size of the external win, the person’s sense of satisfaction never changed much. This insight would have profound implications for me.
I learned that when achievement fails to deliver the anticipated satisfaction and fulfillment, it’s typical to conclude that the fulfillment void was due to the fact that one simply didn’t achieve enough. You need to push harder and achiever more—more money, more titles, more power, more tangible indices of success.
Tragically, the push to achieve can itself become like an addiction, and like an addict, you’re only as good as your last achievement fix. The result is protracted frustration and disillusionment.
If what matters most is not the actual winning or achievement in and of itself, then what does truly matter? It has something to do with the goals we choose, of course, because each goal has consequences. But to my mind, what truly matters most—and these are the questions I’ve obsessed over, studied, explored, and tried to articulate for the past three decades of my career and life—is this: Who do you become as a result of the pursuit of your goals? Who have you become as a consequence of the chase?
Today’s marketplace is increasingly more competitive, and, in some cases, downright brutal. The blind pursuit of financial performance, and the notoriety that comes with it, has been at the heart of the recent colossal collapses of stalwart organizations. As leaders are continuously pushed to achieve more with less—to prove their worth on a daily basis—the perceived value of work has shifted from the simple, intrinsic sense of purpose and fulfillment to the quest for external indicators of value, such as short-term stock value, monetary rewards, social approval, and status. This is giving rise to a new corporate threat: achievement addiction.
Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Value Orientations
Extrinsic work value orientations have been shown by researchers to have a wide range of negative job outcomes, including exhaustion, high turnover, reduced happiness and well-being, and poorer health compared to intrinsic. Intrinsically oriented employees are more concerned with developing their talents and potentials and are more likely to take the initiative and participate in job decisions. They are also more likely to seek out challenging tasks that allow them to develop new competencies.
Every year, more than 2000 high-achieving executives go through a multiday executive course at the Human Performance Institute. A significant component of the training is having each person create a document that describes as precisely as possible her life mission (called The Ultimate Mission). The course also asks clients to write about their “best selves,” when they are most proud of who they are.
Analysis of both of these documents over many years has provided real insight into the value orientations of large numbers of executives. Perhaps most intriguing was the discovery that the things that executives most valued in themselves related to the way they interacted and connected with others. Issues of integrity, caring for others, trustworthiness, compassion, kindness, and humility invariably topped the list. Issues of fame, money, power, status, titles, material possessions, and so forth rarely made the cut.
Also interesting was the finding that virtually every Ultimate Mission crafted by the executives was about extending their sphere of influence. A successful life was contingent on how they connected and contributed to the lives of others. These responses led us directly to the doorstep of character.
This fundamental insight lead to a rethinking of how achievement should be positioned in people’s lives. Rather than an end in itself, it becomes a means to an end, a vehicle for building ethical strengths of character that do in fact produce enduring feelings of worthiness, fulfillment, and life satisfaction. A profoundly important insight was that nearly all external achievements can become re-purposed to build character strengths—strengths that define success in an entirely new way.
By doing so, a new scorecard takes form that defines winning in terms of the way one interacts with others. This, we have learned, is what is meant by ethical character. When executives win with character, not only will they build a leadership legacy that lasts, they will likely experience enduring feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction as well.
Extrinsic Achievement Is Absolutely Necessary
A critical insight centered around extrinsic achievement is that extrinsic achievement is not the end point in itself. One uses the forces and stresses of everything that is chased extrinsically to help become everything one wants and needs to become intrinsically.
The pursuit of extrinsic achievement in the service of intrinsic growth can and should be undertaken in the crucible of our typically high-demand, high-stress lives. Indeed, such an environment can help to facilitate growth. The more one pushes and the more resistance one encounters, the richer the opportunity to build and grow the fundamental values and virtues held most dear. One is always adjusting, refining, and balancing to nourish the capacities most cherished.
Character traits cannot be built in a vacuum. They must be steadily challenged to grow. “The weakest of all weak things is a virtue which has not been tested in the fire,” wrote Mark Twain.
That’s where the storms of business come in. Storms are simply challenges that push us outside our comfort zone. Storms bring us face-to-face with our fears, our values, our sense of right and wrong, our moral compass. Every storm is both a character test and a character-building opportunity. Absent the stress of the storm, character strength neither grows nor is revealed.
Re-purposing work to build highly valued strengths of character powerfully stimulates intrinsic motivation. Both research and experience confirm that intrinsically driven employees are happier, more fulfilled, and are likely to perform better under pressure. It’s clearly a win-win-win situation. Achieving with character is a win for the employee, a win for the employer, and a big win for the broader world in which we live.