The Achievement Habit: A book review by Bob Morris

Achievement HabitThe Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life
Bernard Roth
HarperBusiness/An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers (July 2015)

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle, July 7, 2015

If I understand Bernard Roth’s primary objective when teaching a class or writing a book such as this (and I may not), it is to help as many people as possible to formulate their own worldview rather than adopt and become hostage to someone else’s. He wants his students and his readers to gain — through a rigorous journey of personal discovery — a sense of purpose, mastery, and intrinsic motivation. At some point, intrinsic motivation takes over, “and the work is its own reward.”

According to Roth, “By the end of the book, as a reader you will understand:

o Why trying is not good enough and how it is very different from [begin italics] doing [end italics].
o Why excuses, even legitimate ones, are self-defeating.
o How to change your self-image into one of a doer and achiever, and why this is important.
o How subtle language changes can resolve existential dilemmas and also barriers to action.
o How to build resiliency by reinforcing what you do (your action) rather than what you accomplish, so you can easily recover from temporary setbacks.
o How to train yourself to ignorer distractions that prevent you from achieving your goals.
o How to be open to learning from your own experience and that of others.

In this context, I was again reminded of the key insight in Ernest Becker’s classic, Denial of Death. No one can deny physical death but, Becker suggests, there is another form of death that can be denied: That which occurs when we become wholly preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us. Oscar Wilde once suggested, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” Roth takes a Wilde a step further, suggesting, “Be your best self and then become a better you each day.” How? It’s all explained in the book.

Hence the importance of design thinking. Roth acknowledges, “It’s difficult to give an exact definition for design thinking, however, but because I am one of the ‘inventors’ I can certainly give you an idea of its principles, which we’ll get into throughout the book.” Here are five.

1. Empathize: “This is where it starts. When you design…you’re doing it with other people’s needs and desires in mind.”
2. Define the problem: “Narrow down which problem to solve, which question to answer.”
3. Ideate: Generate as many solutions or answers as possible “using any means you like — brainstorming, mind mapping, sketching on napkins,…however you work best.”
4. Prototype: “Without going crazy to make everything perfect (or even close to it), build your project in physical form, or develop the plans for what you’re going to enact.”
5. Test and get feedback: I presume to stress the importance of (a) rigorous testing and (b) obtaining feedback only from those who will be candid, indeed frank. Remember: what you have is a work-in-progress.

As Roth would be the first to point out, identifying the WHAT of design thinking is easy enough. Explaining it clearly is far more difficult. Even then, presumably Roth agrees with Thomas Edison who observed long ago, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Both Edison and Roth are big fans of “whatever works.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Roth’s coverage:

o The Familiar Unfamiliar (Pages 26-30)
o Right and Wrong (35-36)
o Decision and Indecision (51-56)
o Moving to a Higher Level (64-70)
o Reframing (70-75)
o Twenty-Two Ways to Get Unstuck (80-93)
o The Curse of Networking (100-101)
o Trying and Doing (105-109)
o Acting Under Pressure (114-118)
o The Gift of Failure (121-122)
o Context (137-138)
o The Hard Conversations (145-146)
o Constructive Criticism (154-156)
o Styles and Cultures (156-159)
o Who’s in Charge? (165-170)
o Parting Lessons from Friends (209-214)
o Life as Chance (219-223)
o The Blessing of Work (226-230)
o Motivation (250-253)

I commend Roth on his brilliant use of a multi-purpose device, “Your Turn,” throughout all ten chapters. Readers are challenged to reflect on what they have learned thus far, evaluate its relevance, and then apply it to their situation. In the last chapter, for example, after sharing his thoughts about a mantra, “It’s not about you,” he recalls a situation when he ignored it and only later realized, “It wasn’t about me.”

Then he redirects his attention to his reader: “The next few times something happens where you think people’s actions are related to what you did or did not do, tell yourself, `It’s not about me.’ Then note how you feel and, if possible, check out how they feel.” There are dozens of “Your Turn” deferences to the reader throughout the book.

These are among Roth’s concluding thoughts: “Be smarter than I was. Realize that your mind is trickier than you think, and is always working with your ego to make you believe you are doing better than you really are. That’s the human condition…You can choose to be the [begin italics] cause in the matter [end italics] of the circumstances of your life and you can instill in yourself the habit of achievement for a more functional and satisfying life. I hope this book contributes to these worthy goals.”

You won’t find a roadmap to self-knowledge in this book, nor even a compass. It isn’t about Bernie Roth. Absorb and digest the material. There will be several times when you have a chance to consider an insight. It can serve as both a mirror and a window. What you see in the mirror will help increase your understanding and appreciation of who you are now and who you can become. You will also be better prepared to share your enriched and enlightened humanity with others.

I realize that no brief commentary such as mine could possible do full justice to valuable information, insights, and counsel that he provides in abundance. However, I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of it.

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