This is a guest post by Alan Patterson
Games have an uncanny ability to shape and transform our behavior in ways that look simple but engage in an emotional and sophisticated manner. One of the more common games we play throughout our careers is Achieve and Advance. It sounds very American. Effort counts. Hard work and persistence count more. Achieving results equals success, and that counts the most. Succeed over and over and the door to the next big thing opens. Walk right in. No need to take a number – or so it seems.
Sociologist Erving Goffman describes games as a set of encounters in which players engage in a certain manner for a particular purpose. A game requires:
- A goal – The overall objective, how you score points and how you win
- A boundary – A border that defines the field of play and separates what happens inside the lines from the outside world
- Roles – The individual and collective assignments players are responsible for
- Retargets – The equipment needed to play
- Rules – The instructions by which the game is executed, what’s allowed, and what’s not
- Strategy – A set of plays used to achieve the goal
In the game of Achieve and Advance, winning is to successfully complete certain goals so that you are poised to move to the next level. If this were a basketball tournament, for example, each time you win you advance to the next game. If Achieve and Advance were only that simple in real life.
Most define success by what they have accomplished through hands-on, individual effort. The need to achieve is described by Harvard social psychologist David McClelland as an innate motivation to accomplish goals with efficiency and effectiveness. It’s about taking the initiative to do quality work – adhering to high, often self-imposed, standards. Achievement is also rooted in American values, synonymous with the ethic of hard work and doing your best. We also see achievement played out in the economic belief in entrepreneurism. In total, there are no limits to what you can achieve if you put in the work and persist in overcoming the inevitable hurdles in your path. Effort creates results. Results equal success. As the game morphs, so does its impact on players, whose need to achieve overshadows everything else.
The Role of Education
Education is a classic game of Achieve and Advance. It’s easy to define the field of play, the players, the rules, the boundaries, and what it means to score points and win. Once you get through those early, fun years in elementary school, you are segregated into groups based on your performance, often named for birds to appear non-judgmental. As the years go by, the game is more serious, yet always emphasizing the need to get the right answer. Achieve results. Move to the next big thing. Study harder. Learn more. Accomplish more. Get your best score. Advance. Outright competition, in addition to self-competition. The next move in Achieve and Advance is to Achieve and Win. But what happens when your best performance is not the best performance.
The Cost of Perfectionism
I have worked with hundreds of high achievers in my career. They populate every type of business and organization. They’re everywhere. I know how they think and what they do because I only have to look in the mirror. Perfectionism means perfect. No mistakes or perceived mistakes or even a random thought that if you only had another day. No matter. What you’ve created is not your best. It’s tiring and demotivating. I know.
The Role of Failure
Sociologist Carol Dweck has written on the nature of success and failure in the educational realm. A student or worker with a fixed mindset either reaches a level of mastery or not. All black and white. No shades of gray. Her studies demonstrate the devastation: 90% success is 10% failure. You not only fail. You’re a failure. On the other hand, when students focus on the process of learning, success and failure are taken in stride. Life moves forward. This is not a character assassination or death sentence. “Ok kid. What did you learn? Now get back up on the horse and ride again.”
The Winning Game
Achieve and Advance is the game that allegedly spins up personal achievement motivation. You must be the best. By whose standards, you say? The ones locked down by the brain waves in your head. You think you know what perfect looks like. Even when the Bureau of Weights and Standards says you are within the margin of error, you perceive it’s not good enough. There’s the story of the young Chicago teenager who quit the swim team, the sport he loved, because he would never be as good as Michael Phelps and go to the Olympics. “What’s the point?” he said.
When you’re moving down the road to not good enough, the emotional weight becomes a self-fulling prophecy. It’s painful. But there is good news. In life, new rules can apply. For the most part, you have the ability to control what and how you do what’s expected. You only lose when all that energy runs amok and you buy into the belief that you fail when everything leading up to now is not perfect.
Success isn’t about the race to the top or having to prove you’re good enough. It’s about carving out a path of personal discoveries and career accomplishments without focusing on promotions, prestige or status.
About the guest post author:
Dr. Alan M. Patterson is an organizational development consultant, specializing in executive and leadership development. Having led hundreds of clients for over four decades, Dr. Patterson continues to ignore standard coaching methods, opting to pursue and lead clients down the path of meaningful careers that are not only successful, but also rewarding. He’s worked with everyone from the Federal Reserve Bank to Hewlett Packard to Major League Baseball and the United States Navy.
His new book is Burn Ladders. Build Bridges. Pusuing Work with Meaning and Purpose. Learn more at www.ladderburners.com.