The Drive to Achieve

The desire to achieve determines human destiny. The paradox for civilizations, organizations and people, however, is that prolonged success becomes its own undoing.

The desire to achieve determines human destiny. The paradox for civilizations, organizations and people, however, is that prolonged success becomes its own undoing. It is a fact of human nature, evident through the millennia: When the hard work of the past produces fruits of rewards in the present, complacency can set in. (Think of the Roman Empire’s decline.)

What, then, does it take to keep humans engaged, well beyond the first tastes of success? The question is as relevant to organizations today as it is for historians studying the rise and fall of the great civilizations of the past.

Enterprises today might wonder if more money is the answer. Or are other factors even more important than extrinsic rewards?

To explore these questions we turn to the seminal work of the late David McClelland, a pioneer in the study of human motivation and achievement. (Today, Korn Ferry Hay Group’s McClelland Center continues his legacy and focus on human motivation.)

In his book, “The Achieving Society,” first published in 1961, McClelland undertook a sweeping account of history—from ancient Greece, through the Middle Ages in Europe, to England during the Industrial Revolution and to the postwar United States—to understand the fundamental reasons for economic growth, as well as the causes of decline. McClelland discovered a “force” that drives rapid economic development—one that lies largely within humans. That force is the desire to achieve.

It is a timeless truth that when the drive to achieve is strong, individual and collective achievement are on the rise, and society advances. When people become complacent, they dull their edge and undermine the resilience of the next generation. Achievement wanes, and civilization declines.

To avoid complacency, no one would want to trade our current standard of living for a “hungrier” time. It’s a fair guess that most of us, even with our long hours and 24/7 connectivity, don’t work as hard physically as our forefathers did. (What would past generations make of the fact that we have to go to a gym and actually pay to break a sweat?)

People tend to equate “progress” with less toil and more leisure. John Adams, the second president of the United States, once reflected in a letter to his wife that his responsibility was to study “politics and war” (what we might think of as the hard work of nation-building) so that their sons might study mathematics and philosophy—and the next generation could devote time to painting, poetry and porcelain.

Consider that Americans alone spend more than $70 billion each year on lottery tickets and $20 billion-plus on video games. What does that say about society’s priorities?

I’m not suggesting that we give up the creature comforts and technological tools of modern life. But, as McClelland’s history lessons teach us, we can’t allow ourselves to be lulled into complacency because life becomes easy. No one can afford to rest on his or her laurels.

For years, American workers were the standard-bearers for productivity (output per worker). In 2007, they were overtaken by workers in other countries—most recently by the Germans and the French. Achievement can never be taken for granted.

So how do we keep alive the drive to achieve—as individuals, organizations and society? Will people in the future possess the drive to achieve on the scale of previous generations that mass-produced automobiles or launched the first rockets to the moon—advances that, in their day, seemed to be near-impossibilities?

Motivation is everything when it comes to engaging people and inspiring them to achieve—raising their sights to even greater heights than what they had thought possible. Yes, money is part of that motivation, but only part. While it would be extremely naïve to dismiss monetary rewards, we cannot overestimate their importance, either. Money can’t buy loyalty—it merely “rents” it for a while.

Within any organization, an overarching purpose is the greatest motivation. Purpose taps into the universal and deep-seated human desire to be part of something bigger than oneself. With an enduring sense of purpose, people will actually work harder for less money, because what the organization is trying to achieve resonates deeply with them personally.

Through purpose, we can foster a drive to achieve for individuals and organizations. Purpose then becomes both a meaningful reward and an ongoing motivation that keeps driving achievement.

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