If you had the choice, would you rather stand on the winner’s podium or watch as someone else stands on that platform?
Be honest, now. When you enter a competition, do you just say you’re there simply for the experience or deep down, do you imagine yourself finishing first?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to achieve. It’s quite natural, and it’s often seen at a young age.
“Since I was a kid, I was always obsessed with achieving better results,” says Alessio Lorusso, CEO & Founder of Roboze, in Bari, Italy and Houston. “I was never satisfied with something if I thought it could be improved or reinvented completely to deliver the best results.”
This is a familiar story. Many business owners had their first taste of entrepreneurship before graduating high school.
“I’ve been an entrepreneur since my early teenage years, probably before I even knew the definition of an entrepreneur,” says Kristin Larsen, Founder of Believe In A Budget in Franklin, Tennessee. “I was the go-to babysitter in my neighborhood and had a steady stream of clients, often getting booked out for entire summers and weekends (with parents competing who would pay me the most!). I said yes to every opportunity and put all my income into my savings account.”
Fundamental to this pre-adult urge to enter the wonderful world of commerce is an equally strong desire to achieve.
“The importance of achieving is in my DNA,” says George Haymaker III, Founder and Managing Partner of Re:THINK Ice Cream in Napa, California. “It’s hard to explain how or why anyone has it, but it’s a function of my self-worth to achieve. It’s what makes me tick, I love to compete, and thankfully I discovered at an early age that this was my life’s calling.”
What is desire for high achievement?
While Haymaker may be right in saying it’s hard to explain, that hasn’t stopped researchers from trying. Academic literature abounds with studies attempting to describe this need for achievement and correlate it to success in business (and other matters of life).
A 2017 study states, “According to self-worth theory, success-oriented students are highly intrinsically motivated. Students with these goals view success as acquiring new skills and knowledge, improving intellectually and developing competence with the possibility of failure, closely balanced against the chances of success (Atkinson, 1957). Regardless of the achievements of others, success-oriented (mastery-oriented) students value ability as a tool to achieve mastery on personally meaningful goals and they tend to believe that failure despite trying hard does not necessarily imply incompetence. It may simply mean using wrong strategies.”1
Other studies suggest high achievers are more likely to place themselves in a position to fail, mainly because they tend to seek more challenging tasks.
“From the youngest age, I’ve always been inherently curious,” says Paul Polizzotto, Founder & CEO of Givewith in Manhattan Beach, California. “I’ve also been enormously competitive, so when I’m committed to achieving a goal, I will continue to work at it until I ensure it’s at its very best. As an entrepreneur, I actually don’t relate to the concept of ‘fail fast and fail often.’ I have a much stronger fear of failure than I do a desire for success. I believe successful entrepreneurs need to fear failure and turn that fear into a catalyst to achieve success. Throughout every stage of each company I’ve founded, I’ve made sure to hunt failure and meticulously dissect my solution to address any prospect of failure.”
Why need for achievement is important?
It’s generally recognized that the need for achievement is responsible for much of the progress seen in society. In a research paper published in 2016, Tarundeep Kaur says, “Need for achievement is important because it is not only correlated to higher achievement scores but also with more rapid promotions, attainment of greater success, running their own business and a nation’s economy.”2
So valuable is this trait for the betterment of society that earlier research tied it directly to elementary school education.
Lester Sontag and Jerome Kagan’s 1963 research concluded, “The period from six to ten years is critical for the crystallization of a desire for task mastery and intellectual competence. High levels of achievement behavior at that age are highly correlated with achievement behavior in adulthood. It is further suggested that the teacher realize the role that she may play as a source of identification to the children she teaches and her power to increase the child’s confidence in his ability to deal with problems autonomously.”3
Many entrepreneurs provide testimony as to the validity of this conclusion.
“I was born a competitor, so the achievement side is something that you strive for as a part of giving 100% effort into all that you do when you’re trying to be the best,” says Barclay Keith, CEO at Artis Technologies LLC in Atlanta. “It started with high school athletics and continued with me into the military and now into my professional life.”
What are the characteristics of people with high need for achievement?
As you dive deeper into the research on the need for achievement, you see its connection to other entrepreneurial traits, including locus of control and the need for autonomy.
One study showed, “Subjects high in the desire for control were found to aspire to higher levels of achievement than subjects low in desire for control [“DC”]. These high-DC persons also were found to have higher estimates for their performances and were able to adjust their expectations in a more realistic manner than were low-DC individuals. Subjects high in desire for control were found to respond to a challenge with more effort and to persist at a difficult task longer than were low-DC subjects. Finally, high-DC subjects exhibited an attribution pattern for successes and failures that suggests a high level of motivation on subsequent achievement tasks.”4
Along with this “desire for control,” high achievers regularly demonstrate a go-it-alone autonomy in many of their endeavors.
Dallas, Texas-based Kathy Thomas, an executive for a bookstore chain, Half Price Books and CEO of Ready Ritas, a margarita mix company she started in 2016, says, “I have always pushed myself. When I was a kid, I would jump off the high board and not worry about getting hurt. I would, of course, belly flop, but that would not stop me. You have to have the perseverance to start a company and keep it moving forward. It is easy to start but harder to keep pushing when you are tired and just want a few days off. Someone has to constantly be the cheerleader. My problem is once I start it, I can’t admit defeat and give up. Friends and family members have not always been supportive, but you just have to believe and keep going. You have to find good people to keep around you to encourage and motivate you.”
What is high achievement in entrepreneurship?
It’s no surprise that those who study the need for achievement find it inextricably linked to entrepreneurship.
Cornell researcher Christopher J. Collins led a team that, in 2004, published a study saying, “Achievement motivation is significantly related to both occupational choice and performance in an entrepreneurial role. Although these results superficially agree with prior reviews (e.g., Spangler, 1992) in showing that need for achievement is related to action, our results were based on entrepreneurship studies—the domain that is directly relevant to achievement motivation. Further, we found a stronger relationship between need for achievement and entrepreneurial activity… achievement motivation appears to be an important characteristic for entrepreneurs.”5
In the case of specific individual entrepreneurs, this drive for high achievement highlights many of their activities throughout their lives.
“I’ve been selling something since I was in kindergarten,” says Kelly McDonald, CEO/Founder of Kyndoo in San Francisco. “I can still remember the feeling I had at an all-school assembly where I was recognized for selling the most candy bars in a school fundraiser when I was five years old. I’m sure my parents still have the AM/FM radio I won for it too. At that moment, I was hooked. It still feels amazing when I win, and I go hard every day and celebrate every win we have.”
Are entrepreneurs high achievers?
It’s one thing to show the urge for high achievement, but it is another to realize that expectation.
This outcome orientation is precisely what one study looked at. It concluded, “Motives associated with entrepreneurship, such as achievement, drive, and egoistic passion, may be especially relevant during peak experiences, in that high levels of energy and stamina, a desire to meet challenging goals, and a love of the work enable the entrepreneur to function at peak levels (e.g., Morris, 1998; Shane et al., 2003). Further, entrepreneurs are more driven by achievement than extrinsic rewards such as money… The three phenomena examined in the current study would seem to encourage the regulation of one’s behavior more from the vantage point of opportunity achievement (promotion) rather than loss avoidance (prevention), such that more opportunities are pursued.”6
Be careful, then, about how you define achievement. For entrepreneurs, it’s very personal, and although money is certainly one measure of success, it’s not the only measure, and quite often, it’s not the primary measure.
“Achievement is more internal for me than external,” says Brian Robben, CEO of Robben Media in Cincinnati. “The recognition, respect, and money are nice. But I need to know, deep down, if I say I can do something, then do I have the guts to stick to it until it’s completed? This burning desire to know me and what I’m capable of came from basketball when I wanted to be the best player in my middle school and then the league. After it was clear to me that I was, I started applying this to my GPA, then website metrics, and, now, business.”
Again and again, we see examples of these valuable traits appearing during childhood ages. They are often associated with school activities.
“I was raised to believe in achievement because my entire family was mainly built of teachers,” says Sabriya Dobbins, Founder of Project Passport LLC in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I remember crying when I got my first B in second grade! The bar was always high for me growing up; hence, I knew I had to hit it and then some. I graduated valedictorian in college with two degrees, and I now work on a master’s while running my company. It is important to achieve because you open up new levels and opportunities to your life with every victory. The losses keep you growing and keep your hunger high.”
There’s more to entrepreneurial success than achievement or any of the other four traits covered in this series (including calculated risk-taking, creativity, locus of control and autonomy). These psychological tendencies only place you in the right entrepreneurial mindset. There’s still a lot of blocking and tackling that you need to get through.
“Achievement is based around setting goals and making them happen,” says Dana Humphrey, CEO of Dana Humphrey Life Coaching in Rockaway Park, New York. “It’s working with your internal ‘masculine’ energy (as a woman or a man). It’s making a plan and striving ahead, and then using your energy and belief to get there. You must have faith or confidence in order for this trait to work out.”
Think of these traits as the pre-game pep talk. Sure, you’re feeling good about yourself, your prospects and life in general.
But you still have to go out there and win the game.
1 Sekreter, Gulseren, and Hamdi Serin, “How does Students’ Sense of Self-Worth Influence their Goal Orientation in Mathematics Achievement,” International Journal of Social Sciences & Educational Studies, vol. 4, no. 3, 2017, pp. 175-181.
2 Kaur, Tarundeep, “Academic Achievement: Role of Need for Achievement and Anxiety,” Elixir International Journal, Elixir Edu. Tech. 101 (2016) 43530-43533, 6 December 2016.
3 Sontag, Lester W., and Jerome Kagan. “The Emergence of Intellectual Achievement Motives.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, vol. 33, no. 3, 1963, pp. 532-535.
4 Burger, Jerry M., “Desire for Control and Achievement-Related Behaviors.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 48, no. 6, 1985, pp. 1520-1533.
5 Collins, Christopher J., Paul J. Hanges, and Edwin A. Locke. “The Relationship of Achievement Motivation to Entrepreneurial Behavior: A Meta-Analysis.” Human Performance, vol. 17, no. 1, 2004, pp. 95-117.
6 Schindehutte, Minet, Michael Morris, and Jeffrey Allen. “Beyond Achievement: Entrepreneurship as Extreme Experience.” Small Business Economics, vol. 27, no. 4/5, 2006, pp. 349-368.