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The Achievement Habit

By Bernard Roth





Author Bernard Roth sets out his plan to help readers rethink almost every aspect of life and thereby achieve a more satisfying life. The contents of this book are based on his Stanford University course, and demonstrate how design thinking can help all of us to take on life’s challenges and realise our goals. He asserts that achievement is a muscle, and as such it’s something we can flex and strengthen to become more powerful. Using story-telling and thought-provoking exercises, he paves the way to changing how we think and act so that we can change our lives for the better.

My Top 3 Takes from the Summary.

  • Achievement is a habit that can be learned.

  • In life, if you want to get things done, it is much better to be powerful than to be forceful. When you do something, you are using power to do it, but when you try to do something, you are using force.

  • Almost without exception, people who have done great things have also experienced great failures — and in many cases, getting fired or a similar devastating failure turned out to be a gift that allowed them to ultimately find great success.


Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life.

The author believes that achievement is a habit that can be learned, and through combining design thinking, problem-solving, and creativity, he shows the reader exactly how to go about doing the things they’ve always dreamed of achieving – but never quite believed they would.



What is design thinking?


The author writes: Design thinking is a set of general practices developed over the years that are effective in solving design challenges. A design challenge can apply to just about any kind of product or experience. It's not just about how to build a better mousetrap (though that's part of it); it's also about things that are not physical objects: how to improve the wait time at a popular amusement park, how to clean up a highway, how to more efficiently get food to needy people, how to improve online dating and so on. Design thinking is normally applied outward — toward building solutions for other people's problems in a business or school setting. Here it is used toward improving your own life and interpersonal relationships, designing the best version of yourself.


To stop wishing, start doing, and take command of your life, the author provides detailed information to explain:

  • Why trying and doing are two different things

  • Why using reasons (excuses), even legitimate ones, to explain one's behaviour is self-defeating

  • How to change your self-image into one of a doer and achiever

  • How subtle language changes can resolve existential dilemmas and barriers to action

  • How to build resiliency by reinforcing what you do rather than what you accomplish

  • How to be open to learning from your own experience and from those around you


His message is all about ridding ourselves of issues that stand in the way of reaching our full potential, and in the process, gaining the confidence to transform our behaviour, control our intentions, and create habits that make our lives better. He writes: Ask people to think about who stops them from accomplishing the things they want. It's always entertaining to listen to them explain how their parents, spouses, children, colleagues, bosses — you name it — prevent them from reaching their goals. These perceived obstacles are simply excuses; in almost every case, when you really dig down, it's you who are sabotaging yourself. Yes, sometimes there are real external obstacles, and most people don't realise that they have the power to overcome them.

An important point made is that when you choose to do something, you are using power to do it, but when you try to do something, you are using force in your effort to do it. He writes: In life, if you want to get things done, it is much better to be powerful than to be forceful. Of course the switch isn't so easy to make in real life. We've all had the experience of making up our minds to do something and then not doing it. In order to make the switch we must understand our behaviour. The classic model (and popular wisdom) says that we think things through first and then act on our thoughts. Interestingly, this does not hold up in clinical testing. Most of our action is more the result of habit than reasoning. So that leads to a question: How do you bridge the gap between trying and doing, between talking about something and acting on it, and ultimately between failure and success?

To answer this question, he asks the reader to consider that nothing is what they think it is. Everything in life, whether it’s people, objects, or individual circumstances is a matter of perception – it’s all subjective. We all give our own meaning to everything around us, and to help our understanding of this, he suggests an exercise that sheds light on how we think.

He writes: Take a few deep breaths. Close your eyes for a few minutes. Then open them and move your attention around the room from one object to another. Each time you notice an object, say it has no meaning (as in, "The chair has no meaning"). Then think of people in your family and in your life and things you hold dear, such as your biggest accomplishments and most prized possessions. Name each, saying it has no meaning. When you are finished, sit quietly for a few minutes and then reflect on your experience. The point of the exercise is not to get you to change any of your relationships. Rather, it is to empower you with the realization that you have chosen the meanings you give to all of your relationships. People who do this exercise often become more aware of how important a person or item is to them, and they realize that they have the ability to change the meaning something has to them… Things have no inherent meaning, only the meaning we give them, so this means we have the power to alter our perceptions, revise perceptions that bring us down, and enhance those that help us.

To forge a new attitude toward the events and relationships in your life, you must learn to look at them with a fresh perspective. Just as things in the material world can be transformed from their common use into something different, so too can behaviour and relationships. It's difficult at first to break through preconceived notions; however, once you do it, you'll find it opens the world up to you. Stop labelling things in their usual way. You are not a loser because you lost your job. Make the familiar into the unfamiliar, and the result can be amazing and delightful, as opposed to dull, non-functional and ordinary.



Getting Around Obstacles.


We might all know that getting to where we want to be means finding a way to get around any obstacles blocking our path, but the author knows this is often easier said than done. He writes: How do you walk around obstacles? The answer lies in changing the way you think about the problem. Design thinking emphasizes that you always make sure you are working on the real problem. When you can't find the answer, it is often because you are not asking the correct question. One of the main causes of losing sleep over a problem is that we think we are dealing with a question when in fact we are dealing with an answer (a solution) that turns out not to be a good fit to our actual problem. A way around this dilemma is to ask, "What would it do for me if I solved this problem?" The answer to this can then be converted into a new, more generative question. By changing the question, you alter your point of view and dramatically expand the number of possible solutions. Changing the question is often enough to lead to a satisfactory resolution and to make the original difficulty disappear.

He also points out that the word problem has negative connotations. He writes: It implies there is something wrong that needs fixing. However, if a problem is reframed as an opportunity to make things in our life better, then it becomes a positive, and problem solving can be recognized as one of our basic life forces.

So what are problems? The word problem describes any situation that we want to change. Usually problems are stated as questions ("How do I get a job?") or statements ("I cannot afford college"). Generally we want to deal with problems in order to effect a positive change in some situation. Life consists of solving a series of problems. We all have unsolved issues in our lives. There are situations and people that bug us, and there are vexing personal and professional problems. If you reframe your problem, many possible options become apparent, and the path to a solution often becomes obvious.



Do, Don’t Try.


Returning to the power of doing rather than trying, the author writes: There is a big difference between trying to do something and actually doing it. They're two totally different actions. The difficulty arises when people conflate them. If you try to do something, it may or may not happen. If it does not happen, you might try using an altered strategy, and again it may not happen. Although this could go on indefinitely, usually it lasts until you luck out and succeed, get tired of trying or get distracted by something else. Clearly this is a very unproductive way to go about your life. If you are doing something, then no matter how many times you hit a barrier or how frustrated your original strategy becomes, you intend to get the job done, and you bring to bear on it the inner resolve and attention necessary to fulfil your intention. Doing takes intention and attention.

Do — don't try — this: List as many of your core beliefs as possible, and then ask yourself what basis you have for each belief. Unsurprisingly, a large number of core beliefs come from parents, the social and physical environment we grew up in and various peer groups. The next question to ask is, "Which of your beliefs still serve you, and which have become dysfunctional and are best discarded?" When you make decisions based on "the research," you can easily be led astray by researchers' biases. Even when the data is sound — like the fact that half of all marriages end in divorce — does that mean that you should give up the idea of getting married because it has too high a potential failure rate? Statistics can show you trends; they can't predict your life. Likewise, consider that the odds have always been against greatness. If one were to decide on a career path just by the odds of financial success, we would have no movie stars, authors, poets or musicians. The odds were against the Beatles, Elvis and the Grateful Dead, too. They could have been "scientific" about the whole thing and chosen more reasonable career paths, and what a loss for the world that would have been! If you succeed, the odds are meaningless. Any path may have a 2 percent success rate, yet if you're in that 2 percent, there's a 100 percent chance of success for you. The long shots are often the most rewarding.

Almost without exception, people who have done great things have also experienced great failures — and in many cases, getting fired or a similar devastating failure turned out to be a gift that allowed them to ultimately find great success. If you are mindful about what you have done, failure is a teacher. With a little luck, after enough failures you will succeed. In many cases this is a much better approach than a long, drawn-out investigation into the right way to proceed. Nobody wants to fail, and yet we all do. Don't be afraid of failure. It is part of the price you pay for action; there's no need to sweep it under the rug and pretend it does not exist. The most liberating way to acknowledge failure is to celebrate it.





The contents of this book are designed to help the reader realise the power for positive change they have within them. The insights shared by the author stem from design thinking, and through stories, recommendations, and exercises, he shows how we can gain confidence, do what we’ve always wanted to do, and overcome obstacles that stand in the way of reaching our full potential.





The book has built in exercises labelled with the heading ‘Your Turn’. These provide excellent food for thought and draw attention to subconscious habits in thinking and behaviour that may be holding you back. As the author states:  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. What you have going for yourself is that, if you choose to, you can be mindful about controlling both your intentions and your attention to make your life better for yourself and for those around you.



Bio of the Author.


Bernard Roth is the Rodney H. Adams Professor of Engineering and the academic director of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the at Stanford University. He is an in-demand speaker at conferences and workshops globally, has served as a director of several corporations, been a leader in professional societies, and has created courses that allow students to directly gain understanding and experience about personal issues that matter to them.

The Achievement Habit by Bernard Roth, 2015, ISBN: 978-0-062-35610-9 is available to buy at Amazon.


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