A recent piece in Psychology Today asks how high achievers really think.
The author, Carl Beuke, offers a simple answer: Take responsibility and strive, strive, strive. Beuke’s approach reminds me of Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s central argument in Flow – namely, that we need to set a series of goals that just elude our easy grasp and then care enough to reach out to grab those goals.
In my work offering seminars to people in all groups (from high school dropouts to Fortune 500 executives) I find another powerful strategy for high achievers. You need to script your success. Some people talk about vision and affirmation and afformation. But scripting is different. Not only do you envision an ideal but achievable outcome, but you begin to write a story that shows how you reach that outcome.
HR folks, for example, might ask new hires and longtime employees alike: What would you like your story to be at our organization over the next year? The next five years? Then you start to think about all of the challenges that you might encounter along the way and how you might deal with those challenges.
In fact, an article in the December 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review, by Gary Hamel, shows how the Morning Star Company does just that. Morning Star, a producer of tomato goods, runs without managers, positions, or salary structures. Instead, the company’s far-flung work groups — in manufacturing, marketing, distribution, accounting, maintenance, etc. — meet as groups every year and agree on a plan. All year, they hold each other accountable for meeting their individual and group goals.
Once they agree on their script for the year, they enjoy wide latitude. If you need a $5,000 piece of equipment, you buy it. Because you have a stake in the operation — and know you’ll be held accountable — you don’t make frivolous purchases.
In a way, the people at Morning Star write their own stories. And since their invested in those stories, they feel an emotional connection to their work.
To tell good stories, it’s best to be guided by an understanding of storytelling skills — developing a complete cast of characters, understanding the wide range of motivations of different character types, putting those characters on a narrative arc, understanding the obstacles on the way, etc. As everyone from Aristotle to today’s brain researchers will tell you, the classic story structure fits the way we all think about the world. When you understand this structure, you can make sense of even the most complex problems all around you.
When you combine this storytelling process with writing skills — which, these days, all professionals and many others need to get through the day — you have a powerful way to script high achievement.