The Achievement Habit

Summary Written by Zach Rubin
"Achievement can be learned. It is a muscle, and once you learn to flex it, there’s no end to what you can accomplish in life."

- The Achievement Habit, page 5

The Big Idea

Design Thinking

"Design thinking is a set of general practices a group of us has 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."- The Achievement Habit, page 11

Design thinking is a different way of thinking about problems than is traditionally taught. Roth notes that design thinking has “empathy” at its core because design has to be focused on who or what you are designing for rather than yourself.

Beyond empathy is the idea of defining the problem specifically and checking to make sure the “problem” is really the issue that needs to be solved rather than a symptom of a different problem. Once the problem has been correctly defined, a design thinker generates as many solutions as possible and tests the best ideas on real people, while collecting feedback. With that feedback they can then generate more ideas and repeat the process until they are satisfied with the solution.

It may be most helpful to contrast design thinking with what often happens in organizations:

  1. A problem is identified and given to a group of senior managers to develop a solution.
  2. The group immediately goes about “solving” the problem without talking to anyone else.
  3. The first reasonable idea from the most senior manager is agreed to and then a lot of time and effort is spent to implement the idea across the organization.
  4. Finally, when the “solution” fails to solve the initial problem, everyone decides the issue is intractable and the organization will just need to “live with it.”

Design thinking helps to avoid these pitfalls and many more in our personal life and the organizations we work in.

Insight #1

A Gooood Reason

"When we stop using reasons to justify ourselves, we increase our chances of changing our behavior, gaining a realistic self-image, and living a more satisfying and productive life."- The Achievement Habit, page 42

Roth notes that we often justify our behavior with “reasons” that, for the most part, don’t actually explain our behavior. A common example would be that we are “too busy” for something, when the truth is we simply don’t want to make that thing a priority. Stopping ourselves from simplifying our thoughts to a few trite reasons opens the door to better understanding the true limits we face.

Roth encourages us to catch ourselves when we are providing reasons (especially reasons to ourselves) and imagine a chorus of people sarcastically announcing “that’s a gooood reason.” In fact, Roth has his workshops and classes do exactly this whenever someone provides a “reason” something can’t be done.

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Insight #2

A Bias Toward Action

"The best way forward is embedded in the design thinking methodology: manifest a bias toward action and don’t be afraid of failure."- The Achievement Habit, page 53

We are all faced with countless options each day and throughout our lives. It is impossible to know what the outcome of those decisions will be so, in most cases, the worst thing to do is wait to decide. Roth believes “it serves people best in life to accept that decisions are part of the process of moving forward, and that there are so many variables that it’s a waste of time to try to see the endgame. Once we realize that most decisions are not life-or-death, we can make them without undue stress.”

If you have a big life decision you’ve been putting off you can just ask yourself what’s the best choice I can make with the information I have and then… act.

The Achievement Habit provides far more insight than this summary can offer because it covers so much ground. The book’s thesis might be something along the lines of how to use design thinking to improve your life but the nebulousness of that idea demands more thought than even this book can provide. If you’re looking to challenge some of your existing assumptions about the world then this book is certainly a good read. On the other hand, if you want a simple framework for achievement then this book is likely to leave you with more questions than answers. Perhaps that’s how it should be.

Read the book

Get The Achievement Habit on Amazon.

Bernard Roth

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 a leading expert in kinematics, the science of motion, and one of the world’s pioneers in the area of robotics. In addition, he has created courses that allow students to directly gain understanding and experience about personal issues that matter to them. Bernie is also the primary developer of the concept of the Creativity Workshop. For more than thirty years this workshop has been a vehicle for him to take the experiential teaching he developed at Stanford to students, faculty, and professionals around the world. He is an in-demand speaker at conferences and workshops globally, has served as a director of several corporations, and has been a leader in professional societies.

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