What happened to achievement?

Several years ago, my son came home from school with a report card that included mostly B’s and A’s. When asked about the B’s, his response was that his teacher said that B’s were good. In fact, he said that his teacher told him that it’s okay to strive for B’s or even C’s (“as long as you pass”)—and not work so hard to get A’s.

We have become a society of underachievers.

Consider these facts: workaholics have higher social status, exceptional achievers live longer, and the ten most workaholic nations in the world produce most of the world’s GDP.

It’s not uncommon to hear complaints about how much e-mail and smartphones have taken over our lives. But let’s get serious for a minute. Has technology really taken over our lives? Or are we saying we’re overworked because technology runs our lives?

When we let technology run our lives, we end up wasting time on e-mail, cell phones, playing games on smartphones or computers … so much so that we become underachievers. Underachievers don’t complain about working hard on the trivial, but when it comes to working hard on the important, a proclamation of “overwork” is made.

The world’s most influential people such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerburg, J.K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, and others rise to the top because they worked (and continue to work) hard to accomplish the important. Their passions drive them to succeed. These people are not overworked. It is not possible to be overworked if you love what you are doing.

For those that underachieve and proclaim to be overworked, perhaps the blame rests with personal coaches, bosses, teachers, and other authority figures—those who say, “There, there, you will do better next time.” Failure does not guarantee success next time. And giving an “’atta boy” for each failure only reinforces the failure.

With continued underachievement, our society’s general level of ambition is also threatened. Chamorro-Premuzic observes this about the younger generation: “If you go to China and East Asia, Gen Y is totally different, consumed with ambition, very similar to post-Second World War Americans and Canadians, who took advantage of a booming economy to set out to run the world.”

Now ambition is withering. He says: “We’re behaving like people who say that we don’t like chocolate ice cream because we can’t get chocolate ice cream. In the rest of the world, they want chocolate ice cream.”

The way to become an achiever and never be overworked again is to stop working in a job, get a career, and embrace hard work. These are the only ways to succeed—both personally and for your organization.

Tradition and Productivity

In the acclaimed Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof, the main character, Tevye, explains his society’s traditions in the song “Tradition.” The song juxtaposes village life to a world that is changing all around them.

In many respects, struggles faced in today’s organizations may be rooted in difficulty in letting go of tradition—an inability to change.

Consider that the world’s most successful organizations have one thing in common: they are able to adapt quickly to change. Aside from the fact that the top 20 companies in the world are all in the field of technology, this in itself is telling—companies that have embraced technology are the companies that continue to lead in both earnings and productivity.

To improve performance and productivity, companies use technology and its related gadgets, but if the technology does not provide useful information to the user and the organization as a whole, its usefulness is limiting. Technological tools must be able to provide information about performance in both directions. Let me give you an example.

Some companies implemented a web-based time sheet manager that includes two measures of productivity on projects—one for the employee and the other for their team. While the system encourages productivity, it only measures performance one-way—the way the organization has determined correct.

In this example, time sheet measures provide what the organization is looking for, but what is missing is employee input. Meeting targets is one thing, but did the employee agree to the targets in the first place? Are the targets realistic? How has meeting the targets impacted employee wellbeing? These and other considerations need to be incorporated within performance measures to not only improve on performance measures, but to improve on the activities that comprise productivity.

The approach described is typical of many organizations. It is, by all accounts, traditional and one-way—company to employee.

Company demands for maximum productivity needs to be coupled with meeting employee demands. This includes understanding the individual and their work as well as understanding what the individual needs to get their work done. In other words, companies need to listen to their employees before developing systems. This is especially true in today’s economy where Generation X and Generation Y have already displaced the Baby Boomers in the workforce.

Successful organizations need to change their systems and processes to meet the needs of the “what’s in it for me” generation (X) as well as the Gen Y kids who are very technology-wise and “immune to most traditional marketing and sales pitches.”

The tradition carried into the workplace by Baby Boomers no longer meets the needs of organizations. Insisting on maintaining practices started in the 20th Century is not a tradition that will benefit 21st Century companies. The successful organizations of the 21st Century will want to work with their individual employees to learn how to accomplish more for the benefit of both employees and the organization.