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The Art of Accomplishment

What it really takes.

No author listed, pxhere, public domain
Source: No author listed, pxhere, public domain

Not everyone cares to become highly accomplished. This post is for those willing to make the commitment. It reflects what has most often worked among my highly successful clients and what I've learned from reading a number of biographies of the highly accomplished.

How am I defining accomplishment? Making a difference professionally. To take psychology examples, an effective therapist is certainly accomplished. On a grander scale, a psychologist who develops a new, more effective approach to improving mental health, maybe some combination of gene therapy, pharmaceuticals, and talk therapy, would have, by my definition, accomplished even more. My definition of accomplishment excludes financial success because a person could become rich by selling bad products, treating workers badly, or destroying the environment.

The following are what I see as the keys to becoming highly accomplished. Of course, feel free to pick and choose or reject them all in favor of ideas you deem more suitable to you.

Value accomplishment as primary, perhaps even over the vaunted work-life balance. That’s the norm among the highly accomplished.

Treat time as treasure, down to the minute. The highly accomplished realize that a lot can be accomplished or wasted even in a single minute. They take breaks but mainly shorties, just enough to recharge.

Yes, be in the moment. You're more likely to stay motivated by being in the moment rather than looking ahead to the goal—That's too far away and the joy upon achieving it tends to evanesce.

An hour isn’t an hour. Many people claim to work long days but actually are focused and efficient for far fewer hours. Highly accomplished people ever ask themselves: What’s an efficient way to do this? And how perfectionist should I be on this task? They’re flexible, with their foot on the perfectionism pedal: sometimes tapping it, other times, pedal to the metal.

Identify your key motivated skills. Those are the skills you're good at and enjoy using. One way to identify them is to list your few favorite accomplishments and look for common threads. A client yesterday did that exercise to discover that she is good at and enjoys bringing together disgruntled high-powered people to solve problems. Could she become a negotiator, mediator, or even a lobbyist?

Identify your core interests, those unlikely to change over some years. What have you long liked talking and reading about, that you’re as interested in as ever?

Skirt your weaknesses. Even highly accomplished people aren’t infinitely malleable. Adjust your tasks to maximize time using your strengths and minimize time using your weaknesses. A client was a top photographer who endlessly procrastinated doing billing and took way too long to get it done, which cost her a fortune. She hired a part-time bookkeeper and voila.

Focus. Sure, generalists occasionally prevail, but most highly accomplished “generalists” first became expert at something long before they were allowed to be a generalist.

Just choose something already. As long as the goal is reasonably consonant with your core skills and interests, the specific goal matters less, as long as you’re motivated to stay with it, and with vigor. The cliché is true: accomplishment is 5% inspiration, 95% perspiration.

Find and fan a spark but if none lights, proceed as-if. Would your spark come from wanting to be proven right, to prove a naysayer wrong, or, okay, just because you want to become rich and perhaps famous? Henry Kissinger’s driver was power and praise. Josef Mengele, believe it or not, was driven in part by the desire to be a professor. Nike’s founder Phil Knight, a former runner, was sparked mainly by a desire to win. Could your role model provide a spark? It could be someone you know personally or someone famous. Perhaps read their biography.

Still can't find a spark? It's usually wise to just pick something, get started, and act as if you were passionate. Often, passion comes only from progress.

Put the hours in. It’s not far from snake oil to assert that you needn’t work hard; just work smart. Most highly accomplished people work hard and smart, and stay with their target area of expertise until they’re fully expert

Stay healthy. I know I sound like your parents, but you gotta do the basics: watch your weight, exercise, don’t abuse substances, and get a good night's sleep.

Get the best training, especially just-in-time: Consult good on-target articles and videos, take the best courses, watch masters and volunteer to work with the one(s) you like best. Ask for honest feedback. Keep learning, just-in-time: Learn what you need when you need it rather than en masse. With en masse learning, as in a degree program, you may find too little of it useful or, by the time you need it, you’ll have forgotten it or it will have become obsolete.

Run with winners. Spend time around high-quality colleagues, mentors and paid consultants and assistants to provide needed expertise, time, or to cover your weaknesses. Try to quell fear of imposing and embarrassment by practicing and then realizing that they too have reached out for help at various points in their career.

Force instant rebound. Read any biography of an accomplished person and you'll see that they all suffered major setbacks but did not allow themselves to wallow. They all forced themselves forward. Churchill was a failure in school, called intelligent but slovenly and distractible. He had a lisp. He orchestrated the million-man attack at Gallipoli, which cost a half million casualties. He suffered lifelong depression. He was kicked out as Prime Minister after World War II, yet got reelected. On a far smaller scale, I am a lifelong pianist who, not long ago, lost the use of three fingers. Perhaps you might find this inspiring:

Know when to quit. Among the more foolish tips for success is "Be persistent." It's wiser to know when to continue, pivot, or find a new project. Don’t let sunk costs govern the decision. At key points, ask yourself, “Is my time and money better spent staying the course, adjusting, or picking a new goal.”

The takeaway

Of course, one size doesn’t fit all; there are many paths to success. But if you’re aiming to be highly accomplished, the aforementioned are what I believe to be the keys.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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