Why are some people more successful than others at what they do? David McClelland, a Harvard University professor, spent years studying this question. One of his major findings: successful people focus on self-chosen goals with personal meaning to them — goals that they are highly motivated to invest time, energy, and persistence in achieving. They’re not interested in social indicators of success. Beyond this, people who enjoy the most success also tell themselves “imaginative stories” that have four elements:
1) They daydream intensely about the feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment that achieving the goal will give them — in fact, the feeling of achievement they expect to enjoy is the true goal.
2) They pick moderately challenging goals that stretch, but don’t snap them. They want to ensure that their efforts will have a major impact on the outcome.
3) They engage in a fluid blend of optimism and pessimism about how easy or hard it will be to achieve the goal. They monitor progress and course correct along the way.
4) They reach out for advice from experienced people before fully committing to the goal they envision.
Can this kind of achievement thinking be learned? McClelland proved that the answer is yes by training a group of business people from India — where the caste system imposes external limits — to use imaginative stories in the same way that high achievers do. Those who mastered this storytelling skill significantly outperformed others over time.
What an empowering message for us as writers! First of all, we’re masterful storytellers. Second, we know the power of discipline and persistence in reaching our goals. Third, we’re no strangers to shifts between optimism and pessimism. And finally, we know the power of getting help when we need it. So let’s daydream with abandon, set stretch goals, then do the work required — and make those dreams come true!