What is Achievement?

I’m reading more from that wise man, Martin Seligman and his book Flourish.

He talks about achievement, and what are the components of it?

He says there is an equation which helps us think about this:

achievement = skill x effort

Which gets those cogs turning again.

He says skill is the result of a number of factors. Firstly, how well do we know a task to become skilled at it? If I’m to achieve well, I need to be able to perform that task to a high degree. Clearly practise, then, is a vital part of skill. It’s not enough to just have talent, you need to keep doing it, under different circumstances, with different parameters and the such like, all of which get you honing and crafting.

When you’re good at that skill, and it becomes a set of automatic responses, this forms one part of that skill development. But what happens when you need to learn new information which is important to that skill?

That’s when our executive functioning part of the brain kicks in and slows things down for us. We start to fumble and make mistakes. We learn and we adapt. But the process is slow. It requires thinking. Different from a finely crafted skill to be automatic, this element is about what we don’t know and require that time to think through to action.

The effort we make in achieving a task is an interesting piece. Research from Seligman and his team shows that when you account for things like IQ, and other demographic data, what matters in achievement is self discipline and perserverance.

With self discipline they found that when you are able to delay gratification to the completion of a task, you enable focus and determination to do it too. Having the ability to focus on a task is now a well understood form of skill development, and people who are able to maintain that focus fare better than others.

Linked closely to this is perserverance. How much do you want to achieve this thing? If you have the right motivation, you will work doggedly at making it happen. If you are skilled at that task and can achieve it well, you build that motivation to achieve even more. The staying with power of doing something is key here. When the thing becomes difficult or challenging or something more exciting presents itself, do we persist in achieving that task or turn our attentions elsewhere?

Which gets me thinking about the world of work and how we build an expectation for achievement. If achievement is a result of the above, how are we designing work to enable this to happen? How are we educating managers to help them understand this as a core part of people development? How are we recognising and rewarding people to help them craft their skills and find reasons to persevere?

And when you put numbers to the equation, it adds to the weight of the equation. If skill or effort = 0, regardless of the value of the other, nothing will be achieved.

achievement = skill x effort


The PERMA Model in Positive Psychology

No, not a Perm Model.

I’m currently making my way through Flourish, by Martin Seligman. In this book, Martin shares how his initial work in positive psychology was missing some key elements to help build it as a discipline. He defines his new approach as the PERMA model. He argues that each element should be such that it is self-definable, and that in the absence of the other elements is objectively measurable.

P – Positive Emotion

This is where we take the time to understand how we experience positive emotions, what a genuine expression of those emotions means, and we understand what experiences help us feel those. In feeling these emotions we cultivate a better sense of wellbeing about ourselves. In expressing these positive emotions to others, it helps us to build stronger relationships and connectedness. In understanding what experiences help us feel those moments, we can build and seek to fulfil ourselves with actions that are meaningful to us.

E – Engagement

Many of us may know of the feeling of being in a state where we undertake an activity and we come out of it not realising the time has passed, feel energised, feel as if we’ve been productive and we lose our sense of self. Some may call this a sense of ‘flow’ or being ‘in the moment’. I think this is one of the harder facets of positive psychology that we can learn about. It means having to think of an activity which allows us to do this. For some, this may be such an infrequent act that it’s hard to think it happens at all. When we can find such an activity, though, is when we further build skills, knowledge, experience, enjoyment and we feel no pressure or judgement in what the output is.

R – Relationships

People are fundamentally social creatures. We seek out human contact in some form no matter our preference or our ability for human contact. Sure some people are better at forming and having relationships than others, and that’s not in question. We know that when we have the right relationships with others, it provides a fulfilled feeling, we feel supported and we feel belonged. When we experience these relationships it strengthens our resilience, helps provide some much needed support, and helps us define what we are and not capable of. These don’t have to be personal or intimate relationships – but they do need to be positive in nature.

Interestingly, work done in this area shows that when we express appreciation of our partners, a ratio of 5 positive statements to 1 negative is an indication of a healthy relationship. Below this ratio and it’s likely to be positive but hard to appreciate the good. If the ratio is too high, it’s probably hiding that the relationship has problems which aren’t being discussed. If the ratio swings the other way with higher negative, then this means the relationship will quite likely fall apart.

In the workplace that initial ratio drops to 3:1.

M – Meaning

There’s a lot written about finding meaning in the work we do. For a lot of people, that’s hard to do because it’s just not a mindset we’ve been taught is necessary to have. For most people, you just do what you do, and you try and do it well. When you think wider than work, though, a lot of people are involved in activities that help them find meaning with others. When we carry out activities that help us find meaning in the act itself, and often when it involves helping other people, is when we experience lasting feelings of positivity. It’s why communities come together, it’s why religious people enjoy each others company, it’s why volunteers offer their time freely. Having meaning can be manifest in so many ways that it’s hard to be brief in writing about it.

A – Accomplish

When we complete a task, and we do it according to our personal standards, that feeling of accomplishment is important. We place a lot of importance on big events – passing our exams, gaining a degree, landing a job, getting married, having kids, getting a bonus, buying a home, getting your first car, losing weight, getting fit. No matter how big or small a task is, when it’s complete we feel good about it. The learning, practise, development, and execution of the task means that (provided it’s something we enjoyed doing) we’re likely to want to get better at it so that we can improve the next opportunity we find to do that task again.

Limitations of Positive Thinking

Positive thinking is simply about having a mind-set you cultivate. An example of this could be when you have been late in arriving at work because of delays in public transport. Someone who is upset by such a thing may go down the path “public transport is always like this, it makes me angry”. Positive thinking suggests we go down the route “I may have arrived late, but at least I got to read my book”.

I like positive thinking. It’s useful, and it can enable people to look differently at the world around them. This reframing can be helpful in how we might understand what we’re experiencing, how we might want to act moving forward, and what language we choose to use.

For example, being asked to write a report at work may be seen by some as a chore beyond your capability. Others may benefit by seeing it as an opportunity to learn a new skill you can use in the future. Both are right in their assertion – what’s important is how you choose to do something with what you’re presented with.

We know that if we adapt what we’re thinking, this can influence our behaviour and our outcome is more likely to be successful. Before an interview, before a presentation, before a client meeting, before a marriage proposal, it can help us feel better about the next activity if we spend some time focusing on what is positive.

Indeed this is a part of many sports people’s activity before they enter a big match. They are taught how to think and focus on their strengths. They are taught how to think and focus on victory. They are coached to be mindful of their training and how this places them in good stead.

This is as far as I think we can take positive thinking though. Where positive thinking starts to become less useful is when something significantly distressing and/or sad happens. In those instances, it’s not possible to just positively think your way out of it. It wouldn’t be appropriate, and may in fact be destructive or harmful to your psychological self.

An example here could be having your bicycle stolen while at work. It’s a significant enough event that you would need to move past your anger, annoyance, frustration or sadness before you start to think about what this could mean in the future. With some passage of time, and some positive thinking, we could feel better about the theft.

Imagine, however, you are cycling to work and are hit by a car causing you to injure yourself badly and damage the bicycle. Such an incident may cause you to reconsider cycling as a form of commute because of the association with the accident. Positive thinking in this instance may not be helpful. We may need further support and help before being comfortable using the bicycle in the same way.

At the other end of the scale, people sometimes make the cause fatale that positive thinking is all that’s needed in ‘getting over depression’. This is often said with a lack of understanding of the psychological illness that is depression or who suffer mental health problems. Treating mental health could require a range of interventions, both medicinal and/or therapy based. Often, it’s an illness which requires careful monitoring and support to help someone work through it, and come back to a feeling of ‘normality’. Telling those suffering with such things to ‘just think positively’ or ‘just look on the bright side of life’ is as useless as saying to someone who has a gambling problem to ‘just save a little everyday’. Both are insensitive, and bear no appreciation of the problem at hand.

With this in mind, positive thinking is just a way to give ourselves a sense of perspective about something bad or unfortunate that has happened. For more difficult phases in our life, we require more than just positive thinking.

On Kindness

Humans are capable of so many things that move on the spectrum of amazingly positive to amazingly negative to amazingly cruel. When I read the news, it amazes me what’s happening in the world that’s being reported on. And of course, there are plentiful things which are missed which is where I enjoy social media.

Kindness is one of those activities which most people are familiar with. As a value it’s probably held up there as one of the few which are true human values. Interestingly, humans aren’t the only species capable of kindness. So there seems to be an evolutionary element to it too, which is interesting.

It can be sometimes hard to recognise someone’s kindness to us. Often when someone offers a kind act, unless the context of the situation helps us understand that, it might go missed. These days, acts of kindness tend to be when you donate to charity or pay for your friends meal or ring a friend who’s having a hard time. I wonder if the opportunities for kindness have always been there and we just express them differently today to yesteryear.

Kindness taps into our compassion. We recognise when someone might be in need of some help and support. Some argue that there isn’t enough compassion in the world. Some argue that capitalism is the antithesis of compassion and of kindness. Some argue we’ve all become too selfish to be kind. We expect recogntion of our kind effort therefore negating the act itself.

Being considerate to others is and always will be a winner. It does so much social and personal good. Relationships are built on it, communities thrive because of it, conflict dissolves because of it, and resilience is built by it.

This thing of kindness, I wonder how we manifest it at work? I wonder how many feel they can be kind to their fellow workers? I wonder how managers act in kind ways? I wonder if kindness is accepted at all in the workplace? I wonder if we were more kind would we have so many conflicts arising at work? I wonder if kindness were more accepted, would people do it more?

And then of self-kindness. How do we recognise that we need to be more kind to ourselves? We talk a lot about work-life balance. Are we just saying we need to be more kind to ourselves? What does that mean? How do I do that? Isn’t that just another form of selfishness? How am I helping anyone else if I’m only being kind to myself?

So, today is World Kindness Day. If you choose to act kindly, that’s only going to be an excellent thing. If you choose not to, that’s just life.

What does Positive Psychology tell us about Organisations?

One of the biggest challenges facing psychology practitioners is taking the many theories and models and applying them to daily life in a useful and applicable way. It’s great being able to discuss things like the ethics of the Milgram experiment where people could have caused severe physical pain to (allegedly) unwitting participants. It’s fascinating to learn how taking drugs affect our mood and help regulate our thinking. It’s interesting to learn how children develop language and learn lexical knowledge.

By the way, worth saying that although my background is in psychology, I don’t necessarily class myself as a practitioner. More a pseudo-practitioner.

It’s not all easily transferable to everyday life though. Some of these models and theories need to be interrogated further to uncover and break through to the heart of the matter. In education for instance, how do we apply what we know about cognitive development to the purposeful act of learning and teaching?

And so it is with positive psychology. Here’s a school of thought which ia dedicated to helping people improve their personal sense of wellbeing and happiness. And, at an individual level I’m totally there. I know what interventions are useful. I’m learning how people apply them. I’m keeping open mind about what else is useful for people. And there’s a lot being shared about how to help people.

What remains a challenge, though, is how to help embed this knowledge in organisations to help them improve their organisational health. There’s an odd concept, right?

There are a few things which I think are useful to help thinking and planning, although not necessarily about actions.

Positive psychology tells us that when we show appreciation and gratitude to others, we feel better about ourselves for longer, and it helps others feel good about themselves. It also creates a lasting memory which we can draw on for feeling good. What would the application of that look like in an organisation without ir becoming a trite or false event?

Lots of people are aware of focusing on strengths as a way of developing others. Where possible we should totally do this. But where and how do we identify those strengths? Does this happen at recruitment? If so, are we hiring people for a strength in a skill or a strength in their attitude? Does it happen during performance reviews? If so, how is their strength measured? And is the strength relevant to the job?

One thing which I find fascinating is that in the modern world of work, we are tied to people staying in a lengthy contract of employment. I get it, but what happens when a person outgrows the organisation and is ready to move on? Do we actively and purposefully help them move on in the same way we would put them through a disciplinary procedure intending to exit them?

How do we help people build resilience? Positive psychology helps us to understand that we have to have personal capacity for dealing with bad events. It’s only through dealing with reality that we can make things better. If a process is broken, do people feel they have the personal power to make it change? If a project fails, do people feel safe that they can be expected to carry on with their job without it having detrimental effect on their career? If there are redundancies being made, how are we supporting the survivors to help them readjust and realign so that they can be their best?

How do we use people centred approaches to work? Things like believing in co-creation as a way of working. Not working groups or committees, but allowing things to emerge and be flexible in how they happen. Providing a set of principles as opposed to policies abd procedures. When rolling out a new initiative, inviting people to define for themselves what the roll out plan needs to look like instead of a uniform execution of the same thing. Give people parameters for what needs to happen and they will be amazing all on their own.

These are just some thoughts I’m trying to make work better. I’m not advocating everyone should act in these ways. And clearly some organisations will actively rail against a lot of what I’ve written because of the heavy regulatory frameworks they have to work in. So, I invite you to keep with me on this journey of application and discovery.

The Science of Happiness part 2 – appreciation and collaboration

This is the second post in a short series on a talk I went to see last week by Tal Ben-Shahar, courtesy of Action for Happiness.

In the first, I wrote about Tal’s emphasis on reality. He lives in Israel, and in the Q&A, someone asked him the big question of how to deal with the Israel/Palestine conflict. I’ll come back to that a bit later.

Reality drives our existence. What we perceive is the truth we live. If we perceive there to be injustice, we will find it. If we perceive there to be beauty, we will find it. If we perceive there to be human misery, we will find it. If we perceive there to be love, we will find it.

Ben-Shahar made an observation that identifying this reality means we experience a range of emotions, and we have to understand those emotions and how they affect us. If it is true that reality drives existence, then it is also true that emotions drive behaviour. As a species, we have a real depth of understanding of how different emotions prepare the body and mind for action, or not.

He went on to say that it’s in experiencing painful emotions that we experience what it is to be human. Our painful emotions provide us the platform from which we can be human. As a quick, he said the only two types of people who do not experience painful emotions are psychopaths and the dead.

The resilience we build from having painful emotions is what supports our ability to experience positive emotions and positive living. We know what the bad feels like, and will try not to let that happen again. Through positive psychology techniques we support ourselves to build our psychological immune system. I loved that as an analogy.

Tal spoke about the importance of appreciation too. In marriages, once the honeymoon period is over, we start to recognise the imperfections in our partners. We start to let those imperfections become more important than their positive attributes. Reality drives existence. If we focus on the imperfections we see only imperfections.

One of the things that helps is to make efforts to appreciate your partner. Verbally this is important as you are recognising them openly. Our actions also show this, and gestures like small gifts or in kind are important. When we appreciate the good, the good appreciates. Nice, no?

We need to appreciate our imperfect selves better, and in doing so we can appreciate others better. It can be challenging to live well, if we don’t practise appreciation.

Finally he spoke about conflict. In conflict, often the focus is on two differing opinions and the debate nearly always comes back to that. He described, though, a potential way of reconciliation. Imagine if the two parties collaborated on a task which was for the greater good. The collaboration would allow the two parties to start to focus on something other than their conflict. The conflict could and should still be addressed. But the collaboration would mean you are cultivating optimism and hope through an activity for the better good.

He was open and modest enough to recognise there is no easy answer to the Israel/Palestine conflict. However, two people from either side have collaborated in such a way as to focus on the greater good, and this does lay down the path for hope in this situation, even though it may be a long way to come.

It was all kinds of awesome to listen to Tal Ben-Shahar.