How to conquer human nature’s war against achievement
Written by: Wade Wyant
You’ve probably said it yourself – or something like it – in reference to a shortcoming, flaw or perceived weakness.
“That’s just me.”
I’m sure you’ve heard other people do it too. They assign themselves to some sort of limitation, and instead of resolving to overcome it, they embrace it as part of their identity. They’ll tell you they’re not good at being punctual, or at following directions, or at patience, or at math.
And they’re not expressing it as a self-improvement imperative. They’re expressing it as a settled fact.
“That’s just who I am.”
As leaders we chafe at this because we want people to challenge themselves. We want people to seek improvement. We hope they will see their entire lives as journeys of growth.
But the truth is that achievement and excellence are contrary to human nature. We might even call it an excessive need to be me. (By which I mean you.)
There are so many examples of this. Consider the $900 car insurance payment my son has to make every six months. That doesn’t sound so hard, because all he has to do is put away $150 a month. But human nature is to put off the saving, and the next thing you know, you’re at the six-month point and now you have to come up with $900.
It’s not that you didn’t know the better way to do it. Of course you knew. But human nature led you not to do it that way, and you willingly followed.
Or consider the person who struggles every day to be on time. He knows he needs to be at the office at 8:30 a.m., and he knows 90 minutes is not enough time to get ready and get there. The solution is to get up earlier than 7 a.m. That’s obvious. But he keeps getting up at 7 a.m. Why? Because human nature tells him to resist the change and keep sleeping. It makes no sense if your goal is to solve your punctuality problem.
But human nature always wars against excellence.
So how can a leader combat this fact? Human nature is an awfully difficult enemy to fight. Do you have any hope of prevailing against it?
You do, but it starts with achieving credibility so your people will want to join you in the battle.
Before you can expect your people to work on changing their human nature, they are going to watch and see what you do with yours. I know I have my own issues. I struggle with being on time. I struggle with overestimating my ability to remember things. Sometimes I procrastinate (but I’ll deal with that later).
If I expect my people to deal with their own human-nature issues, I have to own and deal with mine. That doesn’t mean I need to be vomiting up my own problems before my people. They don’t need that, and it doesn’t accomplish anything. But I need to be willing to own them myself and demonstrate that I’m taking steps to correct them.
If I know I struggle to be on time, I have to develop new habits that will get me places earlier – and be upfront about how it works and how I’m following it. If I know I procrastinate, I need to show my people I’m moving things from the back burner to the front and let them see that I’m getting it done. If I know I struggle to remember things, I need to be upfront about embracing a new system in which I write things down and log them somehow. And I need to consistently rely on that system and let the results speak for themselves.
Once my people see that I’ve done these things, they will recognize that improvement and growth are priorities for our company, and they will be more willing to embrace the same imperative for themselves.
This is the only way to battle that excessive need to be me. You’ve seen this in action many times, I’m sure. It’s the person who announces his or her limitations with defiant pride, saying, “I’m just not good at that” or “I’m just not gifted for that.”
The truth, of course, is that many of the things you claim to be “just not gifted for” are not gifts at all. You don’t need to be gifted to be on time. You don’t need to be gifted to write down appointments. You don’t need to be gifted to follow directions.
You just have to decide to do it, and then put in the work to identify what’s necessary for you to do it consistently and successfully.
And yes, much of that work goes against your human nature, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It just means you have to make decisions that are contrary to your inclinations. It means you have to decide you value achievement more than you value what’s comfortable and familiar. Anyone can do this. They just have to decide to.
Leading by example is one of the most familiar terms in the lexicon of business, but it’s rarely more important than it is here. People don’t always like who they are, but they get comfortable with who they are and they learn to abide in that state. They may want to be better but they’re not always sure they can handle what it will take, so they default to just “being me” for lack of a compelling reason to do otherwise.
You have to show them the imperative is great, and the rewards are worth the effort and the risk. Human nature will hold you back from achievement, but only if you’ve made the decision that it’s going to master you.
And before your employees take the steps to free themselves from that mastery, they’re going to need to see you do it first.