The Achievement Habit: An Interview with Bernie Roth

I interviewed Dr. Bernard Roth, the Rodney H. Adams Professor of Engineering at Stanford University. He is the co-founder and academic director of Stanford’s The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, better known as the d.school. He arrived at Stanford in 1962, an expert in the world of machine design. He has organized and led workshops on creativity and personal effectiveness, and was one of the co-founders of Stanford’s “d-school.” He is the author of the recently published book The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life. (See the instructions below to win a free copy of Bernie’s book.)

PAUL: What inspired you to write The Achievement Habit?Bernie Roth - Achievement Habit

BERNIE: I have been developing this material since the the late 1960s. I use these ideas in my life, in my teaching and in my workshops on creativity and problem solving. Over the years, many people have asked my if I had written material to supplement my teaching. Three years ago I had a sabbatical leave and decided it was finally time to put the material in to written form.

PAUL: Can you distill the big idea behind the book? How do you define the achievement habit?

BERNIE: The big idea behind this book is that if you become mindful about what you are doing and how you are doing it, you can take more command of your life and have a more satisfying life. I define the achievement habit as having a good life; getting the job of living done in a satisfying way that nurtures the life force within us and within those we associate with. It entails developing some self-mastery to handle the difficult aspects of our lives and relationships. It involves finding something to do with our lives that engages us and gives us positive feedback. If we’re doing it right, our life should flow and shouldn’t be a debilitating struggle, even if at times it takes considerable effort.

PAUL: As a co-founder of Stanford’s d.school, you introduce the power of design thinking. How does design thinking help achieve our goals?

BERNIE: Design thinking is the name we use for a set of mindsets and procedures that facilitate problem solving. Applying these to our own lives gives us a useful set of tool that supplement the more traditional analytical problem solving tool people learn in school. The design thinking tools speak directly to what it means to be human. They are extremely useful in assisting us to re-frame the issues in our lives and how we go about our daily activities in such a way that we can have more satisfying lives.

PAUL: In your book, you share many ideas that will improve our confidence in doing what we always wanted. I find your insight between doing vs. trying fascinating. Can you elaborate how these two are different? Why is it important to differentiate the two?

BERNIE: People love to use the Star Wars quote by Yoda: “There is no try, there is only do.” I understand the inspirational aspect of Yoda’s statement. However, it is bit too type-A for my taste. I believe there is both a “try” and a “do.” And that they are both okay states to be in. The difficulty comes when people think they are the same thing. If you are “trying” then you may or may not accomplish what you have in mind. If, while trying, you encounter obstacles you can be stopped. When you are “doing” then you will accomplish what you have in mind regardless, obstacles will not stop you. They are both okay states.  It can be fun to try and not succeed. You just have to not kid yourself that someone else stopped you. You just need to realize that if you do not succeed you chose to be  “trying” rather than  “doing.” At times it is better to try and not succeed, than it is to succeed. It might even save your life!

PAUL: Another helpful idea is training yourself to ignore distractions that prevent you from achieving your goals. Can you share concrete examples of how to do this?

BERNIE: I find the key element is to have the intention to do something and then to give it the attention it requires to carry it out. So, for example I go to a yoga class every Friday at noon. At the beginning of every year I block out that time on my calendar for the entire year, and I resolve not to let anything other than foreign travel get scheduled in that time slot.

Similarly, when I wrote The Achievement Habit I set my clock to get up a 6:30AM each morning and did not schedule anything before 10:30AM, so I had about four hours every day regardless of how late I went to bed the previous night or what came up in the morning. I had the intention to write the book and I gave it the attention it required even on the days when a part of me came up with a good reason to deviate from the schedule. It is a matter of setting priorities and sticking to them.

Question: What is the one thing standing between you and reaching your goal? 

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