Of course, humans are driven by a lot more than two motivations. Various levels of deprivation (of all sorts of needs, such as food, shelter, sleep, sexual release, and much more) can motivate behavior in specific situations. Those are not the focus of this blog. Instead, I’m focusing on two powerful motives that tend to shape behavior across numerous situations and often whole lifetimes.
I’m talking about the need for achievement and the fear of failure.
In the simplest terms (according to me) the difference is striving to be the best versus trying to be good enough.
Need for Achievement
Need for achievement is the desire to obtain excellent results by setting high standards and striving to accomplish them. It is a consistent concern with doing things better.
According to the American Psychological Association, the definition of need for achievement (n-Ach) is a strong desire to accomplish goals and attain a high standard of performance and personal fulfillment. The need for achievement was proposed by Henry Alexander Murray and investigated extensively by David McClelland.
People with high need for achievement often undertake tasks in which there is a high probability of success and avoid tasks that are either too easy (because of lack of challenge) or too difficult (because of fear of failure).
An example of the latter would be a 5-ft-tall basketball player with poor leaping ability, ball handling abilities, and passing skills. Such a person high in n-Ach is unlikely to try out for the team!
Studies have shown that feeling a sense of accomplishment is an important element in students developing positive wellbeing over time.
Research also shows that people with a strong sense of purpose, persistence, and accomplishment perform better at work.
People high in need for achievement present as ambitious, driven, successful … and insecure. The need for achievement drives behavior in school, work settings, even recreational activities. In case it isn’t obvious, this trait can cause problems:
- Driven to achieve the task—any and every task
- Fails to differentiate “urgent” from merely “important”
- Has difficulty delegating
- Struggles with producer-to-supervisor transition when promoted
- Obsesses about getting the job done at all costs
- Craves feedback
No doubt about it, people high in n-Ach put themselves under a lot of pressure. At first glance, it might seem that such people should relax, take it easy, and be happy doing well enough.
Fearing failure in a particular endeavor is experienced by most people, including high n-Ach people, sometimes. Think a new situation or task, or one that’s just being learned. Think public performances. There are times when just not humiliating oneself is success.
Fear of Failure
But the fear of failure, more generally, is an irrational and persistent fear of failing.
(FYI, irrational and extreme fear of failing or facing uncertainty is a phobia known as atychiphobia.)
Sometimes fearing failure might be triggered in only one specific situation/task. Sometimes it’s more generalized. And sometimes it’s related to another mental health condition such as anxiety or depression.
In any case, the fear of failure varies in level of severity from mild to extreme. Here are a few ways it’s commonly exhibited:
- A sense of hopelessness about the future
- Chronic (versus occasional or limited) worry
- Worry about what other people will think about you if you fail or don’t do well
- Frequent procrastination
- High distractibility, being pulled off task by irrelevant or unimportant things
- Avoiding tasks or people associated with a project or general goal
- Physical symptoms (fatigue, headaches, digestive troubles, joint or muscle pain) that prevent working toward a goal
- Believing that you don’t have the skills or knowledge to achieve something
- Feeling like you won’t be able to achieve your goals
- Procrastinating to the point that it affects your performance or ability to finish on time
- Telling people that you will probably fail so that expectations remain low
- Underestimating your own abilities to avoid feeling let down
- Worrying that imperfections or shortcomings will make other people think less of you
- Failing makes you worry about your ability to pursue the future you desire
- Failing makes you worry that people will lose interest in you
- Failing makes you worry about how smart or capable you are
- Failing makes you worry about disappointing people whose opinions you value (especially family/friends)
- You tend to tell people beforehand that you don’t expect to succeed in order to lower their expectations
- Once you fail at something, you have trouble imagining what you could have done differently to succeed
- You often get last-minute headaches, stomach aches, or other physical symptoms that prevent you from completing your preparation
- You often get distracted by tasks that prevent you from completing your preparation which, in hindsight, were not as urgent as they seemed at the time
- You tend to procrastinate and “run out of time” to complete your preparation adequately, as a way of protecting your belief in your ability to have done it
Bottom line: Two people may exhibit the same behavior, even turn in the same objective performance, but their reasons for doing so can vary dramatically.