Five Characteristics of Achievement Motivation: For Those Desiring a High Need to Succeed

What makes achievement motivation (the need to achieve) really important? It is learned. Others have learned it and you can too.

Definition of Achievement Motivation

For many, the saying goes, “When the going gets tough, quit.”

Achievement motivation refers to an individual’s desire for significant accomplishment, mastery of skills, control, or high standards (Wikipedia, N.D.) It also has been proposed by Goleman (1998) to be one of the five characteristics associated with the makeup of emotional intelligence.

The Importance of Achievement Motivation

The need for achievement is associated with the following:

  • Drive to be an entrepreneur, and
  • Ability to create success out of nothing.

What makes it doubly important is that it:

  • It can be learned.
  • It installs a strong drive toward being the best. 
  • If parents know what they are doing, they can build it in their children.

Need For Achieve is Not About Money

Would you respond to this ad? It goes, “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.”

Explorer Ernest Shackleton placed an ad for men for his transpolar expedition on the ship named Endurance. Shackleton‘s ad was correct. It was a dangerous trip.

This is a picture of the expedition’s ship trapped in the ice — ice that eventually crushed it.

Dare To Be Great

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” – Kennedy Family Motto

“Fall seven times and stand up eight”– Japanese Proverb

Want to Learn About Resilience?

Learn More: To Dare To Be Great


David McClelland primarily promoted the achievement theory (or need for achievement). He proposed and spent most of his life working out the details that three fundamental needs are acquired through learning or experience.

Also, these needs aren’t learned at a seminar but can be taught and practiced over months or years. He focused on three crucial work needs:

Need for Power (nPow). Those with this need have a great need to control things or influence others (McClelland & Burnham, 2003). 

Need for Affiliation (nAff). Essentially, being with someone else. These people enjoy mutual friendships with others.

Need for Achievement (nAch). Choosing situations where success depends on performance. 

7 Memorable Quotes on Achievement

“Desire is the starting point of all achievement, not a hope, not a wish, but a keen pulsating desire which transcends everything.” — Napoleon Hill.

“If I knew what brand of whisky he [General Ulysses Grant] drinks, I would send a barrel or so to some other generals.” —  Abraham Lincoln, Sixteenth President of the United States Remark at a Cabinet meeting, 1984

“Winners compare their achievements with their goals, while losers compare their achievements with those of others” Nido Qubein.

“The roots of true achievement lie in the will to become the best you can become.” — Harold Taylor.

“Don’t mistake activity with achievement.”John Wooden

“I worry that our lives are like soap operas. We can go for months and not tune in on them, then six months later we look in, and the same stuff is still going on.” Jane Wagner, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe 

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Five Characteristics of Those with a High Need to Achieve

Edmund Hillary. Who along with his sherap guide, Tenzig Norgay become the first humans to climb Mt Everest, the highest mountain on the earth.
Picture of Edmund Hillary. Along with his Sherpa guide, Tenzig Norgay, he became the first human to successfully climb Mt. Everest, the highest mountain on the earth — a remarkable achievement.

Characteristic 1: They Do The Personal Best

Few in society do this, but those that do tend to succeed. Personal best is not about making money. In fact, it is typically not about the money.

It is about reaching the goal and then reaching an even more challenging goal. It’s about being perfect without becoming an obsessive perfectionist.

There is no English word for this, but the Japanese have one: Kaizen.

Characteristic 2: They Set Moderate Goals and Takes Calculated Risks.

This is not a probability calculation involving cold hard math. Instead, it is related to a trade-off between too easy and too complicated. Let’s imagine you will toss a ring onto a stake. You can choose how far or far you can stand away from that ring.

Some people will stand close so they can succeed every time. Another stands too far away from such that they succeed only rarely and mostly since they are lucky. But those with a high nach will choose a distance where they must use their skills to succeed. But it’s got to be a challenge; it can’t be too easy.

Principle 3: They Assume Personal Responsibility in Finding Solutions to Problems

Their willingness to take on problems makes them pleasant to have around. In some cases, they might even volunteer to do so.

Characteristic 4: They Desire Unique Accomplishments and are Restless and Innovative

Steve Jobs introducing the iPad. Image by: Fourthords
Steve Jobs introducing the iPad. Image by: Fourthords

You might say that there is an element of nonconformity in their nature. These are not good candidates for working in a bank where transactions must be done the same way day in, day out—no variation permitted. Think about it, do you even remember the name of the person who handles your transactions behind the window?

For example, Steve Jobs was a bit of a nonconformist in his early days. The story goes that he was able to get his first job inside corporate America by the nontraditional route. He didn’t get a haircut, put on a pair of jeans, and didn’t bother to wear any shoes. He just found the person who could hire him and asked for the job (Isaacson, 2011). How different from today were to get through the HR gate, you must dress for success, have a resume Superman would envy,  and act your way through the interview.

Of course, this nonconformity is both a boon and a bane of the bureaucratic organization. A bureaucracy has to have standardized processes. So every person with the same job title should have the same behaviors. This means the person with a high need to achieve loses their desire to innovate, conform or leave.

Characteristic 5: They Seek Out Negative Feedback

“A true friend is the one who tells you about your weaknesses, not praises you for your strengths.” — Murray Johannsen.

The average person fears negative feedback. They don’t want to hear about their mistakes, screw-ups, and the “what could have done betters.”

What makes these people unique is that they view negative feedback as more valuable than positive feedback. The reason has to do with personal best. One must know what can be improved to get to that point.

You don’t need to do a complex psych profile to determine whether someone has a high need for achievement because they will ask for it. Can you imagine this scene?

One of your people walks into your office and says, “Hey, boss, I was wondering if you might provide a little feedback on how I’m doing. “Believe it or not, it does happen.

Learning More About Achievement Motivation

Painting of the child prodigy Mozart

These are powerful learned motivations—powerful enough that they will drive your choice of careers and ultimately influence the degree of success you have in the world. Discover more about these three fundamental needs in this video series.

  • The Need for Power,
  • The Need for Affiliation, and
  • The Need for Achievement.

Videos in the Series:

Video 1: Three Critically Important Needs You Need to Understand (Time 12:15)

Video 2: Need ForAffiliation (Understanding The Nature of Affiliation) (Time: 5:50)

Video 3: The Need For Power (All About Power: Why You and Others Find is so Seductive) (Time: 33.40)

Video 4: The Need For Achievement (Time: 36:50)


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Access On-Site Resources


Goleman, D. (1998). Working with Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books

Isaacson, Walter (2011). Steve Jobs. Simon and Schuster.

McClelland, David & Burnham, David (2003). Power Is a Great Motivator, Harvard Business Review, January.

McClelland, D. C.  (1961). The Achieving Society. Free Press, New York

 McClelland, David (1965). “Achievement Motivation Can Be Developed,” Harvard Business Review 43 (November–December), pp. 68.

Work Skills For the 21st Century