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Achievement Habit

People always find excuses to not change their lives, including issues with their families, work lives, and finances; however, Professor Roth believes these reasons are often invalid.

In The Achievement Habit, Roth condenses his lengthy experience teaching a course called “The Designer in Society” and posits that if people truly want to change aspects of their lives, they absolutely can and should–no matter what.


Roth believes that all meaning in life is entirely subjective. As humans, people assign meaning to experiences, people, and objects based on their emotions and behavior patterns. Roth often conducts an exercise in his classes where he urges students to imagine different aspects of their lives and repeat over and over that these things “have no meaning.” Once finished, they reflect on the experience of taking away all assigned or chosen meaning in their lives. This helps them become empowered participants in their lives rather than victims of circumstance.

Stripping meaning and emotion from experiences, people, and objects allows people to forge new attitudes toward events and relationships. Roth believes that many people have a cognitive bias called functionalfixedness that only allows them to see objects for their normal purpose. Instead, he recommends that people practice the viewpoint that “nothing is what they think it is,” which allows the familiar to become unfamiliar, and possibilities to be endless.


Everyone is given the same amount of time each day, and yet some people seem to be much more productive with their 24 hours than others. The less productive people almost always have reasons for why they could not achieve more; however, Roth believes that reasons are simply “excuses prettied up.” People use these reasons to justify their lack of results and mask their shortcomings.

If something is truly important to someone, there is no reason he or she cannot achieve it. Roth uses an exercise in his classes where whenever a person begins a sentence with, “The reason that I…” he or she is met with the answer, “That’s a goooood reason.” Once met with enough of these responses, people are able to see that their reasons are simply excuses that impede new paths and insights.

There is no scientific way to know exactly where a decision will lead, and agonizing over possible options only hinders people from deciding anything at all. Some find it helpful to write in a journal to take account of how and where they spend their time. Once their time is accounted for, it becomes easier to see where there is room for improvement.


When faced with problems, most people instinctually try to search for solutions; however, reframing problems entirely can be a better first step. Reframing opens new perspectives and offers individuals new opportunities for moving forward. In the design thinking world, reframing changes people’s points of view (POV) and helps them create problem statements that define what they actually need, not just what they think they need.

Roth briefly describes 22 methods that designers can use to reframe their problems and adjust their POVs:

1. Hard work. There is no substitute for attention and intention.

2. Creating a supportive environment. A supportive environment will lead to a clear mind.

3. Relaxing. Sometimes the relaxed subconscious knows the best next step.

4. Brainstorming. All ideas must be welcome, and group brainstorming can be extremely helpful.

5. Lists. Several lists can be made of any and all possibilities.

6. Meta-lists. More specific lists can be made from initial lists (e.g., start with a list of places to go, then make a meta-list of things to do in each place).

7. Morphological analysis. Matching up elements or common traits in different combinations might offer new insights.

8. Idea logs. Keeping an idea log can be a great tool for problem solving.

9. Humor. Joking and laughing can spawn fresh thoughts.

10. Conversation. Opening up to others about problems can lead to new POV statements.

11. Forced transformations. People can force conventional ideas into unconventional scenarios and imagine the outcomes.

12. Synectics. This method uses analogies to devise solutions.

13. Diagramming physical processes. Diagramming a process from beginning to end will show different avenues to success.

14. “What if?” Asking “what if?” questions, even absurd ones, can begin new thought processes.

15. Decision-making matrix. This matrix can help individuals compare different ideas–one row represents ideas and another represents the attributes within the ideas.

16. Working backward. By imagining that a problem has already been solved, a person can work backward and find the best way to start.

17. Storyboards. These are good for telling a story in a linear manner from start to finish.

18. How-why diagrams. These diagrams aim to show cause and effect in detail.

19. Nasal thinking. Roth’s colleague coined this term for being flexible in using different cognitive styles to solve problems.

20. Mind maps. Also called relationship maps, these show the connections between pieces of information in a nonlinear fashion.

21. Meta summary. Also called visual thinking, these summaries are drawn and imagined with several overlapping pieces.

22. Diagraming yourself. This method encourages people to find balance in their minds using both left- and right-brain thinking.


When attempting to change, Roth encourages people to ask others for assistance. He believes that great things occur when people assist one another to achieve their best selves. Success does not come from speaking or feeling negatively about others, as negativity only breeds negativity. Having positive attitudes toward others can lead to positive changes.

People often look to their mentors when undergoing changes or shifts in their lives. As an alternative to a formal mentorship, Roth recommends seeking out mini-mentorships from people who have accomplished similar goals in life. For example, if a person is hoping to write a book, he or she should seek advice and wisdom from someone who has accomplished this already. This kind of relationship can have a more informal ebb and flow based on mutual interests.

Deliberate networking, on the other hand, is not recommended in Roth’s experience. He believes manipulative networking to be transparent and insincere. Instead, he believes people should focus on forging real, genuine friendships.


There is a vast difference between trying and doing. Trying to make a change is a passive approach and may work eventually, most likely by luck, whereas actual doing requires intention and attention.

When seeking out a path to doing, affirmations, or formatted statements repeated over and over again, can aid in fostering a positive mental attitude. Affirmations are best when they target something in the present. This kind of repeated mental affirmation can successfully change a person’s self-image, and project the positive change he or she is hoping to achieve.

Roth also believes there is never going to be the “right time” to do something. The right time to do anything is in the present moment.


Communication affects not only the way people see one another, but how people view themselves. Making specific word choices, such as “yes” versus “no,” “and” versus “but,” “want to” versus “have to,” and “will not” versus “can not,” can really change people’s lives in a positive way, whereas using negative word choices may even result in needless conflict or hurt feelings.

To communicate successfully with others, Roth suggests eight strategies:

1. Speak for yourself. “I” statements, such as “I know,” “I feel,” or “I think,” are well received by others because they place personal responsibility on the speaker, not the listener.

2. Do not be judgmental. Avoid placing judgment on others. If it is necessary to state judgmental opinions, use “I” statements only.

3. Acknowledge other people’s issues. Although people may not be actually seeking advice or solutions, they respond well to being genuinely listened to.

4. Do not ask “why?” questions. Declarative statements are better for open communication. “Why?” questions can seem defensive or aggressive.

5. Really listen. Individuals should not be mentally preparing their responses before hearing the end of others’ thoughts. Instead, they should strive to listen deeply and genuinely.

6. When telling a story, be clear about the point.

7. Make sure communications are heard as intended. Good communicators make sure their messages are heard exactly as they mean them to be.

8. Be sure to understand what is being communicated in return. Ask questions and clarify issues in order to get the most out of a conversation.


Working in groups–whether they are familial, professional, academic, or political–is a requirement for many professionals. Successful teamwork requires people to be as flexible, tolerant, and adaptable as possible. Roth suggests changing one’s physical surroundings to overcome any roadblocks or conflicts that arise during group work. Exercises such as improvisation and relationship-building games can also promote bonding and aid in problem solving.


A person’s self-image drastically determines many aspects of his or her life. If a person’s self-image is that of a risk taker, regardless of whether or not it is accurate, eventually his or her actions will align with those of a risk taker. If a person’s self-image is that of a victim, most–if not all–experiences will align with the concept of victimhood. Role models may shape individuals’ initial self-images, but as they mature their self-images will become shaped more frequently by their own social interactions.


Life is full of uncertainty and unpredictable events. Success and change often occur when people take a break from the minutiae of their everyday lives and look at the big picture. Setting and striving for goals is a great way to stay focused, but it is also important to be flexible and open to change. Things are not always going to go according to plan, and people often stumble upon the best opportunities when they are open to nonlinear paths.


The word “problem” often has negative connotations. Many think of problems as things that need to be “solved” or “fixed.” Instead, people should view problems as opportunities to reframe and redirect their lives. Sometimes thinking of next steps as prototypes–samples or models to test new concepts–can help people reshape their problems. Prototypes also help people avoid over-thinking. Since prototypes invite action, people spend less time thinking about the “what ifs” of their futures. This is the ultimate goal in Roth’s opinion–for people to avoid spending their lives over-thinking, making excuses, and simply waiting for things to change. Instead, he hopes people will use his principles to move forward and live successful, fulfilling lives now–not later.


Estimated Reading Time: 5-6 hours, 288 pages

In The Achievement Habit, Bernard Roth uses personal anecdotes, class experiences, and life lessons to explore the ways people can take control and start living more fulfilling lives. The book is best read in chapter order, and it includes notes and a bibliography at the end for reference.

*The normal response to a problem is to search for a solution; however, reframing the problem is often actually more productive. Reframing a problem opens new perspectives and creates new opportunities.

*Achievement in life occurs when people stop using reasons as excuses to justify their behaviors and learn the difference between “trying” to do something and “doing” something.

*There is never going to be the “right time” to do something. In reality, the best time to do anything is in the present moment.

*Communication affects not only how people see one another, but how they view themselves. Making specific word choices, such as “yes” versus “no,” “and” versus “but,” “want to” versus “have to,” and “will not” versus “can not,” can change many different aspects of a person’s life.

*Successful teamwork requires people to be flexible, tolerant, and adaptable of opposing points of view.

*Individuals’ self-images determine more than they think. Self-images are not constant–humans change their self-images throughout their lives to adapt to different situations.

*Life is full of uncertainty and unpredictable events. Having goals helps people stay focused; however, they must also be open to change.

*The word “problem” has negative connotations. Many people think of problems as things that must be fixed; instead, they should view problems as opportunities to reframe and redirect their lives.

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