Practicing Accomplishment

Accomplishment is one of the elements of well-being theory. We sometimes pursue accomplishment for its own sake, as well as in conjunction with the other elements – positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, and meaning. Using deliberate practice to develop talent and skill is one path to accomplishment.

“Can You Swim?”

A professor was being ferried across a large river. To pass the time, he struck up a conversation with the boatman.

The professor asked the boatman, “Can you write, my good man?”

“No,” answered the boatman, “I never learned to write.”

“Then you have lost one third of your life,” the professor said. “Can you read?”

“No, sir,” replied the boatman. “I can’t read.”

“Then you have lost half of your life.”

Suddenly, the ferry scraped across a large rock and it tore a hole in the bottom.

“Can you swim?” the boatman asked the professor.

“No! I can’t swim!”

“Then,” said the boatman, “you have lost the whole of your life, for the boat is sinking and you’ll be drowned.” [Woodcock]

Many Forms Of Accomplishment

Each of the actors in our story had developed certain skills. In this particular case, one – swimming – was more useful than the others – reading and writing – but only in that context. In general, one cannot be said to be more important or more useful than the others.

Accomplishment takes many forms: success, winning, achievement, mastery, and progress toward your goal. And as our story illustrates, accomplishment includes intellectual achievements AND physical skills.

Accomplishment As Part Of Well-being

Martin Seligman has devoted much of his career to defining and researching the components and practices that lead to positive feelings, well-being, and a life of meaning and purpose. In this quest, Seligman has developed the PERMA theory of well-being.

Through research and study, Seligman has defined 5 components for a meaningful life which he identifies by the mnemonic, PERMA. The letters in PERMA represent the components of well-being . . . Positive emotion, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment.

Each of the five components have all 3 of these properties: 1) contributes to well-being, 2) is pursued for its own sake (not only as a means to another end), and 3) is defined and measured independently of the other elements.

Accomplishment, Seligman says, is pursued for its own sake, as well as to access meaning, positive emotion, and engagement. [Seligman]

Accomplishment may be a means to an end (positive emotion, engagement, etc.) but accomplishment is also pursued as an end in itself.

Achievement = Skill X Effort

Achievement is one way we pursue accomplishment. Angela Duckworth, who was a student of Seligman’s, is the leading authority in the field of accomplishment and grit. Duckworth defines “grit” as intense passion + intense perseverance toward a long-term goal.

Through her research, she has defined two simple equations that explain how you achieve achievement.

talent x effort = skill
———————> skill x effort = achievement [Duckworth]

“Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them.” [Duckworth]

Effort Counts Twice

Of course, there are other factors outside of our direct control which also play a role in what we achieve. However, the theory says that, given individuals in identical circumstances, their level of achievement rests on these two things – talent and effort. [Duckworth]

Furthermore, Angela says “effort factors into the calculations twice, not once. Effort builds skill. At the very same time, effort makes skill productive.” [Duckworth]

Effort counts twice. And effort is under our direct control.

Deliberate Practice

When we expend effort to learn and develop a new skill, we call that “practice”. But not all practice is equally effective.

K. Anders Ericsson is a professor of psychology at Florida State University, an internationally recognized researcher in the field of expertise and human performance, and author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. He distinguishes between “naive practice”, repeating a series of actions over and over, thinking we’ll improve, and “purposeful practice”, which has these specific characteristics:

“Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals.”
“Purposeful practice is focused.”
“Purposeful practice involves feedback.”
“Purposeful practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone.”

This, says Ericsson, is “purposeful practice in a nutshell: Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress.” [Ericsson]

Embracing Achievement

Pursuing a BIG goal, mastering a skill, training for and winning a competition, making a major breakthrough, are all ways to experience achievement. Some of these pursuits (for example, playing a musical instrument, becoming a chess expert, mastering a sport, learning to dance) lend themselves well to Ericsson’s purposeful practice and we do well to incorporate that into our efforts to achieve.

Other endeavors (such as becoming a better writer, a better teacher, a better student or a better parent) do not fit exactly into Ericsson’s model for deliberate practice. Still, says Ericsson, “get as close to deliberate practice as you can. If you’re in a field where deliberate practice is an option, you should take that option. If not, apply the principles of deliberate practice as much as possible. In practice this often boils down to purposeful practice with a few extra steps: first, identify the expert performers, then figure out what makes them so good, then come up with training techniques that allow you to do it, too.” [Ericsson]

Now, let’s put these ideas to use.

Accomplishment Portfolio

Achieving meaningful objectives is a facet of embracing the Excelerated Life™. The Accomplishment Portfolio [1] is an exercise that helps you identify your past accomplishments and use them to chart your future growth.

  1. Take a sheet of paper and draw three columns.
  2. In the first column, write down each decade of your life (0-10, 11-20, 21-30, etc.). Evenly distribute them so you have space between each decade.
  3. In the second column, list all the things you did that made you feel proud when you did them, or that make you feel proud now when you remember them. Include small achievements as well as big ones.
  4. Keep recording your achievements, your wins, and your successes (however you define them) for each decade. Consider the jobs you’ve held, the clubs and organizations to which you belonged, your formal and informal education and learning, sports, hobbies, and so forth.
  5. After you’ve recorded everything you can think of, go to the third column. Here, record the natural strengths, talents, abilities and interests you displayed in your accomplishments. Look for and highlight any patterns that emerge.
  6. Finally, consider how you can use the strengths, talents, abilities and interests you’ve identified in your current pursuits at work and at home. Select one or two that you want to develop further through practice.

Practice Deliberate Practice

Recall Angela Duckworth’s observation that effort counts twice: talent x effort = skill
and skill x effort = achievement. If effort = practice, you can use Ericsson’s ideas of deliberate practice to “achieve achievement”.

  • Select a talent or a skill you want to develop or improve, perhaps one you identified in the preceding exercise.
  • Set a specific goal for how you will practice the talent or skill, for example, the number of reps you will perform as perfectly as you can.
  • During your practice time, focus on performing the action to the best of your ability.
  • After the practice, rate how well you did.
  • What will you do differently next time?

Just Get Started

Accomplishment, in its many forms, leads to enhanced well-being and flourishing. The good news is that you don’t have to make a million dollars, find a cure for cancer, or negotiate world peace. Anything that represents an accomplishment for you will do. You can set a goal to become a better parent or a better spouse. You can learn a new skill or polish up an existing one. Remember, effort counts twice. Why not pick something you’ve always wanted to do and get started by deliberately practicing? That is embracing the Excelerated Life™!

Excelerated accomplishment — achieving meaningful objectives — is one step in creating your Excelerated Life™, a life of flourishing, of well-being, meaning, and purpose.


[1] I have adapted this exercise from the Accomplishment Portfolio presented by Bridget Grenville-Cleave in the book, Positive Psychology. See Resources for more information.


Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power Of Passion And Perseverance. New York: Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Ericcson, K. Anders and Robert Pool. Peak: Secrets From The New Science Of Expertise. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2016.

Grenville-Cleave, Bridget. Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide. New York: MJF Books. 2012

Seligman, Ph.D., Martin E. P. Flourish. New York: Free Press, 2011

Woodcock, Rev. Henry. (1889). The Hero Of The Humber; Or, The History Of The Late Mr. John Ellerthorpe.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.