Striving for achievement

An interview with Kenneth Christian, Ph.D.

by Douglas Eby, Talent Development Resources

"Stacy could not have imagined the combination of exhilaration and fear she felt on beginning work on the documentary dance film. Suddenly people treated her as a serious artist..."

A psychologist and corporate consultant on maximizing personal and organizational potential, Kenneth Christian, Ph.D., identifies a wide range of challenges and changes people may face in striving for higher levels of achievement and personal meaning.

Stacy, one of the people Dr. Christian cites in his book as an example, found she was facing "demands she had not anticipated"and felt herself struggling when people referred to her as a filmmaker.

"She liked the sound of that identity but had not internalized it yet," Christian writes in his book Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement (HarperCollins).

He has worked with a wide range of successful men and women both privately and in corporate workshops, and recalls a very high-ranking woman executive, whose husband was working within the same company. 

"From my point of view, listening to her, she almost seemed to have married him to tie down that marriage thing, to have that external sign that she was feminine enough and desirable enough to be married and have children," Christian says.

"Yet she was clearly far more ambitious than her husband. In her case it led to business achievement. but I don't believe it helped her much at home, and in fact her husband was not as talented and over time considerably below her in the same organization. Their relationship finally went on the rocks."

Her situation was "very complicated" Christian explains, "because she wanted to retain the certification that she was desirable, and yet in truth, I can't say she had enormous respect or esteem for this guy, because he was clearly less potent than she was. Probably less bright; clearly less powerful.

"She could hold her own with the men in this organization far more than this guy could. And he wasn't a mouse; we're not talking about a relationship in which she dominated him. But she was just a force in her career.

"And you could see within her all the contradictions of the entire historical period. I think she probably came up in the late sixties, that entire period of transition from a much more traditional childhood in the fifties, to a period of coming of age in the late sixties and early seventies, where things were beginning to crack, and all sorts of possibilities were there.

"But it's hard to shed so many skins and get used to this many different changes."

More gender issues

Christian finds that younger women he has worked with "seem to do much better, feel much more comfortable with being bright around men. 

But they can still face a certain kind of risk of intimidating insecure males, and it's very contradictory for these women. If they're very lovely, attractive and feminine, and very bright,  incredible persons, intensely motivated in their careers, it's a complicated mix, a Molotov cocktail, with different strains and trends within themselves."

One of the results of the ways boys and girls have been brought up may be a difference in how men and women deal with conflicts and competitions such as in sports. 

A co-producer of the film "Fried Green Tomatoes," Anne Marie Gillen once noted, "If you look at how little boys play on a team, there's a leader, they pick you or they don't pick you, they go out there and beat each other up, they win the game and it's over and they put their arms around each other and go on."

Some women (and men also, of course) may find it harder to move on from a conflict as adults.

"It may be that there has been more of a tendency for women to long-term nurse grudges," Dr. Christian says. "There certainly are males who do the same thing, but there are males who have a battle or contest, and then it's left, and feelings aren't nurtured and held and amplified as some sinister 'getcha - gotcha.' 

"That happens too with males, but it may be that there's this thread in cultural stereotypes that it's okay to have a good battle, a go-round, and then dust yourself off, if you're a male."

Thinking of the topic of battles in the context of corporate life, Christian brings up the example of Hewlett-Packard's CEO: "I'm fascinated by Carly Fiorina as a public figure, with all the guns aiming at her head, and her having taken a stand that included going against family (the Hewletts and Packards) and tradition and so on, and what she has produced, and what she has had to do to keep her skin almost.

"What must it be like to be her? It must be enormously gratifying. She is such a pioneer. Her space capsule is so far from planet Earth compared with the average woman. But the pressure is enormous too because she has to do it nearly perfectly for it to be good enough to critics."

These days more and more company presidents are women, Christian notes. "I think what is remarkable about Fiorina is that she is at the top of such a hugely visible company, and so the scrutiny is greater.

"There probably still is a glass ceiling, but there are certainly internal inhibitions about 'Do I want to put myself there?' It's like the first woman president; it's going to take a lot."

Another example he mentions is athlete Annika Sorenstam, who competed in the male-dominated PGA golf tournament in 2003 - the first time for a woman in 58 years; Babe Didrikson Zaharias competed in a PGA event in 1945. Sorenstam commented to CNN she took on the challenge "because I like to test myself. I'm looking for ways to take my game to a different level."

Michelle Wie"And now there's Michelle Wie," Christian adds, "a Hawaiian girl who has played three or four golf tournaments against men, and at thirteen, she is hitting very long three hundred yard drives. She's a force of nature, a remarkable person.

"And the pressure on her is something completely different from Annika. Michelle thinks it's a hoot to be playing with men, but for Annika it looked like pins and needles, and she threatened certain men."

With women like Sorenstam, Christian says, he thinks the internal barriers now "have to do with being the first or one of the first persons doing something. And there are still women doing things for the first time, and I think that is such a strong issue. It is such an exciting time for women."

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Beliefs and attitudes

Christian brings up the force of beliefs and social attitudes about breaking the four minute mile running record as an example, and says, "I don't know if a woman can play golf as well when she's playing against men, with the force of so many eyes are on her. There are such expectations, and it so conflictual if she does well, or doesn't do well."

He recalls that at her famed Colonial PGA Tour, Sorenstam "rather quickly settled for having a good first round, and it was going to be wonderful if she was going to make the cut, but she'd already proved her point. 

"Well, those are major concessions because she's good enough to probably finish that tournament. But I thought you could see the crumbling, like 'Good for a woman' was the position she was starting to take rather early, or 'I've made my point' and then she quickly backed down and said she wasn't going to do it again.

"I want to get off the athletics analogy, but I see that women who are doing things for the first time may think they are like Icarus, that whole thing about how high can you fly. I talk about 'altitude sickness' in the book, for anybody who starts to exceed what they reasonably consider is where they could fly or achieve."

Breaking stereotypes

Christian emphasizes how remarkable it is "when somebody is going to do something new for the first time," and points out that many women are doing that now. "We're going to see a woman lead our country, I fervently hope. And I hope she's not a complete creep. 

"Men can be jerks, and women can't be, and that's the trouble. It's like Black people who used to start to crack the color line: they had to be model citizens. I still remember the phrase from my childhood: 'A credit to their race.' So I think women are still stuck right now in the 'credit to their gender' thing."

Thinking about examples of women who have reached heights of eminence and achievement, Christian speaks of Oprah Winfrey

"The thing that strikes me about her is that she's a wonderful combination of intelligence, femininity, strength, power and something within the shiny person she is, the personality, the character - what a wonderful thing it is to have someone like her have so much strength and so much power."

Her life story and record of accomplishment exemplify some of the preeminent issues in achievement, such as risk-taking and courage. 

"It plays out for both genders," Christian says, "but I think the way it plays out for women is related to the question 'How high is it alright for me to go?'

"That's something I think is so wonderful about Oprah: she transcends so many things that could be limits. How many excuses could she have used, but doesn't? All of us have opportunities to use excuses. We're provided with so many of them, and women have an enormous number available to them.

"Not everyone is going to be Oprah - we've got one, we don't need another - but we need another whoever you are, and for you to be fully yourself. To go for what intrigues you, and not stay safe, and not sit back, and not take 'No' for an answer."

Getting blocked by others, and by our reactions to others, can so often keep us from our own path. "Somebody can say something, and they can discourage you, and if you let it in, you're stopped," Christian says.

"Every day, how many ideas, how many brilliant possibilities, die before they even get to someone's lips? Often in seminars and workshops, people would say, 'I've never said this out loud before...' - as if, as long as they hadn't said it out loud, it wasn't a mental event, or a real event.

"How many things die before they are said out loud? Or how many things die on people's lips because somebody raises their eyebrows? Another thing is that our society is so market driven, that nothing good can come out if it can't be franchised next week."

These are, of course, issues that relate to both men and women.

Christian points out there is a "very interesting story" that is akin to many issues for women, "which is what it's like in this culture to be a male, and not feel combative, and yet feel required to look like you are, in order to be 'one of the boys.' I've worked with plenty of people in that position. 

"Also, what do you do these days if you don't feel sexually precocious, and you want to wait for some reason, whatever it is. And now you're twenty one, and you're a virgin: what do you do?

Shaping influences

"All these things are shaping influences that have to do with how heavy a weight our adolescence is, which is the period in which we decide we're not going to be with our parents forever, and we've got to make it with this group, and then we have to get accepted to make it with them. And that starts something."

He adds that there are, of course, other factors from birth that "tell us what we can do if we're this gender, or this color or whatever," and that these forces "endure into our adulthood. Take the first day on a new job, you could be any age, you walk in, and read the raised eyebrows, the body language, tone of voice or whatever, and you know exactly what you're supposed to do and not do.

"This is a pure force that is operating all the time, that moves us toward accepting what is going on around us, and what others do, as the way it ought to be. The term 'over-achiever' means you are 'out of line.'"


Dr. Christian has worked with  a number of exceptionally capable women executives, professors and other professionals, some of whom, he notes, are sometimes "self-attackers of the classic kind" that he describes in his book.

"These are utterly brilliant women," he says. "It would be hard to imagine that there would be many others out there that could match their brilliance, and yet they become a mess about achievement. They may be chronically late with projects. They might have a grant for a study and be two years behind on rolling it out.

"One such woman had enormous difficulties with doing things on time. She had developed a brilliant thesis. Things had been so easy for her, and she was the kind of person who feared that because it all came too easy, that she really and truly was a fraud. And that is such a toxic thing."

Her husband was a research cardiologist at a major university, and Christian says he got the impression "she did not want to compete with him. And I don't think it was because she thought she'd lose to him. She wanted to take risks, but feared risk enormously, because she'd talked herself into the idea that all her lateness proved she really couldn't produce.

"Well, I think the lateness was really that she wanted to perfect things before she let go of them, and she was afraid of criticism, and yet she was, paradoxically, also afraid she really was that brilliant, and then people would expect a repeat performance. Because when she put something together, it was completely new and fresh."

After some time and work on looking at these issues, she did "allow herself to put on a showing of some artwork," he notes, "and this was an amazing breakthrough, and a huge risk because she could be criticized.

"She is an example of how complicated the back and forth can get, depending on the rules you have about risk, and what's okay to show, and how bright you can be, and whether you can really be bright at all.

"She was so nervous about her capabilities, she would have made consolation come forth from a bus driver, or someone not on her intellectual plane at all. She would have disarmed any critic with the amount of self-attacking she was doing.

"So in a big picture way, I saw that a way she dealt with how potent she was, was to reduce her force. And yet she'd come to believe what she said. It's a complicated circle, how we turn strength into weakness, not just limit ourselves but attack ourselves, savagely."

One of his approaches in counseling her, Dr. Christian says, was to "nudge her with questions about why she just set it up that way, why did she make it that if she did something, the outcome would not be good enough. 

"We never talked, for example, about her exhibiting artwork, but I would ask her, What really would happen if you did do this or do that?

"She had a lot of really virulent doomsday fantasies, and I would cut through them and ask her to look at what could happen. What if, for example, she got a project in on time; what if it was 99 percent good, instead of 100 percent good, and she decided to let go of it?"

She made progress in counseling work with Dr. Christian, and in doing the fifteen steps outlined in his book, and reported later that after having held the art exhibition, she was "breathing a lot easier," that doing so had been a very helpful risk for her.


"A realistic risk is one that changes some of the ways you limit yourself," Christian explains, "and certain things you've thought of as risky begin to shift, and they aren't as risky.

But, he cautions, there is also pathological risk-taking. 

"There are people who play very casually with their lives. They don't often wind up high in corporate structures, because they flame out, but you often find this in the arts, where there are people who could achieve much, much more but it's as if it's inimical to them, to let themselves really succeed.

"As an example, in the sixties there was a guy who used to sing with a group called The Charlatans in San Francisco, a band that was extremely edgy and creative. He went solo, to form Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks. 

"When he released a song that went to something like number four on the national charts, he disbanded the group. He re-formed a group and did an album maybe five or six years ago. 

"I do not know Dan Hicks personally or the reasons for his decision. He may have done what he did for reasons completely different from how they appeared from the outside. But here's a guy apparently running from success. He did not want whatever was going to come next.

"It's different from distancing yourself from getting caught up in stuff like, The record company wants me to do something; do I have to do it or not. 

"This is running before you even find out. It clearly seemed he didn't want to know."

Developing order

Developing order in your life is one of the key strategies that Dr. Christian has found to be helpful to people for reaching and maintaining higher levels of achievement.

"What I've noticed again and again with people who have a lot of talent and haven't necessarily harnessed it," he says, "is that the steps that have to do with being systematic were underdeveloped, almost from the beginning, in certain ways unless somebody mentored them and insisted that they really develop this approach, or unless they happen to be more predisposed to this.

"I think there are temperamental factors that predispose people to wanting more or less control. There are some people that it just seems to fall to them to be very orderly from early childhood, and they can be in the same family with somebody who's kind of loosey-goosey."

Obstacles, he notes, may be "biological, temperamental, or what somebody might consider to be a handicap of some degree, and the way to work with it is to recognize it and then to develop skills around that.

"So no matter what your temperament is, if you have been able to do math in your head, let's say, as one example, then that meticulous step of writing a little number at the top when you carry, is just one little point where you skip a step, and you're perfectly capable of doing that, but it can start to build in a desire to skip by steps later on that are more important."

An example he uses in the book is a man who "plunged into computers and learned how to repair them" but could never tell anyone else exactly what he was doing, and could not necessarily repeat the steps he took.

"And that makes for a certain amount of chaos," Christian says. "I used to think that I could tolerate chaos, but I really think I need more order than most people do. Some people have this kind of cast iron focus and concentration that enables them to multitask and do all kinds of things at the same time. 

"My particular nervous system is a little more sensitive to distractions, so I have to really have to notice more now, when the demands on me are greater, how much more I do need order.

"When you're doing things like consulting, and crossing time zones, and doing multiple tasks, having more than one activity, the need for order actually ratchets up."

Many people with a lot of talent don't want to be involved in something like government, "because of the rigidity of that structure," he notes.

"But if they have not developed a lot of rigor about keeping on top of everything, then the more interesting things that can distract them, the farther away they can get from their plan, and it can plunge them into chaos, so they're feeling that they are chronically running behind, barely keeping their nose above water."

He agrees it may be helpful, even a necessity, to sometimes break out of the patterns of your life, but if you really want to accomplish something "large and important" you may be defeating your ambitions by too readily, in a "knee-jerk" way, head for the beach instead of finishing something first.

NOT taking unnecessary breaks

"The people who do works of art, who write important books, edit films or take them from envisioning to completion on a shoestring budget -- at some point, it's not, "Let's break it out and go to the beach today" -- but the beach is finishing the thing, because the excitement is to be diligently completing something."

There is, he points out, a "very interesting tension" between being a spontaneous person and not: "People who grind away their lives never discover anything new. They go to the same restaurant for breakfast every morning -- it gives them complete safety and complete certainty. 

"And if your needs for certainty are really high, you're going to feel a deadness along with that order. There's a real importance to breaking out of that. Tony Robbins talks about the higher your need for certainty, the less likely you're really going to develop certain traits of greatness."

The target audience for his book, Christian notes, were people "who had so much talent, and so many curiosities and interests, and so many places they could direct their talent -- and it's always a matter of degree -- that they would become dilettantes, and not stay with anything long enough to really develop it.

"So the need for order there is to not just keep pulling up your roots and planting yourself somewhere new."

But he admits he has done just that in the past five years: "I've gone to Paris, and lived there. It takes a lot of order to do something like that, and I really had to pay attention to order, because I can be chaotic in a situation like that, and leave things not all tied down."

The patterns in the way we live are very significant, Christian asserts: "Habit is really how we govern ninety eight percent of our lives on a daily basis. We do so many things that we don't have to think about. That's what sets us free. Habits are a wonderful invention.

"This gets into the area of choice. We have a choice, to a degree, when we express our sexuality and when we don't. We don't just see 'another pigeon ruffling its feathers' in a certain way and it locks into our brain, and then a long sequence of behaviors goes on. 

"We're more like that than we want to think [he laughs], but there is a certain degree of choice. But choice emerges with attention. You can drive somewhere and barely notice that you're driving, if it's a familiar highway. You can be lost in your mind, because so many things are committed to mechanical habit.

"Well, that's how we run big chunks of our lives, unless we direct out attention to the moment, and say, wait a moment, I have a choice here; I don't have to keep doing it the way I've done it."

One of the main orientations of his work is to provide "methods to bring that choice up to the surface of conscious attention. If you're not consciously aware of your choice, you function as if you don't have choice."

There are 15 tasks described in the book to help do that, with the first one being to "Begin positive practices... Add at least one pleasurable thing to your daily life and make it permanent."

Christian cautions that people tend to skip over this aspect: "They don't put into their lives substantive pleasure. They put distractions or entertainment, but not really deepening their understanding of something, or spending quiet time, or contemplating their lives and looking at where they're going, or listening to good music, or going to view good art.

"And, of course, that's the thing that is tricky for anyone who travels, because it is so easy to be jet-lagged. Do you carry art books with you, or your iPod with good music on it? It's a hard task, oddly enough, to keep to for many people, to make sure they keep something in their life that makes each day worth having lived, besides just having gone through the motion."

Some of the tasks in the book may be of lesser priority, especially for people "who are achieving, like executives, or writers, and don't need to spend as much time on, Christian notes.

For example, the task of developing an overall vision or dream: "Many people have a pretty clear vision; there's no reason for them to spend seven days working on that written exercise.

"The idea of going on for a month is extreme. It happened in a group I led, but translating that to an individual -- it would probably be better for them to say, If I haven't gotten it in a week, let me just choose four or five things I know I want to do with my life before I'm done, and let's not worry about the term 'dream.'

"The guy I refer to as Earl in the book said, You know, that dream stuff is like psychobabble to me, but I do know there's some stuff I want to do before I die; do I have to call it a dream? Can I just choose some things I want to do?

"I said, Sure. That's the way to go. He came up with four or five of them, and just chose one that he really did want to make sure he completed first before he left the planet, and that is what he used as a dream."

Exercises and tasks to reduce self-limiting

Some of the exercises or tasks "look like they kind of go on and on," Christian admits. "Since the specific target for the book is an underachiever, I don't want them to slack, and I want them to be repetitious, but it's a real tricky dose of medicine to go from a group to someone doing this on their own."

One of the values of the groups engaged with this process is that people keep making supporting calls to each other. "To make sure you do the exercises," he explains. "When you're doing it alone, I think a lot of people skip over what I call in the book a prerequisite: to get somebody to check in with who is going to keep you honest -- what people might call an accountability partner.

"But when you get people who are achieving at a fairly high level, they don't need steps like the exhaustive self-appraisal, and they almost know the five things that get in their way because they've had so many 360 reviews or whatever.

Earlier in the interview, he talked about what happened with golfer Annika Sorenstam, and Christian exclaims, "Wow. My hat is off to her; am I ever impressed with what she's done, and it would be ludicrous of me to ever presume she should have done more or that she didn't have the right to say what she did about not continuing in the PGA golf competition. I don't want to judge her because she said it's doing a lot to qualify or to finish the first round, or have a good day. 

"On the other hand, if you are aiming for something, one of the places to look if you're feeling stuck, is the way you talk about and use your language when you discuss the goal you're aiming toward.

"In task nine in the book I talk about the way people use qualifiers, use adjectives, use present tense versus past tense. I talk about Clive, who is very clear, very succinct speech, and then when he talks about smoking, he talks in a passive voice: 'It will be interesting to see how it comes out.'

"That language is a tipoff to the way you're meta-communicating to yourself. You're keeping yourself in a hypnotic trance."

Referring to dealing with any sort of glass ceiling, Christian advises: "If you feel you're running into a barrier, a stuck place, and you're unaccustomed to that and want to move past it, start first with the way you're talking to yourself about it, because you may be using very equivocal language with yourself, instead of very unequivocal, definite, 'this is the situation' statements.

"If you're using language like 'just' and 'kind of' and 'sort of' and all those things that diminish the potency of what you're saying, you can examine doing that and then look to see what is the ambivalence under that. 

"The ambivalence may be, You know, I don't think I really want this; a lot of people think this is a good thing for me, but I truly like where I am right now, and I don't think I want to invite all the new challenges that are going to come with that. Who says you have to keep rising in any one particular system? This life is your life, and any new changes ought to stem from your own volition."

Dr. Christian is also developing a "field manual" for people who "aren't necessarily underachievers, but who want to maximize their potential. 

"And in there, I talk about people with something tugging at them, having a 'rock in their shoe' or a kind of itch, and it's similar to the pre-contemplation period, when you haven't really figured out what it is that's bugging you, but something is there.

"Sometimes when people don't want to go farther, or they have ambivalence, usually they've gone in a straight line. It's worth looking, because maybe something else is beginning to call them, a different kind of development. 

"Instead of further advancing their career in another step, they might advance their career in terms of increasing the level at which they're doing what they are already doing.

"Maybe it's that something else is already starting to bloom in them, that has to do with a different form of self-expression or self development, something they've left behind. Or maybe relationships are starting to become more important, at a certain age."

Asked about what may be most helpful to people in terms of making change, he says that support is crucial. 

"Having someone who doesn't want to tug at your lapel and say, Wait a minute; stay back here with me, don't abandon me. In other words, finding someone who is really excited about your continuing to move and grow, and is not intimidated that they're going to be left behind.

"We can all exert influences on each other out of our own needs, and sometimes we hold each other back, or we make unspoken agreements that we're both going to do this, and mock the other people who are doing that, or whatever. So support is really crucial. Especially for anyone who is the first one doing something."

But not everyone wants to be in that position of front-runner or pioneer, he agrees. "And nobody should be forced to.

"Anyway, support is huge. That's why I spent so much time in the book talking about Andre Agassi, because he's clearly someone who had enormous talent, and hadn't been nearly as systematic earlier in his career, just going on the raw talent, as he was later on when he hooked with Brad Gilbert and another kind of conditioning coach."

"Between the three of them, they brought his career back to number one. [Agassi won both the Canadian Open and the US Open.] And it was really because he developed a much more systematic approach."

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Kenneth W. Christian, Ph.D. is a psychologist with more than 25 years experience facilitating talent development and maximizing individual and organizational potential.

He is the founder of the Maximum Potential Project
and author of the book :

Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult  Underachievement

and co-author of
An Invitation to Personal Change

Also see articles by Kenneth W. Christian.

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