“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere — on water and land.”
― Walt Whitman
The path to personal achievement exists inside us all. For some it is as brief as a short driveway; for others, it is a boulevard. Others may find their road is as formidable as the Pan-American Highway – stretching 29,800 miles between North Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay and Ushuaia, Argentina. And then there are those who’ll try to walk it. Barefoot.
Assisted by eminent colleagues such as Erik Erikson and Robert White, Harvard psychologist Henry A. Murray laid out a full theory of the human character in his 1938 publication, Explorations in Personality. Delineating a list of ‘psychogenic needs’ – eight domains (ambition; materialism; status; power; sado-masochism; social-conformance; affection; and information) with 17 secondary needs within them – Murray’s deconstruction of behaviour would inform the concept of the “Need for Achievement” (N-Ach). The psychologist posits that individuals have a low to high desire for accomplishment – for mastering of skills, control, or high standards.
One’s level of N-Ach is directly linked to the difficulty of the tasks they embark upon. Low in N-Ach, and you may fill your time with tasks easily achievable in order to minimise the risk of failure; conversely, they may opt for the overly ambitious tasks – so much so that a failure would not be deemed an embarrassment. N-Ach rich and you’ll choose moderately difficult – tasks that challenge, but you know are within reach. We view ourselves as complex creatures, but when illustrious psychologists break down our behaviour, we can become embarrassingly transparent. Understanding a predisposition for N-Ach, it’s easy to see why some are content with a morning walk to the paper shop, whilst others will brave the unknown in their quest for recognition.
Everyone knows a high N-Ach’er – you might even be one. Achievement comes in many shapes and sizes: it might, for example, be marathon training. “Have I told you about my latest CrossFit schedule?”, said nobody interesting, ever. (I’m just jealous of your abs.) It could as easily be ditching a high-flying job for a 12-hour-a-day job in a kitchen, just for the love of gastronomy. To them, achievement comes before all.
In times where more people than ever before are looking inward, satisfying their own needs before others’, those preloaded with high levels of N-Ach have become easier to spot: they are sat beside you on the flight to JFK International – not to stretch the plastic on Fifth Avenue, or to tick off Bushwick’s independent galleries, but to take part in the New York City Marathon; they are staying in the same hotel as you in Paris, not to indulge in a cordon bleu, but to undertake an intensive two-day jus workshop at Le Cordon Bleu. From gruelling treks that are the stuff of legends, to taking four months out to learn Kung Fu under Master Xing Long Wang, a thirty-second generation disciple of the Shaolin Temple, achievement travel is on the rise.
“Being away from friends and family, work commitments and an internet connection gave me the time I needed to decompress and follow my thoughts to wherever they wanted to go; there’s a kind of spirituality in that, too. Like any other long-distance walk, there’s a physical and mental commitment to the task, a simple rhythm of daily needs to meet.” Travel blogger Craig Martin is high in N-Ach. “For me”, says Martin, “a month-long hike sounded like an amazing challenge, but an achievable one, too.”
And he’s not alone. The Camino de Santiago was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during the Middle Ages, and – God-fearing or not – its popularity is on the rise, particularly as this warm glow of achievement can be coupled with boutique hotels and first-class food and wine.
Whether it’s Peru’s Inca Trail, the arduous ‘walk’ up Mount Kilimanjaro, or the exhausting 62-kilometre trek to Everest Base Camp, travellers in search of bucket-list experiences are filing experiential travel in the ‘done’ box, and pushing their internal envelopes, selecting toilsome experiences that are punishing, but within reach – sating their N-Ach with some internet-winning Instagrams to boot.
“I took one business owner to Mongolia and left him for 24 hours with camel herders who spoke no English”, says former Royal Marine Calum Morrison, founder of Extraordinary Adventure Club (EAC). “He was terrified initially, and felt like a five-year-old left at school for the first time. Then he just got on with it and helped them make cheese. The experience gave him so much confidence and made him realise how important communication is. He vowed that, on returning to work, he would leave his office every day to talk to people.”
Achievement travel might have a lot in common with transformational or experiential travel, but this business owner’s experience was selected by Morrison himself, indicating that his personal needs may be more in line with exhibition, control or superiority. Those with a high N-Ach answer to achievement before anything else. Morrison’s client will have been enriched and enlightened by his experience; but it remains a different experience to one that an achievement-needy punter who dreamt of spending 24 hours with camel herders who speak no English might’ve had.
Equally, satisfying achievement needs does not require a Herculean physique, nor significant mental fortitude. From turning your hand to brewing craft beer, to reviving age-old techniques like blacksmithing or flintknapping, educational experiences can tick the achievement box. Moreover, these sorts of achievements can be easily be integrated into the sorts of ‘experiences’ that are already offered by hotels and tour operators. They can also relate to locality and community, studying ancient crafts in Bali, or foraging in the Arctic Circle. And don’t forget those poor souls with a low N-Ach: just because they’re seeking out shorter walls to climb, it doesn’t mean that, to them, the rush of achieving is diminished. Think training like an astronaut at Alabama’s Adult Space Academy®, or joining archaeologists at Canada’s Dinosaur Provincial Park – remember that what someone who treks to Everest Base Camp deems as ‘experience’ may be a remarkable achievement for another.
From a personal perspective, it’s important to remember that mixing travel and dedication to a cause need be tempered with some serious passion. If that’s a five-night residential cooking course at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, or a four-week programme at Chennai’s Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, the need for achievement must be rooted in your heart. You can go out on the town after your marathon achievement, but next you can’t help being drawn to the immersion of learning yoga from a veritable guru. This is beyond the ‘learning vacation’, outside the limitations of experience – this is unswervingly dedicating yourself to the day-in, day-out pursuit of basking in the glory of personal accomplishment.
From an industry point of view, it would be foolish not to recognise achievement travel as an extension of the trends for experiential and transformative travel: lifestyles have changed, and travellers are looking for new buttons to be pressed – new psychogenic needs to be gratified. If you’re addressing experiences, then consider N-Ach. We are simple creatures hiding behind a complex façade – so if your experiences can provide recognition for your accomplishments, then the primal essence of our need for achievement can be appeased, and our experience enriched. And if you’re looking to beat the crowd on the next travel trend, think about picking up a copy of Explorations in Personality – after all, we’re simple creatures.
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.