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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.


Taking a cue from the little engine that could is crucial in child development, April 27, 2008, 2D.

“I think I can.  I think I can!”  Those were the words of the undersized train engine as she pulled the train of dolls and toys up the hill in the popular children’s book, The Little Engine That Could, by Watty Piper.  Piper’s book is an updated version of a story that originated in the early twentieth century.  It teaches children about optimism and the power of positive thinking and the sense of accomplishment that comes from taking on and succeeding at big goals. 

Teaching people at early ages that success comes from hard work, persistence, and personal sacrifice can have important influences on society in years to come.  According to Professor Harold Jones, the author of Personal Character and National Destiny, stories like The Little Engine That Could help develop personal values that affect how people work and their goals and aspirations.  Children who learn that hard work and accomplishment are important and desirable personal characteristics begin to see events in life as opportunities to accomplish exceptional things themselves.  

Jones argued that the stories we teach to our children help set the course of the nation in years to come.  Children who value exceptional achievement turn into adults who value exceptional achievement.  When high-achievement people control the organizations and institutions of society, they influence how a society functions and the things that it values and aspires to accomplish.  A nation full of high-achievers functions differently than one without people “programmed” for exceptional performance.  Jones suggested that the stories, lessons, and cultural examples that we hold up to our children early in their lives helps instill in them a sense of achievement, success, and work ethic.

Jones based much of his work on concepts of “Learned Needs Theory” by David McClelland.  Needs explain why people want to do the things they do and have been used to describe human motivation—Maslow’s hierarchy is probably the most well known of these theories.  Learned needs are acquired early in life through family experiences.  Once acquired, they serve to guide the behaviors of individuals throughout their lives.  The three learned needs identified by McClelland are achievement, power, and affiliation.  A person with a high need for achievement will view and seek out events in life as opportunities to accomplish unusual and exceptional things.  A person with a high need for power will search for opportunities to be in control and one with a high need for affiliation will look for ways to include and be included by others in events.  

Today’s workplace is made up of people who grew up at different times and were exposed to different “stories” as they were raised.  For some, hard work and achievement is programmed into them.   For others, strong needs for power or affiliation drive their behavior.  Others grew up with negative and painful stories.  Managers should understand the needs and motivations of their workers and seek ways to develop cultures of exceptional performance with people of different backgrounds and types of personal motivation. 


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2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved