Achievement Motivation and the Technical Diver

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For many of the world’s diver’s, diving is a relaxing vacation activity, drifting placidly through warm water flowing gently by colorful coral reefs. For others it might be a weekend in the local ocean or lake, perhaps bringing home a couple nice fish or lobster for dinner. The allure of these activities is obvious.

But what makes a small group—perhaps as few as 2% of total divers—go the route of technical diving? Why get all that training and equipment just to visit a wreck lying at 200 feet when there is a perfectly good wreck to visit at 100 feet?

When I first started technical diving near my home in Colorado, our group of divers noticed we had a lot in common. About half were very serious rock climbers. One was a competitive sky diver. We wondered if a drive to live life at its edge might be a motivating factor in their becoming technical divers. I was never satisfied with that explanation, though, especially since I had no interest in anything remotely like that—I don’t particularly like living life on the edge, thank you, and I would not dream of jumping out of a working airplane.

But I did have something else in common with them—like all of them, I had a history of performing at a high level in my activities in my past. I now believe that is the key factor. Every technical diver I know has a life history that includes high levels of success in at least one and usually several areas of interest. Each would score high on a scale of what psychologists call achievement motivation.

In 1938, psychologist Henry Murray first described this personality trait, saying achievement motivation is marked by “prolonged and repeated efforts to accomplish something difficult. To work with singleness of purpose towards a high and distant goal. To have the determination to win.” Psychologists say people with a high need for achievement (normally abbreviated N Ach or nAch) have a powerful internal drive to excel in the activities in which they participate. The large number of rock climbers in our group was a coincidence that came from living in a location famous for rock climbing. If these people were going to try rock climbing, they could not be content with mediocrity. They had to excel. When they tried scuba, they similarly could not be content to be vacation divers gliding effortlessly along a colorful reef. They had to go beyond the norm. They had to become technical divers.

For people with a high N Ach, the extra work required to achieve that distant goal is not only not a hindrance, it is an attraction. If it were easy, they would not be as interested in it, and the required course work and practice are important parts of what makes it all so much fun. Consequently, the seemingly endless drilling to develop the skill set necessary to be safe at great depths or complex cave systems is not at all boring to them; it is actually fun.

So what happens when a technical diver reaches a plateau of achievement? In many areas of activity, the high N Ach individual can have a sense of “been there; done that” and go looking for something new, but technical diving provides a seemingly endless series of plateaus. Divers can learn deep decompression diving, advanced wreck diving, cave diving, rebreather cave diving, cave exploration—there is seemingly no end to the new ways the high N Ach individual can keep finding new skills to master.

One problem that high N Ach divers may encounter is dealing with the lack of recognition for what they have achieved. Although high N Ach people are not prone to seeking out recognition for their achievements, they do like it when it happens, and they can be disappointed when it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, technical diving offers very little in the way of recognition for any achievement. Non-divers have no idea what a certification level represents, the typical open water diver knows very little more than that, and even the average open water instructor has only a vague notion of the kind of effort it took to be able to do technical dives well. There are almost no awards given out and no competitions to win. Technical divers must accept that very few people will understand what they have done, and most will vastly underestimate the effort it took to do it.

Ironically, those higher levels of training often bring with it a deepening sense of humility. That is because technical training and experience puts the diver into contact with a seemingly endless stream of people with superior skills. Most mainstream divers and even open water instructors never have the opportunity to see a highly skilled diver perform a technical dive, so they cannot accurately judge their own skill levels in relation to that. Skilled technical divers, in contrast, know all too well that no matter how far their skills have progressed, they know people who are better or have accomplished more. That gives them the strange feeling that as far as they have come in their diving, what they have done is still no big deal. Others have done so much more.

People undergoing a technical diving program are advised to look at themselves and see if the characteristic traits of achievement motivation pertain to them. If so—great! Those traits will no doubt drive them to success. They should remember, though, that they are unlikely ever to be fully satisfied with what they have done, for there is always something more to learn, some other way to satisfy that need for achievement.

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