Mastery – I’m good at my job and getting better

The intrinsic motivator of Mastery relates to our desire to be awesome at something. It feels good to know that you are a “rock star” at a skill. But it’s not just about being good, it’s about continuously getting better.

Intrinsic motivators like mastery are really a recipe for what makes us happy. While most of us want material comforts, the wise among us realize that more “stuff” is not the source of genuine happiness. Feeling valued (purpose), our relationships (contribution), and the ability to call the shots (autonomy) are much more fundamental to our happiness than money.

But when we talk about success in the business world, mastery truly stands apart. More than any other intrinsic motivator, mastery is directly correlated with the conventional definition of success. When taken to its furthest limits mastery can result in the fulfillment of pretty much all other motivators, both extrinsic and intrinsic. Professional athletes are excellent examples of how mastering a skill can result in massive rewards of all sorts.

But mastery comes with some fine print, some “qualifiers”. Daniel Pink identifies one of them in his definition of mastery as “the desire to get better and better at something that matters.”[1] The second half of his definition is one of the qualifiers because what “matters” is based upon perception. Pink effectively ties mastery with purpose. Mastering a meaningless skill is not motivating or useful.

One of my all-time favorite movies was the original Karate Kid. Most of you know the famous line, “Wax-on, wax-off!” Poor Daniel must wax cars, paint fences, and sand floors in a very specific and seemingly arbitrary manner. After several days of menial labor, Daniel finally quits in frustration. In one the most pivotal scenes, Mr. Miyagi suddenly throws punches and kicks at Daniel who expertly deflects every single punch with the same motions he had been using to wax, paint, and sand. In that moment Daniel’s perspective was completely transformed when he realized that, far from arbitrary, those motions were critical to his goal of successfully competing in a martial arts tournament. The motions mattered – a lot! If we want our teams to master a skill set, it’s imperative that we communicate why the skill matters.

The second qualifier is that mastery can never by satisfied. In fact, it doesn’t want to be satisfied. Mastery demands resistance. Greater skills require greater challenges. Winning may be the objective, but it’s not the driver. The struggle itself is the driver. Would a professional basketball team enjoy trouncing a high school team? Maybe a couple of times, but they’d soon get bored and seek a greater challenge.  

In 1976 Nadia Comăneci made history by scoring the first perfect 10 in Olympic gymnastics history. She followed it up with 6 more perfect 10’s. Mastery, right? Not exactly. Today Comăneci’s routines, even if performed perfectly, might not even get a gymnast into the Olympics. The sport evolved; the tricks got harder. Mastery is not about actually mastering something, its about the pursuit of mastering. By definition it can never be satisfied.

The challenge for managers is to ensure that you are enabling your team to master more. Here’s a very simple example of what I mean. It’s a challenge for a two-year old child to master walking – not so much for a teenager. Metaphorically speaking, are you limiting your teenagers to mastering walking? It is incumbent upon managers to realize when a team member is ready for a greater challenge and supply that challenge. And if they master that challenge- how much mastery is enough? More!

1 Daniel Pink, Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, page 109

Seth Preus
Seth Preus

Seth Preus is an advisor to Mivation, and the creator of both Racing Snail and Leaderboard Legends.  As a thought leader, he uses his 25 years of experience in sales, software development and business ownership to change the equation from “How can I get my team to perform?” to “How can I get my team to WANT to perform.”