Apr 26, 2013

The Pursuit of Happy... eh, Mastery

Merriam-Webster calls it the "possession or display of great skill or technique." The dictionary on my computer says it's the "comprehensive knowledge or skill in a particular subject or activity." And Daniel H. Pink, in his bestselling book Drive. The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us defines it as "the desire to get better and better at something that matters." According to him it is the second (the first was autonomy) vital element of intrinsically motivated behavior: mastery.

In other words, if you want someone to be motivated about a task or a job, give them a chance to get better and better and better at it. Pursuing perfection, you might call it. But is that really such an important attitude to have? Pink is convinced it is:
Solving complex problems requires an inquiring mind and the willingness to experiment one's way to a fresh solution. Where Motivation 2.0 sought compliance, Motivation 3.0 seeks engagement. Only engagement can produce mastery. And the pursuit of mastery, an important but often dormant part of our third drive, has become essential in making one's way in today's economy. (p. 111)
Motivation 3.0 and "our third drive" are synonyms the author uses to describe our intrinsic motivation to do certain things. So we need to be engaged in order to produce mastery. The problem seems to be, says Pink, that most of us aren't engaged at work. What's the solution? I've got one word for you: flow.
Flow is a concept that describes a previously unacknowledged mental state, researched and studied by someone whose last name is not quite as short and precise as the one he gave his "discovery": Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychology professor who emigrated to the United States as a young man. He says that people are happiest when in a state of total concentration and complete absorption with the activity or task at hand. Daniel Pink has the following to say about this mental state:
In flow, goals are clear. You have to reach the top of the mountain, hit the ball across the net, or mold the clay just right. Feedback is immediate. The mountaintop gets closer or farther, the ball sails in or out of bounds, the pot you're throwing comes out smooth or uneven. (p. 115)
But how do you reach this state of mind? What are the prerequisites? Csikszentmihalyi says it happens when the challenge level of and your skill level at a certain activity are equally high (see the image below).

The concept of Flow
The problem with that is, of course, that most of the things we do are either not challenging enough or we don't have the skills to complete the task before us properly.
One source of frustration in the workplace is the frequent mismatch between what people must do and what people can do. When what they must do exceeds their capabilities, the result is anxiety. When what they must do falls short of their capabilities, the result is boredom. [...] But when the match is just right, the results can be glorious. This is the essence of flow. (p. 118f)
From engagement to flow makes sense then. But how do we get from flow to mastery? "One happens in a moment; the other unfolds over months, years, sometimes decades. You and I might each reach flow tomorrow morning -- but neither one of us will achieve mastery overnight."(p. 120) So if we want to get there, we need to keep three things in mind.
  1. Mastery is a Mindset. Take the subject of intelligence as an example. If you believe that it's a fixed quantity, then every educational or professional challenge you face becomes a measure of how much you have. But if you're convinced that it's something you can increase, then these same challenges become opportunities for growth. Only one of these self-theories leads to mastery.
  2. Mastery is a Pain. "As wonderful as flow is, the path to mastery -- becoming ever better at something you care about -- is not lined with daisies and spanned by a rainbow. If it were, more of us would make the trip. Mastery hurts. Sometimes -- many times -- it's not much fun." (p. 124)
  3. Mastery is an Asymptote. When I read this one, I thought "Oh great. And I was hoping I would never need algebra again." But then I realized I didn't actually have to calculate anything. For those of you who (like me) don't remember, an asymptote is a straight line that a curve approaches but never quite reaches. This is the nature of mastery. "You can approach it. You can hone in on it. You can get really, really, really close to it. But [...] you can never touch it. Mastery is impossible to realize fully." (p. 127)
If we want to be intrinsically motivated we need to start being engaged in what we do. We need to experience flow (Pink calls it "the oxygen of the soul") in our lives. And we need to pursue mastery, knowing that there is always room for improvement, that it will be painful and that we will never quite reach it. So we may as well start rather sooner than later...

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