What’s Wrong with Work Today: Mastery

Mastery is a MotivatorIn Daniel Pink’s book Drive, he identifies Mastery (which he defines as the desire to get better at something that matters) as one of three core components for motivation and satisfaction in our jobs. He writes that “the modern workplace’s most notable feature may be its lack of engagement and its disregard for mastery.”

He spends most of the chapter on Mastery talking about Flow, the experience uncovered by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (also discussed here), in which people are so absorbed in whatever they’re doing that they lose track of time and just live fully in the moment. Flow happens more often at work than during leisure time because it usually involves a clear goal (for example, drawing a portrait) with immediate feedback on your progress towards a goal (you’re capturing the likeness well). Reaching a state of “flow” often happens on the road to mastery. Pink writes that, “if people are conscious of what puts them in flow, they’ll have a clearer idea of what they should devote time and dedication to master.”

And that’s where the problems start. What if we want to develop a skill that will not provide us with a living? Arts and sports are prime areas where people experience flow, yet few of us live off of those talents. And what about our current jobs? Most of us don’t have the authority to tailor our job descriptions around the things we want to master (that’s another blog post coming up) and unfortunately many of our jobs have one of the following barriers to mastery:

  1. You might have a job that doesn’t challenge you enough. Result = boredom.
  2. You might have a job that is too difficult for you. Result = anxiety and stress.
  3. You might have a job that offers the right amount of challenge but you realize you’re not interested in pursuing mastery in this area. Result = procrastination and minimal effort.
  4. You might have a job that offers the opportunity for mastery in an area you want to excel at, but the work environment doesn’t truly support your growth. Result = frustration at being constrained.

There are probably more problems than just these four, but these are ones I’ve experienced. If our desire to grow is hindered, we’re likely to become unmotivated and dissatisfied. Unfortunately work environments are often not growth-inducing places. To grow means being willing to risk mistakes, rethink norms, challenge old thought patterns and perhaps even fail. Instead, many workplaces are simply looking for compliance to the status quo.

Employers might argue that their employees don’t really care to improve or grow even if given the chance. This could very well be true. Mastery requires long-term effort which can be painful and not necessarily fun. Intrinsic motivation, Pink explains, is often damaged in our school systems and workplaces today because we’re trained to respond to extrinsic motivators which are usually focused on short-term gains. The joy of learning gets lost in the need to maintain the status we’ve reached (Pink references studies that show that kids who are consistently praised as “being smart” start choosing easier tasks and challenges in order to maintain their reputation. He suggests praising effort and strategy instead).

People only embark on the long journey of mastering something because they are intrinsically motivated. And intrinsic motivation is influenced by three factors: autonomy, mastery and purpose. We’ll be exploring autonomy and purpose coming up.

Tell me about your job! Do you feel that you are on the road to mastery or are you experiencing one of the four problems I listed? What skills do you wish you could spend a lifetime honing?