Daniel Pink: The 3 Components of Mastery

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Drive" by Daniel H. Pink. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you have a skill that you wish to master? What is the fastest way to achieve mastery?

People naturally want to get better at skills and get recognized for their competency. This is mastery. According to Daniel Pink, there are three psychological components to mastery: mindset, pain, and unattainability.

In this article, we’ll look at how each component contributes to intrinsically motivated behavior.

Mastery and Motivation

How is the pursuit of mastery beneficial? Mastery drives people to be more productive and more satisfied with their work. One study showed that in an engineering workplace, the desire for intellectual challenge was the best predictor of productivity. People who were extrinsically motivated worked just as hard, but they accomplished less, as defined by number of patents filed. And a survey of employees found that the greatest motivator is “making progress in one’s work.”

In your organization or life, you can promote mastery in these ways:

  • Give goldilocks tasks that are neither too difficult (which provokes anxiety) nor too simple (with causes boredom). You want to challenge people right at the brink of their ability.
  • Give people clear goals. A challenge that is out of reach for ability becomes even more anxiety-provoking when the worker isn’t sure what to do. By defining what should be achieved clearly, the worker can focus on how to achieve it.
  • Provide fast feedback. Improvement requires understanding what you did well and how you can improve in the future. Fast feedback increases the iteration speed and rate of learning.
  • Add more challenges to people’s jobs. Keep pushing people’s boundary of comfort to keep it interesting and give the feeling of growth.

According to Daniel Pink, mastery is achieved faster through deliberate practice at the appropriate level. When challenged at the right level, people enter a state of flow – where the challenge is just right, the goal is just out of reach, and the task is so engaging that doing it is its own reward. People rate flow as the most satisfying experience in all of life, even moreso than leisure activities.

The book states there are three psychological components to Mastery.

1) Mastery Is a Mindset

Some people tend to believe that they’re born with the intelligence they have, and that people don’t get any smarter with work. “I’ve just never been any good at math and I never will be.” This is the fixed mindset you should avoid.

To successfully master something, you instead need to adopt the growth mindset – a belief that your intelligence and abilities are not fixed, that you have the potential to get better at whatever you want to.

People with different mindsets treat challenges differently:

  • Fixed mindset people interpret failures as just confirming evidence that they’re not good at something. Growth mindset people interpret failures as feedback to use to get better.
  • Fixed mindset people see effort as a negative sign that you’re not good at something – that’s why you need to struggle. Growth mindset people see effort as the way to get better.
  • Fixed mindset people tend to set performance goals for themselves, like grades or promotions. Growth mindset people tend to set goals centered around progress and learning, with rewards coming as a natural consequence of mastery.

Education studies have shown that adopting the growth mindset in students leads to greater perseverance through difficulty and more creativity in novel challenges.

2) Mastery Is a Pain

Getting better is painful. There’s no way around it. People are born with different levels of talent, but without effort, this talent is wasted. And if you put in effort, you can exceed someone with greater natural talent who works less hard.

Mastery requires you to traverse failure and setbacks. You have to take incremental steps up, over and over again, consistently, day in and day out. If it were so easy, we’d all be masters of our craft.

There has been much recent writing on the quality of grit, or the combination of passion and perseverance. Grit allows you to persist through the setbacks to achieve the eventual goal of mastery.

3) Mastery Is Never Achievable

A seeming paradox of mastery is that you can never fully reach mastery. Like an asymptote graph, you keep approaching it, inching forward, but the growth never stops. 

Great athletes often say that they can always be better – that there’s no such thing as perfection. The journey never ends.

This can be frustrating, but it can also be continuously tantalizing. The next goal is always just out of reach, and you need to learn to enjoy the journey. This is why intrinsic motivation is more enduring than extrinsic rewards – while financial rewards might stop being attractive, a for desire mastery is never satiated.

Daniel Pink: The 3 Components of Mastery

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  • Why you may be feeling unmotivated and unsatisfied at work and in life
  • Why financial rewards aren't enough to keep employees motivated anymore
  • The three components of intrinsic motivation

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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