The Power of Mastery

As you no doubt recognize, there are a great many pathways toward higher levels of productivity and success. On this website, I’ve been showing you some of them, and will continue to show you more. But I want to take a small detour this time toward the motivational side of the issue.

If you’ve been reading this blog, your motivation to increase your level of productivity and success probably comes naturally. Even so, at some point you may bump up against an upper limit to your motivation because of a common misperception and/or mistaken objective.

The problem stems from the way you’re measuring your productivity and particularly your success. Most of us do this measuring in terms of accomplishments, praise, awards, and rewards, including money. This mistake is expressed in a bumper stick I hate, which says: “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.”

Think about that. In this kind of system, only one person can win. Everybody else is a loser, succinctly expressed in another bumper sticker I hate: “Second place is the first loser.”

When you subscribe to this point of view, or anything like it, you’re practically guaranteed to label yourself a “loser.” That in turn will limit your motivation, which will inevitably go on to knock down your level of productivity and success.

When you travel this road, you’re buying into the notion that you can’t win, and from there’s it’s an easy next step to believing “there’s no point in trying my hardest or doing my best.”

A Better Yardstick

To avoid this down-bound pathway, stop measuring yourself by your accomplishments. Instead, measure yourself by your mastery.

Focusing on mastery instead of accomplishments puts the emphasis on process instead of product. (This same concept works in other areas, too, such as decision-making and planning, which I will discuss in future columns.)

But here, we’re talking about working to improve your skills, knowledge, and experience. These are considerations which are entirely under your control, whereas “productivity” and “success” depend to some extent on external factors such as cooperation from others and just plain luck.

This gives “mastery” a major advantage.

For example, no matter what you are trying to accomplish, you can practice fundamental activities and build up your level of skill. You can also increase your level of knowledge by gathering more information and investigating how particular things work. Armed with improved skills and expanded knowledge, you can more willingly put yourself in new situations to gain more experience.

All of this contributes to your mastery of whatever field, discipline, trade, craft, or profession you are pursuing.

You may have noticed that mastery is fundamentally different from productivity and success in two ways:

First, it’s entirely under your control and requires no support from favorable external factors.

Second, if you’re doing it right, it brings its own reward: Enjoyment.


While accomplishments, praise, awards, and rewards, including money, are very enjoyable, this enjoyment tends to be fairly fleeting. As time goes by, the pleasure you feel from measures such as these tends to fade, and soon you need another “hit” in order to feel good again. You can fight it, but our brains seem to be hardwired to operate this way.

The pleasure you feel from mastery, however, tends to remain.

Whatever you’ve mastered – such as: hitting a tennis ball, building a cabinet, writing a story, completing a financial transaction, throwing a javelin, or dancing the Mazurka – you’ll not only feel good every time you do it, you’ll feel good between times from just knowing you can do it well.

The key to all this pleasure and motivation is to master something you care about, something that:

  • You feel is important,
  • Brings you pleasure,
  • Resonates with and capitalizes on your natural strengths.

By shifting your perspective and objectives away from accomplishments, praise, awards, and rewards, including money, and towards mastery, you steer your work and your life in a direction that supports unlimited and ongoing motivation.

And you lose nothing by it: your emphasis on mastery will automatically bring you pretty much the same levels of accomplishments, praise, awards, and rewards, including money, that you would obtain if you went for them directly.

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