Reigniting Motivation: Mastery

Reigniting Motivation: Mastery

Developing expertise is satisfying and intrinsically motivating. Daniel Pink calls this motivation due to learning “mastery.” When starting something new, mastery is easily noticed because new skills are immediately needed and new roles are learned and developed. The steep learning curve is motivating as long as the learning challenge is complemented by sufficient ability and resources to rise to the challenge. Mastery doesn’t need to be easy; motivation increases when demands are closer to impossible than familiar. The steeper the learning curve the more noticeable and motivating the mastery of it becomes. As a project rolls along people adapt to the new environment and the initial learning curve flattens out as people, well, learn. Challenges are not inspiring mastery opportunities the second or third time you see them. 

One remedy for decreasing motivation due to lack of mastery is adding more challenges to create a new learning curve such as adding a new responsibility or role or changing perspective. Use caution when changing roles in order to add challenge, that original role may be a connection to the purpose that drew a person to the project. The key to adding new responsibilities or changing perspective is that there is enough ability and support to make the new task to master in the realm of possibly achievable. A temporary shift in role or perspective or a short term assignment with structured reflection can also refire the intrinsic motivation of mastery. 

Another alternative to adding or changing challenge is engaging in a more reflective mastery process. We don’t always appreciate the expertise we’ve developed over time and a reflective practice can help elucidate the mastery that has been achieved. Give yourself time to look back to the beginning of the project and compare the skills, knowledge and discomfort of that time to the present moment. What do you know now that you didn’t know then? What can you do now (and to what ability level) that you couldn’t then? Look for ways to objectively quantify any observable growth/change. Being able to say “I’m better at XYZ now” is not nearly as good as “I can do 20% more of XYZ now” or “I can finish XYZ with a 5% error rate now when it had a 30% error rate in the beginning.” Go beyond your obvious areas of responsibility and reflect on progress in supporting skills or tasks related to your primary goals. Deep reflection is often guided by “why” and “how” questions. Look for root causes and reasons by questioning your assumptions and asking “why?” of the superficial answers you find. The practice of reflection on progress/mastery development can create a framework for quantifying future progress. It may also bring to light areas where progress is lacking so you can redirect energy, focus training or refine systems. If you’ve hit a slow motivation point some long view retrospective reflection can bring out the mastery that has been achieved even if the project is incomplete. 

Keeping the motivating effect of mastery alive means instituting a practice of more frequent reflection and measurement of skills/expertise. Pulling learning from both successful and unsuccessful experiences is crucial to developing the intrinsic motivation of mastery. Bring the mind of a scientist to your failures. Instead of summing up your learning with, “I learned to not try that again” look deeper into what are the weak points in your process, systems, skill level, etc.. What can you measure that is obvious and less obvious to chart progress? What can you reflect on daily, weekly, monthly to see growth and development? Setting areas to focus your attention and timelines for reflection can provide a framework for seeing your mastery develop more clearly and reigniting motivation more elegantly. 

Engaging in a reflective practice when the motivation of mastery is low requires some intentional choices. This choice and intention can in itself be motivating. Stay tuned for Part Three of Reigniting Motivation: Choice.