Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Motivation – The Art of Mastery

(This is the second in a three-part series on motivation.)

Like some of you, I enjoy solving Sudoku puzzles. My first puzzles were so marked up that it’s a wonder I could succeed at all yet alone continue solving them. I quickly developed a system of looking at the puzzle that made solutions seem to jump out of the page without all the markups. Soon, I was cruising through the easy puzzles in record time. I seemed to have mastered the basic concept of solving Sudoku puzzles.

Mastery is what Daniel Pink, author of Drive—The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, believes motivates some people. I work with a number of wildland firefighters who engage in various strength and conditioning programs such as CrossFit and P90X®. These highly driven individuals look forward to their workout, journal their best efforts, and have a mindset that they can get better and better with each attempt. A small bit of friendly competition between individuals and within self adds an extra bit of drive and determination to their quests.

Pink suggests that there are three laws of mastery:
  • Mastery is a mindset.
  • Mastery is a pain.
  • Mastery is an asymptote.

Mastery is a Mindset

According to Pink, “the pursuit of mastery is all in our head.” The way we perceive something determines whether or not mastery is “impossible” or “inevitable.” Take our example above with the fitness workout group. How many times have tried a health or fitness program only to abandon it a short time later? The type of goals you set and how you approach tasks may very well be reasons for your lack of success.

Mastery is a Pain

This past year an adaptation of the movie “True Grit” was released. In the movie, Mattie Ross is determined to capture her father’s killer and hires U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, a man with true grit, to assist her. The journey together isn't an easy one.

According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, grit is “firmness of mind or spirit: unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.” Wildland firefighting is not a profession that fits everyone. If firefighting was easy or fun, everyone would be doing it. It takes true grit to master our trade.

Mastery, according to Pink, also involves flow. I equate flow to those periods when “time flies” and everything seems to run smoothly. Flow allows us to make it through the process when the pain of mastery would otherwise avert our attempt.

Pink provides a great quote by Julius Erving: “Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.” Flow is what keeps us going.

Mastery is an Asymptote

When I began my present job with the wildland fire service, my ultimate goal was to create error-free documents. Every time someone found an error that I missed, I chastised myself. Luckily, I had a mentor who explained to me that if I truly expected every document to be free from error, we would never get one out the door. The closer I got to a project, the harder it was to see error. Not only that, but my brain compensated for some errors.

Pink refers to the nature of mastery as an “asymptote.” He says that we can get very close to mastery, but will never fully realize it. This can be a source of anxiety for some individuals; however, some find “joy in the pursuit more than the realization,” says Pink.

Ponder a few of these questions:

  • Where does flow exist in your life?
  • As a leader, do you know your subordinates well enough to know what brings joy to their work?
  • How can you work with your subordinates to promote flow and mastery?

In our final installment on motivation, we’ll discuss purpose.


Pink, Daniel. (2009). Drive--The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books.

No comments: