RAMPS – Mastery is Opportunity to Grow

Part [part not set] of 15 in the series RAMPS

RAMPS: M is for Mastery, the sense that my work is actively helping me grow, along some dimension I value.

When my motivational spectrum calls for a high degree of mastery, I do my best work when it is just a little over my head.

People sometimes confuse the drive for mastery with a drive to know everything. But it’s not the knowing, per se. It’s not catching the skill, it’s chasing the skill.

My own spectrum rates mastery the highest, 9 on the scale of 10 for me. I am never more driven than when I’ve got some challenge I think I can do but I’m not sure I can do.

I’ve a memory of my young friend Brian, he must have been five years old or so. He was learning something — I’ve no recollection what — some skill that seems urgent when you’re five, something art-y I think.

And the expressions tumbling out of him as he faced his challenge will stay with me forever. He was by turns, ferociously determined, intently focused. There were flashes of aha! Then as he closed on the goal, he became so excited he could barely sit still and finish.

It seemed to me to be the very apotheosis of someone whose drive for mastery pushed all other possible activities to the periphery, and gave him so much juice he could barely contain himself.

(Brian, by the way, is in his mid-twenties now, and is a valuable part of the team I rely on to keep my company a going concern.)

So the mastery angle, the part where I know that as I am doing some X that I’m also growing along some dimension I value, can be a critical motivational force for people. For me, to name one.

There’s a point or two I want to make as we think about mastery. If we over-simplify it, we can lose opportunities to utilize it.

Point: There’s a distinction between "doing some X" and "growing along some dimension I value".

That is, I can do X that is valuable for my org and not for me, as long as while I’m doing it, I am growing in ways that aren’t valuable for my org but are for me.

I can teach classes in my org about, pick something arbitrary, ‘how to use junit", which my org values. But I maybe could care less about getting everyone to use junit. What I like is that I get to grow myself as a teacher.

Our motivations, mine and the org, are different, but it doesn’t much matter as long as they’re compatible. I like getting better at teaching. They like that I’m teaching junit. And there ya go, we have a winner!

Point: The world is not quite so linear that either my org or myself knows for sure what the present or future value of the skills I’m acquiring might be.

Think about how many times you learned something in one place, without particularly valuing it as a skill even, then later you realize that you actually know how to do something others need that is really important.

It pays three ways for orgs to encourage mastery in their mastery-driven people. First, there’s what the org knows it values. Second, there’s what the org later discovers it values. And of course, third, there’s the intrinsic value of working with creative & energized workers.

Point: Mastery isn’t usually about any absolute standard of excellence.

That’s confusing, because as a drive one thinks it means that the mastery-driven person will only be happy when she’s a master. Actually, she’ll be delighted just to be getting better than she was.

A dozen years ago, Virginia, who is a gifted artist and a master teacher, gave me a bunch of drawing supplies, some books & videos, and the strong encouragement that I could learn to draw. So I jumped in, and spent about three months on it.

The results, I tell you, were spectacular! In 3 short months, I went from drawing like a four-year-old to drawing as well as any not-particularly-talented sixth-grader on earth.

Talk about high on life. It was so exciting to go from "very bad" to "not really very good at all"!

Point: Learning itself is a complex of practice, skill, habit, and attitude, and as such it brings value even across seemingly unrelated domains.

Learning to make shelves makes me a better learner, which is just as useful when I’m learning to make websites.

Think about what we do when we’re learning. We practice. We ask questions. We discover failure paths. We surf for videos. We override our fear. We study. We experiment.

Every one of those things is as applicable to learning French as it is to learning Excel.

So, mastery, a sense of myself growing, is one of the bands in people’s motivational spectrum, and it’s a particularly important one in our trade: many of us self-selected for the trade precisely because the trade is such an incredible festival of learning opportunities.

We’ll talk soon about ways to affect those of us who rate mastery so highly in our spectrums.

Meanwhile, it’s Sunday afternoon, surprisingly warm, and I’ve got the doors open and am going to keep on learning the computer game I’m playing.

Have a warm open-door learning day!

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