The Pursuit of Mastery

by Francisco Saez

This chapter is a free excerpt from The Pursuit of Mastery.

May 6, 2013

“The desire to do something because you find it deeply satisfying and personally challenging inspires the highest levels of creativity.”

—Teresa Amabile, professor at Harvard University


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May 6, 2013

“The desire to do something because you find it deeply satisfying and personally challenging inspires the highest levels of creativity.”

—Teresa Amabile, professor at Harvard University

The pursuit of mastery—the constant desire to get better and better at something that matters to you—is one of the three forms of behavior that drives people to their highest productivity level. The other two are autonomy and purpose.

Apparently these drives are innate to humans. We want to be better and master what we do. In fact, not having chances to evolve in this regard is one of the main reasons that employees become increasingly less productive and end up abandoning their work.

Mastery—standing out as extremely skillful in a particular field—is essential to making a difference in a world in which most routine tasks are automated or outsourced. Therefore, the odds of success are much higher in people who have a proactive mindset and the desire to come up with and implement their own solutions. You will be interesting to employers and clients only if you are able to solve complex problems.

The importance of mastery doesn’t apply only to the context of work. The pursuit of mastery is also a very powerful force in your personal life, because it gives you a sense of fulfillment. You do not need any special motivation to do what you like, and to do it better and better. The reward is the activity itself.

When what you have to do requires something beyond your current abilities, you may feel frustrated and anxious. When it falls short, you get bored. In both cases, when what you have to do doesn’t fit with what you currently can do, your productivity decreases and your possibilities of getting in “the zone” at work are almost zero.

Keeping in mind these three concepts about mastery will help you persevere in your drive for continuous personal improvement:

  • It’s a state of mind. It is all in your head. If you want it, you can attain it.
  • It takes effort. This is certainly not a bad thing if you think that effort is one of the things that makes life meaningful. You have to be persistent and think about things from the perspective of long-term goals.
  • It is never reached. Okay, this can be frustrating, but only if you’re thinking about your improvement, your work, your goals, and your pursuits narrowly. If you adjust your thinking so that the real reward of what you do lies in the pursuit of mastery itself, then you’ll find great motivation to keep going.
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