Performance or Mastery?

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Performance or mastery? A simple change in perspective can be the difference between success and failure.

Do you think of your goal in terms of doing better than others, or in terms of learning?

The thought of doing better than others can be exciting and motivating. But the thought of doing worse can be unsettling. Distracting, even.

The thought of improving and learning can also be exciting and motivating. So which is better? Improve compared to yourself or do better than others?

“I will get the best reviews out of anyone on my team,” or “I will learn to get my work done faster and better?”

The stakes are larger than a simple re-phrasing would suggest. In one study, those in one group procrastinated 50% less than those in the other.1

One group was guided through writing down a performance goal, the other through writing a mastery goal. Which is the one that did better?

Performance or Mastery?

Performance Mastery 
“I will score the highest in my class”or“I will score higher than on the last test”?
“I will look sexy by losing 5 pounds”or“I will exercise three times a week”?
“I will become the happiest person on the planet”or“I will become 10% happier”?

In this particular study, it was the group with the mastery goal that procrastinated less. Other studies have found similar results. In general, performance goals tend to get over-used. However, each goal type has its own advantages.

How can you know when to use which? Follow these guidelines:

1. If You're Confident and Have a Competitive Spirit, Go For Performance

I've been reading a lot of pop psychology books on motivation recently. A disturbing trend I noticed is a growing tendency to bash competition – to suggest that it saps intrinsic motivation, hurts the development of pro-social behavior, and is generally less effective than other strategies,

People with performance goals tend to use defensive strategies for dealing with failure or rejection, including withdrawing effort, making excuses, and avoiding challenging tasks. People with learning goals tend to use constructive strategies for dealing with failure or rejection, including increasing effort, persisting on difficult tasks, seeking help, and remaining open to information about their mistakes.2

The key word, which I bolded, tends. Sometimes performance goals reduce performance, but not always.

Some of my most positive transformations were driven by competition – by the energizing drive that comes from pushing yourself against the best efforts of others. Without competition, I would know less, have poorer skills, and probably not have made a few of the friendships I did.

It seems like an obvious finding in hindsight, but the truth is that competition can be as energizing as it is draining.

For those with a strong drive to achieve and the confidence to pit their skills against others, competition and performance goals are motivating. The thought of messing up and looking bad is hardly given any consideration – the most effort is focused on how to do better.

However, for many, performance goals provoke feelings of anxiety and encourage avoidance behavior.

There are other considerations to keep in mind, but this one is the most important. Does thinking of going head-on against your peers or friends to lose weight or snag more sales excite you, or does it worry you? If it excites you, don't waste this potential source of motivation.

If it worries you, a mastery orientation may be better suited towards helping you achieve your goal.

In two studies, those who were told to create a performance goal but disliked competition ended up performing more poorly than those who disliked competition but were told to create a mastery goal. They experienced more worry and anxiety, which translated into procrastination.3

Your preference makes all the difference.

 2. If You've Failed Before, Focus On Learning

There are two aspects to this. First, if you've failed before, you'll probably pursue the goal with less enthusiasm. After all, you've already failed once.

I get amazed every time my mom talks about how she wants to lose weight. After every failure, she seems to find new sources of motivation. But her excitement isn't as large as it once was. The failures are taking their toll.

Like a reset button, a change in perspective can help. Instead of focusing on trying to lose those 5 pounds again, something with which she may or may not succeed, she set a mastery goal –  something which, hopefully, will provoke more excitement and less anxiety. Specifically, she set a goal to build the physical endurance to be able to go running three times a week.

But there's a second, more important reason that if you've failed before, a performance goal may not be the best idea. Repeated failure indicates a lack of preparation – that some critical skill or combination of skills are missing. Focus on building up those skills, and performance will take care of itself.

3. If You're Anxious, Take Things One at a Time

I'm naturally competitive, but the thought of my first ballroom dancing competition struck me cold. I was going to look like a fool.

Did that desire to avoid looking like a fool motivate me? Sure.

But once I stopped thinking about the competition and the dozens of people who would be laughing at me, and started focusing on mastering certain individual skills, the anxiety faded and an even stronger source of motivation arose. I wanted to be able to make those movements, gracefully. As I made progress, I felt pride in my growing ability.

Once I got better and gained a little confidence, I switched back, from mastery to performance, from focusing on simply improving to winning. In this case, on getting 3rd place or higher.

The thought of being on the dance floor no longer terrified me – in fact, it did the opposite, it energizing and motivated.

But I had to take things one step at a time.

Performance or Mastery?

So, which goal type do you think better suits your goal? Which will help you find happiness?

Performance – focusing on demonstrating competence, or mastery – focusing on improving your skill level?

Share your thoughts on performance vs mastery in the comments below.

Finally, one proven way to improve your happiness and life satisfaction is to focus on goals that truly matter. To get started, check out this FREE printable worksheet and a step-by-step process that will help you set effective SMART goals.

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1 thought on “Performance or Mastery?”

  1. This is a very interesting twist taking a look at what motivates us. I found it particularly fascinating that people with the mastery goal procrastinated less. All I can add is my personal experience. I’ve been able to go to the gym consistently for several years which has led me to be in really good shape. I’ve never set specific performance goals. However, I have noticed that those who set performance goals tend to get discouraged and quit. Like I said, that’s just what I’ve noticed.

    It can be useful to switch between the two sides. See what works best and then change when necessary. Experimenting like that can be really useful. When you find that motivation that gets you excited, you’ll be more likely to reach your goals.


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