As I've aged I've come to a realisation about life. Whilst we're often led to believe that success is something that we can control and that if we follow a certain path it is inevitable, the reality is that it is often something outside of our control. Sure we can do our best and control the things within our sphere of influence, but a great many external factors influence whether we succeed or not. Therefore it is better for my mental and emotional wellbeing if I focus less on winning and more on doing my best. Doing my best, and learning from my experiences, is key to continuous improvement, and growing offers greater satisfaction than winning.
Some new research from Stanford takes an interesting view on this issue. The research looks at how such an attitude can be fostered and maintained. It suggests that being in an environment that emphasises learning for the sake of learning is best as this dampens any concerns about beating others and improves the intrinsic thrill you get from learning new things.
“The study suggests that, once this goal orientation has been fostered and reinforced, the adaptive patterns of motivation endure,” says Stanford University psychologist Paul O’Keefe, a postdoctoral fellow. “It suggests that this goal orientation can survive in a variety of different climates.”
Typically there are two types of goal orientation. Some people like to focus on mastery, whilst others focus on performance. A mastery orientation focuses on learning and improvement, ie things that we control about ourselves. Performance orientation by contrast places our performance relative to others.
There is a general agreement that a mastery orientation allows us greater wellbeing as it provides us with qualities such as perseverance, a desire to learn and a wish to seek out new challenges.
A performance orientation by contrast can make us anxious and stressed if the job promotions don't come our way.
“We know a mastery environment is great. We know mastery goals are great. Study after study shows this,” O’Keefe says. “So what we wanted to examine was how a purely mastery-oriented environment affected goal orientations and whether these changes would endure when people returned to less ideal learning environments.”
They found that when people were placed in a mastery focused environment, they began to adopt a mastery orientation. Interestingly though they maintained that focus even when they were subsequently placed into a performance environment.
“So this seems to suggest there is an enduring effect with exposure to mastery-oriented environments,” O’Keefe says. “People are maintaining these adaptive motivational patterns even when they’re in a different environment that doesn’t readily support a mastery orientation.”
How to create a mastery environment?
Leaders could allow team members to have some choice in what they’re doing, allowing more autonomy, rather than giving orders or micromanaging. Leaders also can structure environments that encourage intellectual risks, rather than punish mistakes. Reducing social comparison and competition can also foster mastery and reduce performance-goal orientations.
“We want to create ideal students, employees and team members. We want people to be doing what they’re doing because they love it,” O’Keefe says. “We realize this isn’t how our society is structured, so any extent to which we can bolster people’s mastery orientation, we think is a giant step in the right direction.”