November 14, 2020

Mastery And Improvement

I’m a little obsessed with the Netflix Documentary series Cheer. It’s not just because of the mind-bending backflips and throws the athletes execute, but because of their whole approach. To paraphrase Navarro cheerleading’s ice-queen coach Monica, you practice until you get it right, then, you keep going until you can’t get it wrong. That’s mastery. 


There’s a difference between being good at something, and really striving to achieve mastery. Mastery isn’t a result – it’s an approach. It’s a mindset rather than an outcome, focusing on acute and long-term engagement while de-prioritizing transient stuff like belt buckles, medals and recognition. It’s the key to productively channeling your passion in a sustainable way for long-term development. Mastery isn’t a commitment to a single goal, but to a journey with no end. 

Aiming for mastery, rather than settling for short-term results, will make you happier in the short term, and help you reach your long-term potential. Here’s how to adopt a mindset of mastery. 

Internal Motivation

Anyone pursuing a mastery mindset, whether at work or in training, is driven from within. Their primary motivation isn’t an external measure of success like a race or recognition at work. They’re also not driven by appearances or conforming to a peer group or certain social norms. It’s the difference between people who are looking for likes and followers online, and people who are out there grinding, every day, no matter who’s looking. People pursuing mastery are motivated by an internal desire to improve and engage in their passion for its own sake. 

If most of your motivation comes from outside yourself, you will become a slave to results that aren’t under your control. Sometimes, not all goes according to plan on race day or during your big presentation at work. The gap between expectations and reality will lead to distress and dissatisfaction that is a surefire route to burnout. 

It may be simple, but it sure isn’t easy. Especially when the results are good. To work towards more internal motivation, regularly reflect on what you do love about your work or running. Think about why you got into it in the first place. Maybe it was the community, or to spend more time outside. Write those reasons down in a journal, or a post-it note above your desk.  Hold those reasons close and lean on them when you’re tempted to default to external motivation.  

After a tough loss or a big win (or even a promotion at work), give yourself one day to celebrate or grieve the outcome. Stay off UltraSignup.  

Then, get right back to work. No one ever got faster by taking victory laps or sitting on the sidelines. 

Focus On The Process

Goals are gentle guides and celebrations that can steer us towards progress. But, too much focus on a specific goal, especially one that’s outside your full control (like a race outcome) can do more harm than good. Athletes building a mastery mindset should shift focus away from any one particular goal and towards executing the process of general improvement over time. Focus on long-term development, not any one race, or even race season. 

Athletes with a mastery mindset measure themselves not based on whether they accomplish their specific goal, but on how well they stay true to the process. Their self worth isn’t built on external results, but on how they show up, day after day, in work, life and training.  After all, the process is what makes up most of your life. Results are fleeting. The process is every day. 

Don’t Worry About Being The Best

Don’t focus on being the best. Instead, focus on being the best at getting better. Don’t get overly attached to specific goals, and focus instead on improvement itself. When your ultimate goal is to simply get better, every setback, stumble and success is just temporary. You will forever improve, given more time and training. 

If you define yourself by any single moment in time, you’re bound to come up short. Instead, aim to define yourself by an entire body of work and a lifetime of training in service of long-term development. The pursuit isn’t just something you’re aiming for, it becomes what you are. Do you race, or are you a runner?

There will be setbacks and triumphs along the way, but instead of endpoints, setbacks become mere information for us to learn from, not to judge ourselves by. A race didn’t go according to plan? Great! That information helps you improve and refine your process in the long haul. 

Small Setbacks, Big Springboards

Why are workouts and races that go badly as important as ones that go perfectly?

When you fail, your body learns on an innate biological level what it needs to do differently to achieve a different result. We’ve all experienced this when we’ve gone out a little too fast in a race or a workout, then had to reel it back to prevent crashing and burning. While those mistakes aren’t fun, they teach us a valuable lesson. 

If you want a muscle to grow, you must push it until it tears (small tears, but still). Failure sets off a cascade of changes that help you grow to better meet the challenge next time. If you want to succeed in the long term, you need to adjust your mindset to accept a lot of little setbacks. Maybe it’s an injury. Maybe it’s a bad workout or a tough long run here or there. But, when your overall goal is mastery and a commitment to the process, these setbacks will all just become blips in your long-term radar. 

Be Patient

I’m not going to lie. The path to mastery is not easy, and it requires lots of time and commitment. It requires faith and patience! It’s not for the faint of heart. Long-term progression inevitably contains periods of stagnation and boredom. 

I’ll be honest. Training can be a grind. Writing can be a grind. The thing I love most on earth, producing my podcast, is a huge and total grind. I’m able to stick with it because I know that if I accumulate days, and days, and years of hard work, my running or writing or podcasting will be closer to where I want it to be.

We’re hardwired to seek novelty, which is what makes quick fixes and hacks seem so dang appealing. We tend to overemphasize small, new shiny things and incremental gains rather than focusing on what matters most – the fundamentals. Pursuing the path of mastery and sustained passion requires a lot of patience. 

Ignore hacks and shortcuts. Be prepared for speed bumps and setbacks. Be patient with yourself, and be patient with the process. If you’re really committed to a goal, in training or in work, ask yourself, why does it have to happen on a certain timeline? Do you really have to run 100 miles, or reach that next rung on the office ladder this year? Why? 

Chasing your true potential takes years and years. Sometimes, people will develop arbitrary timelines as a method of self-sabotage that protects them from being fully vulnerable and going for their goals in a big way. 

Small steps taken consistently over a long period of time lead to big gains. Start small, dream big. Recruit others to take those steps with you. Enlist your Microcosm Community to help you navigate the choppy waters of true commitment to mastery. 

As the saying goes, the journey is the destination.