Mastery goals: how they motivate and drive performance

Mastery goals- Sydney University

What are mastery goals? 

We set mastery goals when we want improve our skills or knowledge about a specific task or subject. The focus is on acquiring skills, capabilities or knowledge – i.e. improving mastery or competence in a particular area.

Mastery goals vs performance goals

Understanding the distinction between mastery goals and performance goals is an important step on your journey to becoming the best version of yourself. These two types of goals, while both valuable, serve different purposes and are pursued in different ways. Let’s take a closer look.    

Goals Mastery Goals Outcome Goals
Definition Aim to improve one’s own performance and gain task mastery. Reflect the pursuit of achieving a specific outcome or result.
Focus Focus on the process of learning and improving skills. Focus on the end result and achieving a specific outcome.
Orientation Internal orientation, where satisfaction comes from personal improvement and development. External orientation, where satisfaction comes from achieving a particular outcome or result.
Motivation Motivated by increasing knowledge and developing skills. Motivated by achieving a specific outcome or result.
Feedback Feedback is viewed as helpful and informative to improve performance. Feedback is viewed as judgmental and can be demotivating if the outcome is not achieved.
Persistence Persistence is high because the focus is on learning and improving skills. Persistence may be low if the outcome is not achieved or if it takes longer than expected.

So, unlike performance goals, which focus on outcomes, mastery goals (also known as mastery-oriented goals) are about the journey and the learning process itself. It’s about becoming the best you can be in a specific domain. The focus is on yourself and your own improvement, rather than on an external target.

Of course, becoming better at something may enable you to pursue outcome or performance goals better. And that is often why we set mastery goals. Mastery goals benefit performance indirectly by allowing us to acquire skills and experience to perform better.

For example, you may have a performance goal to make an extra $30,000 dollars per year from your website. To do this you need to improve the quality and conversion rates of your sales pages. So you set mastery goals to:

  • Take a sales copywriting course to improve your copy;
  • Learn coding to help you make custom layouts for your pages; and
  • Learn how to use the Adobe Creative tools that will help you create custom images, videos and demos etc.

Why are mastery goals effective? 

Mastery goals work because they motivate people to learn and grow. With a mastery goal, you’re not competing against others. Instead, you are challenging yourself, pushing your own boundaries, and driving your own development. 

Moreover, mastery goals are often associated with intrinsic motivation. You have  your own motives for looking to achieve the goal and you enjoy the process because you are doing it for your own sake, not because someone else is pushing you. Mastery goals are often linked to your overall purpose, which provides the key to the extra motivation.

You are rewarded with the satisfaction of seeing your skills and knowledge expand. 

When to set mastery goals? 

It’s always a good time to set a mastery goal.

As we’ve seen, mastery goals can facilitate the achievement of performance goals, and indeed other goals. So, whether you’re starting a new job, picking up a new hobby, or simply looking to improve your existing skills, mastery goals can guide you. 

Remember, mastery is not about instant success. It’s a long-term commitment. So, if you’re in for the long haul and have the patience to learn and grow steadily, it’s time to set your mastery goal. 

Achieving your mastery goals 

Once you’ve set your goal, how do you ensure you achieve it? First off, keep your focus on learning rather than just winning. Emphasise on getting better every single day. 

Next, break down your goal into smaller, manageable tasks. This makes the journey less daunting and ensures you’re moving forward. 

Lastly, always be open to feedback, adjustment and improvement. Feedback is a critical component of how goals work. Remember, mastery is a continuous process. So, keep learning, keep growing, and keep moving towards your mastery goal.

The science behind mastery goals: how they work and why they matter

Goals have been a fertile ground for research in the field of psychology. We therefore have a solid evidence base from which we can draw solid conclusions about the use and effectiveness of mastery goals. Here are some important examples:

How to set mastery goals: a step-by-step guide

So, now we have established when and why you should set mastery goals, let’s look at how to set up and achieve you mastery goal targets. 

1. Identify your area of focus 

First things first, identify where you want to grow. This could be improving your guitar skills, becoming a master coder, or even perfecting your cooking technique. This could be learning for its own sake, or learning to enable the pursuit of other, more outcome focused gaols in due course.  

2. Set specific, measurable goals 

Once you’ve nailed down your focus area, it’s time to get specific. Instead of saying “I want to get better at producing sales pages”, aim for something like “I want to master sales copywriting by completing [XYZ] course by September”. Measure your progress by progress through the course and noting your increasing proficiency in your copy. 

3. Develop a learning strategy 

Now, go a bit deeper. Set actions about enrolling in the course and dedicating a set amount of time each day to learning. Remember, the key to achievement with mastery goals is consistency and deliberate effort. 

4. Seek feedback and refine your process 

Feedback is a crucial part of the mastery journey. Seek it out from experts or peers in your chosen field. Their insights can help you spot gaps in your knowledge and refine your approach. Try to get guidance and feedback from a mentor or coach who understands what you are trying to do and can give you focused feedback.

5. Remain persistent 

Finally, remember that mastery doesn’t happen overnight. It requires persistence and a willingness to push through challenges. Keep going, even when it feels tough – the reward will be worth it. 

With these steps, you’re on your way to achieving mastery in your chosen field. Remember, the journey towards mastery goals is a marathon, not a sprint. But skills and knowledge acquired are assets for all time.

Read more on Goals and Goal setting

Mastery Goals: References

Heyman, G. D., & Dweck, C. S. (1992). Achievement goals and intrinsic motivation: Their relation and their role in adaptive motivationMotivation and emotion16, 231-247.

Harackiewicz, J. M., Barron, K. E., Carter, S. M., Lehto, A. T., & Elliot, A. J. (1997). Predictors and consequences of achievement goals in the college classroom: Maintaining interest and making the grade. Journal of Personality and Social psychology73(6), 1284.

Harackiewicz, J. M., Barron, K. E., & Elliot, A. J. (1998). Rethinking achievement goals: When are they adaptive for college students and why?. Educational psychologist33(1), 1-21.

Elliott, E. S., & Dweck, C. S. (1988). Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement. Journal of personality and social psychology54(1), 5.

Harackiewicz, J. M., Barron, K. E., Tauer, J. M., Carter, S. M., & Elliot, A. J. (2000). Short-term and long-term consequences of achievement goals: Predicting interest and performance over time. Journal of educational psychology92(2), 316.

Rietzschel, E. F., & Ritter, S. M. (2018). Moving from creativity to innovation. In Individual creativity in the workplace (pp. 3-34). Academic Press.

Komarraju, M., & Dial, C. (2014). Academic identity, self-efficacy, and self-esteem predict self-determined motivation and goals. Learning and Individual Differences32, 1-8.

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