Career Advice: Coaching By Cath

Drive Your Career Development: Set The Right Mastery Goals
01/06/2012

In our high-change world, those who are most successful in their careers are the people who are committed to developing themselves by giving themselves goals or new levels of mastery to reach for. They don't wait for their annual performance review and their boss to tell them where they need to grow - they're committed to life-long self-directed learning and they're deciding and driving their own development directions...

A key to successful self-directed learning though, is in setting the right mastery goals. When you set yourself a goal that's too easy, you're not stimulated and then motivation and performance are poor or average at best. When you set a goal that's too difficult, this raises your anxiety and can create stress and distress, which reduces the quality of your thinking and performance. The sweet spot happens when you set a goal that's stretching your boundaries and demanding that you learn and grow, but also feels manageable.

When you feel like the situation is challenging but you believe you have the resources to deal with it, then this triggers the eustress response, which causes biological changes that improve the quality of your thinking and performance - and that's when you learn best and develop mastery. Csikszentmihalyi studied the flow experience - that space where you're "in the zone" and it feels like you're able to perform accurately, easily and effortlessly without much conscious thought. He found that one of the factors that created flow was when people were tackling learning goals that were within this sweet zone where the challenge was "just right." So if you want to trigger flow experiences, feel naturally motivated and perform your best, then set yourself learning goals that challenge you just enough to trigger both anxiety and excitement. And then, as you make progress, to keep hitting that sweet spot, keep adjusting those goals to challenge yourself a little further all the time.

Set Your Mastery Goals:
Take a moment now to think of your work, connect with the tasks that facilitate flow, and to set yourself some "just right" learning goals.

1. Start by thinking of the times when you're so involved in what you're doing that you lose track of time.

  • What are you doing when you feel that way?
  • Start with thinking about activities at work that give you the flow experience, and then think of activities outside of work where you get that flow experience. What are you doing when you lose track of time?

Those are the activities that you innately love doing, so they'll be the areas where you'll do best to invest your time and energy when it comes to developing mastery.

2. Next, take some time to set yourself a few learning goals in those tasks that you love doing. Remember that you'll elicit your best thinking and performance if you set learning goals that demand that you grow, and yet also still feel manageable. Aim to set learning goals that give you equal amounts of excitement and fear.

3. Now that you've decided where you'd like to learn more, design a self-directed learning plan for yourself by deciding what sources you'll learn from, what programs or classes you might wish to sign up for, who you'd like to be mentored by, and what other sources of social support and accountability you'll build into your learning program. As you design your program, remember that you'll learn best if you create a program that allows you to learn on three levels:

  • Learning from other people.
  • Learning with other people.
  • Teaching other people.

Make sure you have some learning opportunities where you're learning from other people who've been there, seen it and done it and have a lot more experience and expertise than you. Make sure you also give yourself opportunities to learn with other people who are in a similar place to you - this is often where you'll have the best discussions, unpicking and trying to understand your current challenges. And finally, when you build into your learning program a way to teach what you're learning, then you'll enjoy the motivational impact of giving back and helping others, and you'll also have the big benefit of further solidifying your learnings. For more about setting the right goals to build mastery and other key ways that you can improve your motivation and performance at work, get The Bottom-line on Daniel Pink's Drive.

Author: Cath Duncan

Cath DuncanCath Duncan is a life and leadership coach and CareerJunction's resident Career Coach. Through one-to-one coaching and projects like the Bottom-line Bookclub, Cath helps people learn the Agile Living Strategies for thriving at work in this high-change era.

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