I kicked off 2019 by attending a five-day workshop called Come Alive at The Haven Institute on Gabriola Island on Canada’s west coast. Facilitated by my good friend David Raithby and his colleague, Linda Nicholls, the experience was filled with tremendous insights, reminders, and discoveries that supported my own authentic journey. It reinforced my reflections and renewed my vision for my life and work.
One of the significant take-aways from the retreat was the understanding of the difference between achievement and mastery.From very early in life we experience them both and often confuse the two. While they appear to be similar, the motive and results of each are distinct. Achievement, as defined here, is the attainment of a goal based on external motivators, such as recognition, approval, money, appreciation, status, or the opinion that others have of us. We work hard in school to get good grades. We build a successful business for the profit and prominence it promises. We lose weight so we’ll look good for the reunion. In an achievement-oriented world, one’s value is measured by external results, such as income, appearance, fashion, numbers of likes on social media, and how we compare with others.
Mastery, on the other hand, is about internal motivation. We experience mastery when we take our first steps, learn to tie our shoelaces, or overcome a difficulty. With mastery we experience the reward of curiosity and discovery, wonder and fulfillment. With mastery, we feel deep satisfaction as our world expands and we uncover new capacities. Rather than being externally motivated, mastery is inspired by an inner yearning to realize our potential and express who we are meant to be. As parents and teachers, we cultivate mastery by providing a safe learning environment and encouraging support. Rather than focusing on praise, approval, and external rewards, mastery is developed by encouraging children to reflect on their own endeavors, experience their own sense of amazement, and affirm themselves based on their own internal measurement of self-expression and gratification.
Alongside the experiences of mastery, we all experience, to some degree, the pull of achievement and its rewards. While achievement is a worthy aim at particular points in our life, it potentially creates a dependence upon something outside of ourselves that can blind us to the sustaining fulfillment of mastery. This reliance on external validation as a motivator is expressed when students are driven by grades rather than the love of learning, businesses are motivated by making a buck rather than making a difference, and success is motivated by an unquenchable hunger for fame and fortune. When a person’s worth becomes dependent on societal validation, a cycle of self-criticism, burnout, anxiety, despair, and ultimate emptiness results.
Being all too familiar with the barrenness of achievement motivated by the drive for approval and status, I am now emerging into a stage of life where achievement is being replaced by mastery. It’s fulfilling, less stressful, and a whole lot more enjoyable when you build a business based on self-expression and contribution than one driven by notoriety, the praise of others, and success defined by the marketplace. If you consider what you want to be said of you at your funeral, you will find your own definition of a life well-lived and discover that the people you seek approval from won’t even be at your funeral!
Twenty-three centuries ago, Aristotle knew something about the difference between achievement and mastery when he distinguished between what he termed “external goods,” such as prosperity, property, power, personal advancement and reputation, and “inner goods,” or “goods of the soul,” including fortitude, temperance, justice, compassion, and wisdom. He taught that the good life is not one of consumption, but one of the flourishing of these virtues.
Five suggestions for bringing more mastery into your life and living authentically:
1. Create a regular habit to pause and take a deep breath. S-l-o-w d-o-w-n and make room to pay attention to the voice within. Connecting to your breath opens you to connect with the present moment. While goals are important, life is not lived in some distant future. Life is lived now. The present moment is where meaning lies.
2. Take an honest inventory of what drives the actions in your life.Ask yourself some tough questions: What motivates you? How dependent are you on the validation and approval of others to define you? Whose voices are driving your life? What matters to you: achievement or mastery? “external goods” or “internal goods?” Take time to notice the impact that your motives are having on the quality of your life, your relationships, your health, and your leadership.
3.Listen to your body. Your body knows. I came down with a cold after the holidays. I don’t like to take cold medicine. I like to hear the symptoms clearly and listen accordingly. Paradoxically, I think it’s healthy to get sick periodically as it helps reset your immune system and gets your attention if you listen to what it’s trying to tell you. Perhaps the same thing could be said for pain. I stayed home for a couple days, relaxed, and used the time for some reflection. It went quickly and informed me to let go of some expectations I had of myself that were externally driven and not aligned with my authentic self. If you don’t listen to a cold and take care of it, it will turn into bronchitis; if you don’t listen to bronchitis it will turn into pneumonia; if you don’t listen to pneumonia….
4.Clarify your intentions. You may find that nothing needs changing in your life except how you approach your life. There’s nothing inherently wrong, for example, with having a goal to build a financially successful company. But living authentically requires a careful examination of your intentions. If you are depending on the success of your business to give you your worth and your place in the world, you’ll likely find it will never be enough. If, however, you are building a business in order to express yourself, help others grow, and bring value to the world, the journey can be far more meaningful and fulfilling.
5. Take stock of your relationships. Reflect on the people that are in your life right now and where you might need support to live with greater mastery. If you want a fulfilling life, hang out with people who will inspire and support you to be who you are. Coaches and mentors can be helpful to guide you to your own truth and your voice. Mastery, like authenticity, is a lonely journey but it can’t be done alone.
I’d love to hear your experience, perspective, and reflections on the difference between achievement and mastery, and what these insights mean to you.