Mastery is the desire to get better at the things we do.
It’s devotion to craft, the need for progress, the urge to continually improve.
Humans love nothing more than stacking little victories on top of one another.
Neurochemically, these victories produce dopamine.
In the past, scientists used to believe that dopamine was simply a “reward drug”.
Meaning, this neurochemical showed up after we accomplished a goal, as a way of reinforcing goal attainment.
We now know that dopamine is actually the brain’s way of encouraging us to act—The chemical doesn’t show up after we take a risk, to reward our risk-taking.
Rather, it arrives right before we take that risk, to encourage our risk-taking.
In other words, dopamine is the biological basis of exploration and innovation.
When we work hard toward an important goal—that is, when we pursue mastery—dopamine levels spike.
But the real victory is a series of these spikes, day after day after day.
Emotionally, this series feels like momentum, which many peak performers describe as their favorite sensation.
“The single biggest motivator,” explains author Dan Pink in Drive, “by far, [is] making progress in meaningful work.”
Of course, the opposite is also true: when progress is missing, the cost is steep. The sensation of being stuck in the mud, wheels spinning and not getting anywhere, is the single largest drain on motivation that scientists have discovered.
If momentum is a peak performer’s favorite feeling, then lack of momentum is their least favorite.
Yet, it’s almost impossible to talk about mastery, momentum, and why this driver may be our “single biggest motivator” without discussing flow.
This is where curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy, and mastery come back into the story.
Our five most powerful intrinsic drivers do double duty as flow triggers.
All five of these motivators can drive dopamine into our system. Many of them do the same for norepinephrine. And when all five are all properly aligned, they lower cognitive load as well.
When we get this motivational stack right, the weight lifts. Now, we have way more energy to attack the task at hand and a higher chance of getting into flow along the way.
Even better, almost all of this happens automatically.
When we’re curious, passionate, and purposeful, cognitive load lightens and dopamine and norepinephrine flow into our system. The same is true for autonomy.
However, this is not true for mastery.
While curiosity, passion, purpose, and autonomy alter our neurobiology automatically, both increasing drive and—as a result of the changes in neurochemistry that produce that increase in drive—increase our chance of getting into flow…
Mastery requires some additional fine-tuning.
As a flow trigger, mastery is referred to as the “challenge-skills balance.”
The idea is relatively straightforward: Flow follows focus, and we pay the most attention to the task at hand, when the challenge of that task slightly exceeds our skill set. We want to stretch, but not snap.
When we are pushing on our talents and advancing our abilities, we are walking the path to mastery—and the brain notices.
It rewards this effort with dopamine. And because dopamine enhances focus even more, this increases our chances of getting into flow, and the cycle continues.
This translates into some extremely practical advice.
To really harness mastery as a motivator, take the 15 percent of your life that you’ve carved out for yourself—call it your autonomy time— and spend it pushing on that challenge-skills balance, trying to get a little better at something that’s aligned with curiosity, passion, and purpose.
Start chasing the high of incremental improvement.
Get hooked on the dopamine loop of advancement. Try to get a little better today, try to get a little better tomorrow.