Mastery or performance?

I sat back in a creaky wooden chair and thought. Memories of high school flashed through my mind. Back then, achieving high marks in class had always been my priority. I didn’t necessarily try to learn or master the material; I just wanted A’s. It was as if those A’s stood for something—as if they showed I’d mastered the material, when in reality I’d mastered the skill of getting good grades.

Learning wasn’t inherently interesting to me back then. Perhaps that was because I didn’t have much say in what I was studying. Classes were limited and material was forced upon me.

My attitude toward learning started to change when I went to a university. I think it was because I realized that getting educated was a choice—my choice. High school was something we had to attend, but I could no longer use that excuse. I knew I was at college because I wanted to be.

I remember sitting down in front of my college counselor the first week at school. “So what would you like to major in?” he asked me from across the big wooden desk.

“Well,” I said, looking down at the blue sheet of paper he had given me to help plan out my next four years of education. “I’m not sure that I’m going to graduate or get a degree or anything,” I said. “I’m just here to learn.”

His jaw dropped almost to the table as he stared back at me in shock. “You…you what?” He said, trying to collect his thoughts and think of a response.

“Yes,” I said. “I just want to learn.”

I had entered college with the goal of taking classes that were interesting to me and that I could learn from. I wasn’t interested in major requirements or anything like that. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d switched from a performance orientation to one of mastery.

Years later, I slid a green and white Scantron across the desk toward my teacher. Number 2 pencil bubbles were filled in what looked like random patterns. I’d done well, but I knew that I hadn’t aced the test. I wasn’t upset or mad or anything like that. The night before, instead of studying, I’d been writing goals and working on other homework.

When I got home I boiled some tea and sat down with my massive psychology textbook. Even though the midterm was over and we wouldn’t cover that material again, I still wanted to read the chapters that we’d just been tested on. I studied those chapters for many hours, reading, highlighting and taking furious notes in the margins.

It was rather ironic because it was a psychology class about the study of motivation. As I read, I learned about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. As I sat there absorbing information, I realized that I was intrinsically (internally) motivated to master the material, rather than being externally motivated by rewards like grades.

That’s when I realized that I’d become a mastery-oriented student. As the course progressed and I learned more about motivation, I came to develop the deep-seated belief that being a mastery-oriented student is far better than being run and guided by performance.

It seemed to me that mastery students were better able to motivate themselves and actually learned more than their performance-focused peers. I also realized that mastery is a skill that travels with people for their entire lives. Wherever they go, they focus on becoming better, smarter and faster.

Many people would disagree with the idea that mastery-orientation is superior to performance. And rightly so. I’m sure that many students and parents would argue it is more important to get straight A’s than it is to master the material. They might argue that A’s are important for graduate school or future employment.

But I would say that mastery is a way of life. So too, is performance. And if you let grades and raises run your life, you will never achieve anything that satisfies your soul or pushes the world in a new and better direction. Only the brave students who dare to be different and who dare to study and learn on their own terms will be able to look back on their lives and know that they fulfilled their life’s mission and purpose from a motivation that came from within.