Dan Pink’s Three Laws of Mastery

May 12, 2011

I’ve just finished reading Drive, Dan Pink’s thought-provoking and inspiring book on motivation and what “drives” us. Like A Whole New Mind,  his ideas are ones that can help everyone think differently about how we work and live.  In Drive, he explores the truth behind what motivates us, and says that for the 21st century we have to upgrade to “autonomy, mastery and purpose.”  Autonomy, mastery and purpose are the three elements, the three ingredients that will light the fire under us and motivate us ahead.  If we’ve got these three elements as part of our work we’ll feel satisfied and more connected to what we do.

Autonomy is the desire to direct our own lives.
Mastery is the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
Purpose is the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

As musicians we are very fortunate to operate between these three elements since our work requires it of us.  Artists and athletes, and anyone who hones a particular skill or craft with a lot of alone time and direction over their creative process have the good fortune of having already upgraded, so to speak.

The one element that really spoke to me was Mastery.  Pink describes three laws of mastery which I’ll go into more below. Mastery begins with “flow”, when our challenges are matched with our abilities and we are so in the moment we can lose track of time.  But flow doesn’t guarantee mastery. Pink writes, “…the two concepts operate on different horizons of time.  One happens in a moment; the other unfolds over months, years, sometimes decades.  You and I each might reach flow tomorrow morning–but neither one of us will achieve mastery overnight.”

In fact, we now know that it takes 10 years of hard work to even think about mastering something.  One of the laws of mastery is Mastery is a Pain, because it will take a lot of hard work and effort to get to where we want to go.  In particular if have “grit”, defined as “perseverance and passion for long term goals”, we’re on the right track.  And long term goals is, well, long….10 years or more to reach the level of mastery.  So innate talent is taking a backseat to lots of hard work and all-consuming effort.  And having the grit to keep at it (repetition in our practice until it’s perfect) will also get us there.

Another law is Mastery is a Mindset, drawing from the work of Carol Dweck.  Dweck is a psychology professor who has been studying motivation and achievement in kids and young adults for 40 years.  She believes that the kind of mindset we have can determine whether or not we succeed at what we do.

From her website:

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

If we can learn how to have a growth mindset (or if we’re lucky enough to already be more inclined in this direction) then mastery is possible.  If we stick to a fixed mindset we are working against ourselves and we’re less likely to achieve what we want.  If we believe that yes we can play that really difficult passage, we’ll then be motivated to try to figure how to get it under our fingers.  But we first have to think that we can play it.

The last law is the one that for me is the most compelling, and, at the same time the one that probably “drives” most of us along (as well as driving us mad).  It’s Mastery is an Asymptote.  It’s a what?  It’s an asymptote.

An asymptote is a straight line that a curve approaches but never quite reaches. I wasn’t big into algebra, which Dan Pink says we need here along with a little art history.  But without either algebra or art history I get it.  I’ll always be pursuing mastery and never possibly getting to an arriving point.  As Pink says, “the mastery asymptote is a source of frustration.  Why reach for something you can never fully attain?  But it’s also a source of allure.  Why not reach for it?  The joy is in the pursuit more than the realization.  In the end, mastery attracts precisely because mastery eludes.”

So mastering your instrument or becoming the best golf player, potter or painter is in fact a pain (aren’t you glad to get that validation!), it’s a mindset (so get your positive thinking caps on) and we’ll be in hot pursuit without a clear finish in sight.  It’s enough to DRIVE you crazy.  But if we do the thing we love, by pursuing our blue flame (Passion + Ability = Blue Flame) then we’ll enjoy the ride much, much more.  More on the blue flame, next time.  In the meantime check out some related articles and sites:

Dan Pink



The Only Way to Become Amazingly Great at Something


Who wants to be a genius?


Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin


Carol Dweck, test your mindset online


Going Forward (Blue Flame)


Keith Ferrazzi (Blue Flame)


Jack Canfield’s The Success Principles


Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers


4 Responses to “Dan Pink’s Three Laws of Mastery”

  1. […] Dan Pink’s Three Laws of Mastery (innovativeperformanceandpedagogy.wordpress.com) […]

  2. MPNEngaged Says:

    Reblogged this on mpnENGAGED and commented:
    Keep going back to this!

  3. […] Dan Pink’s Three Laws of Mastery. […]

  4. […] later I encountered other perspectives on this. Daniel Pink’s  ”Drive” and Ken Robinson ‘s “The Element” are two books which explore this […]

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