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The mindset of mastery: what we believe affects what we achieve

Mark Cuban


George Benson is considered to be the world’s greatest guitarist but to this day, he practices for 2 hours every day. Tiger Woods, the greatest golfer of all time, always said that he must get better, he said it when he was an armature, he said at the end of his finest season. Ernest Hemingway, would write every day. All these are examples of people who put in the magnanimous effort and time to get to where they wanted to be with their pursuits. They reached the point of mastery, but not even they believed it, they still wanted to be better. As much as it may seem like its plain old time and effort, recent research by a Lady named Carol Dweck has begun to shed some light on what it takes to become good at something.

Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, has been studying motivation and achievement in children and young adults for nearly forty years, making her a superstar in contemporary behavioral science. Dweck’s signature insight is that what people believe shapes what people achieve. Dweck proposes two theories when it comes to mastery, entity theory and incremental theory. Entity theorists have what is called a fixed mindset, they believe that some people are good at things and they’re not. Incremental theorists believe the opposite, they have it in their minds that so long as they try hard enough they should improve. Growth mindsets are more like body building, wanna get stronger? Start pumping iron. The moment you see something hard but somehow find it in yourself to say that you can do it and go ahead to try, you’re adapting a growth mindset. For people with fixed mindsets, intelligence is a fixed quantity everything they do becomes a measure of what they have.

Fixed mindset and growth based mindsets manifest themselves in what Dweck calls performance goals and learning goals. Getting an A in English is a performance goal; learning to speak English is a learning goal. Both goals can lead to significant achievement but only one can lead to mastery. It is no wonder that its only in Kenya where students get As in languages they can’t speak.

The fixed mindset is truly a sweet one in the short term but is quite detrimental to institutions and individuals in the long term. This is mostly because the growth based mindset that a lot of successful endeavors require come with some extra sauce in the pudding, failure. A lot of people don’t realize that sucking at something is part of the process of being good at something. Michael Jordan failed in his first try out for his basketball team, at the end of the practice he locked himself up in his room and cried, fast forward 20 years later… Various studies have shown that people who are at the pinnacle of their industries have spend a considerable amount of time failing, failing and failing again until they got things right. Of course this wasn’t any ordinary haphazard failure, it was the type of failure that yielded insight onto the best route towards success, failure resulting from what they call deliberate practice.


Deliberate practice

Rugby legend Johnny Wilkinson, recently retired, some might argue that if Brian O’driscall didn’t exist he would have been the greatest player of his generation. Wilkinson may have been famous for his kicking but it’s the amount of deliberate obsessive practice behind the world cup winning kicking that made him infamous. Just like Tiger Woods and George Benson, he simply knew one thing, he had to get better with each trial. Wilkinson’s obsession may have caused him a few psychological problems but for such cases Carol Dweck says


“Figure out for yourself what you want to be really good at, know that you’ll never really satisfy yourself that you’ve made it, and accept that that’s okay.”


Somewhere towards the twilight years of Wilkinson’s career he seemed to have come to terms with this aspect of mastery and a certain form of maturity emerged from his play.

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Deliberate practice consists of a lifelong effort to try and improve in a specific domain. Deliberate practice isn’t beating a drum every day or shooting a few hoops for some minutes every other day, it’s purposeful, it’s focused and in most cases it’s utterly frustrating. Daniel H. Pink in his book: Drive the surprising truth about what motivates us summarizes deliberate practice as follows:

johnny wilkinson rugby

“• Remember that deliberate practice has one objective: to improve performance.People who play tennis once a week for years don’t get any better if they do the same thing each time,” Ericsson has said. “Deliberate practice is about changing your performance, setting new goals and straining yourself to reach a bit higher each time.”

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition matters. Basketball greats don’t shoot ten free throws at the end of team practice; they shoot five hundred.

Seek constant, critical feedback. If you don’t know how you’re doing, you won’t know what to improve.

Focus ruthlessly on where you need help. While many of us work on what we’re already good at those who get better work on their weaknesses.

Prepare for the process to be mentally and physically exhausting. That’s why so few people commit to it, but that’s why it works.


As you can see from the excerpt entering a specific task knowing that you are going in to achieve this specific goal and  that you can envision whatever it is you’ll be better at by the time you’re done with it is a good bet to make with yourself. A good example is Rovio. Rovio is the company that gave us the hugely successful Angry Birds franchise.

Before hitting success with Angry Birds, Rovio tried a staggering 51 times before they eventually learnt how to make the perfect casual game, constantly correcting and iterating along the way. The 51 trials were focused, the 51 trials were purposeful and they definitely were painful, Rovio was facing bankruptcy at the time of the release of Angry Birds.

Mastery is elusive, mastery is joyous, mastery is pain, mastery is pleasant. But in order to experience all this, one must put in the necessary effort required to get to a certain level. Effort gives meaning to life but when fuelled by the right mindset can bring about something special with our endeavors. Carol Dweck in her book mindset says:

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“The most basic of our abilities are 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.”

However, despite all this insight into mastery I pose one contradictory thought, in an age where industries can disappear overnight, pursuit of mastery in some industries that are prone to disruption could lead to some serious heartache and despair and could leave you wondering why you set out on this path in the first place. It’s very easy for the learned to find themselves equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.


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