Mastery Goals and Working Out Our Salvation

Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals is a wonderfully interesting book by Heidi Grant Halvorson. A social psychologist, she summarizes the social psychological literature on goal setting with an eye toward applying it to day-to-day life.

Grant Halvorson distinguishes between “performance” goals and “mastery” goals. Performance goals are goals in which we prove our abilities in an area, for example getting an “A” in class or running a marathon in a given time. These goals tend to be tied to our sense of self-worth and they have an all-or-nothing quality, for either you accomplish them or you don’t.

It turns out that this type of goal—which up until now has characterized the most of my own personal goals—works well with activities that aren’t too difficult or complex, but when things get difficult, people may conclude that they don’t have the ability to meet the goal and give up. Presumably most New Year’s resolutions are cast as performance goals, which might explain their common futility.

In contrast are mastery goals. Here the goal is stated in terms of developing skills or ability. For example, a student might set a goal of constantly improving in their courses or a runner might aim to always run faster. This type of goal puts the focus on cultivating progress, rather than expressing existing competence, and this offers a distinctive advantage in tough times. Namely, with these types of goals, people explain difficulties in obtaining goals more as a lack of effort, rather than innate inability, and so they are more included to work hard when they meet obstacles. So, mastery goals provide resilience, and, in addition, they have been found to lessen depression.

So, in Grant Halvorson’s terms, “the bottom line is, whenever possible, turn your goals from being good to getting better”… focus on expanding your skills and taking on new challenges.”

This finding has many implications, and over the coming weeks I will be reframing my own goals to focus on mastery (though I do wonder if combining performance and mastery goals is even better).

It’s interesting the ways that this distinction plays upon spiritual matters. For example, “progress not perfection” is a cornerstone belief of twelve-step programs, a mindset that might help explain their effectiveness, for the person in recovery faces no end of difficulties.

Also, there is “mastery” language in the Bible. Philippians 2:12 writes “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” a verse that speaks of the progress and development nature of salvation.

 

Any thoughts about other implications of mastery goals?


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