1: Author Steven Kotler is a skier.  

“I started skiing when I was five years old and have never stopped,” Steven Kotler writes in The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer. “As a result, every time I head into the mountains, I am making a choice (autonomy) that is aligned with my passion and purpose.”

This week we’ve been exploring the importance of autonomy to drive peak performance. In fact, autonomy is the fourth of five ingredients in what Steven calls the “Full Intrinsic Stack,” along with curiosity, passion, purpose, and today’s topic: mastery.

Steven is on a quest to teach us how we can chase the impossible in our lives. Which is “the long game,” he tells us. Curiosity, passion, and purpose are where we start. But we must also add “autonomy and mastery to our stack,” he notes, Because “both are exceptionally potent drivers, and both are biologically designed to work in conjunction with the previous stack.”

Autonomy is the desire to be in charge of our lives, “the desire for the freedom required to pursue our passion and purpose. It’s the need to steer our own ship,” Steven observes. “Mastery is the next step. It drives us toward expertise; it pushes us to hone the skills we need to achieve our passion and purpose.”

We experience “the pleasure of mastery” as “the the sensation of a job well done,” he writes, “the desire to continually improve the skills needed to pursue that purpose.”

2: Earlier this week, we looked at the research psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan uncovered regarding the power of autonomy and intrinsic motivation.  

After they “discovered the power of autonomy, they next wanted to know if this was our main intrinsic driver or if other factors were equally important,” Steven writes. “Trying to answer this question led them deep into the archives of psychology, where they uncovered a then relatively unknown 1953 paper by Harvard psychologist David McClelland. Titled ‘The Achievement Motive,’ McClelland’s paper has since become one of the most well-cited in the field.”

From that paper, Edward and Richard learned about an additional, powerful intrinsic motivator. Initially, they borrowed David’s term, calling it competence. But today, we know it as mastery: “Mastery is the desire to get better at the things we do,” Steven writes. “It’s devotion to craft, the need for progress, the urge to continually improve.”

How do we pursue mastery? We push ourselves just outside our comfort zone. Our goal? To get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Mastery requires a “challenge-skills balance,” writes Steven. When we practice, we want the task at hand to exceed our skill set just slightly. We want to “stretch, but not snap.”

Which is why when Steven skis, he looks “to do is something that drives me into the challenge-skills sweet spot,” he shares. “I could head into the terrain park and start practicing a new trick, perhaps, or I could find that steep, skinny chute that, on my last trip through, required five turns to ski down, and today I’ll try to ski it in four turns.

“By doing either, I’ve upped the challenge level a little bit, and my brain rewards that risk-taking effort with even more dopamine.”

Curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy, and now mastery creates a neurochemistry cocktail that makes finding the state of flow possible. That’s our ultimate goal.

“Thus, my deep love for skiing gets even deeper, and the next time I head into the mountains, my desire to repeat these actions and try to improve my skills yet again is significantly amplified—with no extra effort required,” Steven writes. “If I do this a few times in a row, what used to require energy and exertion begins to happen automatically.

“Seeking out that challenge-skills sweet spot has become a habit. Now, I’m automatically walking the path toward mastery—which is also the only path that can lead us to the impossible,” he notes.

3: Steven notes that this practice leads to some extremely practical advice: “To really harness mastery as a motivator,” we take the 15 percent of our lives that we’ve carved out for ourselves, “call it our autonomy time,” Steven suggests, “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. And repeat. And repeat.

“If we can align these five major intrinsic motivators,” Steven writes, “the result is amplified motivation and increased flow, which means, on the long road toward impossible, we’ll go farther faster.”

More tomorrow!


Reflection: How much time do I spend in the “challenge skills” sweet spot, pushing myself to exceed my current skill set just slightly? What would be the benefits of doing this more often?   

Action: Start today.

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