The Master Motivator

For most of my adult life I have been fascinated by the idea of motivation.  In fact, my doctoral work in educational psychology, at the University of Albany in New York, was focused on “learning and motivation.”  I wanted to know what made people want to do things and how did they learn to do them. 

Recently, I read a very pragmatic book about workplace motivation: Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  He says that research points to three big motivators: autonomy, mastery and purpose.  I’ve memorized them by using the acronym: AMP.  These three things (Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose) get us “amped” for action and achievement.

However, I think that just ONE of these three is really the key to high achievement.  Certainly all three are powerful motivators for taking action.  We all want to gain AUTONOMY: the freedom to do what we want to do, when we want to do it and in the way we chose to do it.  And, most of us look to follow a higher PURPOSE: to make a difference for and in the lives of others – friends, loved ones, colleagues, clients and the world we live in.

But, the key to high achievement, in my experience, is the middle one: MASTERY.  First, learning to master new skills, knowledge and techniques is inherently motivating. But even more important, mastery of the right things is what really leads to the highest achievements – in the arts, in athletics, in scholarship, in the professions and in business.  Those who make the greatest contributions must master the fundamental skills.  They must do it at the beginning and they must keep doing it along the way – continuing their mastery to an ever higher level.

In the end, if someone is not motivated by MASTERY, they may not fully gain AUTONOMY or fulfill their PURPOSE.  The willingness to put in the work, do the time, invest the effort and endure the failures on the path to mastery – that is what makes the biggest difference.  It’s walking the talk, putting rubber on the road, paying your dues and staying the course.

In fact, it is MASTERY that tells us what we are truly meant to do.  When we love the learning, the practice, the rehearsals and the feedback, we know we are in our “home zone,” our “sweet spot,” our “wheelhouse.”  If we’re bored with the repetition or tired of the labor – if we give up on the effort; we know that we are not doing that which is our true calling. 

We are best served when we seek those endeavors where we enjoy the work, the constant repetition and the slow but steady progress. 

That is the path to MASTERY – that is the big, sustaining motivator with big, long-term payoffs!


  1. Jan Nevins says:

    I can attest to your premise by personal experience. I love what I do now and constantly strive to improve and learn. It doesn’t feel like work and I’m very happy!

  2. I confess I ONLY opened this link because it was a book recommendation. With so much on the market now, I read books that come highly recommended. I appreciate your succinct synopsis and will get the book. It hit a positive chord with me. What I DO want is autonomy and purpose. Mastery is the method.

    Perhaps you should change your acronym to MAP since Mastery is most important for you?

  3. Norma Vranken says:

    Hey Dave – you are an inspiration as always. My 2008 failure has brought nothing but good things my way. Set backs happen and we have a wide choice of reactions. My passion for my work is unchanged and there is still a purpose. Life is good!

  4. Thanks for sharing the great perspective Dave! The mastery component also breeds comfort and confidence in our activities which I believe helps to fuel our motivation. I appreciate your clarity around determining if what we are doing is our “true calling”. Great post!

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