Mastery vs Performance

When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.
— Confucius

I feel the need to make a distinction between a Mastery vs. a Performance Mindset. Why? Read on. God is in the details. 

Let’s lay a foundation first.


Performance (noun)

  1. a musical, dramatic, or other entertainment presented before an audience.

  2. the execution or accomplishment of work, acts, feats, etc.

  3. an action or proceeding of an unusual or spectacular kind

  4. the act of performing.
    Syn: achievement, conduct, work, attainment, completion, enforcement, execution, exploit, feat, fruition.
    Ant: failure, disregard, neglect, unfulfillment, direction, ineffectualness, inefficiency

Mastery (noun):

  1. command or grasp, as of a subject.

  2. superiority or victory

  3. the act of mastering. expert skill or knowledge.

  4. the state of being master; the power of command or control.
    Syn: ability, comprehension, dexterity, familiarity, genius, know-how, knowledge, proficiency, understanding, attainment, power, expertise
    Ant: clumsiness, ignorance, inability, incompetence, ineptness, misinterpretation, mistake, misunderstanding, failure

As I am sure you can tell, I’m all about finding ways to live up to and through my highest potential. A Mastery vs Performance Mindset and understanding this distinction has proven to be huge and has far reaching effects.

In Heidi Grant Halverson book “Succeed”, Heidi makes this distinction and their attributes very clear.

So, what is a Performance Mindset (PM) or as Heidi refers it as “Being Good.”? The essential nature of a performance minded person is to show that they are smart, talented, or how they outperform others. There is also an obsessive focus on achieving a particular outcome. External validation from a teacher (one of my pitfalls), boss or loved one is crucial. All of this striving to achieve is tied very closely to their self-worth.

I know what this is like, it still shows up in my yoga practice. Growing up an accomplished competitive athlete has my ego screaming “Look at me!”, “Look what I can do!” as it waits for recognition. This voice of validation drive me nuts but I acknowledge it, let it go, patiently come back to my intention and center with my breath. I’m confident this desire for validation will someday disappear completely.

So what happens if the Being Good folks fail to achieve their desired result? Research shows that most often they feel worthless, stupid, meaningless, and keep believing that “second place is the first loser.” And then what happens? All of this negative thinking leads to some form of depression which opens the self to all sorts of destructive behaviors and sabotage.

Many “performer” can be high achievers when they have a straight-forward unencumbered target. But as we know, life is nonlinear, it gets messy and obstacles arise constantly creating difficulty for the rigid Being Good. Being strictly goal orientation brings a narrow view, lacks flexibility and the critical thinking required to adapt, overcome and achieve.


“Edison failed 10,000 times before he made the electric light. Do not be discouraged if you fail a few times.”  ~Napoleon Hill

“Mind matters most” ~S.N. Goenka

“There is no failure, it’s all just feedback.” ~Wm Schneider

This is where the master’s of life thrive. People of a Mastery Mentality or “Getting Better,” as Heidi calls this group, value self-improvement and enjoys the process of achievement instead of “performing”.

Becoming the most capable person is at Mastery’s core. Rather than feeling discouraged, playing the victim or looking to blame others when the going gets rough (PM attitude), the Getting Better get excited, greets an obstacle as an opportunity to acquire more knowledge while exploring and imploring helpful tools. Masters diligently get back to work and keep trying while thinking, “I will figure this out.” Due to their flexible attitude, Getter Better peeps often experience more satisfaction of their success and rarely do they make the mistake of giving up too soon.

Tool for Development:

I love this article and its recommendations on how to develop more mental agility and flexibility.
Five Brain Exercises to Foster Flexible Thinking

Or how about a game? Have you ever heard of “Go” (proper name is ‘Weiqi’)? This 4000-year-old game is the eastern equivalent to chess. Unlike the rigidity of chess with its linear and limited play, Go is a game requiring flexibility with no dominant pieces and 6x as many positions as chess. A game of Go is won by “encircling” your opponent, thus eliminating them and the winner eventually dominates the entire board. With several factors at play all at once, Go requires a larger perspective and strategy. If you’re interested here’s how to play. I love this game and love the challenge. I can feel it exercising my brain each time I play.

Yoga: Bring “flexibility” into your practice.

Einstein says that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Many yoga practices offer Sun Salutation A & B in most western classes. Ask yourself, “can I discover something new this time through?” How is your connection to your breath? Maybe it’s time to try or fine-tune your jump forward or back? Or maybe slowing it down will offer new insight. I suggest working moment-to-moment and step away from the “same old” and open your mind to new possibilities.

So try it. Be the master and see how stepping away from the rigidity of Being Good and into the flow of Getting Better can open you to a world of new perspectives.

by Will Schneider, April 2015