by Brian Weberg
In your professional career (or in your hobby or avocation), when did you stop getting better at what you do? I mean really better...not just the marginal improvement that comes with being at the job each day. In a recent post on the Thicket I reported the ideas of author Dan Pink and his assertion that mastery of job skills is one of three important non-monetary workplace motivators. According to Pink, employers who help their people achieve mastery go a long way toward motivating and retaining great employees.
An article in Sunday's New York Times Magazine made me think a bit more about Pink's ideas and how the motivation of mastery might hit a few roadblocks for legislative employees-- even in the best intentioned staff agencies--and especially in workplaces with lots of baby boomers. In his article Secrets of a Mindgamer, Joshua Foer describes his attempt to become a master of memorization. A standard game in this field is memorizing the order of playing cards in a deck. In his efforts to master the playing card game, Foer made rapid early progress. But at a certain point his improvement leveled off and he could not continue on his learning curve. "No matter how much I practiced, I couldn’t memorize playing cards any faster than 1 every 10 seconds. I was stuck in a rut, and I couldn’t figure out why. 'My card times have hit a plateau,' I lamented." Foer calls this rut the "O.K. plateau"...a place identified by psychologists where "we’re as good as we need to be at the task and we basically run on autopilot." Sounded like a familiar place to me.
The O.K. plateau idea makes me wonder about the many career legislative staff out there who have been toiling at essentially the same tasks year in and year out, some for decades. Is the mastery motivator inapplicable to them? Have many arrived at the O.K. plateau, destined to cruise on autopilot for the reminder of their careers, finding themselves "as good as they need to be?" Foer says not necessarily, and tells how he moved on from the plateau by following lessons learned from great athletes and musicians.
...[T]op achievers typically follow the same general pattern. They develop strategies for keeping out of the autonomous [autopilot] stage by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented and getting immediate feedback on their performance. Amateur musicians, for example, tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces. Similarly, the best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work more on jumps they’ve already mastered. In other words, regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we have to be constantly pushing ourselves beyond where we think our limits lie and then pay attention to how and why we fail.
I expect some of us are pretty content to be camped out at the O.K. plateau. Hopefully, though, many legislative staff see mastery as something less static. Organizations that help them to continuously improve and grow professionally provide a strong motivational message and also help foster workplace excellence and innovation. Of course, if the formula for being a top achiever is correct, then legislative staff organizations also need to accommodate--and even reward--failure, understanding it to be a key element in professional development and the goal of mastery.
For me, I guess this all means that I'll have to face up to those tedious scales and arpeggios on my guitar and stop playing the same three O.K. plateau chords (in all possible combinations, of course) that have defined my musical achievement for too long. Time to break camp...
Photo credit: Marco Grob for The New York Times