Tiger Woods, called the greatest golfer of all time, stated from the beginning of his career as an amateur, and repeated regularly throughout his professional career, that he can – that he must – become better. He said it after his finest seasons and biggest championships. He still says it now, about his personal and professional life. He understands mastery. He assures himself, with us listening in, that he still pursues it despite his own induced setbacks.
Daniel Pink tells us in Drive that mastery is an asymptote – a straight line that a curve approaches but never quite reaches. Mastery – the urge to get better at something that matters – is a mindset. The motivation of effectiveness, demonstrated in the first months of life, evolves in various expressions throughout the entirety of life. With a mindset of mastery, improvement continues.
Now, what about us? When something bad happens to someone we envy – someone notably famous and wealthy – the result is that we feel a particular kind of good, first cousin to gloating. Neuroscientists at the University of Cambridge found that the news of the downfall of the rich and famous activates the dorsal interior cingulate cortex of the brain. Their humiliation activates this region of the brain that responds to conflict and social rejection. In fact, the studies show that the more we envy someone, the greater the pleasure in his or her downfall. This accounts for our pleasure in seeing a high-powered CEO who earns tens of millions in bonuses get humiliated in front of a congressional committee exposing indiscretion, or in doing the perp walk. When Bernie Madoff got shoved on the sidewalk – be honest – how many times did you rewind?
Our minds are drawn to the stories of the extreme, at times to compare ourselves and feel better. Our minds respond in reaction formation to the envy of their wealth and fame; our brains fire in reaction to their humiliation and shame.
“At least my debt isn’t as bad as hers.”
“I’m glad I’m not him.”
“My problems are nothing compared to that.” (Reality shows regularly take this one to the bank).
And remember the words of fellow Texan Kinky Friedman, smart enough both to run for President and to withdraw before any possibility materialized, “If you look deep enough inside yourself, you will see everyone else.”
What about the rest of the story? For Tiger, Kinky, and us: A perpetual series of occasions for the pursuit of effectiveness and mastery, to personally and professionally get better at what really matters.
(But thankfully not for Bernie—or did my cingulate cortex just diesel a bit?)
The Secret Language of Money is now a business bestseller and translated into nine languages. Thank you for your support and kind words.