In his wonderful book, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-term Fulfillment, George Leonard discusses the path to excellence, with all its progress and plateaus. It’s truly an inspiring guide for anyone willing to commit to consistent practice over time in order to pursue growth and progress (See Embracing Plateaus).
In one chapter called “Pitfalls Along the Path,” our intrepid guide George highlights a host of stumbling blocks that can sabotage a journey toward mastery. One of them caught my attention: Prizes and Medals. According to George, “Excessive use of external motivation can slow and even stop your journey to mastery.” Case in point: Studies have shown that giving gold stars to school kids initially boosts their learning, but after a while, increasing the number of stars has no impact. And if the star-giving stops, their progress quickly slips below that of matched groups of children who weren’t awarded for their efforts.
Even more fascinating: “A report on the physiological limits of running speed shows that the major factor stopping the improvement of a champion runner’s speed is setting a record or winning an important medal.” That’s right: winning a medal can short-circuit the drive for improvement. According to an article in Scientific American, champions don’t stop at a given speed, but when they set a record. In other words, it’s the medals they win and not the speeds they’ve reached that limits their ability to exceed their own records! What an amazing insight.
George comments, “Perhaps we’ll never know how far the path can go, how much a human being can truly achieve, until we realize that the ultimate reward is not a gold medal, but the path itself.” When I was a kid, I just loved those gold stars. Didn’t you? But now that we’re on the path to deepening our creativity and craft, they are one of the trappings of success we need to let go of along the way. Let’s just enjoy the ride, enjoy the page. And write on.