Mastery vs Performance Goals: Why the Type of Goal You Set Matters

Everyone sets goals. But, what most people don't realize is that the type of goals you set can have a major impact on your long term performance.

The most basic type of goal is known as a performance goal. These are goals that are directly correlated to an outcome. You want to get an "A" on that spanish test, or hit your sales quota.

These goals can be great in the short term, but they also have some downsides. Performance goals by their nature are rather shallow. If you had to cheat, at least you still hit your goal. If you made a mistake in the sales process, well at least you still hit your quota.

Performance goals also tend to undermine long-term performance. If you hit your initial goal, you become less motivated to continue towards excellence (after all you hit your goal). And if you don't hit your initial goal, you become discouraged and de-motivated because your self-worth is based on external inputs.

On the other side of the goal-setting coin are what's know as mastery goals. A mastery goal is when you set out to become the best you can be at a single task. Instead of trying to get an "A" in spanish, you try to become fluent in spanish.

Behavioral Researchers have found that mastery goals are more effective because your satisfaction isn't related to external indicators. Therefore you're less apt to give up in difficult circumstances, and you persevere through setbacks.

Mastery goals are always just beyond reach. This makes motivation over the long term easier to maintain. They're like a line that's asymptote. The curve of the line gets closer to the goal, but you never quite reach it. There is always something to strive for.

People that reach the pinnacle of their skills rarely set performance goals. They're more interested in competing with themselves, than gaining external feedback and validation. This orientation allows them to compete at a higher level over a longer period of time.

With Mastery goals there's always something to strive for. Even if it's as simple as being better at something tomorrow, than you were today.

Written by Adam Harrell on February 23, 2010


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Lanin says:

Exactly opposite research findings now prove that what some researchers have defined as performance goals are not the ones in the minds of students(e.g., Harris, Yuill & Luckin) since the types of suitable goals are context-bound . indeed, a combination of mastery and performance goals are necessary in one's success! Newton in this sense was both performance and mastery oriented because it was quite important for him to compete with his rivals. I believe we should redefine performance oriented goals .

@Connie -- you're exactly right. WIthout proper feedback , you won't be able to progress. That being said both external feedback doesn't have to be structured as traditional coaching.

connie russo says:

nice but you need external FEEDBACK to make sure you are on the right track and learning and progressing ...

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Adam Harrell