Raj Raghunathan: If you take the need for mastery—the need for competence—there are two broad approaches that one can take to becoming very good at something. One approach is to engage in what people call social comparisons. That is, wanting to be the best at doing something: “I want to be the best professor there is,” or something like that.
There are many problems with that, but one big problem with that is that it’s very difficult to assess. What are the yardsticks for judging somebody on a particular dimension? What are the yardsticks for being the best professor? Is it about research, teaching? Even if you take only teaching, is it the ratings you get from students, or is it the content that you deliver in class, or the number of students who pass an exam or take a test and do really well in it? So it gets very difficult to judge, because these yardsticks become increasingly ambiguous as a field becomes narrower or more technical.
So what happens in general is that people tend to gravitate toward less ambiguous—even if they’re not so relevant—yardsticks. People judge the best professors by the number of awards they get, or the salary that they get, or the kind of school that they are in, which might on the face of it seem like it’s a good yardstick for judging how good somebody is, but at the same time it’s not really relevant to the particular field.
And those yardsticks are ones that we adapt to really quickly. So if you get a huge raise this month, you might be happy for a month, two months, maybe six months. But after that, you’re going to get used to it and you’re going to want another big bump. And you’ll want to keep getting those in order to sustain your happiness levels. In most people you can see that that’s not a very sustainable source of happiness.
Pinsker: What’s the other mindset?
Raghunathan: What I recommend is an alternative approach, which is to become a little more aware of what it is that you’re really good at, and what you enjoy doing. When you don’t need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you’re good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you’re going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people.
If you were to go back to the three things that people need—mastery, belonging, and autonomy—I’d add a fourth, after basic necessities have been met. It’s the attitude or the worldview that you bring to life. And that worldview can be characterized, just for simplicity, in one of two fashions: One extreme is a kind of scarcity-minded approach, that my win is going to come at somebody else’s loss, which makes you engage in social comparisons. And the other view is what I would call a more abundance-oriented approach, that there’s room for everybody to grow.