The Mastery vs Approval Mindset in Work & Life

The Mastery vs Approval Mindset in Work & Life

Also published in “Stilettos on the Glass Ceiling”:


“Let desire give birth to aspiration.” – Stephen Cope


When I was a kid, I would compete in music competitions for flute. I would practice and practice for a competition for months and then get a score on the day of the competition. During my junior year in high school, I practiced and performed one of my favorite pieces of all time for about six months. When it came to the state competition, I was literally the last flute standing and was a top 10 instrument finalist.

The question I ask myself now is – what was the source of my motivation? Did I need that approval from judges to validate my work? Was I grasping for the outcome or aspiring for mastery, or both?

The next year, my senior year, I still achieved high marks in the competition but not like the year prior. Looking back at these years of practice and performance, regardless of the outcome, I remember listening to CDs of the best flute players. I would listen to phrasing and breath work on the CD, and actually play along in practicing. Also, looking back, my parents never told me to practice once. Never. This habit of working toward mastery was born from within me. Or was it? I also had lessons every week that forced me to practice and show improvement from the previous week.

The source of my motivation was from within me AND I also desired weekly feedback from my flute teachers on my progress.

How did the potential outcome from a competition play a role during my performances? Looking back, many times, I would just close my eyes while playing. It was as if no one was in the room even if the concert hall was packed with people. I was playing a piece of music like I had played many times before in my room but this time if I made a mistake I had to keep going. I treated performance day like every day before and showed up fully to share my music.

The outcome from a given performance wasn’t always what I desired. Auditioning for orchestral seats sometimes worked in my favor and other times I was rejected. Yet, I wasn’t necessarily rejected. With my music. it was NEVER personal and I never took it personally. I enjoyed the challenge of mastering a piece of music and part of mastery was feedback…ongoing feedback to improve my “art.”

Clinging to an Outcome

In Stephen Cope’s book, “The Great Work of Your Life,” he discusses that over hundreds of years of practice, yogis discovered that clinging to outcome has a pernicious effect on performance.

On page 128 of his book, he shares that when we “cling” to a particular outcome, we split our mind from the present moment.Clinging or grasping at work might sound like this: “How am I doing?” or, “Am I winning or losing?” or, “How am I measuring up?” We all can relate to how we feel when this happens. We might be working on a project, writing an e-mail, or going through our day at work and at the same time feel anxious about the results of our work. Perhaps you are thinking about the critics or the naysayers who might put down your effort for some reason. Perhaps you are thinking about what you might gain as an outcome, like a bonus, prestige, or an award. I have been there too!

None of this would really matter if grasping didn’t impact our actual performance in our work and life. But, this divided mind does impact our performance, which ultimately impacts the energy we bring forward to our work and life.

Working AND craving for the OUTCOME of our work at the same time disturbs our mind. This craving shows itself in many forms. At work, we might look for approval from our boss that we are doing the right thing. When we seek “approval,” we become attached to that person’s approval of us. Our work becomes more about the “approval” and less about doing great work. And when we attach to outcomes in this way, we take things personally. Our self-worth is attached to needing “approval,” and so we take feedback personally.

Mastery Mindset

On the other energy spectrum, we can all think of a time when we are in flow at work. Rather than look for approval, we might look for advice and feedback from our boss with the intention of “mastery.” We lose track of time and we get lost in the work itself. In these experiences, our mind is free of craving and grasping for the outcome. Our mind is focused on the task at hand. When you think about these experiences, it’s likely your energy is focused on the work itself and mastering the assignment. I have experienced this flow in music, writing papers in school, and also in preparing power point presentations in my corporate work.

The energy we bring to these two situations with our boss is different: one is about approval and the other is about mastery.

I think it can be confusing to detach from outcome because, how do we honestly say that we don’t care about the outcome, right? We do care about the result. We want good grades. We want to achieve our goals. We do want that promotion or for people to like our article. It becomes a complicated concept to do our work and not care about the result or outcome.

Approval vs. Mastery

My personal story of approval versus mastery comes from my days in graduate school. In my graduate program in HR, there were campus interviews for internships and full-time positions. I interviewed with 12 companies for an internship and received 0 yes responses. That is a record of 0-12. Yicks. So, I actually sat down with one particular graduate student who was not only getting 2nd round interviews but also had multiple offers. What was he doing differently?

I figured out my downfall. In addition to being very unsure of my experience and at times long-winded, I noticed that I was answering questions and looking for approval during the interview. I needed a sign that my answers were “good enough.” So, I would go into an interview with great examples but leave my confidence at the door and look for signals. “How am I measuring up?” would go through my mind throughout the interview. Clearly with an 0-12 record, performance was impacted! I had a divided mind, I was not articulate, and I was not confident in what I had to offer any company.

So I made the shift to a “Mastery Mindset.” I learned from the graduate student techniques that would help me master the art of the interview. I applied these techniques to my own experiences. Then, I practiced over and over and then over again just like I practiced in high school and college for a flute performance. I forced my friends to do mock interviews with me so I could practice sharing my experiences in a clear and mindful way to interviews. Time was running out as it was spring semester. I focused on the performance and received two 2nd round interviews and one summer internship offer. In the end, I was 1-14 for internship offers. In the fall, I applied this same mindset and landed a full-time offer with a great company.

When my energy was focused on a “Mastery Mindset” rather than the outcome, I had a much better interview performance.

Mastery at its BEST

(From The Great Work of your Life, by Stephen Cope).

Ludwig van Beethoven was called “mad” by his critics. Stephen Cope describes that few could understand the musical leaps Beethoven made as he new patterns of structure in Western sonatas. And Beethoven “understood that his gift was not personal.” After some time in his life, Beethoven recognized his musical talents as a gift that he needed to nurture. Yet, Beethoven battled in his work and life. His battleground was harmony, theme, and variations. He continued his art despite going deaf in his mid 20s. Beethoven wrote this in the margin one of his string quartet’s: “In the same way that you are now able to throw yourself into the whirlpool of society, so you are able to write your works in spite of all social hindrances. Let your deafness no longer be a secret – even for art.”

Susan B. Anthony was the 19th century champion for women’s rights. The more successful she became at exposing and addressing women’s rights, the more she would receive personal attacks. To keep going on her mission, her diaries show that she learned not to take public attacks personally. Susan understood that these attacks were not about her in a personal way, but rather about broader societal issues. Susan said, “the important thing is to forget self.” This “forget self” was a mantra for Susan. She knew that the work she was doing had an energy of its own.

Both Ludwig van Beethoven and Susan B. Anthony struggled with critics and yet understood that those criticisms were not personal. They both brought an energy mindset in their work that was grounded in mastery. If they desired approval, they would not have achieved what they did for the world and for history.

Mastery Mindset in your Work and Life

As you go about your day, notice your energy. You will find at times a desire for approval and you will find a times an energy of mastery.

If you are a mother, the energy of mastery is being in the present moment. Rather than absorb the frantic energy of your child, stay grounded in the moment and unattached to what is happening and what might be next. Rather than look for approval from someone around you, know that you have everything you need and more. Rather than think about the outcome of your kid’s future, you really focus on doing what is best in the moment. Your art is your role as a mom. Your art is not personal.

If you are at work, notice times when you have those cravings of approval or acceptance. Recognize that energy. Take a moment and shift that energy to focus on mastery. As you shift your energy from approval mode, tell yourself that you are enough. That you can do your best work. That you can seek guidance, feedback, and insight from your boss or someone who can support your work from your mastery energy. Just like that … your energy will shift. Your art is your role at work. Your art is not personal.

We can all desire greatness and dive deep into mastery. In The Great Work of your Life, Stephen Cope shares that the earliest yogis recognized desire as having both an aspect of “craving,” and having an energy that is “full of aspiration.” The aspiration energy is centered on a strong determination to achieve the good and the noble. So you take your desire for approval as a craving and you shift toward a desire for mastery as an aspiration.

We have the inner power at any moment to focus our energy on mastery rather than approval. We have the ability to reset every morning. We have past experiences and reminders that show us how it feels to be focused on mastery. Learning our own cues of what mastery looks and feels like is part of our journey. We can empower ourselves to reset, rewind, and redo at any moment. And, that action allows us to restart with energy that is more about mastery and less about the outcome.

The journey in work and life is the ebb and flow of our cravings, desires, and moments of mastery.


“Let desire give birth to aspiration.” – Stephen Cope


Kara Smith is a talent development / HR leader and is the founder of the Soul of Work project:, a think tank and not for profit learning lab.  The mission & intention of the Soul of Work project is to bring best practices, tools, and practical insights from thought leaders to help professionals get hired, build more sustainable economic fulfillment in both work & life, and do their best work.  As part of this mission, the Soul of Work project is dedicated to actively fundraise and donate to aligned non-profit organizations.  Learn more here:  Kara is a working mother who believes we do our BEST work when we align work with our life.