Why Prioritizing Mastery as a Founder Is So Hard, But Necessary for Your Success
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Social Media that Made Me Think:
In this Twitter thread, Abhishek Shah shares 10 of the rules Steve Jobs relentlessly followed to build Apple into a monumental, technology redefining brand and industry juggernaut.
Growth Insight of the Week:
I recently read Steven Kotler’s brilliant book The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer — big thanks to Chris Pallatroni for the suggestion — and the way he scientifically broke down the formula for resilience and motivation blew me away.
You likely know, I am a voracious reader and particularly enjoy books about personal growth and development. In one sense, this book didn’t exactly tell me anything I hadn’t seen described elsewhere. On the other hand, Kotler’s method of simplifying these concepts into understandable formulas and including actionable strategies for using them felt like a noticeable advancement in much of the common discourse on these topics.
He shares perhaps the most powerful concept early on in his book, explaining the five types of intrinsic motivation and making the argument that when you have all five, you are essentially stacking these to gain a maximum push toward your goals.
According to Kotler and his ample research, the five types of intrinsic motivation are curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy, and mastery. And he explains how one can lead to the next, making mastery the apex of his described intrinsic motivation stack.
He also explains the resulting impact on your neurochemistry, stress levels, and resilience. So yeah, this is absolutely a desired state.
Why would mastery be a challenge for Founders?
First of all, there are many Founders who are solving problems because they identified a particular opportunity in the market. Not because this problem inspires any genuine curiosity or passion.
But let’s assume you are one of the many mission-driven Founders whom I have had the good fortune to know and now to interview for the High Growth Founders podcast. You’re solving a problem igniting your curiosity and sparking a true passion within you. You may also be working on a problem big enough, meaningful enough to create within you a sense of purpose from the belief your success could positively impact your community or even the world.
You’ve got three intrinsic motivators. And damn powerful ones at that. Now for the last two.
Autonomy comes with the territory of an entrepreneur. For many of us, it was a critical part of why we left the security of employment for the rollercoaster of entrepreneurship.
But sometimes you lose autonomy as the business grows. I have spoken with multiple Founders who realized the pressure from their investors to achieve aggressive levels of growth or to pursue certain directions to achieve those levels left them feeling hamstrung in a way they hadn’t predicted.
Additionally, the sometimes relentless pressure to work, to grind it all out, to keep pressing forward can feel like an obligation instead of a choice. We don’t talk about your loss of autonomy as an integral part of burnout, but perhaps that’s actually what’s happening?
What does ‘mastery’ even mean?
First of all, what is mastery? Kotler uses Daniel Pink’s definition from Drive, explaining “The single biggest motivator, by far, is making progress in meaningful work.”
This definition seems like the whole point of building a business, so why can mastery feel so elusive to entrepreneurs?
It can be hard to recognize while we’re in the middle of it, but one of the greatest challenges for entrepreneurs is focus. What often makes people drawn to entrepreneurship is their optimism. Entrepreneurs tend to see opportunity in a million places. But this desire to seize every opportunity can ultimately lead them to being spread too thin, and not having enough time or resources to be truly successful at any one thing.
This is often especially true for those of us who are ADHD Founders, which turns out is a lot of entrepreneurs.
A pretty big challenge to mastery.
Even if you manage to maintain a sharp focus on what matters most, running a business requires you to do dozens of things on any given day. Especially in the early days when money and resources are tight, Founders inevitably wear many hats, and some of those hats fit awkwardly and uncomfortably. To make your business successful, you have to do work you will never master, nor have any desire to.
This work is necessary, but it is often frustrating. And it can distract you from the part of your work where those five intrinsic motivations do indeed stack up.
And those distractions are what undermine your ability to continuously harness the power of your purpose, your sense of autonomy, and that precious feeling of mastery.
So what can you do to prioritize mastery and reap its rewards as a Founder?
There is no easy answer, but as I ponder this question for myself and my own journey as a Founder, here are some of the methods I am putting into practice. I’ll keep you updated on how well they work overtime.
1. Stop trying to master everything
I realized recently I haven’t made the progress I desire in a number of areas of my life, especially as a creator. When I am honest with myself, I know the reason is my attempt to do it all. Why focus on one form of creation to truly nail it, when I can be mediocre at all of them?
When I think of the Founders I work with, many of us deal with similar struggles. Convincing ourselves to do more in an effort to make faster progress toward our goals.
But when I look at the Founders who wind up having the most success, they are the most focused. Picking one primary goal at a time and mastering the work makes that goal possible before moving on to something else.
This is quite similar to how I describe the ideal startup approach to finding product-market fit. You cannot try to be all things to all people. Instead, identify the market segment representing your product’s low-hanging fruit. Focus on building the product and creating the go-to-market strategy perfect for them.
Then, and only then, can you start expanding to other markets or use-cases.
I talk about this concept of focus and expansion often in the context of startup growth strategy, and yet, I have failed to heed my own words. And I know I’m not alone.
Can you identify the segments of your work where you have the most potential to stack those five intrinsic motivations? How can you spark curiosity, ignite passion, find purpose, create autonomy, and build mastery?
And what parts of your work will never lend themselves to this full stack? How can you delegate this work or at least, minimize its impact on your day-to-day?
2. Get clear on what work is most important to your goals.
There is a myriad of tools and frameworks to help you prioritize what matters most, so find one that works for your style of thinking, but stick to it, consistently reflecting on the many projects you could be tackling and what is the most effective use of your time.
The method I use for myself and teach my clients is one I learned and repurposed from a product leader who used it to plan his product roadmap. It’s simple and thorough in a way that my clients always remark is calming, helping them simplify the process of knowing what to do next.
After tons of conversations teaching others how to use this method for themselves, I went ahead and build a template and guide walking you through the process and doing some of the heavy lifting for you.
And if you give it a try, please let me know how it works for you.
3. Learn the art and science of Monotasking
I recently learned about this concept from a TikTok creator, Anna Pugh, whom I am very fortunate to now call a friend. She is an entrepreneur with ADHD who has developed a methodology and now a business designed to help others learn to focus on one thing at a time. Her content is extremely helpful in understanding how our desire to do ALL THE THINGS is not helping us.
I recently bought her Notion template for monotasking and its been transformative in my attempts to accelerate progress in my work, by helping me focus on one thing at a time.
Am I missing anything? How do you prioritize mastery in your work?
A Tool I Absolutely Love:
Let me again mention Anna Pugh’s Notion template for monotasking. Because that has been a game-changer for me.
Also, as someone who is easily distracted, Anna’s template combined with Cowin E7 Noise Canceling Headphones, and either the Bridgerton soundtrack (classical versions of pop songs? Yes, please!) or some Ludovico Einaudi has made it significantly easier for me to stay focused and crank out quality work.
My dear friend, Walker McKay, called me after trying out some Ludovico because he got SO focused he missed a call with a client. Whoops! Apparently, there’s such a thing as being too focused!
What if you want more?
I’m preparing to launch a High Growth Founders community and I’d love to learn from all of you what would be most helpful on your Founder journey.
Things I’m considering:
A couple of monthly calls — either group coaching or office-hours style to answer in-the-moment questions you might have about your life or business
Templates I’ve built to run my business(es) and I share with clients to help them run theirs
Video tutorials covering specific common growth topics like mindset, lead generation, messaging, etc.
What would change the game for you in your business?