Long projects and mastery experiences

Marcin Wichary wrote a terrific article a couple of months ago about getting rid of Moiré patterns from scanned photographs (via Andy Baio). It’s a great visual exploration of the intersection between art and mathematics. But the point that Marcin gets to at the end of the article, and which has stuck with me, is about the nature of mastery experiences:

I’ve always had this theory that any long-term project requires two ingredients: things you’re good at, and things you want to learn. The first group gives you a feeling of accomplishment and mastery. The other one? It keeps things interesting.

When coming to a large project without some things you’ve already mastered, the entire endeavour can feel overwhelming. But without anything new to look forward to, it can become stale and repetitive.

Or here’s another lens: When you’re facing one of the many hard moments, something you’re good at can help you feel awesome. But when you’re bored, something new to learn can remind you how there’s more to life than feeling awesome all the time.

Marcin Wichary, “Moiré no more”

This ties directly to Albert Bandura’s concept of self-efficacy. Simply put, self-efficacy is the belief that you are able to take control of a situation or project, and achieve a certain goal. Perhaps you don’t have the skills to do it right now, but your past experiences, your emotional state, and the social support available to you lead to you think that you will be able to get there. Satisfying mastery experiences like the one Marcin describes here are essential to reinforcing your sense of self-efficacy. (And in the opposite case, a diminished sense of personal efficacy is a hallmark of multiple models of burnout.)

(Note that self-efficacy is not the same as self-confidence. One way to describe the difference is that self-efficacy is the belief in yourself, while self-confidence is the strength of that belief, and an indication of your ability to project that belief to yourself and others. Whether the belief and the projection are justified, and how they’re perceived, are different matters…)

This resonates with me a lot right now. As a manager, one of my responsibilities is to ensure that my team get the opportunities to gain mastery experiences, and to help them reflect on those experiences to increase their sense of self-efficacy.

But…as of a couple of weeks ago I’m not a manager any more. The engineer/manager pendulum has swung the other way for me. It’s been a couple of years since I spent full days embedded in code, and my skills are rusty. I’m bumping up against exactly what Marcin described in his article: things that I’ve done in the past (efficacy), and things I’d like to learn about for the future (motivation). My sense of efficacy feels reasonably solid; my motivation is…complicated, but I don’t think that’s unusual. On balance it feels like this is the right thing for me at this time. Which is just fine.


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