The True Value of Individual Progression to Mastery

The True Value of Individual Progression to Mastery


Earlier this week, I went to go see the critically-acclaimed documentary Speak. The movie centers around the competition for the World Championship of Public Speaking, run each year by Toastmasters International. According to the New York Times Review, this doc is both deft and innovative – and I would tend to agree.

Obviously, I’m really into both giving talks and competitive subcultures – they are alternately my favorite thing to do and my favorite thing to watch. So having the two come together in a single experience was both exhilarating and profoundly interesting for me. And while it’s a great film, what makes it especially compelling for students of gamification is a core lesson about design that the movie conveys particularly clearly: the power of individual progression to mastery.

As I often talk about in my books and workshops, progression to mastery is a key concept in gamification. It means that our users are looking for ways to master the complexities of their world, and part of our job is to uncover and codify the best process to get them there. If we are trying to gamify a language learning process for example, we need to understand both how people learn optimally and why they want to learn in the first place. The better we are at doing this – particularly on an individual level – the better able we’ll be to engage our users.

Obviously each person’s progression to mastery is principally an individual pursuit, aided by the social and systems feedback we provide. Speak clearly illustrates how that personal journey can be aided through competition without destroying its intrinsic meaning or value.

The finalists shown in the film are expected to give a seven minute speech, the subject of which is up to them – but must be completely new. They typically settle on a topic of great personal meaning through which they learned (and then seek to impart) a life lesson. Of those profiled, fully half had gone through a life threatening health issue, while the others spoke of great triumph over adversity. The themes – seizing the moment, being your true self and the power of kindness – resonated through the competition.

While everyone in the finals was clearly there to win – some bringing teams of experts, coaches and supporters with them – the journey was patently individual. That is, each person was using Toastmasters and the contest itself to accomplish something for themselves.  The competition was part of their journey, often reflected upon as a culmination (or station) on their long road to self-improvement, with Toastmasters as the system they used.

In ways I’ve rarely seen on film, the speakers did not really view each other as competition. More specifically, they did not employ any strategies to beat other players, even settling down for a casual dinner the night before the competition with each other. They simply got up, gave the best speech they could, and hoped that they would perform better than others. In fact, they demonstrated so much mutual empathy, that some were seen crying and cheering through the speeches of their competition. Make no mistake – they took the challenge very seriously, and nervous adrenaline was at a high. But as much as they wanted to win, they also didn’t seem to want others to fail.

I attribute this principally to the intrinsic value of Toastmasters and its mastery system. Because each speaker overcame some adversity to get there, and Toastmasters was seen as the way of accomplishing that, all the competitors had a shared sense of accomplishment and a desire to honor the community. Yes, many of their speeches were overwrought and sentimentalist, but the sincerity and meaning of just being nominated really came across on film.

Similarly, when you’re designing gamified systems with stacked competition, consider these possible lessons from Speak and other great mastery systems:

  1. Competitions are more meaningful if they are on a continuum of mastery, rather than on their own or a side activity.
  2. Make the competition into a milestone that demonstrates mastery. Toastmasters has seven levels of competition along the way to the championships – how many do you have?
  3. Try to leverage the power of storytelling and self-expression where possible in the competition – consider ways of making it about expression rather than an inherent quality
  4. Encourage competitors to view this as an achievement, and their work as a reflection on their (local) community

What Toastmasters has accomplished in their annual competition may not be the optimal model for every organization, but it is a powerful example. They activate the desire of individuals to be their best possible selves, engaging in a challenge of personal bests. Winning and losing is taken seriously but in stride, and the competition feels very natural and intrinsic to the progress the user has made.

Letting your users speak – in their authentic voice – can be both powerful and a bit intimidating. But if done well, this kind of challenge only serves to strengthen your brand and the power of your community.

When Speak comes to your city (or to Netflix) be sure to check it out. And if you like great public speakers (on gamification topics), follow our Top 30 Gamification Videos thread.

Image via Joshua Pickering


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