Autonomy, mastery & purpose – business lessons from learning to play golf

Hobbies are important to have as interests and a focus for constructive use of your spare time, and for many of us sport plays a key part, as participant or spectator. For me sport is a vital ingredient in my everyday life, providing physicality, camaraderie, emotional highs and lows, and an opportunity for a lively exchange of opinions.

However, as the football and rugby seasons come to an end, Summer sports beckon and for me none of tennis, cricket or athletics has ever captured my imagination as a participant. That leaves us golf. But why do hordes of people gasp at a tee shot when they have no idea where it will land? Four-day extravaganzas of umbrellas and blokes carrying the players’ kit, too lazy to carry their own gear? And the lambs’ wool sweaters in mauve and lemon and the trousers unashamedly called ‘slacks’?

Despite my reservations as to my social, political and psychological fit to the game – ignoring my latent lack of talent – I’ve started lessons to heave a small white ball 350 yards down a wide expanse of grass, onto a finely manicured area of very green grass called, appropriately, a green, and down a small hole. I wouldn’t say I’ve made it my new hobby in response to a midlife crisis, and I’ve not yet invested in an entirely new wardrobe, but I am inwardly enjoying the challenge as I’m used to playing my sport with bigger balls.

I’ve already accepted it’s a question of accepting extreme frustration and being determined when doing something knew, such is my inability to secure any degree of consistency with golf. But when searching for my ball somewhere out on the course about two miles from civilization, this set me thinking, how well do we know ourselves, what we really like and enjoy, what are we good at, what we’d like to change about ourselves, what we’re not good at, what we dream of….and what’s the point?

So take a new activity you’re investing time in, like golf. Golf is frustrating. Even if you are a feeble newbie hacker as myself, you occasionally hit a splendid shot. The memory lingers, mocking you every time you slice it into the bushes or foozle a two-foot putt ten minutes later. You know you can hit it well. So why don’t you do it more often?

Game Theory tells us it is theoretically possible to birdie every hole. Indeed, it is theoretically possible to do 18 holes in 18 shots. But no one ever comes close to this ideal. Golf constantly reminds us that we don’t quite measure up. This is annoying me immensely.

I once hit a perfect shot. It was a municipal pitch and put course in Cornwall, one sunny summer day. I was 17. It was a five-iron from the tee that dropped straight into the hole bouncing happily as it did so. I won’t say my golf life has been all downhill since then, as I’ve never again hit a small white ball so flawlessly. In fact I’ve never hit a small white ball since, I gave it up for rugby.

But 35 years on, I’m back on the course. It’s all about knowing yourself, your capabilities and stretching yourself. I am being unreasonable in my aspirations to achieve, comparing myself to those golf geniuses on Sky Sport. I seem to be competing against myself more than I’ve ever done in anything else I’ve done before, seeking constant improvement against my own shortcomings and ambitions.

So after my third lesson, I’ve jotted down some notes, reflecting on my learnings and motivations. I’m minded by Daniel Pink’s book Drive, and the role of intrinsic motivation, the kind that comes from within yourself, and the three elements of the motivation formula he identifies – autonomy, mastery, and purpose – as to why I find myself pursuing a standard of achievement in something new to satisfy an innate internal desire.

Autonomy Our self-direction is a natural inclination. Pink asserts we’re all built with inner drive, some folks are just in a higher gear than others. I’ve never been passive and inert, I’ve always gone hell-for-leather and go the extra mile as standard. Apparently this is because I have what Pink calls ‘autonomy driven motivation’. I’m curious about what I can achieve as a challenge to myself.

Mastery We want to get better at doing things. It’s why learning a language, new sporting technique or a musical instrument can be so frustrating at first. Mastery is the desire to get better at something that matters. Firstly, it is a mindset, in that we believe we can get better. Second, mastery is a pain, in that it involves not only working harder but working longer at the same thing. Finally, mastery is an asymptote, or a straight line that you may come close to but never reach. My golf feels very much like this at the moment!

Purpose People who find purpose in their life unlock the highest level of the motivation game. Pink says that it’s connecting to a cause larger than yourself that drives the deepest motivation. Purpose is what gets you out of bed in the morning and into work without groaning and grumbling — something that you just can’t fake.

Purpose provides a context for autonomy and mastery. It addresses the situation that even when we get what we want, it is not what we need. It’s connected to the drive to be different. I guess my purpose with golf is to be the best I can, for me, in the context of ensuring I become more patient, more reflective and practice to ensure I learn a new skill.

Interesting stuff and I’d highly recommend Drive. My point of departure from Pink is that in golf you play against yourself and that you need to enjoy it, and from musings born of frustration, I have identified a number of points in golf that are reflective learnings for a broader perspective to complement Pink’s trietica for my business activities.

Technical competence To be a golfer of sorts, you need certain competencies and skills. You need to know how to swing the club, whether it is an iron of a driver or a fairway wood, and I need a coach to teach me these technical skills.

Business is no different, you need to have certain competencies, such as management and leadership, strategy and finance skills, and you need training to develop and update these skills continuously. Both business and golf require hard work, constant practicing and growth of a skills set.

Psychological competence I need to understand the psyche of golf to better manage myself over 18 holes, to deal with the good, by avoiding becoming complacent, and to deal with the bad – I need to put the bad hole behind me and concentrate upon the holes ahead. Learn from the bad hole and apply the lessons to the holes ahead of us says my coach. There is a saying, applicable in golf as in business: Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you will be right.

Play within yourself In golf, you cannot allow yourself to attempt shots you cannot play, for which you do not have the competencies.  I’ve found this out to my cost, as I simply try to do the impossible, frequently. I have an inner belief that far exceeds my physical prowess. You do not need to smash every tee shot or iron shot with every ounce of power you possess.  Stroke the ball, play within yourself, says my coach.  I unfortunately struggle with this guidance.

In business, you need to apply the same rule.  Trying to do everything at full tilt can be disastrous.  Growth is something that needs to be managed carefully, nurtured from somewhere, and you need competencies and a culture that enables it.

Be alert to the environment In golf this entails the wind and rain, as well as factors such as the slopes and shapes of the fairways, and the shapes, slopes, and speed of the greens.  As a golfer you need to keenly focus on these factors and take them into consideration. Some of them change continuously and will have an effect on the shot you need to play – how you approach it and what club you need to use.

This is equally true for a business context, events and changes in the economic environment have an impact on your strategy. You need to be alert and take notice on a continuous basis in order to develop and implement a strategy that will allow you to better serve the needs of your customers.

Deal with the competition In golf, you need to understand who your competitor is and what you need to do to outwit and outplay him. However, you primarily need to focus on what you are doing yourself as you only have control over your own game.  Play your own game and not the game of your competitor.  Again I struggle with this, trying to emulate the play of far more experienced players.

Again this applies to business, you need to develop your strategy in a way that is different and better than the competitor.  Do not focus exclusively on your competitor – the true driver of success are your customers so focus upon a strategy to find, win and keep them by delivering value. This does not mean that you ignore your competition, as if you ignore your competitors you will find yourself irrelevant.

Be values-driven Here I refer to values such as integrity and character. The nature of golf is such that honesty is non-negotiable as you score yourself. You are frequently the only person that will know whether the ball moved before you hit it or not. If personal integrity is not part of your make-up, the game of golf will degenerate into chaos and become pointless. Already I’ve seen signs of people playing to win above all else with a liberal and generous interpretation of the rules.

The saying goes To lie to others is immoral, to lie to yourself is pathetic, and is true more than ever in business. Business ethics are essential, the world is now sensitised us to a lack of integrity in big business, and yet we find that it still takes place.  Greed and dishonesty have become drivers in business. To win at all costs a credo that has the potential to hurt society as we have seen in recent years.

Knowledge Golf requires lots of knowledge, for example you need to know the layout of the course and individual holes. This is important as you determine when to use an iron or the fairway wood, when to use the driver on the tee, or when to use an iron, where to chip and where to put.  You need to know where you need to take your medicine and take a drop shot, and where you can take a chance.

In a business context, we also need to know what is going on in order to develop new market space that will enable us to make the competition irrelevant and grow the market in new areas. The knowledge parallels of golf and business are clear, combing intelligence and insight create impact.

Respect This is an important aspect of golf. You need to show up, on time, dressed appropriately. When the other player is playing, you stand still, out of their line of sight, and you do not chat while they address the ball. You do not keep the players behind you waiting, you repair your pitch mark and your divot holes. All common sense really, but it’s vital a framework of respect is in place to enable the game to be played in the right spirit.

You do the same in business, you respect your customer and employees, and show respect to the society you do business in.  Operating without this virtue is a sure way to lose business from customers, loyalty of staff, and your brand reputation.

Innovation I have seen Rory Mcilroy shape shots that are amazing, I’ve tried to replicate them in my back garden to no avail, threatening the sheep stood watching with interest as the little white ball shoots in a random direction. McIlroy, faced with a certain set of conditions, and knowing the course and having trust in his skills, repeatedly comes up with shots that have a high degree of consistency in their execution, yet are unique.

In business, innovation and creativity is vital, doing more of the same will lead you nowhere, you will fall behind and lose customers.  Changes in the environment require lots of innovation.

So three weeks and three lessons into golf, I’ve adopted a share-listen-reflect-learn approach to acquiring new skills and knowledge. Pink’s motivation trietica applies – autonomy, mastery and purpose – so does the maxim if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

My drive is to continually seek to achieve a ‘Personal Best’, adopting the personal life motto of explorer Ernest Shackleton – reach beyond your expectations – and make it happen where it matters most, inside.

But, it’s just golf, deceptively simple but endlessly complicated. I know it’s really played on a five and half inch course, the space between my ears. After all, it’s not how good you are that matters, but how good you want to be.