I recently took up skiing and was exhilarated when I finally managed to ski down a small slope, get back on the lift and then ski down again. After a series of falls in ways that seemed to completely overpower me, this was my epitome of success for the day. This would suffice for me. Then, I watched the experts gracefully slide down the diamonds and the black diamond slopes and wondered what they thought of people like me who were happy with the bunny slopes. Not much I thought. Back home, still experiencing my adrenaline rush, I stumbled upon some extreme skiing videos and saw these mavericks hike up for hours just to be able to ski down wild backcountry slopes. What did they think of those skiing down the diamond slopes in full-service ski resorts? Not much I thought. 

This was a classic demonstration of cognitive reference points coined by psychologist Eleanor Rosch in 1975. Rosch defined cognitive reference points as a stimulus against which other stimuli are seen in relation to. So, for experts skiing down the diamond slopes, the reference point was the high level of difficulty of their slopes and hence my benign green slopes didn’t offer them much. Similarly, when these same skiers eventually experienced extreme skiing in the unexplored backcountry, the well-groomed attendant-supported black diamond slopes didn’t hold much excitement for them anymore. Their goalpost had moved. 

Similar to sports, cognitive reference points play a role in other aspects of life too. Career is one such example. You have probably thought about your career more than once and often the mental argument runs like this – You make a mindmap of how your career should progress, what constitutes a career success and then a comparison with others who may have had a similar progression. Then, you may go about thinking about the next milestone and imagine all the happiness that you’ll get if you achieve it. You may also put some strategies together to make it a reality.  Although this process is a generally accepted strategy to make progress in one’s career, the milestones themselves are always in the context of your current reference points. For example, the value attached to the next promotion is always in context with your current job title. 

So, what happens when you do achieve this next milestone? Research has some interesting answers. In her book “The How of Happiness”, Sonja Lyubomirsky says that in the study of individuals earning various levels of income (the reference stimuli), the amount of money they think would make them happy changes. Those earning $30K said that $50K would make them happy and those earning $100K said that $250K would make them happy. So, research shows that our cognitive reference points change as we earn more. Clark and Oswald (1996) conducted research on 5000 British workers to show that job satisfaction changes when they have knowledge of how much their colleagues made. When workers realized that their colleagues made more than them, their satisfaction with the same income reduced. This is an example where the cognitive reference point is somebody else’s income. Psychologists have long researched this behavior of the mind and have shown that our cognitive reference points of happiness changes because our mind gets used to stuff. They coined it “Hedonic adaptation”. As Dan Gilbert mentions in his book ‘Stumbling on Happiness’, “Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition.” So, for the skiers who have done the tough diamond slopes dozens of times or for professionals who have reached the next level in their career, hedonic adaptation will reset the reference points and create a new goal to chase. 

So, what really matters? Research has shown that a few things are important to offset hedonic adaptation and keep the vitality in our lives and career. One is our state of mind while performing an activity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book  – “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience “ coined the term “Flow”  as a state when you’re completely immersed in an activity. When I was on the green slopes, all I focused on was to get to the bottom of the slope standing. I was completely immersed. I did not think of what the skiers on the black diamond thought about me. Similarly, when you look at your own careers, what aspects of your job puts you in that state? Those moments can be experienced again and again without subject to a comparison with a reference point. These moments will put you in a state of ‘flow’.  

The other important aspect is the intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation for a job. If you derive intrinsic motivation from your work, then the pursuit of growth in your career is driven by the desire to pursue new challenges and make a larger impact and not by extrinsic motivations driven by comparison with career growth of colleagues. Research has shown that focusing on extrinsic motivation can erode intrinsic motivation thus putting more emphasis on cognitive reference points. 

How can you incorporate these into your career and daily routines? What aspects of your job can you re-evaluate for intrinsic motivation? How can you leverage flow in your work? Working with a coach can help you create strategies around these and move towards a more fulfilling career. 

Back to the original question – Somebody did move the goalpost but it won’t matter as much to you anymore!