Are you a jack of all trades? If so, are you at least a master of some? Mastery of your chosen pursuit is a real benefit as purported in Robert Greene’s book on Mastery. The guy also wrote The 48 Laws of Power which I wrote about here. His book touches on what mastery means and why you should strive for it. In a world constantly offering us quick fixes and easy, step-by-step programs to achieve goals in no time with little effort, it can be easy to forget that to become not just good, but truly great at something takes time. This is where the concept of mastery becomes especially relevant.
True mastery isn’t just about reaching goals; it’s just as much about internalizing a philosophy that will keep you learning even after you’ve reached your goals. In short, true mastery is a lifelong journey. But what constitutes true mastery? How can you find it in yourself and what can you do to make sure you stay on your path, even when the going gets tough?
Mastery is not a state to achieve, but a journey to live by. Most of the time, we take on new activities with a singular aim – to master them. Be it tennis, chess or a new job, new pursuits can go from exciting to frustrating once we reach the point where our lack of talent seems to be staring us in the face. It’s tempting to give up, but you shouldn’t; you might still have a shot at mastery if you change the way you think.
The first step here is to rethink your motivations for learning a new skill. Many of us are seeking simple recognition from others and the gratification that comes with it. But if you practice tennis until you can do a handful of impressive shots, beat a few of your friends and be congratulated by spectators, you’ll only have the motivation to improve up to a point.
Once you’ve reached a level of skill that’s sufficient to earn you a bit of recognition, you’ll find yourself stuck in your comfort zone. Attempting new shots or competing against more challenging opponents becomes daunting, as you fear you won’t look as good while playing. A true master develops her talents by pushing forward for the sake of it, rather than chasing praise and encouragement.
Another key to mastery is your approach to learning itself, namely by cultivating a certain respect for the process. If you want to master tennis, you’ve got to accept that it’ll take time, patience and perseverance to perfect your forehand. Learning isn’t something you do for a while until you’re good enough – it’s an ongoing journey.
By shifting your mindset, you’ll find that you’re capable of mastering whatever you set your mind to. After all, you were a baby once! Babies enter the world incredibly vulnerable, with very few of the skills adults need to survive. And yet, they learn at their own pace to crawl, walk, communicate, understand and think for themselves. Some infants learn to walk between nine and ten months of age, while others don’t master it until much later. Children are capable of learning motor skills despite their lack of physique and often slow learning speed.
In this way, learning isn’t about how fast you acquire new skills or how talented or fit you are when you start out; rather, it has much more to do with the journey you take along the way. So, the student who shows the most promise during the first few tennis lessons might not be the one who excels, while an initially clumsier player with a mastery mindset is far more likely to go on to be a pro.
The problem is that marketing in the modern Western world tries hard to make us abandon mastery in favor of quick fixes. American society, like most Western societies, seems to be waging war upon mindful mastery. We’re bombarded with slogans like “Get fit in two weeks!” or “Hit the jackpot!” as advertisers try to convince us that buying their products will allow us to “master” something instantly. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Mastery is built on long periods of practice without tangible results, which lead to bursts of improvement, which then give way to steady, deliberate practice once again. The journey toward mastery isn’t shaped like a steep incline, but rather a series of plateaus punctuated by spurts of progress. Learning to love these plateaus is essential to achieving mastery. Why do many of us find these plateaus so hard to bear? Well, typically because we’re one of three personality types that struggle with mastery – dabblers, obsessives and hackers. Which one are you?
Dabblers tend to approach new hobbies with a lot of enthusiasm. They might pick up an expensive tennis racket, dress like their favorite pro and pat themselves on the back after their first improvements. But they aren’t able to handle the plateaus and end up dropping out, justifying their decision with excuses along the lines of “It just wasn’t the right sport for me . . .”
The obsessive is determined to master his forehand in just one tennis lesson. The learning journey doesn’t matter to him, it’s results that matter. Most of the time, the plateaus after the first small spurts of progress will discourage obsessives enough for them to quit.
Finally, hackers are perfectly comfortable spending the rest of their time in the plateau. They’re happy just to hit the tennis ball over the net a few times when playing against a superior opponent, and aren’t particularly motivated to push themselves to improve any further.
Recognizing the behaviors that prevent you from mastering the skills you’ve always wanted to have is the first step to overcoming them. This includes finding the right instructor and seeing practice as a path, not just a task, which are crucial steps toward achieving mastery.
Of course, there are many skills you can teach yourself without too much help. But on the road to mastery, finding great instruction is a must. Instruction can come in many forms, from video tutorials, computer programs, real-life experiences or even a good old-fashioned book. They’re all valid, but social contact is particularly crucial to great learning experiences. For this reason, one-on-one or group instruction is definitely worth pursuing.
But how can you know if your instructor is worth sticking with? The best way is to observe and practice. Observing is pretty straightforward bu it teaches you to be mindful of what it takes to be a master. Practice, like instruction, is vital in your journey to mastery – but not practice as you know it. While most of us think of practice as repeating a task until we’re good at it, mastery requires us to think of practice as more than a simple action. Instead, think of practice as a noun, as a synonym for “path” or “journey.”
Surrendering to your teacher, visualizing with intention and confronting your limits are the remaining keys of mastery. What does surrender have to do with mastery? Well, it refers to the need to surrender to your teacher and the demands of your discipline. Sometimes this means sacrificing your pride, too.
Say your top-notch tennis instructor, who you respect and trust, asks you to stand on one foot and hold the other foot against your back with one hand, while your other hand rotates in the air above your head. You could, of course, refuse and complain that you’d look ridiculous. But by doing so, you’ll miss out on what the exercise teaches you – improved balance, for instance. Though your instructor might sometimes ask you to do things that you don’t understand, if you trust their wisdom and want to benefit from it, you’ll need to put your pride aside and surrender to them.
Next, intentionality is the ability to visualize yourself succeeding, and is a technique that golf professionals, for example, rely on heavily. Take international golf legend Jack Nicklaus; he believes that a successful shot consists of 50 percent visualization, 40 percent set-up and just 10 percent swing!
Finally, edges are those moments when you’re confronted with a challenge and, therefore, the opportunity to exceed your own expectations. Masters recognize an edge as a chance to grow, and they’ll concentrate their efforts to make sure they make the most of it. How do you know when you’re facing an edge? It’s a pretty familiar feeling. For dabblers, the plateau is an edge. For the obsessive, it’s their inability to understand their own limits, while hackers rarely stay on a path long enough to reach an edge in the first place. The next time you feel you’re facing a task that you simply can’t complete, you’ll need to choose between giving up or focusing hard to overcoming the obstacle. The master will always choose the latter.
Say you decide to follow the path of the master. You’ve told your friends, have gotten into the rhythm of practice and feel great. But then, all of a sudden, it happens: a backslide. Well, there are three steps you can take. The first is to surround yourself with people who have already made it through the same challenges you are currently facing. They’ll understand exactly what’s going on when you push up against that ceiling. The next step to take is to ensure you have the right approach to your goals. Remember how our desire for instant success and recognition is counterproductive to mastery? The master finds joy in practice itself, and that should be your focus too. In other words, if you reach the top of the mountain, keep on climbing!
Finally, work hard to stay consistent in your practice and learning. You can even make routines more engaging by turning them into rituals that give you time to reflect on the task at hand. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observed that this is what master surgeons do when they wash their hands the exact same way prior to every operation – they create a ritual for themselves to focus their minds more deeply.
Move your body, set priorities and accept commitment to give yourself fuel for the journey ahead. Just like Kungfu panda, keep kicking and practising. But first, figure out whether you are a hacker, dabbler or obsessive to get that maximum result.
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