Wednesday, July 8, 2020

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: Mastery - What Does it Take?


"Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master.  For this reason, mastery demands all of a person."  Albert Einstein 

In my previous Wednesday Wisdom, I distinguished between Level 4 learning, "Unconscious Competence," and Level 5 understanding, which I call "Mastery."  

As I explained there, the drawback of being an Unconscious Competent is that, because you do not understand the what, when, how, and why of your skill, you cannot intentionally improve your own performance nor can you explain to someone else how they can get better. That difference clarifies why I can (sometimes) raise large and beautiful vegetables but I cannot guide Becky in doing the same, nor can I, without a significant additional investment in my learning, step up my own game in the garden.

If you're considering achieving Mastery, whether in gardening or in any other facet of life, here are three principles to keep in mind.

  1. Achieving Mastery requires massive amounts of toil and sacrifice.
"If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all." Michelangelo

A Master makes it look easy. However, what cannot be seen by the casual observer are the countless hours and days and years the Master has invested in polishing his craft, and the pain, sacrifice, and rejection he has endured along the way. Masters must often forgo many of life's enjoyments that most of us take for granted in order to focus on their area of specialty.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin on the almost inhuman amount of time, toil, and sacrifice Masters are required to expend to achieve Mastery:

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert - in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time.

Using the example of music, Gladwell says that to become a world-class musician, even for an artist who has sufficient talent to gain admission into a top music school, "the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the very top don't just work harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder."

Isaac Stern, perhaps the premier violinist of his day, expressed succinctly what is required to reach the peak of his profession. He was once met by an adoring middle age lady after a concert. She gushed "Oh, I'd give my life to play like you!"

"Lady," said Stern tartly, "That I did!"

2.  You must love your craft to achieve Mastery.

"Though you can love what you do not master, you cannot master what you do not love." Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Masters do not toil with gritted teeth, dreading each of those ten thousand hours Levitin and Gladwell say are required to reach the apex of their specialty. The secret to Mastery is circular: you must do what you love and you must love what you do. Otherwise, it never happens.

"You can only become truly accomplished at something you love," wrote Maya Angelou. "Don't make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can't take their eyes off of you."  

In my world, I have seen Masters in the so-called mundane things of life. I've seen Master Carpenters. I've seen Master Gardeners. I've seen Master Fishermen. I've seen Master Decorators and Master Cooks and Bakers. I've seen Master Painters. In every case, I've seen them smiling as they work. They do not count the hours they spend, for their efforts are literally timeless.

Perhaps most importantly, I've seen Master Mothers and Fathers and Grandparents and Aunts and Uncles. They love being parents. They love the minutes and hours they spend with their grandchildren. They can't wait to see their nieces and nephews again.

One of the grandest mothers I know once described her yearnings as a young adult: "All I ever wanted to do was be a mother, and when our children came, every day was pure joy to me. Even with dirty diapers and runny noses and skinned knees, I loved being my children's mother."

If you would be great at anything, find what makes you happy and do it joyfully and repeatedly until you are a Master at it. For that is the only way to achieve Mastery.

3.  Achieving Mastery is a journey, not a destination.

"When you can see mastery as a path you go down instead of a destination you arrive at, it starts to feel accessible and attainable. Most assume mastery is an end result, but at its core, mastery is a way of thinking, a way of acting, and a journey you experience." Gary Keller

I will admit that I'm not a good road-tripper. I am so narrowly focused on getting there that I fail to recognize and enjoy what might be interesting along the way. I just want to arrive at the terminus, get out of the car, and call it a day. Hence, I will likely never become a Master traveler.  

The compulsion to "get there" is ruinous to achieving Mastery.  

Which is not to say that along the road to Mastery there's not a drive to keep pushing forward. Having a drive for excellence is essential. Without it, no one achieves greatness. But the Master enjoys the path he's on and he loves what happens along the way. He gleans from it; he grows from it; he learns from it and discovers what he needs to achieve Mastery.

It also doesn't mean that the journey to Mastery is not marked with goals and milestones; it is. The path to Mastery is not a random amble. It is intensely intentional and purposeful. But those goals and milestones are only steps, not destinations. Becoming a Master is about the experience itself. It is complete immersion.

Is there a facet of your life in which you are committed to achieving Mastery? Are you ready to invest almost immeasurable Toil and Sacrifice? Love of your Specialty? A Commitment to the Journey? Are you prepared to pay such a heavy price?

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