The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Thoughts on Mastery

In a few hours I climb into the truck and start driving back to Cali.  Tonight, I’ll sleep in a little town called Monroe, Louisiana.  Tomorrow, Maybe Abilene Texas (as long as they have AMC.  I’m not missing Breaking Bad!).

I’ll be listening to Sherlock Holmes short stories, and the multidisciplinary Big History audios (my favorite Teaching Company lessons, covering the history of the entire universe.  Yow!) and thinking. A lot.

Who am I now?  What do I want to do with my life?   What do I want to teach?  Write?   If I was emptying myself out, the most important 20% first, what would that be?  What is the most important gift I can give the world, as a way of saying “thank you” for giving me everything I ever wanted as a child?
So strange.   As a boy I wanted to master martial arts and writing, and the art of loving and living with another human being.

To do that, I had to define what “mastery” was.  Tricky subject, because of the media images we accept in such arenas.    But having been around people considered in the top .1% of various fields, people totally committed to their crafts, people who other experts consider “masters” I began to compare what they were saying about it, this sacred thing, this holy grail of human performance.

Because that was what I wanted.  And a few things kept cropping up in common between all arenas of human life, things said by these “masters” and more importantly…by the people who were clear and powerful enough to lift others up to this almost mythical level.

1) Mastery isn’t a noun.  It is a verb.  It is a path, and those who are committed to that path, wherever they are upon it, may be masters.

2) Mastery isn’t about complicated skills.  It is about simple skills, drilled to the point of unconscious competence, such that they can be re-combined into complex patterns even under stress.
3) Mastery isn’t a mask, not something you “put on”.  It is a natural expression of who and what you are.   You write the way you talk.  You fight the way you live.   You love others as you love yourself.  It isn’t a big deal.  It’s just what you are.

4) Mastery isn’t a matter of learning something new.   It is more a matter of cutting away the inessential.  In that sense, in life there is a point of gathering together, and another point of throwing away.   And while masters continue to learn their entire lives, it isn’t that they are learning “more stuff”.  They are seeing deeper and deeper connections within and between the things they already know.

5) Masters see the path, not themselves.   They know that the concept of “mastery” is a joke if it is supposed to mean you are complete.  Hell, in martial arts, most beginning students think a black belt is the end of a process.  Yeah, the process of being a beginner.  It is analogous to “touch typing”—you know where your fingers and thumbs go on the keyboard, but that doesn’t make you a writer.

6) Masters don’t compare themselves with other people.  Not often.    When they do, they are slipping out of that state, and into ego.  Mastery comes from the real you, the hidden you, the unconscious you.  Oh, you can certainly piss a master off and get that ego going, but they often are somewhat embarrassed afterward.  They know that no matter how far or how fast you go, everyone is the same distance from the horizon.

7) Masters are somewhat embarrassed by the term “master.”    They know what it meant to them when they began the process.  And now that they have surpassed their original dreams, all they see is how much more they don’t know.

I remember years back, after a morning martial arts class, I went to breakfast with my classmates, and was grousing about my performance. One of the other students, a black belt in another system who thought highly of my skills, stopped me.   “Steve, don’t say that,” she said. “If someone as good as you are still feels insecure, what hope is there for the rest of us?”

And I got it.  While the process of growth is endless, and the labels without ultimate meaning, the concept that someone can spend forty years practicing a discipline with all the heart and energy you have, and still feel like a beginner can be depressing to someone who is not learning the inner game.  Who is building a wall around their insecurity.

About thirteen years ago I was teaching a martial arts workshop with a fine young black belt.   Afterwards, we were talking, and he got very quiet.   “When will I stop feeling like a fraud?” He asked.  “When will I believe in myself?”

I had no answer.   About seven months later, he blew his brains out.  When I heard, I realized the depths of his misery, of the “impostor syndrome” that was crippling him, of the fact that he had armor-plated his fear rather than actually draining the swamp.  And the demons had simply bred in the dark until they destroyed him.

And grasped that so many of us seek a way out of that darkness. We seek masters, the golden few who have achieved some standard of skill, or strength, or happiness.  We don’t want to know about their insecurities.  Don’t want to know about their sadness.  We want to know how they got there, and that it is worth the journey.

So…the term “master” isn’t about the master.  It is about the student.   About the need to believe in something worth fighting for in life.

And I know that despite all of the struggle, the sense of incompletion, the failures and heart-crushing setbacks…that my life is wonderful.  I have my soul-mate, even if she drives me crazy sometimes.   I have my writing career, all of the fans and money and awards and acclaim…even if there are ups and downs and side-ways ripples.  I have my martial arts, even if I surround myself with people so much better than I am that it feels like I know nothing. But they accept me as a brother on the path of mastery.  If I accept the gifts they have given me, I don't have the right to luxuriate in insecurity.

Wow.   I will never walk away from my family.   Never stop writing and teaching.  Never stop practicing the martial arts I love.

I guess that makes me a master, whether I laugh myself silly thinking about it or not.  And all I want to say to others is that you really can achieve your dreams, but grasp that the doubting voices will never shut the @#$$ up completely.   It’s their job to natter.   It is yours to walk the Path.

In other words: sharks and icebergs and undertow and all…come on in.  The water’s fine.

(P.s.—remember the special “moving sale” on MASTERING F.E.A.R, THE LIFEWRITING YEAR LONG and THE ULTIMATE WRITING BUNDLE”.  Good until I reach L.A. Next week!)


Sarah said...

"And grasped that so many of us seek a way out of that darkness. We seek masters, the golden few who have achieved some standard of skill, or strength, or happiness. We don’t want to know about their insecurities. Don’t want to know about their sadness. We want to know how they got there, and that it is worth the journey."

That would be it in a nutshell.

It is a rainy Saturday morning here and I have been sitting with my eyes closed listening to the rain and thinking about what I am going to write in the story to include with the Christmas cards. It is going to be about beavers and frogs and rain and the harvest moon. I am ignoring the voice in my head that says "Nobody wants to hear what you have to say." That would be one of my demons. It is Christmas weekend here. I know Christmas is months away, but I live on a tight budget and I have to find ways of making things or coming up with special items to give to my family. I want them to know I care about them even though I have no money to spend.

I hope your drive is safe and I look forward to hearing any interesting happenings along the way if you decide to write about them.

Jerry611 said...

This post resonated with me. I know the feelings of being an impostor in a complex field very well. I'm minded of the faintly pejorative saying "jack of all trades, master of none" and reflect there doesn't seem to be a parallel proverb about deepening mastery. What has helped me for years is a passage from a novel by Doris Egan, The Gate of Ivory, which I read in 1989, and have returned to many times since.

Theodora is stranded on an alien world, and is taking lessons with a healer for a few months while things straighten out.
I put it out of my mind and went out to the hills to do my class with Vale. I was at a difficult time in my training; I was somehow supposed to synthesize all the modes of thought and all the physical techniques and anything else I'd picked up on the way into some glorious whole.

"You shouldn't even have to stop to think about it," said Vale, grinning like a shark.

"I can't stand much more of this," I said. "It gets more and more impossible. Each time I think I've made progress you spring something on me that I see at once will mean months of study. I can't win. There's too much to absorb, it takes years, Teacher, and you knew that when you let me start."

"Well, well," he said.

"I'm not even a novice! I'm not even qualified to be a novice! I'm still at the beginning of the beginning!"

"Well, never mind that," he said. "I've been doing this for half a century, and I'm just at the beginning of the middle."

"Is that supposed to cheer me up? If you're not an expert, what does that make me?"

"That's not for me to answer," he said. He knelt down beside me. "You have to begin somewhere, tymon, or you'll never begin at all. I don't know what this obsession is with expertness you foreigners have. You're not a machine."

Unknown said...

Out of that entire post, the paragraph that resonated with me is the exact one that resonated with Sarah, even though I feel differently about it. I want to know about their insecurities. I want to know about their sadness. It's peoples' darkness that is so interesting.

And thank you Jerry611 for that quote -- I always have trouble with beginnings because I guess I'm afraid how much work the rest will be.