The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Nine Thoughts On Mastery

Yesterday, in a discussion concerning the “10,000 Hours” standard for excellence, the following post appeared in the discussion: 

many times I was better at things after getting a handle on what was going on than people who'd been doing it for years. But I get lazy and don't try to improve on that innate ability, I'm never going to be an expert at the thing.”

(I’m going to assume the person meant “IF I get lazy…”)

This touches on so many issues about excellence, life paths, emotional focus, and so forth that I wanted to re-visit this entire area.  I am hugely grateful to teachers, friends and role models such as Steve Muhammad, George Leonard, Dawn Callan, Mushtaq Ali Al Ansari, Larry Niven, and  Harley Reagan for components of the following observations: 

1) “Mastery” is here defined as unconscious control of the “basics” or elementary components of the skill, such that you can, under pressure, spontaneously create self-expressive actions.

2) Because an expert generally develops his capacity to criticize his work FASTER than his ability to flow and create, it is important to suspend judgement at times and just let it happen.  His work will never be perfect, and the self-critical faculty can be DEVASTATING, creating word stoppage (for instance: “writer’s block”).  

3) If we define “Mastery” as a verb as well as a noun, there can be great advantage.    Consider a path of daily action, daily commitment.  A lifetime commitment to this path is a commitment to “Mastery.”  You are a “Master” when you have absorbed your basics, and commit to practicing daily (or multiple times a week) for the rest of your life.   

4) This doesn’t mean that you are the best.    Or even speak specifically to some objective standard of excellence.  There will ALWAYS be people further along the path.  But you know what?  They are the same distance from the horizon that you are, and probably excoriate themselves for flaws in their work that you can’t even see.  Get the joke, and enjoy the ride.

5) Some people have greater “natural” skill…or better teachers and opportunities…or better “timing” in terms of the doors of learning, performance and perception that open and close at different times in their lives.   Every martial arts student knows about the “born black belt” who walks in the school with athleticism and attitude that are just absurd, and whips through the curriculum at mach speed.   If you let this discourage you, you will never reach YOUR excellence, which is your only task.

6) If YOU are one of those who learn (initially) at Mach speed, don’t let it get to your head.  Sooner or later you will hit the performance wall, and progress will start coming more slowly.  Further, if you let your initial success go to your head, you will slack off on practice, and eventually be out-performed by the “tortoises” in the world who simply plod their way to victory.  The reason so few people reach true excellence is that most don’t have the emotional juice to keep going when they hit this plateau.

7) At some point you will transform.  If you work at any discipline deeply enough, honestly enough, you will learn new things about the world, and yourself.   The ego will resist this transformation: it means ego-death.    It will never give you direct warning that this is what is happening. Rather, it will distract you with “boredom”, repel you with “fear”, entice you with other opportunities, convince you that you never really wanted it in the first place.
IT IS 100% PREDICTABLE that you will be challenged in this way at some point in your journey.  Get ready for it.

8) In other words, a “Master” isn’t better than someone else.  They are better than they used to be, have absorbed the fundamentals of their art or discipline so that they can execute without thought (opening the doorway to emotional expression), accept the fears and doubts that stop others, and have embraced their discipline for life.  

9) I personally have seen these aspects in every discipline I have committed to: writer, teacher, husband, father, martial artist, yogi.
The same stuff. The same traps. One of the reasons it is critical to commit to multiple arenas of discipline is so that you can learn the ego traps, see them from multiple directions, and begin to recognize your demons no matter what reasonable guise they may appear in.

It is my belief that we should all aspire to mastery in some arena of our lives, to choose a mountain to climb and take at least one more step every day.  One more step along the path.

And although there will be countless others ahead of you, the others walking the same road will likely bid you welcome, and wish you well.

So long as you commit to doing the same for those who follow you.


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