When Mastery: Taking it Home by George Leonard hit the pages of Esquire’s May 1, 1987 “Ultimate Fitness” feature, along with John Poppy’s The Keys to Mastery, it went the viral equivalent of its time — lots of letters to the editor, requests for copies and reprints, and CEOs disseminating it widely within their organizations. “A navy carrier pilot . . . wrote that he had been having trouble landing the F-14 Tomcat on an aircraft carrier . . . ‘Insights from Mr. Leonard’s outline of the master’s journey gave me the extra 10 percent of mental discipline that I needed to make the trek down this portion of my path a relatively easy one.’” Interest in the article didn’t wane with time and Leonard became convinced that “the quick fix, fast-temporary relief, bottom line mentality” of the time didn’t work and was destructive to society — real fulfillment came from the long-term, essentially goalless, process of mastery. Drawing from his journey with aikido and Zen teachings, he expanded the article into the book, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment.
Leonard describes mastery as, “The mysterious process during which what is at first difficult becomes progressively easier and more pleasurable through practice . . . it resists definition yet can be easily recognized.” Malcolm Gladwell tells us “10,000 hours is the magic number to greatness,” but Leonard tells us it’s never-ending. Along the way, there’s no escaping the mastery curve — “relatively brief spurts of progress . . . followed by a slight decline to a plateau. . . Even if you’re shooting for the stars, you’re going to spend most of your time on a plateau. That’s where the deepest, most lasting learning takes place, so you might as well enjoy it.” Mastery’s not just for the talented or exceptional among us. Anyone who wants to do something and stay with it can achieve it — in one’s work, relationships, sports, musical pursuits, artistic endeavors, cooking, hobbies, you name it.
While we aspire to mastery in what we pursue, the journey is long and hard, causing some of us to veer off the path. Leonard observed that masqueraders show up in three distinct personas:
The Dabbler dives in with gusto. They love the gear, language, rituals, and newness of getting started and are thrilled at their first peak. Falloffs and plateaus deflate them. Enthusiasm wanes. Ultimately, “this isn’t right for me” wins out.
The Obsessive is results-driven. They stay after class to ask questions, devour books and podcasts, and make fast robust progress. When they regress or hit a plateau, they double down and go for results relentlessly. Urges for moderation go ignored. They keep making small spurts of progress followed by sharp declines. When the final fall occurs, it can be dramatic, and can leave carnage in the wake.
The Hacker after sorta getting the hang of the thing doesn’t go further. They only do enough to get by while others pass them up. “When your tennis partner starts improving his or her game and you don’t, the game eventually breaks up. The same thing applies to relationships.”
There’s no one size fits all. We can be a running Hacker, a Master at work, and an Obsessive in relationships. Even in one pursuit, we can at times be on the path to mastery, and at other times an Obsessive.
The five keys to mastery
The mastery must-haves, according to Leonard, are (1) get first rate Instruction — you can’t get to mastery without it. (2) Practice — not just making yourself practice, loving to practice for practice’s sake. (3) Surrender — to your teacher, your practice, and the discomfort of failures and small humiliations. “The beginner who stands on his or her dignity becomes rigid, armoured; the learning can’t get through.” (4) Intentionality — the “mental toughness to focus on a problem or goal, and the openness and imagination to see options and visualize outcomes.” (5) Playing the edge — challenging previous limits, taking risks for the sake of higher performance while knowing this is an endless journey.
“Most of the people I might think of as masters are just the ones who would never use the term in reference to themselves, ” Leonard observed, and went on to describe other qualities: Respect for experience — Dabblers, Obsessives, and Hackers are fascinated with tricks and shortcuts. Masters talk about experience. Enthusiasm — “Masters are shamelessly enthusiastic about their calling.” Generosity — Masters have a generous spirit. They give selflessly and hold nothing back. Zanshin — Japanese for “unbroken concentration” or “continuing awareness.” It is in them. They are in it. You can feel it when they walk in a room. Mastery is not pursued, it ensues from this oneness, this all-in-ness. Playfulness — Masters exude a childlike quality. “The most powerful learning is that which is most like play.” And, Perennial Student — no matter how much has been learned, masters see that “more and more wonderful teachings exist.”
That darned mirror
Anyone who knows me is wondering, with eyebrows raised, “does she own a mirror?” It’s true. I’m more than a little red-faced at my Dabbler tendencies. Somewhere along the way, though, a little self-awareness began to simmer inside — my subconscious didn’t like how dabbling felt one bit, and kept yelling at my conscious, until it finally broke through. I began to shift my behaviors and also noticed that the ‘stick with it-ers’ around me who had weathered storms and long plateaus were living rich, deep, connected lives — enjoying a wholeness, an integrity to the structure of their lives. My subconscious is grateful for my journey switch-up.
Hmm. I wonder… maybe all that dabbling was my path to mastery — it led to the just-right things to give myself over to. Either way, it’s truly never too late.
Sunday Morning Reflection
Where are you on the mastery path? Where are your Dabblers, Obsessives, and Hackers showing up? Any of them need a switch-up?
Sunday Morning: 125