The path to mastery, a long winded, mysterious road in which many have seemed to embark on, but very little factual information is shared about. Anecdotes and metaphors, quotes, inspiration, and motivational clips is all the guidance we can seem to find about becoming great at anything. This is all nice and well, but what do we actually do to become masters at something? Or at least good enough?
George Leonard delves into Mastery in his classic book and clears up the fog surrounding this topic. He shares why society leads us to the opposite of mastery, what kind of learning style is specifically stopping us from achieving mastery, and the actual keys to finding and staying on the path to mastery.
George Leonard learned about mastery as he struggled along the path to his Aikido black belt
I believe there is some great things to be found in reading this book if we pay attention, but the only way to truly believe and internalize the lessons is to live them. The number one lesson to take from this book is to get out there and take consistent action for what you want as much as possible for as long as possible. Not only for the rewards your actions will reap, but for the joy that comes in taking that action. I will go into some of the learning trends and patterns that you may get stuck in on your path to mastery – or better yet, on your path to learning and becoming good at anything.
Are you a Dabbler, Hacker, or Obsessive?
George Leonard names three of the most common learning styles that will derail you from the path of becoming a master and halt your progress at a dead end. See if any of these descriptions ring a bell in your mind. I have been guilty of following all three of them multiple times in my life, and I still do in many areas of my life.
The path of the Dabbler
The Dabbler is an extremely common learning style that fits right into our American culture. We have created a culture that values the quick fixes, the short term solutions, and the extreme highs and peaks of life. A culture of endless climax, if you will. The Dabbler’s motto of choice will be finding his passion or finding himself. That is why he dabbles or tries so many new things.
The Dabbler is in love with the novelty of newness, the rush of excitement when you start rapidly improving at something new, and the endless adventure. There is nothing wrong with craving new experiences or leaving something behind that is not meant for you. The problem arises every time the Dabbler encounter his first, inevitable, plateau in something he has taken up. Enthusiasm wanes and rationalizations begin. The cycle repeats itself. The Dabbler ends up becoming a Jack, if even that, of all trades and a master of none. While it may seem as if the Dabbler’s life is always changing, in reality only their external circumstances are changing, the Dabbler remains the same.
The path of the Obsessive
I definitely recognize myself in this archetype more than all the others. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a very extreme kind of person, throwing myself fully into things with little care for consequences. The Obsessive prides himself in this, refusing balance or moderation, preferring results over all else.
This pays off quickly, of course, and the Obsessive improves at a rate faster than most when he begins learning anything. The problem arises again when the inevitable plateau, necessary to development, occurs. Instead of giving up and seeking elsewhere when the novelty fades away like a Dabbler would, the Obsessive continues to seek ways to keep the fire burning and improve at a faster rate – trying to leap over the plateau. This works for a while, but is unsustainable, leading closer and closer to an epic decline that will cripple the Obsessive and anyone involved with him.
The path of the Hacker
The Hacker is different from the Obsessive and Dabbler. On the outside, the Hacker seems unworried with the novelty or continued improvement that these other characters possessed. The truth, however, is revealed when the Hacker continues to avoid opportunities for improvement and does just enough to get by. The best single word to describe the Hacker is comfortable.
The Hacker improves solidly at first and doesn’t give up or turn up the notch when he hits the plateau. He keeps at it. Soon enough, the Hacker has developed quite nicely at his skill or relationship. Then… he stays there. The Hacker is content to be decent at something, but fears or dislikes taking the risks and discomfort needed to improve. He ends up staying on an endless plateau while those around him continue to rise above.
The path of Mastery
We’ve seen the paths we take to avoid Mastery and what happens when we are derailed into these for significant periods of time. But what is the solution? Mastery is not dabbling, seeking endless thrills. Mastery is not obsessing, desiring a steep, rapid incline to the top. Mastery is not hacking, staying comfortable at a certain level indefinitely. Mastery is trusting the process.
Learning is not a straight upward curve and the Master realizes this. There are significant plateaus and regressions that you encounter along your way and the only way to get through them is to trust the process and learn to treasure the action over the result. It is ok to desire the fruits of your action: Money, fame, respect. But the plateau will destroy you if you do not learn to love the actual routine of learning. A Master knows consistent, dedicated action will eventually pay off, but the joy is in the action itself.
There are 5 key components to success on the path to mastery
- Seek out proper instruction.
- Practice. Practice. Practice.
- Surrender to the process.
- Be intentional in your effort to improve.
- Live at the edge of your comfort zone
Some days you’re on top of the world…
and other days, the world is on top of you with a deep choke sunk in.
Mastery is not the key to happiness (whatever that may be). Mastery won’t guarantee you an easy, pleasurable, or successful life. Mastery’s rewards will be found along the path itself. The enjoyment you derive from your effort, the flow and presence that comes with surrender, the insights you internalize from repeated failure and pain.
You don’t have to want to be a Master to learn something from this book. Everybody wants to learn something, improve themselves, or build better relationships. These lessons apply to any and all. Recognize if you are a Dabbler, Obsessive, or Hacker and strive to follow the path to Mastery. It will help, I promise.
“What a pity it is that war, with its terrible suffering and devastation, should often be more vivid than peace. In war, your comrades mean everything to you, life is unsure and thus precious, and you know that the sword is raised above you. Now it is peace. Your friends still mean everything, life is still precious, and look–why didn’t you notice it?–there’s the sword, still raised above you.”