Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-term Fulfillment
By George Leonard
Plume, 1992

Yes, the title sounds like a tacky self-help book. And this is, in fact, a self-help book — but it’s not tacky. On the contrary: even though it’s short, it’s also profound. The author, who died in 2010, held a fifth-degree black belt in Aikido. (The book is suffused with lessons from martial arts and Zen.) He was also President Emeritus of the Esalen Institute, editor of Look Magazine, and a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot. In other words, an experienced leader.

Mastery matters. You can be intelligent, educated, proactive, responsible, etc. — but you still won’t realize your true potential if you don’t set yourself on a (lifelong) mastery journey. What is mastery? As Mr. Leonard points out, the term resists definition, but you can recognize it in the actions of athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, etc., who are committed to excellence. (The late Rush drummer Neil Peart comes to mind.)

You don’t “achieve” mastery. Instead, it’s an ongoing journey from newbie (“whenever you decide to learn a new skill”) to highly accomplished practitioner — and beyond. “Beyond” because the journey doesn’t end; like Mr. Peart, masters keep learning and growing throughout their lives.

How do you do it?

To put it simply, you practice diligently, but you practice primarily for the sake of the practice itself.

In other words, you don’t practice to achieve new capabilities, but because you love practice itself. (Zen!) The distinction is important because focusing on achievement can lead to frustration: The journey includes lots of plateaus, illustrated by this “mastery curve” that represents the “characteristic rhythm” of progress towards mastery:

The mastery curve

Most of us don’t follow this curve when we’re learning something new. Instead, we follow one of three dysfunctional patterns: the Dabbler, an individual who’s after novelty, the Obsessive, who’s after results, and the Hacker, who’s happy settling at one or other plateau. Reading about these characters is illuminating — and uncomfortable. I could recognize how I’ve dabbled, obsessed, and hacked about with several disciplines. (“Discipline” is a key word in this context.)

Part of the problem is the focus on goals and contingencies. (I read these as internal and external motivators and constraints, respectively.) But as the author points out, goals and contingencies aren’t in the present at the moment of practice; they exist in the future and the past, “beyond the pale of the sensory realm.” On the other hand,

Practice, the path of mastery, exists only in the present. You can see it, hear it, smell it, feel it. To love the plateau is to love the eternal now, to enjoy the inevitable spurts of progress and the fruits of accomplishment, then serenely to accept the new plateau that waits just beyond them. To love the plateau is to love what is most essential and enduring in your life.

For someone on the path,

[practice] is best conceived of as a noun, not as something you do, but as something you have, something you are. In this sense, the word is akin to the Chinese word tao and the Japanese word do, both of which mean, literally, road or path. Practice is the path upon which you travel, just that.

Staying on the path is hard. The book offers five guidelines that help:

  1. Understanding homeostasis, the tendency of systems to resist change
  2. Being willing to negotiate with this resistance
  3. Developing a support system
  4. Following a regular practice
  5. Committing to lifelong learning

You must cultivate a beginner’s mind. Mr. Leonard also suggests that to be a learner, you must be open to being a fool:

By fool, to be clear, I don’t mean a stupid, unthinking person, but one with the spirit of the medieval fool, the court jester, the carefree fool in the tarot deck who bears the awesome number zero, signifying the fertile void from which all creation springs, the state of emptiness that allows new things to come into being.

Confronting that void can be scary — and thrilling. Much depends on your attitude. It’s hard work, and there are pitfalls along the way. (The book covers thirteen.) But it’s not impossible; many people have traveled similar paths before. Is it worth it? That’s up to you. There’s no achievement at the end; being on the path — loving the path — is the aim. Should you decide to embark on the journey, this book is a good guide.

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