The pursuit of mastery

As you look towards the coming year and consider our goals, what are you aiming at? Mediocrity? Odds are, you set big, bold goals for yourself to improve your life in a radical way. But radical improvement requires a radical approach to life, one that moves beyond the attitude of “good enough” or mere competence and wholeheartedly embraces mastery.

In his 1992 book Mastery, author George Leonard lays out what mastery is and how to achieve it in any discipline. The book begins with a strongly stated commitment to growth mindset: Anyone who is willing to commit themselves to the disciplined pursuit of mastery in a given field is capable of achieving that mastery. The Michael Jordans, Mozarts, and Elon Musks of the world have raw talent, of course. But raw talent counts for little without persistence. More to the point, with persistence anyone can make up for a deficiency in natural talent.

Writing in the early 90s, Leonard viewed the culture negatively as obsessed with get rich/fit/happy quick schemes and instant gratification. People had difficulty tapping into their potential because society was tugging at them every which way and preventing them from pouring the years required into mastering a skill. Yes, years.

Leonard sees personal improvement as the long game, a true lifelong journey. But not in a cliched way. Rather, the way people learn is simply structured in a way that necessitates years of dedication to master a skill.

Thus, in Chapter 1 Leonard lays out a roadmap to mastery and then hammers home the idea for the rest of the book. It is all too easy for us to see learning as a smooth upward trajectory—pure progress. If we try our hand at something and hit a wall, we figure that we’ve just hit our limits and turn elsewhere.

Leonard’s roadmap is a welcome alternative to this despairing view. For Leonard, mastery exists in the plateaus, in sticking with practice and repetition especially when there is little discernible payoff. Persist at your current level long enough, and you will experience a burst of growth and new competency. Then you will likely backslide a bit before hitting another plateau. And the cycle repeats.

If this sounds difficult, that is because attaining and maintaining mastery is difficult. Knowing what the road to mastery looks like, that it will be frustrating and often boring, is very helpful. Commit to mastery. Know that the road will be long and difficult. But also know that the goal is more than worthwhile.

Mastery by George Leonard is available for purchase here.

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