This week’s focus is on the book Mastery by Robert Greene. We start with a quote from the book that, in some ways, contradicts its own thesis that mastery is available to all:
We prefer things that can be reduced to a formula and described in precise words. But the types of intuitions discussed by various Masters cannot be reduced to a formula, and the steps they took to arrive at them cannot be reconstructed.
Consider the last three words: “cannot be reconstructed.” Therefore, cannot be replicated, manufactured, or mass-produced. The ironclad rule of mastery is that there can’t be many masters.
Just Show Me What I Need To Do
The prevailing popular literature suggests that anyone can become a master at anything if you just do X or Y. This suggestion might not be as literally blunt as it sounds but it’s certainly implied. Consider the mere titles of psuedo-clickbait like this:
- 10 Steps To Master Anything
- Master A New Skill With This Plan
- The Five Step Plan To Mastery
- How Do I Master Something?
There it is. The whole recipe. Right there in those articles. But if cooking has taught me anything, it is that only novices need recipes. Similarly, as Gary Klein taught in the best book on decision-making, novices must make plans. And I think novices, like me, read books like this. What do I have to do? Someone just tell me. Give me the checklist, the plan, the shortcut.
Robert Greene veers into some of this territory (follow this book and become a Master!) but more so from a place of observation, trying to find patterns from historical examples. Reading this book doesn’t make you a master in any way. Nor does it invalidate your attempt to gain mastery. I think the greatest value this book provides is affirmation. It’s a gut-check on what you’re doing today and whether or not you really, really want to continue.
The Price You Pay
If you don’t get what you want, it’s a sign either that you did not seriously want it, or that you tried to bargain over the price. —Rudyard Kipling
So it comes down to this: the price. All week, we’ll examine how much mastery will cost, in time and effort and money. What’s it really going to take?
In the time category, the cost is more than you can probably measure. As Robert Greene writes,
You must come to embrace slowness as a virtue in itself. When it comes to creative endeavors, time is always relative. Whether your project takes months or years to complete, you will always experience a sense of impatience and a desire to get to the end. The single greatest action you can take for acquiring creative power is to reverse this natural impatience. You take pleasure in the laborious research process; you enjoy the slow cooking of the idea, the organic growth that naturally takes shape over time.
Emphasis added. Here’s another quote to put it more simply:
When it comes to mastering a skill, time is the magic ingredient.
It’s the one ingredient few really want to give. Probably because of a lack of the second element: desire. We’ll examine that particular element a bit more tomorrow.
What Do We Mean When We Say Mastery?
Suffice to say, time and desire is the recipe. That’s all there is. No go forth and become a master.
Not very helpful is it?
It doesn’t comport with a lot of the literature but it clarifies. So this week may be a wake-up call. It certainly is for me. The more I read this book, comparing it to the popular articles and other such literature, the more I’ve come to understand the high price for mastery and, worse still, the high price for misunderstanding its real costs.
I’ve also come to understand the abuse of language. We say we want to “master” a certain skill when, in fact, we don’t. We get too bound by a dichotomous thought and consider someone either a novice or a master with nothing in-between. Let’s liberate ourselves from this idea with the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition.
In this model, I think the vast majority of us talk about “mastery” but really mean either proficiency or expertise. These are levels just below mastery that are more well-known, more tactical, and—frankly—less costly. So as we progress through this week of examining mastery, my hope is to help us all understand what mastery really requires. What is the price? Whatever we currently think it is, I guarantee it is far greater than imagined.