The Art of Mastery

The Art of Mastery
Photo by Feelfarbig Magazine / Unsplash

Imagine it’s January 1st, the ideal day to set goals you won’t follow. Once again, the annual gym membership will expire unused, the utopia of tech abstinence will fade into oblivion, and the list of books will remain unfinished. By February 1st, 80% of us will not be on track to achieve our goals. Yet, the year carries on and we repeat this pattern.

Correction: I repeat this pattern, because every year, I fall through with my goals, at times even sooner than February 1st. Curiously enough, I talked with my mentors and did some research, only to learn the root cause of this issue lies with goals themselves.

The Problems with Goals

I learned that goals are useful for making progress toward them; instead, they are useful only for putting yourself into the of pursuing those goals.

I was pleasantly surprised.

How could goals cease to be useful once I’m in the process of achieving them? Well, it turns out that goals are effective direction-setting tools, not practice-generating ones. If you’re swimming across the English Channel, you don’t look up every minute to see you’re headed in the right direction. Instead, you look up once an hour to only verify that you are not headed in the opposite direction. To that extent, goals are useful.

The problem arises when we use goals as “reminders.” For then, goals themselves become impediments in our practice. For example, when you are under the constant pressure of scoring well on a test, that pressure is likely to distract you from studying well in the present. In contrast, when you are not under constant pressure, it’s easier to make tangible progress toward the goal of scoring well itself.

In essence, , simply because it diverts the mind from focusing on tiny, repeated efforts, to seeking shortcuts or quick solutions. (More on this later.)

But above all, the most glaring flaw with goal-setting is that those who succeed and those who don’t both have the same goals. Both you and I want to succeed in life and, if you’ve read up to here, both of us are genuinely interested in self-improvement. Yet, the fact remains that not all people succeed, despite having largely the same goals. The problem, then, must lie with goals themselves.

At this point, you’re likely thinking: “If I don’t set a goal to reach the Moon, how will I ever make progress?”

The answer to that is simple:

As outsiders, it’s convenient to ponder over the “big goal,” often at the cost ofcognitively taxing, small, incremental goals that are, in fact, prerequisites to the big one. Let’s say you literally want to land on the Moon. First, you need to have a safe launch, then, secure stage progressions, and finally, a soft landing. Ignore any one of these prerequisites, and you have a recipe for disaster.

NASA would attest to ignorance. In 1962, it destroyed the Mariner 1 five minutes after launch, when a hyphen was omitted from hand-scribing the mathematical code as part of the machine’s instructions. In 2004, NASA’s Genesis probe, carrying solar material, crashed in Utah because Lockheed Martin engineers had inverted the position of the probe’s accelerometers. (The craft thought it was decelerating into the Earth’s atmosphere, when, in reality, it wasn’t.)

The point, therefore, is simple: Don’t let the “big goal” distract you from its innumerable, small, constituent goals. The big goal lies in discrete worlds — either you achieve your dream, or you don’t. Whereas the small, constituent goals lie in a continuum — either you make progress toward your dream, or you don’t. Once you have set the big goal, forget about it and focus on the smallest, seemingly irrelevant, constituent goals.

Simply, embrace “micro-progress”

Tim Herrera, editor of Smarter Living at NYT talks about the magic of micro-progress, the highly-specific, incrementally beneficial goals, that concretize abstract goals like dreams. For example, my goal of “writing an article” can be concretized by a micro-goal of “open Google Docs and write one sentence a day”. Similarly, your goal of “reaching the Moon” can be concretized by many micro-goals of “Check your hyphens”, “Don’t invert your accelerometers”, and “Dot your I’s.”

Now, say, you have articulated your big goals and are focused on the small ones. Yet, sooner or later, a few roadblocks emerge: Difficulty in habit-forming and gradual depletion of will-power.

The question, then, becomes: How to make progress toward your goals?

The Many Powers of Habit

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes:

Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.

Think about training as a professional athlete. Besides grueling early morning practices, an experienced athlete would have to regulate her diet and be on a strict schedule. Now, if you’re like that athlete, read no further.

But if you’re like most people, you would work with your willpower, and at some point, lose patience and miss practice. This happens because willpower is a finite resource that depletes with use. Instead, habits are notfinite and are more sustainable. If you were to use your habits rather than willpower, you’re likely to stay on track for longer, attend more practices, and not lose patience.

The author Octavia Butler said:

First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit is persistence in practice.

That is not to say that “willpower is not important.” In fact, both willpower and habits serve their own functions. The problem arises when we mix their roles.

Willpower is useful for planning your goals, but habits are useful for actually making progress toward those goals

To master anything, then, requires the permanence of sustainable habits, not temporary willpower.

Now, say, you have set your goals and habits, and are in constant practice. You persevere for a few months, even years. Yet, after all this while, you feel as if your progress is stuck on a plateau.

It can be a difficult judgment call to make, then: Should you persevere or quit?

The Magic of Perseverance

I’ll let Jim Collins, a professor at Stanford, answer the question. Collins writes:

Picture an egg just sitting there. No one pays it much attention until, one day, the egg cracks open and out jumps a chicken! All the major magazines and newspapers jump on the event, writing feature stories — “The Transformation of Egg to Chicken!” “The Remarkable Revolution of the Egg!” “Stunning Turnaround at Egg!” — as if the egg had undergone some overnight metamorphosis, radically altering itself into a chicken. But what does it look like from the chicken’s point of view? It’s a completely different story. While the world ignored this dormant-looking egg, the chicken was evolving, growing, developing, incubating. From the chicken’s point of view, cracking the egg is simply one more step in a long chain of steps leading up to that moment — a big step, to be sure, but hardly the radical, single-step transformation it looks like to those watching from outside the egg. It’s a silly analogy, granted. But I’m using it to highlight a very important finding from our research. We kept thinking that we’d find “the one big thing,” the miracle moment that defined breakthrough. We even pushed for it in our interviews. But the good-to-great executives simply could not pinpoint a single key event or moment in time that exemplified the transition.

The answer, then, is clear: Practice and measure your progress like the chicken, not an ‘outsider’.

Enter “deliberate practice.”

For months, the chicken performs deliberate practice, a purposeful and systematic form of practice with the specific goal of taking birth, as opposed to just “practice,” which is usually mindless repetitions with a loosely-defined goal.

Deliberate practice is everything that practice is not. In their seminal paperThe Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, K Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Römer write that deliberate practice includes those activities that “have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance.” They mention three activities: “work, play, and deliberate practice.” Work includes your mandatory class project or your everyday job; play includes activities that are inherently enjoyable and don’t have an explicit goal in mind, like golf or ping-pong. Deliberate practice, however, includes activities designed only for improvement in a particular aspect of a skill, like practicing an etude to get better at an instrument.

Work, play, and deliberate practice are also mutually exclusive. They largely differ in terms of their goals, costs, and rewards.

The goal of “work” is first to get things done, not to help you improve. You may feel you are learning “on the job,” but in the strictest definition of learning and mastering any skill, “on the job” learning is not real learning. Instead, on-the-job learning helps you with just that, perform better on the job, because that learning is specifically designed for you to reach an actionable, acceptable level of competency, strictly required to get the task done, not to improve.

The goal of “play” is to enjoy the activity itself. Think of kids who can play the same game multiple times. Play is cooking, playing the guitar, and reading a book, things you don’t do with a specific purpose but do them for their own sake.

The goal of “deliberate practice,” however, is neither execution nor the activity itself. The goal is to repeatedly have structured practice sessions with constant feedback. Improvement, then, comes as a byproduct. The rewards of deliberate practice aren’t pleasing either. While work and play provide you with monetary and emotional benefits, deliberate practice gifts you boredom and monotony. (Think about repeating one dance move a thousand times*.* That is deliberate practice.)

However, if you want to take one thing from Anders Ericsson et al’s paper, it should be their empirically verified claim of the monotonic benefits assumption, that “the amount of time an individual is engaged in deliberate practice activities is monotonically related to that individual’s acquired performance.” Usually, this time is a period of 10 years for reaching expert levels of performance.

Simply, then, practice makes consistent, but deliberate practice makes perfect.

But, we forgot talent.

But what about talent, you might ask.

In the past few months, we have seen some world-class talent: Kawhi Leonard’s epic shot, Megan Rapinoe’s stellar goal, a never-ending Wimbledon final, the closest call in the Cricket World Cup, and finally, a breathtaking US Open final. From afar, these athletes appeared to have an “innate talent” and a “natural disposition” toward their sports. Take a closer look, though, deconstruct their journeys, and you’ll discover their “talent” is essentially the outcome of a consistent pattern of deliberate practice, right habits, micro progress, and long periods of plateaus.*r2hrWBZyzhxEd0SqGIzeWg.png

In the best resource I have found on mastery so far — a research papertitled The Mundanity of Excellence — the author Daniel Chambliss demystifies the notion of talent and argues why talent per se does not lead to excellence. He writes:

It’s easy to do this, especially if one’s only exposure to top athletes comes once every four years while watching the Olympics on television, or if one only sees them [athletes] in performances rather than in day-to-day training. Say, for instance, that one day I turn on the television set and there witness a magnificent figure skating performance by Scott Hamilton. What I see is grace and power and skill all flowing together, seemingly without effort: a single moving picture, rapid and sure, far beyond what I could myself do. In phenomenological terms, I see Hamilton’s performance “monotheistically,” at a single glance, all-at-once. “His skating,” I may say, referring to his actions as a single thing, “is spectacular.” With that quick shorthand, I have captured (I believe) at a stroke the wealth of tiny details that Hamilton, over years and years, has fitted together into a performance so smoothly that they become invisible to the untrained eye.Afterwards, my friends and I sit and talk about Hamilton’s life as a “career of excellence,” or as showing “incredible dedication,” “tremendous motivation” — again, as if his excellence, his dedication, his motivation somehow exist all-at-once. His excellence becomes a thing inside of him which he periodically reveals to us, which comes out now and then; his life and habits become reified. “Talent” is merely the word we use to label this reification.

In seeing a spectacular game of tennis once a year or a marvelous soccer game once in four years, we overlook the repeated failures that athletes go through, and instead attribute their success to an abstract entity we conveniently label “talent.”

Take Alex Honnold, the climber who free-soloed El Capitan last year in under four hours “with nothing but shoes and a chalk bag.”*Q5EN0rviIf37Cg-V1wDGgA.png

Now, you could say that Honnold is “talented.” But Honnold himself expresses that the feat felt “automatic” because he had memorized “thousands of distinct hand and foot movements.” In an interview with National Geographic, he said:

Once I found sequences that felt secure and repeatable, I had to memorize them. I had to make sure that they were so deeply ingrained within me that there was no possibility of error. I didn’t want to be wondering if I was going the right way or using the best holds. I needed everything to feel automatic.

Talent, then, is not the most accurate explanation for Honnold’s achievement. Rather, it’s only a mystic manifestation of many years of hard work.

Yet, we continue wanting to believe in the mythical notion of “talent” for a few reasons: one, it’s convenient, and two, it lets us off the hook.

Nietzsche put it very well when he said, “To call someone “divine” means ‘Here we do not have to compete.’” Yes, I want to be a talented programmer, but when I label the overachiever in my class a “super-talented, gifted, natural programmer,” I indirectly grant myself the licence to underperform. Yes, you’d like to be a billionaire, but if you think of Zuckerberg as a “natural entrepreneur,” you subtly insure yourself of failure. You think, “If I fail, it’s not because of my hardwork, but instead, it’s because of talent, which only few are born with.”

Chambliss summarizes it all when he elegantly demystifies talent. He says:

In the mystified notion of talent, the unanalyzed pseudo-explanation of outstanding performance, we codify our own deep psychological resistance to the simple reality of the world, to the overwhelming mundanity of excellence

Excellence is mundane

Daniel Chambliss continues to write:

Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence.

Excellence, then, like talent, is mundane.

Now, if you’re like me, you might be inspired to invest gigantic amounts of time in deliberately practicing your craft, carefully receiving feedback, and embracing micro-progress. Rightfully, then, you might also expectproportional rewards. Research, however, shows that reward is not always a function of the quantity of effort invested. Instead, it is a function of the quality of effort invested.

In the paper, Chambliss talks about what Mary T. Meagher, former Olympic swimmer and world-record holder, did to break the world record in the 200-meter butterfly race. He writes:

She made two immediate qualitative changes in her routine: first, she began coming on time to all practices. She recalls now, years later, being picked up at school by her mother and driving (rather quickly) through the streets of Louisville, Kentucky trying desperately to make it to the pool on time. That habit, that discipline, she now says, gave her the sense that every minute of practice time counted. And second, she began doing all of her turns, during those practices, correctly, in strict accordance with the competitive rules. Most swimmers don’t do this; they turn rather casually, and tend to touch with one hand instead of two. This, she says, accustomed her to doing things one step better than those around her.

Thus, it was the quality of Mary T. Meagher’s efforts that made all the difference, not the quantity.

In his study, Chambliss found that most athletes did not put in more hours of effort, but only changed the way they put in their effort. They would develop the right technique, the perfect discipline, the flawless action; they would treat practices as races, improve on the seemingly little aspects, and focus on getting small wins — “the concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance.”

Excellence, then, is not a quantitative phenomenon, but a qualitative one.

Mastering, not Mastery

If you have read up to here, you’re really passionate about mastering something. Now, we will get to the core of what mastery exactly is.

Intuitively, we all agree on the generic definitions of mastery, but to really understand it, we need to rigorously define it and eliminate any misconceptions. Strictly, mastery is not success and success does not indicate mastery.

Success is static; it’s a moment.

Mastery is dynamic; it’s a process.

Success can be a function of near wins; mastery is not even related to wins or losses.

Success is discrete — either you win or fail; mastery is continuous — you are on the path of mastery itself.

Success may not teach you grit; mastery, however, is only about grit.

Success is novel; mastery is mundane.

Mastery, then, is a deliberate process of being in a constant state of superiority of performance.

You might ask: If mastery does not guarantee success, why should one pursue it?

Simply, to be in a state of “flow.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a pioneer in positive psychology, talks about “flow”, a creative state when you and your activity are indistinguishable, and you are engaged with your activity to the exclusion of everything else. Mastery enables flow, and thus, even if mastery does not guarantee success, it is worth pursuing for its own sake.

In the end, then, it’s not about whether you “achieve” constant superior levels of performance or are able to build the next unicorn. Rather, it’s about being in the practice of mastering a thing, for mastering itself is more important than mastery.

As I progress on my path of mastering several skills, I know it will be hard. It already is. But the difficulty of it — and the prospect of consistently getting better — excites me. For you see, the process of mastering inherently difficult things is easily transferable to other disciplines. Which implies that if I can train the muscle of mastery using any discipline, I can easily transfer that muscle to master other disciplines. Which is why, mastering counts, not mastery.