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The word mastery is thrown around as a part of the vernacular, but have you ever paused to consider the true meaning of the word? What is mastery and what does it mean to pursue mastery?

We often hear stories of people who are on the path to mastery. But, what does being on the path to mastery actually mean? Is it something you can attain? Why should you pursue mastery?

“What is mastery? At the heart of it, mastery is practice. Mastery is staying on the path.”

-George Leonard

What is the definition of mastery?

  • Mastery is pursuing a goal for its own sake
  • Mastery is an endless path of improvement
  • Mastery is the process and mindset, not an endpoint
  • Anders Ericsson defines mastery as a path of purposeful and deliberate practice
  • Robert Green defines mastery as  “a form of power and intelligence that represents the high point of human potential” involving technical proficiency and social know-how
  • George Leonard defines mastery as a continual journey, and there’s no end or “perfection” of the skill—rather, the practice is the point in and of itself. Mastery is a long plateau with short bursts of improvement
  • Oxford dictionary defines it as a “comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject.”
  • Mastery helps you attain new levels of competence.
  • Pursuing mastery is a pre-cursor for flow states
  • Dan Pink defines mastery as pain, asymptotic, and a mindset.

“Mastery is a mindset: It requires the capacity to see your abilities not as finite, but as infinitely improvable. Mastery is a pain: It demands effort, grit, and deliberate practice. And mastery is an asymptote: It’s impossible to fully realize, which makes it simultaneously frustrating and alluring.”

– Dan Pink from his book Drive.

Upon doing a deep dive into mastery and several associated books and with my own experience, mastery seems to have qualities of curiosity, humility, commitment to exploration, patience, and transcendence.

I saw common themes in the academic literature and in several books regarding mastery. Today, I’ll talk about how mastery as it relates to well-being, flow, motivation, self-esteem, and mindset. You may also think of mastery being synonymous with Malcolm Gladwell’s interpretation of the 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers. We’ll debunk that myth in a bit. I’ll also tell you about some key takeaways from books that focus on Mastery and put that list in the show notes if it’s of interest.

So welcome to the ride and I’m excited to broaden the conversation on mastery.

You can pursue new levels of mastery throughout your entire life across different domains. You can even pursue mastery without being very good at the task that you’re doing. Pursuing mastery is choosing a path of doing an activity for the sake of the activity itself, not as a means to get something. However, you mainly attain things or recognition as a marker of your continued expertise.

George Leonard’s book, Mastery was the one that resonated most with me. He discusses mastery as an almost goalless process without an endpoint. As I’ve spent the last 20 years committed to endurance sports and mountain biking, I have experienced this process. In the beginning, you experience rapid improvement. Over time, you reach a plateau and the more proficient you become at something, the longer you are on the plateau. The plateau can be mundane and many people quit because they stop seeing improvement or they become impatient. The plateau is frustrating and over time, reaching for a 1% improvement and marginal gains take a lot of time and practice. And then you suddenly experience short spurts of improvement followed by another long plateau. Some people think that the plateau means that you’re at the end of the path. Certainly, as Dan Pink in his book Drive points out, mastery does pursue an asymptote (if you remember from math where the curve levels out but never reached a point). Mastery will always hover just beyond your grasp.

To that end, I started considering a different idea- that maybe mastery isn’t about continuous commitment to improvement. If you are doing an activity for the sake of the activity itself, that is a different concept than saying improving at an activity, for the sake of improvement itself. If you are on a long plateau without seeing improvement, you may stop. Or as you age or your situation changes, you may no longer be able to improve in the same way you were. The sake of activity is not necessarily about improvement. I think this is an important epiphany. Oftentimes, people think setbacks are bumping them off the path to their goals. Setbacks are the path, and viewing setbacks are part of the process to glean new insight can propel you forward.

The idea that mastery is not necessarily about improvement also made me think of something I heard Steven Kotler say on the Finding Mastery podcast way back in 2019. The neurotransmitter, dopamine is a big part of goal setting or wanting to get something. As you anticipate getting something, dopamine levels increase to drive your motivation. On the Finding Mastery Podcast in 2019, Steven Kotler poses the question if people are chasing dopamine instead of mastery. They are chasing the dopamine hit instead of mastery of the task itself. Chasing improvement can be analogous to chasing dopamine, so it becomes about dopamine and not about the activity.

This leads me to my first main topic. Goal setting and mastery.

Mastery and Goal-Setting

Some people believe that mastery is the outcome of years of goal-setting. But as you just heard, mastery is often defined as an asymptote. You can approach mastery, and the more competent you become, the harder it is to see measurable improvement. Over time, with the right process and practices in place, you become more skilled.

What does goal-setting have to do with mastery? For starters, both can be defined as a process; as doing something for the sake of the thing itself. Goals create direction and help you assess purposeful and deliberate practice, pausing to assess progress, and are often accelerated with the aid of a coach, teacher, or mentor.

In short, mastery is a never-ending quest for process-based goals. Here’s a quick refresher on goal setting. The outcomes of these goals may be data points on the growth curve, and the goals also define who you are and what you stand for.

Process-based goals and pursuing mastery are closely linked.

I’d be remiss to talk about goal-setting without mentioning dopamine; the molecule of more. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and is an instrumental part of goal setting and the anticipation of getting something. As you anticipate getting something, dopamine levels increase to drive your motivation. Just like chasing outcomes, we can be prone to chasing dopamine. We set more and more goals, wanting to finally feel like we are enough, but dopamine will not do that for you. Chasing dopamine instead of mastery would manifest as doing tasks or processes don’t incorporate deliberate practice. Dopamine can be impacted by focusing on the outcomes and extrinisic motivators. IT is said that dopamine is the chemical of intrinsic motivation, but different areas of the brain are impacted by activities you do and get an award and activities you do where you don’t get an award. An example would be going out doing more intervals when you should be resting or working on technical riding because doing intervals make you feel validated, but maybe that isn’t the best use of your training time for growth. Chasing dopamine instead of mastery could also potentially be avoiding the mundane tasks of mastery (like sitting down to write a long essay or even fold laundry) by doing other things. That example may be a stretch, but my point is you can chase things to have a feeling without doing the activity of interest for mastery. When dopamine, goals, just manageable challenges, and the idea of mastery line up, then you’re golden. More on that in a little bit.

Effective goal-setting and motivation are also linked to the type of motivation you are chasing. You may have heard of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation, or even autonomous vs control motivation. Control motivation is doing something because someone else told you to whereas autonomous motivation is about having a sense of agency and choice.

But what if you don’t know what goal to set or what to focus on to have some sense of mastery? Finding your purpose or activities you want to pursue can be another challenge. Deci and Ryan, researchers of Self Determination Theory say that autonomous motivation occurs in an environment where our interest and enjoyment align with our core beliefs and values. When we look at the pursuit of mastery, I would think that having your core values and beliefs be closely associated to the activity you want to engage be an important part of choosing what to master. So if you’re trying to find what activities you want to focus on, consider your beliefs and values. Robert Emmons goes deep in his book talking about how to find what we should master, suggesting we look at our childhood. He also suggests culture and even our parents steer us off the path of mastery for that thing we were born to do. It’s never too late. Personally, I associated with being an athlete when I was in elementary school. I wanted to be a pro soccer player, and later, a pro tennis player. I also thought about being a professional musician as I played the flute with mastery type interest. But that didn’t seem practical, so I did my bachelor’s and master’s degree in Electrical Engineering. There was something inside me that could not accept the career I chose. I knew it wasn’t my calling, and the drive to be a professional athlete and to want to help others became so prominent that I had to pursue it. The activities you do for mastery do not need to be your career, but if you are ignoring them because it seems too hard to start or the expectations of how you should be are too heavy, you’re missing out on an important part of life and wellbeing.

Back to motivation- in Drive, Dan Pink suggest that intrinsic motivation is linked to autonomy, mastery, and purpose which differs from self-determination theory of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Although, I’ve heard competence and mastery being used interchangeably. I think developing levels of competence is part of mastery, and it feels good to feel confident and competent in an area.

When it comes to mastery, it made me think of the pandemic. There were no start lines for athletes. Training truly became about doing a sport for the sake of sport itself, not to get to a start or finish line. This idea has been especially prominent in my life because due to 2 pregnancies and a pandemic in the middle, I didn’t see a start line for 3.5 years, but I never stopped being dedicated to my craft.

Mastery isn’t about getting a thing. It’s about doing a thing.

Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

Old Zen Saying

What about the 10,000 Hour Rule? What is Deliberate Practice?

Do you become master at something if you spend 10,000 hours doing it? Many people have heard about the 10,000 Hour Rule. But, it turns out that the 10,000-hour rule was taken a bit out of context in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. Gladwell was referring to Anders Ericsson’s research. In an interview, Ericsson stated that “I would argue that the key thing that people have misinterpreted is that it’s not just a matter of accumulating hours. If you’re doing your job, and you’re just doing more and more of the same, you’re not actually going to get better. There’s a lot of research to really prove that.” He continued to say, “With the musicians, they were working with their teachers, who constantly prodded them to try to learn new things. In the time that they were spending alone, they were really trying to push the boundaries, so they would gradually improve their performance while they were at the music academy. That is the kind of argument that we’re making. Just working harder or working more does not seem to be associated with high levels of performance. Rather, if you’re working with a teacher or a mentor who has attained this high level of performance, that individual can help you now design the kind of training activities that they may have engaged in in order to reach that higher level of performance.”

Of course, this idea makes sense when it comes to athletic training or training for any skill. It’s about quality over quantity, and quality can be impacted by mentorship.

Ericsson emphasizes the need for deliberate practice and purposeful practice. The deliberate practice encompasses focus with a specific goal or purpose, the person would receive feedback from a teacher or coach and is pushed outside his/her comfort zone, and the learner creatively works through plateaus. Taking it a step further to what Ericsson calls “purposeful practice,” it takes to become more defined as an expert in the field and under the guidance of an experienced mentor who helps guide the process. He says, “Deliberate practice is a purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there

A meta-analysis by Wang and Zorek examined the Theory of Deliberate Practice. Their findings stated that “fundamentally, the theory of deliberate practice posits that development of expertise requires incorporating a self-reflective feedback loop into the skill delivery or development (i.e., practice) process, rather than simply performing a task repetitively until mastered. To achieve maximal efficiency, time for self-reflection, and instantaneous feedback are vital for allowing the learner to self-adjust and make improvements before engaging in the next task. Mastery is thus achieved through repeated cycles of focused practice and self-editing, with each cycle emphasizing one or more aspects of a desired skill.”

Coming back to deliberate and purposeful practice, Dan Pink talks about the importance of having autotelic experiences that consist of clear goals, immediate feedback, and challenges well matched to our abilities. Authotelic means “having an end or purpose in itself.”

For more, check out Anders Ericsson’s book, Peak.

Mastery and Flow States

If you’ve heard the word “flow,” chances are you’ve heard the name Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He identified proximal conditions to flow or flow triggers in his research. That is, a set of conditions when universally met that will lead to more flow. A pre-cursor to flow states is matching just manageable challenges with skill level. According to Steven Kotler in his book, The Rise of Superman, he identified five powerful intrinsic drivers that lead to flow. They are curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy, and mastery. Are you starting to notice common themes? Coming back to dopamine, Kotler argues that dopamine is linked to increasing the first four intrinsic drivers, but not to mastery.

Focusing on curiosity, passion, purpose, and autonomy drive dopamine, but Csikszentmihalyi and Kotler imply that in order for dopamine to be part of the feeling of mastery, a set of conditions must be met. The conditions involve a challenge-skills balance to support dopamine and norepinephrine to create more focus. In other words, you want just managemeable challenges to meet your skill level. This balance is only 4%. Kotler says that we essentially are getting our biology to work for us by creating conditions for mastery and thereby flow state.

Flow is defined as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (1990).”

Mastery and Well-Being Theory

If you’ve heard of Well-Being Theory, then you’ve probably heard the acroynm, PERMA. When these elements are focused on, people flourish.

P- Positive Emotions

E – Engagement

R – Relationships

M- Meaning

A- Accomplishment/Achievement

Mastery is linked to engagement, and engagement is linked to flow state. In Seligman’s Well-Being Theory, the words engagement and flow are used almost interchangeably and require concentration. While in a deeply concentrated or flow state, the atmosphere of the mind isn’t about positive or negative thoughts, but is described as “no mind.” There are no thoughts.

Mastery, engagement, and flow states can be independent of comparison. Sure, when saying one person is a master of something, there is some underlying comparison involved. But mastery as a process isn’t about how you stack up compared to someone else. You may compare to previous versions of yourself, but mastery can even be narrowed down to a shorter time frame if you are comparing to yourself.

Mastery is about the present moment, and engagement is about being in the moment. Seligman (2012) says that engagement is “being one with the music.” In the PERMA model, both engagement and achievement are pursued for their own sake.

I would argue that engagement produces mastery.

Pursuing mastery may also soften the blow of the arrival fallacy (ever thought, I’ll be happy when…). Mastery is about the work or activity you are doing today, not what you’ll get when you become a master or how happy you’ll be in the future.

I also was thinking about how mastery and expectations are related. Expecting ourselves to improve at a certain rate can be discouraging when we are on a long plateau, and George Leonard posits we spend more of our time on the long plateau. So what are expectations in line with pursuing mastery?

Mastery and Self-Esteem

Self-esteem can be tricky when we tie it to achievements or even our competence, especially if we only feel competent relative to someone else. This can be a problem in competition if its viewed as a zero sum game. Read more on Self-esteem and competition. Watching a competition is a great spot to see impressive displays of mastery, but if you’re the competitor, how you view competence and the practice of your craft can be tainted by competition. An example would be someone starts out in a sport and progresses, but then dopes to improve performance. Doping is not on the path to mastery, and viewing competence based on outcomes or money take someone off the path to mastery.

“Winning graciously and losing with equal grace are the marks of a master.”

– George Leonard

So let’s talk about healthy self-esteem. Research from Tafarodi and Swann in 1995 states a healthy self-esteem has two key elements: self-worth and self-efficacy.” In other words, self-worth is about how you view yourself as a person based on values, morals, passions, and beliefs. Self-efficacy is confidence to execute a skill based on past successes or positive experiences. The more you do, the more you believe you can do. Self-efficacy is related to progress. When it comes to mastery, Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufmann says that the more successful you are at making progress toward your goals, the more confident you feel, and the two spiral upward toward a stable sense of mastery.” In Transcend, he discusses self-esteem as having components of self-worth and mastery derived from Tafarodi and Swann’s work.

So, pursuing mastery wisely can be key to having a healthy self-esteem since it can be viewed as one of the elements of a healthy self-esteem. That said, I don’t think pursuing mastery even means you have to be good at something. It means you enjoy an activity and are engaging in your curiosity to learn more.

If self-esteem is based on self-worth and mastery, the autonomy element comes into play. In a sense, self-esteem is linked to a sense of control. You can control your actions and your perception of your thoughts. You can control the effort you put in to gain self-efficacy, and you can engage in wise effort on the path to mastery.

In the Buddhist tradition, wise effort, or the purposeful dedication of our energy, is an essential part of the spiritual path

-Tara Brach

This quote led me down another thought train that I’ll address on another day; the difference between mastery of self and mastery of craft.

Mastery as a Mindset

The mindset of mastery is one of a willingness to try and fail, the patience to endure long plateaus, the confidence to be humbled, and the desire to work hard. The mastery mindset requires curiosity and creativity to continue to innovate and improve. The mastery mindset is related to mastery of self.

In several of the books I’ve read about mastery, it’s discussed that prodigies often do not have the mastery mindset because their talent never required them to work as hard. In George Leonard’s book, Mastery, he refers to a story from the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki. The script is below.

“In our scriptures, it is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn to run.

“When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse. If it is impossible to be the best one, we want to be the second best.” But this is a mistake, Master Suzuki says. When you learn too easily, you’re tempted not to work hard, not to penetrate to the marrow of a practice.” Suzuki says the best horse may be the worst horse because it never has to struggle.

How you view failure is also a key to a mastery mindset. Early talents who lost motivation due to a fixed mindset never learned to persist and improve upon process. A mastery mindset means you have to be willing to suck, even publicly. A mastery mindset is a beginners mind.

One of the challenges are we improve and become more proficient at our craft is that we may start glossing over individual steps and taking shortcuts.

Getting better can be more about our relationship to our actions instead of an upward trajectory of improvement. This is something I think about a lot when people ask me about aging and what happens when you start declining in certain ways that come with age. In The Passion Paradox, authors Stulberg and Magness write, “in an ironic twist, adhering to the goal of “getting better” can be especially powerful when it seems that you are destined to get worse. That’s because in the grand scheme of things, “better” is less about objective results and more about the evolution of your relationship with your passion. For many of the most passionate people, getting better is about becoming stronger, kinder, and wiser. “Better” is about how the practice of your passion transforms you as a person.”

I found that incredibly powerful. It also addresses how to have patience on the long plateau, especially if it seems like you won’t be getting off of it. A stronger, kinder, wiser person can also correlate to self-worth and therefore, self-esteem and well-being.

“Mastery requires both impatience and patience. The impatience to have a bias toward action, to not waste time, and to work with a sense of urgency each day. The patience to delay gratification, to wait for your actions to accumulate, and to trust the process.”

James Clear

Bottom Line

Mastery is about a deliberate and purposeful process. It’s about wise effort, and mastering both your craft and yourself. Mastery is about pursuing an activity for the sake of the activity itself, enduring and expecting the monotony of the long plateau, and isn’t only about getting better. It’s about passion, flow states, engagement, and connecting to intrinsic motivation.

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Books Referenced:

  • Mastery by George Leonard
  • Drive
  • Peak

If you want to work towards your goals and more, check out my self-paced online course: Moxy & Grit Mindset Academy.

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