The paradox of mastery

by Steve Brock on September 12, 2014

Fishing on the Deschutes

“A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

Wayne Gretzky

Gretzky’s famous saying applies to all forms of mastery: once you know your field intimately, you’re able to play ahead or see beyond the present situation, anticipating what will come next. But you only get to that enviable position through mastery. Otherwise, if you play beyond the puck as a beginner, you likely end up crashing into the wall.

So how do we achieve mastery?

That’s a bigger question than I can cover in one entry here. But let’s explore one aspect of it, what I call the paradox of mastery. You’ve likely heard the stat promoted by Malcom Gladwell and others that you achieve mastery after 10,000 hours of doing something. It’s a widely quoted finding.

It just may not be true.

This article does a good job of summarizing the more recent research on the subject noting that 10,000 hours was only an average and that it doesn’t apply the same to all kinds of activities.

What does seem to apply if you want to master something is interest. Seems obvious, but here’s where the paradox of mastery kicks in. Sometimes, when seeking to learn something new like fly fishing or even travel (for good travel is a learned discipline), you want to try and become good at it as fast as you can. You have interest, even passion, so you engage it and practice as much as you can.

All well and good until you practice beyond your passion.

Sometimes when learning something new, we simply try too hard too soon. Remember the point about how 15 minutes a day of practicing a musical instrument or new language will reap greater results than three hours in a single marathon session? The same principle applies to trying too hard.

Unless you really are striving to become a pro at a new area of learning, learn to do it for the simple reason that you love it. The word “amateur” derives from the Latin “amare” which means “to love.” We sometimes deride amateurs for their lack of skill but true amateurs, those who take on something new for the sheer joy of doing it don’t care. It is in the doing we find our satisfaction, not necessarily in the mastery. But here’s where the paradox of mastery comes back in.

You don’t have to be a pro at something but you do need to know enough to enjoy it. As my surfing coach Shaun says, “You have to reach that point of being stoked.” Once you hit that level of really loving it, you’re hooked. But many people give up before that point because they don’t get good enough to enjoy it. So you need to work to reach at least some degree of proficiency.

Once you do, the magic takes over: The better you get, the more you enjoy. The more you enjoy, the more you’ll push yourself to be better not because you have to, but because you want to.

Enjoying the process of learning is as critical to mastery as being really good at something. In fact, it’s hard to get to the latter without the love of the process itself. So enjoy every mistake along the way.

Going back to the Gretzky quote, one conclusion you could thus make about mastery is this:

Learn to be content with where you are and you’ll ironically proceed and improve faster than if you focus on where you aren’t yet.

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