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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Eliminate your variables

by Steve Brock on September 4, 2014

Salmonfly nymphsOn page 14 of the book The Care and Feeding of Ideas, author James L. Adams writes in part about how we learn to problem solve. He notes that we move through four stages which he illustrates with the example of learning to tie our shoes:

“There is a certain time in life when we do not know how to tie our shoes but are unaware of it (unconscious and incompetent). We then reach a stage where we become aware that we do not know how to tie them (conscious and incompetent). We then learn to tie them (conscious and competent). Finally, tying our shoes becomes a habit (competent and conscious). We know how to tie them, but do not need to think about it.”

This is a helpful framework to understand when you’re learning a new skill like, oh, say, fly fishing.

When I went out with the guide down near Bend, Oregon, I was at the stage of mostly being conscious and incompetent. I knew I didn’t know what to do, at least not in every way. And therein lies the problem.

When we try to become competent in a new area, there are normally so many variables to consider that you can’t manage them all at once. So a lesson I’ve learned that applies to fly fishing, marketing, travel and most of life is this: eliminate your variables. In short, concentrate on learning one aspect at a time and reduce the number of unknown factors or areas of incompetency. In so doing, mastery will come much faster than if you try and get good at a dozen things all at once, or at least that’s been my experience.

When I got back from my fortunate/unfortunate trip to Oregon, I jotted down a list of things I didn’t know a week before. They include the following (which may make no sense to you if you don’t fly fish: welcome to my realm of incompetency):

  • Tippet is just the missing part of your leader, not a separate concept or different kind of line.
  • Fly fishermen and women use bobbers. Only they use a more dignified term: strike indicators.
  • You can use two flies on one line (e.g. a nymph and a streamer).
  • Mending isn’t just a sewing procedure. It gets you a better drift and drift matters. A lot.
  • Small casts are more useful – and common – than large ones.
  • Caddis flies look like little moths when they fly.
  • Some “flies” are used as “wet flies” below the surface of the water.
  • Fish will strike a pattern they like but spit it out if it is the wrong size. Size matters.
  • You don’t have to use much effort to cast. Less is actually more when it comes to accuracy.
  • Set the hook (lifting your rod when the fish strikes) too hard and you’ll lose the fish.
  • Current is stronger and harder to walk in than I ever imagined.
  • I seem physically unable to cast two flies at the same time without tangling, at least most of the time (see point 3).
  • I like small rivers better.
  • Bald eagles chase ospreys for the fish the latter has snatched. But the eagles don’t always win.
  • Scary-looking insects aren’t all that scary in reality (see photo above of salmonfly nymphs on the Deschutes River).
  • It’s different fishing on your own versus going with a friend who eliminates most of the variables for you.

I wondered, “How could I not have known all these things?” But I didn’t. And as a result, I had to keep track of so many variables that it got overwhelming. Only after stepping away from the river for a while and coming back one evening where I just tried one fly pattern and one casting technique did I have success.


Because I eliminated my variables, reduced the number of things I had to consciously keep track of, and finally began to enjoy this wonderful sport of fly fishing.


If you haven’t already, you might want to check out other entries in this series on lessons on learning through fly fishing: Gone Fishin’, Hardware vs. Software, Knowing and Doing and Learning in Small Bites

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Knowing and doing

by Steve Brock on August 14, 2014

Fishing in YellowstoneA while back, I had lunch with my friend Al. We got to talking about the idea of experiential learning. I had noted that in general, Baby Boomers (roughly early 50’s to late 60’s) tend to focus on knowing something cognitively whereas Millennials (late teens to early 30’s) are more into the experience itself.

I was explaining that in the book I’m writing on meaningful travel, there are both stories and exercises/experiments. When I run the book by my Boomer friends, in general they focus on the stories and glance at the exercises making comments like, “Oh, I could do that.” But they never do. They assume that knowing about the experience is the same as having had it.

My Millennial friends look at the book and say something like, “I might glance at the stories, but I’d definitely do each of the exercises.”

The interesting thing about both is that each misses a major part of meaningful travel. Boomers think that cognitive awareness about something is enough which is like having someone explain to you what chocolate tastes like or reading about love without ever being in it. Millennials are more interested in collecting experiences, so they have the experience, but don’t take time to reflect on it. Instead, they are already moving on to the next experience.

These are, of course, broad generalizations, but see if they don’t ring true with your own circle of friends and acquaintances.

When I explained this to Al, he noted that this idea of separating knowing from doing is a modern concept. In biblical times, there was no such thing as knowing something intellectually without having done it. The only way to truly know something is to engage it experientially and then reflect on it. Which brings me back to fishing.

Before my recent trip to Oregon where my son and I went out with a guide, I had rented some videos from the library on fly fishing. I watched all the methods of casting and retrieving, tying knots and reading the water. I had the knowing without the doing.

Now, based what I’ve mentioned above, you might think that was insufficient and it was in terms of being able to jump in and fish well. But there is a value to having some knowledge before you attempt to do something.

Having prepped somewhat, I knew what to expect and look for. I understood the terms used. And most of all, I had a general mental model of what I was supposed to do. All of that helped.

But it wasn’t until I was out on the river, feeling the tension of the rod bending with the whip of the line or having the tactile sense of how the line lands on the water that the concept of fly fishing started to gel. It took doing for the knowing to be fully realized.

A little knowledge can be a good thing or a dangerous thing depending on what you do with it. If you expect that just knowing about something will suffice in place of the experience of doing it, you will be either disappointed or in denial. If, however, you realize that having a background understanding of something and then participating in it aren’t opposites but equally important components in truly knowing something, then you’re in the best place to learn something new.

Even something like fly fishing.

Read other parts of this series: Gone Fishin‘, Hardware vs. Software, Learning in Small Bites, Eliminate Your Variables and related entries: Doing it right – Part 1 and Part 2

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Hardware vs. software

by Steve Brock August 4, 2014

Sometimes your best investment is in your gear. Sometimes in the experience itself. But neither will help you learn something new if you forget how to learn.

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Gone fishin’

by Steve Brock July 25, 2014

Fishing and travel share many common traits like much waiting followed by moments of intense excitement. But there’s more to both than meets the eye.

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Hard trips and wonder

by Steve Brock February 16, 2013

After a hard trip, we can often experience wonder in ways that we’d normally miss. Especially when you’re standing in the sea and an inexplicable wave comes rushing at you out of nowhere…

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Meaningful travel and vicarious meaning

by Steve Brock July 1, 2011

The meaningful parts of meaningful travel often come to us vicariously through others as I learned from my dad while fishing on the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park.

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