By Leo Gura - June 22, 2013 | 7 Comments
Learn about Mastery — a simple, fundamental framework that explains why you keep failing and how to turn it all around into incredible, lasting success.
One of the single most important pieces of the self-development puzzle that I’ve come across is the book Mastery, by George Leonard. This quick-reading, no-bullshit, 167 page little book explains the process of mastering any area of your life that involves significant learning. This includes mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual excellence.
Why You MUST Read This Book Immediately
The human individual is equipped to learn and go on learning prodigiously from birth to death, and this is precisely what sets him or her apart from all other known forms of life. Man has at various times been defined as a building animal, a working animal, and a fighting animal, but all of these definitions are incomplete.
This article is going to cover most of the concepts from the book, but there is nothing quite like reading the source. So buy Mastery today. Understanding mastery as a framework is so important to your success that I recommend you study it several times to really “get it”.
Awareness of Mastery allows you to approach any new endeavor with proper expectations, so you don’t second guess yourself. If you’re unaware, you will set unrealistic expectations that will lead to self-sabotage. As silly as it sounds, very often the difference between success and failure is expectations. Think about that: expectations are an inner game phenomena!!! There is a right way and a wrong way to think things you endeavor to master.
Mastery applies to almost every facet of your life. It explains how you learn to do new things, why you often fail, and how to become excellent at it. Mastery explains the frustrations of sticking to a diet, learning a new sport or hobby, or advancing your career.
The Mastery framework can be applied to all of the following areas:
- Career development
- Hobbies: cooking, painting, photography, fishing, gardening, travel, playing music, piloting
- Fitness and dieting
- Education: high school, college, self-study
- Investing and managing money
- Life skills: parenting, reading, writing, socializing, public speaking, relationships
- Starting and running a business
- Projects: writing a book, building a website, planning an event
- Sports: golf, tennis, hunting, biking, hiking, skiing, boating, soccer, basketball, martial arts
- Self-development: positive thinking, visualization, meditation, raising consciousness, Sedona Method
The Natural Learning Curve
There is a big difference between what you think the natural learning curve ought be (imaginary curve) and what it actually is (real curve).
This is HUGE! Look at the real curve versus the imaginary curve. See the difference? It’s big. You start a new project and naturally expect smooth sailing but you inevitably progress in spurts, and most of the time you will not visibly progress at all, even though you’re putting in hard work.
It seems simple and obvious, but until you drill this idea into your head — to the point where you live it and breathe it — you will perpetually struggle to excel at anything.
This difference of expectation explains why you usually fail when you try to master something. You take on a new activity, let’s say drawing, and you tacitly assume that you’ll get better and better over time in a simple 1:1 ratio. Put more time in, get better results. But that’s not what you actually get.
A few weeks in and things suddenly go tits-up, “Oh no! I’ve made 10 sketches and they all suck. And my 10th sketch is no better than the 5th! I have no talent for this.”
Welcome to the plateau! Here’s how George Leonard describes it:
There’s no way around it. Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it.
The curve above is necessarily idealized. In the actual experience, progress is less regular; the upward spurts vary; the plateaus have their own dips and rises along the way.
This is should be all too-familiar if you’re the type of person that likes to grow and try new things. Only now we’re articulating it. How many times have you tried to pick up a new hobby, start a new project, or get into something new, only to quit in despair a few weeks later? I’ve done that with: hockey, gym, diets, badminton, business projects, websites, juicing, cooking, art, writing, reading, self-help audio programs… just to name a few.
Facing the Plateau
Stalling is perfectly natural. As you build proficiency you will have ups, downs, and lulls. Especially lulls. Intuitively you expect steady progress — just ups — but this turns out to be a very dangerous assumption. If you expect easy success and encounter resistance, you start to think that something is wrong. But in fact, everything is right.
Although this idea is simple, it devilishly counter-intuitive. Hearing it once isn’t enough to nullify its deadly effects. It will still trip you up even after you read the book. You will start new projects and undertake new endeavors expecting smooth, consistent upwards progress, and when it fails to materialize, you will second-guess and sabotage yourself.
So how do you deal with the plateau?
You have to change your whole mindset about skill development. You must focus on cultivating a love for being on the plateau.
1) Set realistic expectations: Whenever you start a new project, remind yourself that progress will not be smooth. Whenever you find yourself pessimistic in the middle of a project, remind yourself that this is just a plateau.
2) Be more in the moment, focusing on process over results. Savor the journey. Cultivate a love for perfection through iteration. Slow down. Take your eye off the goal and find a way to get enjoyment out of doing the seemingly mundane things with loving care.
Practice primarily for the sake of practice itself. Rather than being frustrated while on the plateau, you learn to appreciate and enjoy it as much as you do the upward surges.
So stop expecting to have one climax after another — one skill bump after another. Instead, learn to appreciate living on the plateau. The plateau is where most of your life is lived.
Think back about a time where you started to develop a new skill but ultimately failed. Perhaps it was a diet, a business, or some other project. Now think about the exact moment you quit. Was it because you felt a lack of progress? Were you very results-oriented? Would you have been more successful if you slowed down and focused on the process? Would you have been more successful if you did the same activity in a more pleasurable way? What if it was actually fun?
Three Attitudes That Guarantee Failure
George Leonard talks about 3 attitudes to skill development that inevitably lead to failure. As you read each, see which tendencies you relate to the most. These tendencies are not exclusive; it’s common to have bits of all three.
This is the person who lives off novelty. The dabbler loves to start a career, a relationship, a sport, or a hobby, but has no follow-through. He expects progress to be smooth and forthcoming. But once he hits that first dip or plateau, he starts to rationalize why this pursuit no longer suits him. He’s very good at convincing himself and everyone around him why he should move on to something else.
When he makes his first spurt of progress in a new sport, for example, the Dabbler is overjoyed. He can’t wait for the next lesson. The falloff from his first peak comes as a shock. The plateau that follows is unacceptable if not incomprehensible. His enthusiasm quickly wanes. His mind fills up with rationalizations.
Signs that you are a Dabbler:
- You crave novelty and excitement
- You change jobs frequently and have a long resume
- Your relationships don’t last very long
- You start something new every other week
- You pride yourself on being adventurous
- You have a lot of unfinished projects
- You get bored easily
This is the person who lives for results. The Obsessive wants to be the best. He wants perfection and has no patience for let things breathe. The Obsessive will start off with a bang and work overtime to progress faster than everyone else, but eventually, after hitting a few plateaus his pace overwhelms him, leading to a classic crash and burn.
His first spurt is just what he expected. But when he inevitably regresses and finds himself on a plateau, he simple won’t accept it. He redoubles his effort. He pushes himself mercilessly. He refuses to accept counsel or moderation. He makes brief spurts of upward progress, followed by sharp declines.
Signs that you are an Obsessive:
- You are a perfectionist
- You are a high-achiever
- You pride yourself on being “results-oriented”
- Your sense of self-worth is tied to being the best
- You tend to be single-minded
- Your relationships are rollercoasters rides
- You are “passionate” and emotional
- When you fail, you fail spectacularly
This is the person who lives for comfort. The Hacker develops competency but never mastery because he is complacent and accepting of mediocrity. He settles on one of the plateaus. He doesn’t take opportunities to grow in his career, relationships, or hobbies. He does the least amount possible to get by, which never leads to anything great.
He or she is willing to stay on the plateau indefinitely. He’s the physician or teacher who doesn’t bother going to professional meetings. At work he does only enough to get by, leaves on time or early, takes every break, talks instead of doing his job, and wonders why he doesn’t get promoted.
Signs that you are an Hacker:
- You live for comfort and convenience
- You aren’t interested in growth or personal development
- Your relationships are stale and predictable
- You haven’t been promoted at work in years
- You pride yourself on being laid-back
- You don’t like doing new things
- You tend to do the bare required minimum
- You’re not very ambitious
Consumerism Made You a Crack Addict
If you’re having a hard time focusing and enjoying practice for practice sake, you’re not alone. We’ve all been conditioned by Western media and society to value endless climax. Everything in our culture is geared towards fix-it-fast, make-it-cheap, make-it-exciting.
- Food: sweeter, tastier, cheesier, super-sized, more indulgent
- Business: quarterly returns, more efficiency, accelerated growth, higher margins
- Fitness: fast, easy, effortless
- Career: get ahead, bonuses, perks, high payoff
- Finances: zero-down, zero APR, no payments for a year, buy one get one free
- Medication: fast-acting, extra-strength, temporary relief, magic pill
How can steady, diligent practice and hard work compete with all that? It can’t! It’s very similar to being hooked on a drug. If you were a crack addict everything else in life that seems great right now — food, sex, entertainment, friends, family, fitness — would seem dull. A crack addict numbs his mind to pleasure, requiring higher and higher doses just to stay normal. This is the key reason why drugs are bad.
I have news for you. You have more in common with a crack addict than you’d like to admit. You are experiencing a similar effect from consumerism right now.
Our culture is so focused on convenience and efficiency that it leaves no room for hard work and practice. Our culture literally tells you to expect easy weightloss, indulgent foods, tons of effortless money, nice vacations, cheap products, complete financing, and miracle drugs. The value of instant gratification is glorified while the downsides are swept under the rug. Given the choice between 1) Do it right, and 2) Do it fast — we are conditioned to choose number 2 every time.
What happens when someone with this kind of value system decides to start playing the guitar, learning French, building a business, reading a book, develop public speaking skills, or practicing meditation? He fails, of course! Because he’s been told to expect things to be easy.
“You mean I’m going to have to be disciplined? You mean I’m going to have to invest a lot of time and effort? Screw that. This isn’t want I bargained for!”
And so he quits because he can’t appreciate practice or work. He’s been made ADHD, psychologically if no physically. He has no patience. He has no persistence. He is at the mercy of his own cravings — a puppet pulled by invisible strings.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we need to go Amish. Cheaper, more convenient things are great, just watch out for how your values affected. Don’t get caught up in instant gratification. Easy, cheap, quick, free, potent, exciting, new, and huge isn’t always good. Resist the urge to pounce on all this. If you can get these things without incurring a long-term cost, by all means go for it — but recognize the full cost.
For example, if watching a marathon of high-octane, addictive TV shows makes it difficult to focus on your business the next day, or makes worthwhile pursuits like meditation or learning the guitar seem boring by comparison, is it really worth the cost?
There are signs of massive disillusionment with our instant billionaires, and also with crash diets, miracle drugs, lotteries, sweepstakes, and all the flash and clutter that accrues from the worship of quick, effortless success and fulfillment.
What hidden costs do some of your indulgent activities have? What kind of values are they reinforcing?
Stop trying to make your life an endless series of climactic moments! This is an antimastery mindset.
More examples of the antimastery, immediate gratification behaviors:
- Using credit cards
- Eating to feel better about yourself
- Medication: from Viagra, to statins, to antidepressants
- Adjustable Rate Mortgages
- Expecting to strike it rich playing the stock market
- Coupons, freebies, and handouts
- Recreational drugs
- Watching excessive TV
- Get-rich-quick business ideas: internet marketing, forex trading, etc
- Fad diets and workout equipment
Cultivate a Love for the Plateau
If our life is a good one, a life of mastery, most of it will be spent on the plateau. If not, a large part of it may well be spent in restless, distracted, ultimately self-destructive attempts to escape the plateau.
Life for [people who love the plateau] is especially vivid and satisfying.
In what part of your life are you expecting quick progress? If you feel impatient with learning or being successful, this is your signal to slow down. You need to shift from results-oriented to process-oriented.
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times. –Bruce Lee
Becoming process-oriented is an inner-game shift. Here are a few ideas for how to develop love for whatever you’re trying to master:
- Do it twice as slowly. Work with twice less ambition. Don’t rush. Tell yourself that you have your entire life to get it done.
- Focus: make sure you can focus on the activity without having to multitask.
- Find little, mundane things to savor in what you’re doing.
- Stop thinking about how cool you’ll look or how happy you will be once you “get it.”
- Focus on the nuances of what you’re mastering. Notice the subtle distinctions with each repetition.
- Find ways to make what you’re doing more enjoyable, even if it means lowering your productivity.
- Use the Sedona Method to release your ambition and lust for results.
- Meditate or do deep-breathing to relax your body and calm your mind
When you’re process-oriented you will feel:
- In the zone
- In the moment
- Relaxed, peaceful, not rushed, confident, and secure
- Mentally concentrated on one task to the exclusion of everything else
- Time pass quickly
- Very productive
- “I could die tomorrow and I would feel happy even though this project isn’t complete.”
People who get into something for the money, fame, or the medal can’t be effective. When you discover your own desire, you’re not going to wait for other people to find solutions to your problems.
The 5 Keys to Mastery
In the book, George Leonard presents 5 keys to mastery that I want to cover here.
Getting good instruction for whatever you want to master is critical. You will learn much faster if you have a good teacher or mentor showing you how. Invest time in finding a good teacher, vet him/her well, then do what the teacher says. Video is not a suitable substitute for live instruction.
To achieve his full potential, the exceptionally talented will have to work just as diligently as those with less innate ability.
Practice purely for its own sake. Learn to enjoy the moment-to-moment of whatever it is you’re undertaking. If that means stop and smell the roses, do it! The longer and more deliberately you practice, the better you will be. Value long-term sustainability over short-term results. This applies to everything: business, hobbies, sports, dieting, career, relationships, finances, etc. Make everything you practice an integral part of your life.
To practice regularly, even when you seem to be getting nowhere, might at first seem onerous. But the day eventually comes when practicing becomes a treasured part of your life.
The master is one who stays on the mat five minutes longer every day than everybody else.
Practice is the path to mastery and the only truly reliable thing in your life.
Surrender yourself to the activity and to your teacher. Surrender to the boredom. Surrender to the routine of deliberate practice. Surrender to the moment. Don’t let your cravings control you.
The essence of boredom is found in the obsessive search for novelty. Satisfaction lies in mindful repetition.
There will always come a time in the master’s journey when it is necessary to give up some hard-won competence to advance to the next stage.
Cultivate the mind and heart of a beginner at every stage. Surrender means there are no experts, only learners.
Visualize your success. Picture yourself working towards success. Set short-term goals, mid-term goals, and long-term goals that will keep you motivated. Remind yourself each day of why you’re practicing.
The first step is to create a vision, because when you see the vision there – the beautiful vision – that creates the want-power. – Arnold Schwarzenneger.
Hold a vision of what you wish to execute in your mind and rehearse it hundreds of times until you start to sweat from exertion.
Explore the edge of your comfort zone. Play. Experiment. Try new things and be willing to sacrifice short-term results for experience. Every day while you practice, do something new and comfortable. Expand your comfort zone each day.
Those we know as masters are dedicated to the fundamentals of their calling. They are zealots of practice, connoisseurs of the small, incremental step. At the same time — and here’s the paradox — these people, these masters, are precisely the ones who are likely to challenge previous limits, to take risks for the sake of higher performance.
Homeostasis and Tendency for Self-Sabotage
Living organisms, from bacteria to humans (and even collections of organisms) are complex negative feedback loops. Just like the thermostat in your house, organisms tend to self-regulate, strongly favoring the status quo. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fit!
You body, mind, and even the people around you will create resistance to change. Whether you’re starting a new business or a new diet, the change will seem uncomfortable until you build new neural pathways. Your brain, body, and environment will have to adjust to the new you. This is normal. Expect that the initial few weeks of anything you start will be especially challenging.
Here are 5 ways to help you stay on the path of mastery:
- Understand how homeostasis works: Expect resistance and backlash. Don’t give up at the first sign of trouble, especially if you’re certain you made the right decision.
- Be willing to negotiate with your resistance to change: Play the edge and be willing to take one step back for every two steps forward. Simply pushing your way through despite the warning signals increases the possibility of backsliding.
- Develop a support system: It helps a great deal to have others who have gone or are going through the same thing for moral support.
- Follow a regular practice: Regular, consistent practice provides a sort of underlying homeostasis, a stable base for change. Turn practice into a habit so you’re not wasting willpower sticking to it.
- Dedicate yourself to life-long learning: Value learning for its own sake. Study how you learn and learn to learn better.