“Mastery is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather.”― John Gardner, The Art of Fiction
Have you ever wondered if there was a process for the achievement of mastery in a field?
What are the structures, behaviors and the psychology of mastery in any field?
Why is it that so few people meet levels of mastery that are enviable while many others just dream of wanting to replicate that in their own life?
Here are 8 actionable steps that may enhance mastery in your life and create spontaneous flow and joy!
1. On the Power of Decisiveness and Knowing What To Master
“The heart of human excellence often starts to beat when you discover a pursuit that absorbs you, frees you, challenges you, or gives you a sense of meaning, joy, or passion.” – Terry Orlick
The very first step to mastering something is deciding without any shred of doubt what it is that you would like to master in your own life.
While this seems like an obvious first step, do not be thrown off by the apparent simplicity of this vital step.
Over the years, I have asked the question over and over: what gives some people a sense of purpose, a direction, curiosity, excitement and the will to jump out of their beds in the morning in anticipation of their daily work?
And what makes a lot of people not care about what they do, become bored, get distracted and not feel the joy?
I believe one of the answers for that complex question is the unequivocal and unanimous decision about what you would like to do today and achieve excellence in.
What this means is that you are on board with all of your engines firing simultaneously: your body is eager to achieve, you feel great while thinking it, you imagine great stuff about it and you are driven towards it.
Yes, in other words your body, mind, emotions, spirit and actions are all eager to work towards this one purpose.
A few questions to ask yourself:
What do you love to do?
Does it absorb you and catch your fancy?
Does the pursuit challenge you and makes you eager to hone your skills?
How can it benefit others or how can you share this skill or purpose with others?
How can you make a living out of it because you may be spending a lot of time on it!
You might have guessed by now that my purpose and the skill that I would like to achieve excellence and mastery in is inspiring others and myself through creative writing, teaching, speaking, designing and other means.
“You must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work … You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success.”― Chef Jiro
2. Get Emotionally Invested: Get the Elephant and The Rider on Board
“Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will…. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.” -Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis
How much do you enjoy and feel on a deep visceral basis when you are attempting to achieve mastery in something?
I have seen that every single time when I rationalize and engage the thinking mind (Haidt’s rider) and attempt mastery, sooner or later I run out of willpower because the sub-conscious or the feeling brain (Haidt’s elephant) is not on board.
Haidt references the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment by Walter Mischel where children were presented an option of eating a marshmallow or a treat now in contrast to getting two later.
Children who were successful in delaying gratification and redirecting their focus on other other enjoyable activities were the ones who chose to postpone their immediate desire in favor of one that gave prolonged benefits.
Children who could engage “stimulus control” were the ones who could convince the elephant instead of fighting a battle of wills and were the ones with better outcomes later on in life as adults in different measures such as education, maintaining friendships and the ability to deal with stress among others.
When we attempt mastery in the field of our choosing and fail to get the elephant on board and exercise little stimulus control, we fight a losing battle against our own self-conscious.
Consider the opposite scenario: you feel viscerally about why you want to achieve mastery in your field and get very excited about it. Instead of getting lead by the next engaging stimulus, you choose to manage the elephant or your automatic response system by redirecting focus into what you find pleasurable or emotionally satisfying about what you are attempting to master.
Haidt also suggests that meditation or stillness is a great way to train the elephant without getting into a battle of wits or will with it.
I also believe that if you ask the “why” am I interested in mastering this field question, you get into the reasons that actually excite you. Go deep into the real reasons why you are interested in investing a lot of time and effort into a practice.
3. Assess and Add What You Need For Mastery: Tools And Environment
“We grew up in a very creative environment and were exposed to the arts at a very young age, so it’s not a surprise that all of us are in some form of the arts.”- Spike Lee
Once you have identified what catches and maintains your fancy, you need to assess and find out what it takes for you to achieve the skills and mastery that you desire.
Usually the first reaction that we have is to research the topic on the net or in the library and that is a very good starting point.
My preferred method of learning about something is trying to connect with people who are already in the field and are able to offer you nuggets of information about the reality of the area.
Go ahead and talk to professionals and people who are already following that path for a better understanding of what it takes to become better in that field.
Finding mentors is a wonderful tool that very few people use because they are hesitant to ask others. You may erroneously believe that people have no time for you and that they would not want to divulge the secrets of the trade but nothing is further from reality.
What are the tools that you need to be successful in your work? For example, my writing has become infinitely more organized ever since I have started using this wonderful tool called Scrivener. If you would like to purchase a copy and support Launchyourgenius, please go to the resources page and scroll to the bottom of the page for an affiliate link to purchase it!
Every artist, plumber, engineer, teacher and cook knows the value of the right tools in getting the job done effortlessly and with pleasure. The right tools make the task very pleasurable and you need to identify what those are.
“The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.”– Confucius
The third aspect that you may have to modify extensively is your environment. If you are planning mastery in painting, not having a space to work in or a studio or the right environment is going to take away from every attempt that you make.
Make your environment highly inspiring and suitable for the tasks at hand and customize it to appeal to your own sensibilities.
When I started writing I wanted the best tools. I skipped right over chisels on rocks, stylus on wet clay plates, quills and fountain pens, even mechanical pencils, and went straight to one of the first popular spin-offs of the aerospace program: the ballpoint pen.- John Varley
4. Subtract The Distractions And Beliefs That Do Not Assist You
“One way to boost our will power and focus is to manage our distractions instead of letting them manage us.” ~Daniel Goleman
This is one of the most significant steps of the entire process because this is precisely the realm where many get stuck in and are unable to move forward.
If I were to occupy all my time in browsing the net, social media and TV, chances are that I will not have any time to pursue my passion which is writing.
Every single day and every moment, I make a choice. Do I allow myself to get distracted or do I allow myself to write. Of course, at times we all need a distraction but if our distractions do not allow any time for our creative pursuits and our life’s work, it is time to reassess.
Highly effective and potent busters of dreams and the desire to pursue your purpose are the mindless pursuing of habits, beliefs and ideas that do not support you in your mission.
If you deeply and secretly believe that you will not amount to anything, no amount of thinking or doing is going to get you anywhere.
We now know through neuroscience research that old neural pathways can never be completely erased. However, you are free to strengthen new neural pathways through formation of new behaviors and beliefs.
5. Make It Habitual, Identify The Keystone Habit
If you do not pour water on your plant, what will happen? It will slowly wither and die. Our habits will also slowly wither and die away if we do not give them an opportunity to manifest. You need not fight to stop a habit. Just don’t give it an opportunity to repeat itself.- Swami Satchidananda, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
The best way to achieve mastery in something after you have removed distractions is to set up structures and habits that support your purpose.
And in order to do that, you may need to identify your “keystone habit” or the “one habit that other habits revolve around.” I was brought to the attention of keystone habits from Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit.
Duhigg gives the example of a woman who recognized that her keystone habit was smoking and at a particularly low stage of her life decided to kick it off and to run a marathon.
If there is an all-consuming habit, whether it is beneficial or not and if it takes all your productive time, you may have to make modifications to it to allow other habits to take root.
How can we do that?
According to BJ Fogg of the Pursuasive Technology Lab at Stanford, behavior can be changed by what he calls the “Fogg Method.” The Fogg method involves identifying the specific behavior that you want to change, making it easy to change and trigger the behavior either naturally or by design.
Fogg is also a big believer of changing the environment and taking very small steps to change very small habits.
Research in MIT from neuroscientist Ann M. Graybiel’s laboratory popularized in Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit has shown that habits can be compared to a loop.
The loop consists of a trigger or a cue that sets the behavior or habit off, an automatic action or a sequence of events that follow and a reward that follows that.
I believe that we can identify some natural, habitual or designed triggers that make us go into the new behavior mode. For example my trigger to write is to brew a pot of coffee, sit in my favorite writing chair and switch on my favorite Pandora music channel.
After the new action behavior following the trigger or cue, become aware of the reward such as a feeling of relief or the sense of accomplishment that you get by doing something. When you strengthen this cue-action-reward cycle favoring the new habit, your chances of forming a new habit increase.
Bring in intrinsic motivators such as feelings, emotions and external motivators such as a picture, music or an affirmation to assist you with the formation of new habits and behaviors. I will be writing an entire post or series on habit change at a later on time.
“Habits are formed by the repetition of particular acts. They are strengthened by an increase in the number of repeated acts. Habits are also weakened or broken, and contrary habits are formed by the repetition of contrary acts.”― Mortimer J. Adler
6. Ditch the fixed mindset: Identify your modes of learning and Learn Exponentially
“IF, like those with the growth mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you’re open to accurate information about your current abilities, even it it’s unflattering. What’s more, if you’re oriented toward learning, as they are, you need accurate information about your current abilities in order to learn effectively” ― Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
I have written about Carol Dweck’s research on the efficacy of the growth mindset and the stagnation of the fixed mindset before.
The next step in the process is to identify your learning styles or style such as visual, kinesthetic, writing and reading and sound. When you identify how you learn best and bolster those methods, you pursue new ideas and learning with little effort.
You may not like to read but you may love listening to audiobooks.
Have a continual growth mindset. Set a goal of learning something new and interesting in your field on a daily or a weekly basis.
The growth mindset requires continual learning and effort while the fixed mindset assumes that you know everything and makes you believe that you will not improve. Which mindset will you choose?
7. Flow and Deep Practice: Increase The skill level And The Difficulty Level To Accomplish Flow
“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.” ― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
One of the dilemmas of mastering something is that at some point or another you may hit upon a brick wall and you may begin to get bored.
How can you develop intrinsic motivation that propels you forward in your mission while not getting bored with what you are trying to master?
I believe the key lies in “flow” research by the eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I have learnt from Csikszentmihalyi that when we are engaging our undivided attention in an endeavor that tests the limits of skill and still poses a challenge, we experience intrinsic motivation.
This experience of satisfaction becomes a self-fulfilling exercise because the state of flow is itself rewarding and highly pleasurable.
According to Csikszentmihalyi in his TED talk:
“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”
I believe that most people do not experience flow because of the unwillingness to stay with the discomfort of working with a high difficulty level and staying at the edge of their skill level. This can be quite a vulnerable and scary place to be continually in knowing that you may very well fail or be made fun of.
It is much more simpler and safer to practice within the realm of comfort and what you know best instead of venturing into the unknown.
In my own experience, the key to consistently getting into a state of flow matches what Csikszentmihalyi proposes and includes:
A state of engagement or focus of attention on a well defined problem.
Incrementally increasing the skill level so that practice is not frustrating but enjoyable.
Increasing the challenge level or attempting bigger challenges as you develop your skills.
Getting real-time feedback that keeps you engaged and inspired.
“Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
8. Putting It All Together: The Secret Extra Ingredients for Mastery
“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.” ― Michelangelo
Eric Ries of the Lean Startup mentions the importance of a quick launch or building a quick prototype, measuring the efficacy of the product through metrics and feedback and learning from the process.
This should give you enough data to persevere or pivot to do something else.
I think that an approach of the quick startup that includes getting your feet wet and then encourage real-time feedback and improvise is vital for mastery in any field.
Several different but important factors come together in this last step:
Deep Practice or repeated attempts and effort: The simple truth is that the more you put in the more you get back. If you are not moving ahead fast enough, you are probably not practicing enough. And perhaps you are not practicing at the edge of your abilities and skills.
Connecting and results: You need to be able to generate results and be able to receive honest feedback on them and then do something with that awareness. Many people shut down at this stage because they do not deal well with feedback.
Failure or success: These are just guide points and posts along the way. If you get too caught up in either of them, they will keep you comfortable in their stories and you will not be able to pursue true mastery.
Improvise: You need to be like a jazz musician and improvise. Creative Improvisation is one of the quickest ways into the unknown field that creates mastery.
Sustained enthusiasm: And last but not the least, when you feel and are at the seemingly lowest place, you need to get up and reconnect why you are doing this in the first place. And you need to brush off the dust, get some rest and try it all again in the new light. The greatest single factor for mastery in any field is the maintenance of enthusiasm and continued deep and meaningful practice.
And now, over to you! Please let me know in the comments below if you enjoyed this post and if it resonated with you? And what are your unique challenges on the road to personal mastery.
Image Credit: Flickr CC by Patrick Feller
Jason Finley says
Building perseverance & Growth Mindsets in students is dependent on first developing Executive Functioning skills as the foundation and cultivating Divergent Thinking skills around something that they are passionate about as the Keystone.
Two divergent questions about this.
1) What about the need for students to achieve mastery or proficiency in an area that they have little, if any, interest? For example, those students who excel in the Creative Arts, but struggle with the Maths and Sciences? We naturally are drawn to those things which we excel at, which come easily even if initially incrementally so. Once established later in life, how do we move students to want to master those things which not only come through increasing difficulty as the level of mastery increases, but which they concurrently become increasingly less interested in?
2) What about societal pressures regarding gender, race, etc. on an individual’s belief that they should/could have the initial interest and the aptitude to succeed in an area outside of what is considered traditional for that individual? I would venture to say that a child who holds a preconceived idea that they were born less able may never even attempt to explore the subject area on a foundational level let along attempt to master the subject.
What role does society play in the mindset of a child? As an instructor in a Career and Technical Education Center I often wonder about gender roles/identification in choice of programs of study. Where do these preconceptions begin and how are they reinforced?
This goes beyond gender to include socioeconomic status, race, religion, and beyond.
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