Mastery: Being Über Human

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If something burns your soul

with purpose and desire,

it’s your duty to be reduced to ashes by it.

- Andrea Balt


am not a mountain climber. The times I’ve let peer pressure push me up to the top of some peak I have hated nearly every minute of the day. To my way of thinking, the necessarily slow pace, the runny nose and the miserable quadriceps are in no way compensated for by a stunning panorama. One can always find a postcard of the view from the top. But, give me an existential slog and I’m your gal. Almost any metaphysical mountain is alluring to me. And the K2 of psychological peaks is mastery. Who wouldn’t want to stand at the second greatest psychological height known to humans? Who wouldn’t want to become a member of the club whose members can say, “I have mastered it.” Plus, in my experience, you don’t get up the highest peak, Guru Mountain, until you’ve conquered K2.

(N.B. There is an important distinction to be made between task mastery and domain mastery. Task mastery reflects nimbleness with daily chores and hobbies. Domain mastery happens when we reach the peak of a métier. We can be good cooks (task mastery), very good cooks (still task mastery) or we can be chefs (domain mastery). Whether or not we get paid once we have mastery can be more a matter of luck than skill. But most often mastery is rewarded as well as rewarding. Domain mastery is the subject of this article. Task mastery is discussed here.)

Myths about mastery

In the deconstruct ante se construct* tradition of this website, let’s eliminate some misperceptions about mastery before we work to complete our understanding of the construct.

Many myths about mastery cluster around a belief in a magical quality underlying the success of the Michelangelos and the Edisons. People in this camp believe that only a blessed few savants can reach true greatness, and if we haven’t shown a prodigious talent by age four, we ain’t one of them.

Search inside yourself and I’ll bet you will find at least some remnants of myths like:

• You have to have a towering and singular talent to obtain mastery.

• The truly gifted know what to pursue from a very early age.

• Geniuses don’t need to practice to obtain mastery.

• Talent will out.

• He was a born winner.

The upshot of buying into this type of mythology is the eviscerating belief that if you are over eighteen and you haven’t found your signature talents, you probably don’t have any.

Or, perhaps your upbringing was dominated by dour individuals who taught you that the route to mastery is long and bleak and lonely. This Cormac McCarthy outlook can create residual beliefs that any attempts by us normal folk to summit are just futile. And foolishly earnest. Are any of these platitudes familiar?

• Work to live, don’t live to work.

• Work hard and stay humble.

• No one likes his job. (And the corollary – If you don’t hate it, it’s not work.)

• You can’t support a family doing that!

• You have to suffer for your art.

The truth

Mastery is a mountain that anyone with curiosity can climb. Did that statement surprise you? Let me detail it. Mastery is a peak human experience that becomes possible when accomplishment is challenged by curiosity, resulting in the drive for innovation. As psychologist Dorothy Dinnerstein represented it, mastery is the particularly human pleasure of tackling an enterprise all the way to novelty. Another way to put it is this: Mastery is the orthogonal synergy of conformity and audacity.

 

Life Work

- Donald Hall

Mastery

- Robert Greene

The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life

- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

 

 

If you have questions or input about this article, please let me know at: jan@self-construct.com. Thanks!

 

Conformity: Mastery requires a high degree of conformity because compliance allows us to “behave” ourselves long enough to learn from all who have gone before. We show up, we shut up and we absorb the material presented to us. We are too hungry for knowledge about our subject to waste time re-inventing any wheel or to feel embarrassed about being back in kindergarten. We just want to learn.

We learn in two ways – by understanding the material and by doing. In order to understand the material, we collect data – much data – about how the academy of our particular field has figured out how to do “X” well. This can range from a technical training program in support of a career as an electrician to years of college for a Ph.D. Then, in order to be accomplished, we have to use the data we collect…not just absorb it. It has to run through our fingers thousands of times in dozens of ways until our hands know exactly how each tiny piece of the whole feels. This means the aspiring electrician gets beaucoup hands-on experience with wiring a house and the Ph.D. student gets plenty of time in the field or the lab. Learning and applying well-accepted procedures allow us to become fluent in the complex language of the craft – a language common to the people in our work community. Our ability to speak it is a necessary step toward access to our creative peers. And it’s heady indeed to swim in the synergistic pool of masters.

Conformity ushers us to the land of accomplishment – as a welder, an architect or a priest – up an ascending learning curve that leads steadily toward elite levels of performance. For most of us non-Mozart types, however, there are factors that interfere with the sweep of the natural learning curve. For one thing, many, many gifts underlie each domain of mastery and very, very few of us have all of them. Each knack needed for our chosen field that we are missing will cause us to “arrest” awhile as we grind out the extra practice necessary to learn the skills for which we lack an inborn aptitude. Prodigies don’t have to waste a moment’s time because they have all the gifts they need to tackle a steep learning curve, but most of us hit at least one plateau on our way toward the heights. Another roadblock to accomplishment is created when the prerequisite positive mental health that also underlies domain mastery has been tampered with. To the extent our self-esteem, healthy narcissism or appropriate entitlement has been damaged by the way we were raised, we will again be vulnerable to the plateau phenomenon, for we will have to divert some or much of our time and energy to shoring up our psyche. Mastery also requires luck. Few of us receive the early start, finest training, environmental support and parental focus that Wayne Gretzky did as he moved quickly to achieve elite levels of performance in the hockey rink. Had this stellar athlete been born in Jamaica or to a family who preferred literary pursuits to athletics, the jersey numbered 99 might still be available. Finally, tangential gifts compete for our time and attention. It can be very difficult to both identify a passion and maintain your focus when hobbies push for more than just weekend time or if you are a polymath with gifts that underlie more than one métier.

The wax-on regimen of an apprenticeship, the strengthening of two-a-day football practices and the endless drilling of a figure-drawing class are all examples of the rigor of conformity. We tolerate the rigor because our future memory suggests it will absolutely be worth it. We see what true mastery looks like in the nimbleness of our mentors and our subsequent diffidence allows us to put aside any unearned vanity that our natural giftedness might otherwise activate. We realize and appreciate that short cuts too often lead to poor habits that undermine greatness. And, despite many frustrations inherent in the learning process, we derive much comfort from the sense that the relentless hunger of our gifts is being fed as we move through our training program. When presented with a challenging apprenticeship, if we’re in the right place with enough of the right stuff, there will be a little voice inside us that shouts out “Bring it on!”

As is so often the case, my old buddy Nietzsche captured the essence of why we need to remain steadfast with respect to conformity:

What is essential “in heaven and on earth” seems to be, to say it once more,
that there should be obedience over a long period of time and in a single direction:
given that, something always develops, and has developed, for whose sake it is
worthwhile to live on earth; for example, virtue, art, music, dance, reason, spirituality –
something transfiguring, subtle, mad and divine.

Audacity: Even as we are patiently learning new material and gathering new skills, our curious side is simultaneously wondering: What if? What if we make just this one change? What if we eliminate that one step? What if we try that? We are eager to experiment with doing things a little (or a lot) differently. The greater our level of accomplishment, the more audacious will be our experiments because the more able we are to see patterns, to see the whole in the tiniest of parts, and to see what may currently be missing.

Audacity is enhanced by an environment where open communication is possible with the mentor(s); novel ideas are discussed and appreciated; risk-taking is seen as a natural, admirable step in professional development; risks are assessed jointly among the novice and the trainers; advice is given based on enhancing novice audacity rather than protecting the ego of the mentor; and support is offered for the trainee when mistakes are made. If the novice is premature in her desire to innovate, she is gently encouraged to be patient. If she appears hesitant to step out of conformity, her mentors will give her a little push. This is a rare environment, so you may have to construct some or all of it for yourself. (I like to nose around the stories of successful people by talking with them or reading about them to support my inclination for experimentation.)

If fortune shines on us, at some point in our training, our curiosity will be just too great – we will decide to step boldly off the conventional track. We trust that we can recover and learn from missteps and we don’t fear reprisals from our mentors. We yearn to be, said philosopher Alice Koller, one of those “who bridge the chasm that lies between the safe inadequacy of what they’ve been taught and the fulfillment that they uncertainly sense will exist on the other side.”

But, often we are not fortunate. Our trainers can be unkind, easily threatened by our audacity and vengeful. And mistakes can sometimes be so costly that rebounding is difficult. If, however, we view audacity as a necessary mastery component, we will be better prepared to protect our development of it. We understand that with accomplishment comes appropriate interest in what is not yet in existence. If our mentors don’t support this view, we will seek out some who do and who can contribute to our unique training ground.

While it’s true that error is a valuable luxury, what you gain by being audacious is this: A little bit of who you are is now contained within the academy of your profession. In order to position yourself to enjoy this type of success, you may need to build up enough equity to allow you to take a risk (e.g. job seniority, financial security, a series of good performance reviews, etc.). And you may need to inoculate yourself against the rancor of those around you who may be too stunted to engage their audacity and so may be prone to try to sabotage your audacity. You can find protection from bitter folks like that by gathering stipulation from friends in your social network, engaging with an empathic therapist or by perhaps seeking professional contacts outside your immediate work environment). However you can, work politically to allow yourself room to be different…to carve your initials in the tree trunk of your métier. We may exist in an inherited world, but we are absolutely designed to leave our own mark.

The feel of mastery

So here we are – accomplished (thanks to our willingness to conform) and audacious (due to respect for our unruly curiosity). It’s a place of tension between the discipline to continually enrich our understanding of conventional routes to achievement (For an inspirational perspective on the ongoing value of conformity, see the New Yorker article: Personal Best: Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?) and a willingness to disrupt the status quo with daring experiments. Nietzsche described this creative condition as “dancing in chains” and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called it “flow.”

Flow is a heightened psychological state that occurs when our levels of accomplishment and invention match the challenges before us. Time hops are we lose ourselves in the demand for innovation. We are seduced by the truth that the greater the mastery, the greater the level of eccentricity needed to avoid boredom, therefore the higher the degree of innovation and therefore the greater the flow. We are beguiled by that chasm between what is now and what could possibly be in the near future. For more information on flow, I recommend the book written by the man who developed the concept: Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Csikszentmihalyi.

Pick the right mountain

In a dynamic if mixed metaphor, picture a line-up of superbly conditioned thoroughbreds rocking from their front to their back legs as they barely tolerate the presence of the closed starting gates that are keeping them from rushing out to start climbing the mountain of their passion. Do you feel that way? Are you impatient with what the feminist author Carolyn Heilbrun deftly described as:

…the forming of a life in the service of a talent felt,
but unrecognized and unnamed.
This condition is marked by a profound sense of vocation,
with no idea of what that vocation is,
and by a strong sense of inadequacy and deprivation.

Everyone is born with an assortment of gifts and every child is curious. Everyone, therefore, is capable of obtaining mastery. The trick is to find that métier that most completely encompasses your particular set of gifts. (For polymaths, it may be necessary to sequence mastery.) And you have to avoid trying to scale a peak chosen for you by someone else. (Let me note in passing: Nor can you make someone else your job.)

The remainder of the articles in this section of the website are designed to help you find the particular mountain you are designed to climb. Once you find the mountain, the rest is easy. You go up!



*Google-Latin for “deconstruct before self-construct.”



Next up: The Existential Roots of Career Choice

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