Some initial thoughts on mastery

Before beginning a discussion on mastery, or any topic, it is useful to explain exactly what it is you want to talk about. Sometimes, this is much easier said than done. (Anyone with experience in the field of Knowledge Management knows exactly what I’m talking about.)

It was the following definition of mastery from George Leonard that started me down this path:

What we call “mastery” can be defined as that mysterious process through which what is at first difficult or even impossible becomes easy and pleasurable through diligent, patient, long-term practice.

My goal here is to help remove some of the mystery from the process by shining light on good examples of mastery in practice, from many areas of human endeavor from the mundane to the extreme. I’m also interested in how organizations, both for-profit and non-profits, can apply this process to achieve mastery of their chosen domain.

A key challenge to achieving mastery in the current age of immediate gratification is that true mastery is not on the minds of many individuals or organizations. A quick success, a quick profit – those are the things that most people and organizations are interested in.

Mastery, on the other hand, requires long term committment and the realization that you may never complete the journey, as noted in these excerpts from Leonard’s writings:

Most learning occurs while we are on the plateau, when it seems we are making no progress at all. The spurt upward towards mastery merely marks the moment when the results of your training “clicks in.”

To learn anything significant…you must be willing to spend most of your time on the plateau. [T]o join the on the path of mastery, it’s best to love the plateau, to take delight in regular practice not just for the extrinsic rewards it brings, but for its own sake.

Leonard’s Way of Aikido, written in 1999, offers some good insights into mastery as applied to Aikido. For a more general discussion of mastery, I highly recommend his 1991 book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fullfillment. Both of these books will serve as constant references for me as I explore these ideas further.