Tips for the Aspiring Master

I talked before about the path to getting things right, and how masters got to where they are. It’s not an easy path, and it can take a lot of grueling, repetitive work, involving a lot of mistakes, to get from wrong to right. It’s relatively easy to grasp this principle, but actually accepting and applying it can be very challenging. As human beings, we’re not purely creatures of principle: we have egos that need to be stroked, and a need for fulfillment that must be satisfied. What can we do to make the error-laden path to perfection sting a little less and pay off a little more?

Here are a few things that I think will make the leap from understanding to application a little bit easier.

Pick an Activity that You’re Motivated to Do

Whether it’s via intrinsic motivation or extrinsic motivation, drive is something that makes you more willing to practice, because practice requires immersion. It’s easier to immerse yourself in waters where you can swim rather than drown. So you have to go for an activity that you have motivation to work at.

As a student, I was very motivated to study because of a blend of intrinsic motivators (I enjoyed learning and relished the achievement of understanding difficult concepts) and extrinsic motivators (because a scholar, I was entitled to a stipend, provided that I maintained a certain grade). Think of intrinsic motivation as a gill-based respiratory system, and extrinsic motivation as SCUBA gear; both let you breathe underwater, but extrinsic motivation tends to be more limited. That’s why a lot of the time, it’s important to rely on intrinsic motivation and find the waters where you can thrive. And it’s not a simple matter of finding free swimming space.

Not every company adopts the Blue Ocean Strategy with success.
Because I’m a realist, I’m fairly sure that not every business that adopts the Blue Ocean Strategy succeeds.

Choose an Endeavor that You Can Probably Be Good At

Picking up from a metaphor I used before, a skill is a blade that you sharpen, and different types of blades are sharpened in different ways. If you try to hone a knife so that it has the same cutting properties and functions as an axe, chances are you won’t have much success. So beyond the criterion of passion or interest, you’ve got to find a place where you can positively kick butt. If you have a bigger probability of succeeding at your chosen endeavor, you’ll have a better shot at a payoff at the end of the pain, so you should go for something that betters your chances.

We all have different sets of talents, skills, and knowledge, so nobody can be good at everything. Not everyone can achieve mastery at all things; pick the target you can realistically hit. Assess your skill sets and talents, see what field you can apply them to, try to figure out the types of practice you can use to improve them effectively, and then you can begin.

Make Sure It’s Not Too Easy, but Not Too Hard

People tend to want to avoid stress. However, there are actually two different kinds of stress: eustress and distress. What you want is to have just enough stress to be challenged and but not push yourself too hard. Don’t exercise to the point of injury; don’t study to the point that you get burnt out. Keep everything in moderation, and push just enough so you can grow. If you feel that you’re not performing at your peak, then chances are you need a push. Sometimes, the judgment is hard to make, as is beautifully illustrated in the movie “Whiplash”:

Realize that Mastery doesn’t Always Involve Rivalry

Okay, at this point, I have to apologize. In my previous blog post, I talked about our competitive world, and how it’s important to win. However, I have to admit that not all games are zero-sum in nature. There is such a thing as a win-win situation, and anyone who’s played team sports or co-op games knows that success can come from working with others just as much as it can from competing with them. Teammanship, cooperative and friendly play can drive adaptation and evolution just as much as competition can, so consider finding a coach or mentor and peers you can share your path to perfection with.

Kids have been known to make adults better, too.
Kids have been known to make adults better, too.

So, what is one thing that you’d like to master? What skills, talents, and knowledge do you have to get on the road to mastery? What motivates you to want to master it? Is it career-related or just something personal? Are there any people who are helping you with that? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below, and let’s try to get a conversation going.

Want to Improve? Limit Yourself

So while training for a 10-km run (we determined it was equal to about 6.25 miles) with my girlfriend and a friend of ours, the friend remarked at how much he admires people who seem to be in their 40s but still manage to do full marathons (some of them barefoot), while he, who just passed his mid-20s is already feeling like he’s starting to lose his vigor, which is why he wants to do as much physical activity as he can while his body can permit it, which sounds like a good topic for a blog post, but shall be saved for another time, I suppose.

What I really want to write about today is the concept of improvement through limitations. It occurred to me before that limitations are generally considered to be restrictive and result in stunted growth, but applied correctly, they can yield remarkable results.

What do I mean by that? Well, let’s consider a few examples.

Limitations in Social Media

Creativity is one of those things that people say should be allowed to run wild. But really, some of the best examples of creativity I’ve seen came from people who had to work inside a box. We all know about how Twitter’s 140-character limit forced microbloggers who use the service to be creative in their expression.

In the same vein, Vine, the micro-video service that was acquired by Twitter in October 2012, has forced people to come up with creative ways to squeeze great videos into 7 seconds.

Limitations to Innovation

Another way that limitations can lead to improvement is how regulation can lead to innovation. A recent example I heard about involves car companies. Less than ten years ago, it was believed that regulations that required them to produce cars with a minimum mileage (i.e., their cars had to reach a minimum distance per gallon of fuel burned) would bankrupt the industry. However, today, we are coming up with more and more innovative ways to reduce fuel consumption in motor vehicles. The best innovations incorporate solar energy or electric power.

Related to the previous example is the reduction of carbon emissions in buildings. It’s been written that in the EU, there are rules that mandate a minimum energy efficiency rating for buildings, which led to improvements in energy usage.

Limitations to Performers

We all know about Stomp, the dance/music performance group that uses ordinary objects as percussion instruments. Less well liked are mimes, who perform without speaking and entertain mainly through physicality; this has spun off into great physical comedy acts, like Gamarjobat:

A famous product of the merging of these two concepts is, of course, The Blue Man Group:

Even for performers who exhibit conventional skills, they can improve their talents immensely by imposing limits on themselves. It can even reach kung-fu movie level stuff; Filipino fans of Regine Velasquez-Alcasid know how she trained her voice by being submerged in chin-deep water. Doesn’t sound impressive? Try dunking yourself up to your neck in a pool of water and singing a few verses of, I don’t know, “Angels” by Robbie Williams, and you’ll see how tough it is.

Limitations developing Intelligence

Yes, limitations can also develop intelligence. A favorite example of mine is in mathematics. Japanese students have been known for their excellent math skills because of their unconventional but simple calculation methods, even going as far as practicing solving problems using just abacuses:

But a recent article in the Economist (a book review, actually) talks about how Poland’s students have become the best and brightest in the world, partly because they are restricted to solving math problems in their heads.

So what about you?

I’ve listed plenty of the examples I know above, but I’m fairly sure there are others. Are there any instances I missed out on, even in other fields? What kinds of limitations and handicaps can you set on yourself to make yourself better?