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.

Heroes and Dirt

The man does not choose the hour; the hour chooses the man.

Let’s face it. How many people choose to be a hero? Is it a rational choice to be a hero? Sure, there’s the whole “warm glow” one gets from being the savior, the cavalry, the one who can fix things when nobody else can. It’s an extraordinary feeling of vindication-slash-affirmation; all seems lost, everyone says that it’s impossible to get through, and in you come, cleaning up the uncleanable mess.

But that’s the thing: before the vindication comes the mess. Who wants to get in the middle of a mess? By definition, getting in the middle of a mess will get you messed up. Going by various meanings, that can mean that you get tainted, or injured, or damaged in some way. That’s a definite outcome, or at least, more definite than the possibility of the situation getting better after your intervention. So given that, it’s no surprise that a lot of people just hang back, do not step up, and say to themselves “I’m not going down there”. But the thing is, when nobody does anything, what will happen? It’s just going to keep getting worse. A disease untreated can become a plague; a riot unbroken can become anarchy. So to restore the natural order of things, there has to be at least one person who will man up. Someone who decides that the line has been crossed, and that something has to be done about it. So that person, however reluctantly, has to answer the call:


There’s the key clause: “something has to be done”. There has to be an active effort to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio, to turn the chaos into order. Things generally do not fix themselves but for the intervention of the able and brave; messes do not clean themselves up without someone willing to roll up his sleeves and get dirty.

Of course, getting into the thick of it all can mean that you’ll get dirty too. We’ve all heard it: how going to war can scar veterans psychologically; how going into politics and successfully gaining office can put even the most honest politician in the pockets of anti-populist agenda-driven lobbies; even how the hardworking career man, in an effort to earn for his or her family, will end up neglecting them in the end. Fighting the good fight where it needs to be fought can lead you to get lost, even corrupted:


So the man who has heroism thrust upon him should not approach the task with simple rose-tinted, wide-eyed naivete. He has to be hopeful enough to ignore the odds against him, but be realistic enough to accept the possibility of getting lost or tainted; that way, he can guard himself against it. We don’t need people who are pristine, stainless, and shouting out the way things should be from their ivory towers, but we don’t need people who, in their focus on their immediate ground-level situation, have zero perspective, and have no regard for how broken and corrupt they end up becoming.

To be a hero, you have to be willing to go down in the dirt. But remember to wash it off; it’s on you, not part of you.

PS: The pictures are of cards taken from a Talecraft deck. Check them out if you’re into storytelling and games.