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.

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The Road to Right

I used to be a big CSI fan. Say what you will about how unrealistic some parts of it are and how it has affected expectations in the real-life justice system, but the characters were just too damn awesome. Gil Grissom, the lead protagonist of the flagship series who described himself in high school as a “ghost”, was my hero. He was smart, he was stoic, and he was wise. There’s probably a collection of his best quotes from the series out there, and I’m willing to bet more than half of those would be great nuggets that philosophers, scientists, managers, and practically anyone can learn from.

Hat tip to Pinterest user Maddie Marsh: https://www.pinterest.com/maddiemarsh14/csicriminal-minds/

But the one quote of his that sticks out for me, from the minute I heard it until now, is this: “I’m wrong all the time. That’s how I get to right”.

One-Strike Perfection Doesn’t Exist

Businesses talk about how it’s important to get things right the first time. It all has to do with cost minimization, of course; the fewer times something has to be done, the less time and energy and fewer resources have to be invested in that thing, so less money spent. The thing is, in the real world, we know that hardly happens. It’s not like Tiger Woods picked up a golf club and hit a hole-in-one his first time out on the green, and I’m sure Bruce Lee didn’t get the one-inch punch down perfect overnight.

And it’s the same for me. In anything I do, I never could get it right the first time. For example, people might have thought me smart during my school days, and to some degree they were right. But I wasn’t smart… at least, not in the way they thought I was.

Everyone’s Aiming for the Bullseye

We live in a highly competitive world. Each person added to the population is a drain on the planet. Resources are limited, wealth is rationed, and every person has to prove their worth every day. So it’s hardly surprising why businesses don’t like the idea of mistakes being made. It makes sense; each time you miss a point in the first quarter makes it easier for your opponent to win the game, and the game is made so one side can win. And everyone understandably wants to win. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that this justifies being a jerk. DO NOT BE A JERK, OR AT LEAST TRY NOT TO BE ONE.)

However, perfection isn’t a target you hit the first time. It takes practice; you aim for it, and it takes hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of attempts before you get it right. Anyone who’s ever tried to coach or teach anyone else knows that it’s unreasonable to expect much from a newbie.

Frigging Perfect

So what’s the answer? How do you reconcile the reality and necessity of mistakes with the need to get things right?

It’s simple. There’s no secret to it.

Don’t Be Wrong for Long

Art. Sketches. Boxing. Sparring. Singing. Rehearsal. Marathons. Training.

For every field of endeavor that requires perfection, there is a mechanism that allows for mistakes… and those mechanisms allow people to make mistakes before they count.

As a student, I didn’t pick lessons up in the class the first time I heard them; I started picking them up the day or the week before, when I studied them in the textbooks, and went over them repeatedly until I got them through my thick skull and imprinted into the grey matter of my brain. (Personally, I think few students appreciate the value of a course outline or syllabus anymore; the real world is not kind enough to provide a heads up, so the young ones should enjoy the privilege.)

Each perfect swing Tiger Woods makes is not purely a product of raw talent. Bruce Lee didn’t get his martial arts mastery handed to him on a silver plate. And everyone remembers that commercial where His Airness recognizes the value of his mistakes.

The skills these masters are associated with took honing and polishing. These were not divine, supernaturally sharp blades handed down from on high; they were honed on whetstones or grindstones, forged in furnaces, created from iron and carbon extracted from the earth. They were products of a long, long process.

What is one thing that you’ve done that you really worked hard at to achieve or get right? What were the drills, exercises, and routines you had to do to achieve it? Did anyone help you with it, or did you do it all on your own? I’d like to see your input in the comments below. 🙂

P.S: It took me ten drafts to get this blog post to a point where I’m satisfied with it. Sometimes I added something, sometimes I removed something else. It’s a messy, unsystematic method, and it’s a process I spend a lot of time immersed in. But it’s my way, so it’s well worth it.