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.

Everyone’s Got Talent

There are two versions of a certain saying: “God is in the details” or “The devil is in the details.” It differs from person to person, and I think it’s based on their religion, figuratively speaking.

This image is not mine. It's from "http://visualfunhouse.com/multiple_meanings/jesus-satan-optical-illusion.html," though I certainly wish I could draw something like this.

It was a while before I realized that, to a certain degree, I was severely averse to details. I used to be really into them, when knowing them counted towards getting a high or low grade on an exam. But nowadays, I mostly don’t want to keep track. “Life’s too short to worry about them,” I think, and sleep away.

Other people think differently, though. For those people, it’s absolutely important to keep track, and if you respect details, or are able to appreciate their significance, they can be powerful allies. But take them for granted or upset the order or system in which they exist, and they’ll turn on you. I guess one way to think of it is that for those people, there is a god in the details: it’s just the old-timey, vengeful, I-want-a-slaughtered-lamb-or-a-virgin-sacrifice kind of god that will smite you where you stand should you offend him.

People who can think like that, I think, have an extremely high level of discipline. They’d have to be able to see the importance of remembering which forms are used for what, or which organ systems and viruses are involved in what diseases. The worst of them are red tape-worshiping bureaucrats; the best of them are superb lawyers or doctors. It’s a great talent to have, discipline.

According to the book “Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, “talent” is “any recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.” So it’s not just a matter of being naturally good at something; it’s having some compulsion, a train of thought or activity that you can’t resist. There are different types of talents, which determine the way people think, motivate themselves, or relate to other people. The book also asserts that each person has five dominant talents that make them unique.

Based on the book’s list of talents, these are my top five:

  • Deliberative: being generally careful
  • Adaptability: responding to the demands of the moment
  • Intellection: love for mental activity
  • Connectedness: belief that everything is interrelated
  • Consistency: passion for balance

That’s based on a test I took a few years ago, but I think it’s still the same for me today. If you’re interested in finding out your own talents and strengths, you may want to look at this list: it was built upon research that the Gallup organization conducted, where they interviewed and profiled the best managers in the world. I’d tell you how many exactly, but as I’ve said, I don’t care much for details.

Which talents do you think you have? How are they helpful to you?

Why I Can’t Do Everything

There was a time when I genuinely believed that if I put my mind to it, I can accomplish anything (that was around the time I watched Back to the Future for the first time, for those who may know the reference).

Any challenge accepted, I'd think.

But now I’m older, and I can safely assert that mere willpower won’t get you everything. Your expectations have to be realistic.

To that self, I now say "get outta here," euphemistically speaking.

A few days ago, I posted about some car trouble I had. The car broke down, and I had to drive it back home. It was a rattling, clunking mess. There was no way I was going to be driving it anywhere else; it had to be fixed. I called a couple of mechanics over, who determined that the problem was with the brake shoes, and said they would come back to take care of it within a week. When they came back, I watched as they fixed the problem. It entailed taking the brake assembly apart, replacing the faulty component, and putting it back. Simple to write, but for me to have done it myself would have been ridiculous.

I have a book at home. It’s called “How to Repair Your Car.” I bought the book during my “I can accomplish anything” phase, and hardly read it nowadays. On the cover, there’s a smiling man with a wrench, and inside were fairly easy-to-understand diagrams of the innards of a car. The book’s central thesis is simple: if you know the inner workings of your car, and have the right tools, you can fix certain problems yourself and save money.

Watching the two mechanics work on my brakes, I realized that that’s a bunch of hooey. I could fix the problem myself, theoretically; borrow the right tools, buy the right parts, set aside a day or so to figure out how to take the brakes apart and put them back together. But I was worried by the loudness of it all. They had to bang on the brake assembly with a hammer to remove the drum. They had to pry the whole thing apart too, eliciting some whining and screeching from the springs within. But at times, they would take great care. It was a random ritual to me, a strange mixture of force and finesse. I wouldn’t know the difference if I tried it myself.

Afterwards, they lay the pieces on the ground in no order I could recognize. The parts looked different from one another, for sure, but ask me how they came together, and there would be an awkward silence, after which I would exclaim “witchcraft!”

There’s also one basic physical requirement that I somehow failed to account for: strength. Somehow, I had thought that tools were talismans of power. In my mind, simply holding a tire iron would give you infinite leverage. Of course, now I realize that yes, there is a physical element to it. There’s a reason why Thor could lift Mjolnir*, while my girl-like figure could easily be defeated by a P206/60R15 tire.

It took them just over 30 minutes to replace the brake shoes on both back tires, while I probably would have broken down and cried a quarter of the way into the job. So there’s my big epiphany. I can’t do everything myself, and I’ll have to pay someone else to do things sometimes. Perfectly acceptable to me now, no matter how disappointed my past self would be about it.

*Yes, it’s because he’s worthy. But for the purpose of making me right, let’s say it’s because of his strength.