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.


Shoe Lessons: Selling Starts When You’re Sold

As I write now, I’m wearing a pair of Brooks PureConnect running shoes. They feel snug on my feet, the rubber slightly stiff against my heels and arches, save for the toe ends where there’s just a little space, but well within the one-finger-width maximum allowable limit. The shoes have a thin mesh exterior, veiling a chassis of what looks like Swiss-cheese rubber, the kind one would see on Crocs (which, incidentally, I have never worn, not even at the height of their popularity, nor will I ever wear).

Walking with them, I could feel the weight, shape, and overall ergonomics of the pair coaxing my feet to hit the ground a certain way, with the heel and midfoot landing first, but immediately rolling forward towards the mid-foot, so that it would bear my weight for a longer period of time (which I’ve been given to understand is a healthier way to run). The heel is also rounded, which probably will translate to a smoother side-to-side pivot should the course require it.

Excited at the prospect of running with them; almost definite that I’ll have a better time, both in terms of enjoyment and average pace. While I’m almost certain this will be due to a psychological “placebo effect” the first time, since I’d probably be more motivated to run well with new running shoes (doing a Google search on “motivational placebo effect” turned up this post on Lifehacker), I’m pretty sure these babies will help me do better in the long run (yes, pun intended–what’re YOU going to do about it?).

Overall, really satisfied with this acquisition, save for one minor point: they’re not green. Not a trace of green on them.

It Began with a Sale

Right now, I have just two pairs of running shoes:  a black and blue pair of FILA shoes (they kind of look like this, but not exactly) which are too big for my feet (I used to not bother with fit too much, thinking that a size 8 is a size 8 no matter what brand you wear); and a grey and green pair of Nike Fusion Lites (which I bought much more recently and fit much better).

It’s silly, but seeing only two shoes in my portfolio didn’t sit well with me; a proper set that can be rotated should have at least three elements. So I decided to buy a new pair. Not necessarily soon, but just when a good opportunity presents itself. I kept an occasional eye out for shoe sales. Last week, I saw this one, and remembered learning somewhere that Brooks was a good brand. Some friends who are more hardcore runners than I am confirmed this, and recommended that I go for the Pure Project line of shoes.

So it was with this advice that I went to a sporting goods store yesterday. I resolved to fulfill two criteria: 1) buy a new pair of Brooks running shoes; 2) make sure they’re green, or at least partially so. Why green? Because it’s my favorite color. A lot of my running accessories are green, and whenever I could get away with it, I’d get things in green.

Meeting the Shoe Guy

Going in, I made a beeline for the Brooks line of running shoes, which occupied a panel on the left wall of the store, in between the much wider swaths of real estate reserved for Adidas and Nike. I asked the nearest attendant for advice on good running shoes from Brooks. He seemed like a newbie, and pulled in someone who was more qualified to respond to my inquiry.

And boy, was he qualified. You wouldn’t give this guy a second look–not that he’s quiet or closed off or anything; just unremarkable. But when he heard that I was looking for Brooks running shoes, it’s like an internal switch was tripped, and some sort of complex, seamless, well-worked-out sales subroutine was initiated. The Shoe Guy asked whether I needed a neutral or stability shoe, and was helpful enough to explain those terms to me (I had a rough idea, but wanted to make sure I had the right one). He pulled down different shoes from the wall, going on and on about the relative advantages of each.

As I tried different pairs on, he declaimed at length about the different brands: Nike was popular among the general shoe-buying public, but Adidas was better for running because of its Adiprene technology; hardcore runners, though, would consider nothing but Saucony or Brooks, although Saucony, while more lightweight, lost out on durability. It was a good thing I was already set on buying Brooks since they were on sale; I agonize when it comes to decisions, especially when each alternative has pros and cons. He said it was a good choice, gesturing towards the blue and white Brooks shoes on his feet, which he explained had gotten him through three 21-km runs without a hitch.

(I recently learned that there are different kinds of salesmen based on their styles and temperaments. The Shoe Guy was a classic repairman–expert with an aim to help solve a problem. Here’s an explanation of the different types if you want to know where you fall.)

Settling for the Best Fit

The shoes he picked out were great in the aspects that mattered. The fit was good, and he explained how the cushioning, the soles, and the inside of the shoe were engineered to satisfy serious runners with sophisticated, discriminating tastes. The fact that they were on sale, with at least 30% of the price knocked off, was icing on the cake. He even recommended that I run around the store with them, confident that I’d find the perfect pair. 

Well, he wasn’t right exactly. After going through the different pairs, I realized that none of them were green. Not a single pair had a hint of it. I asked whether they had any different colors in stock, and he said unfortunately, they didn’t.

I was torn. From the shoes he pulled down, the PureConnect model felt the best. Good fit, good traction, good stride, good response. Across the board, they felt awesome. Why did they have to be not green at all?

I considered leaving and looking for a store where they had what I wanted, but something bothered me, like a little pebble that somehow managed to insinuate itself in between my toes in the middle of a 5-km run. It was this; I didn’t need green shoes. I just wanted them. And I liked the Shoe Guy; he was competent, attentive, not passive but not too forward. If anyone deserved a commission from my shoe money, right at that moment, it was him.

So with a strong exhalation, I let go of the green. I chose the best-fitting pair, and was happy with them as I walked out the store. The 40% discount made me even happier.

And I didn’t just take home a pair of shoes yesterday. I took home a lesson; a desire to help goes a long way in making a customer happy. But when you combine that with expert knowledge and enthusiasm in whatever it is you’re selling (whether it’s a good or a service), it can make the customer ignore preferences he initially had going in. And if there’s one thing that can bring inspire enthusiasm and expertise, it’s when you believe in what you’re selling.

So whether you deliver value to the world through service or through selling, make sure you believe in whatever you bring to the table. Start by selling yourself; then you can sell to others.

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 "," 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?