Revisiting the Path to Mastery

Sadly, my cunning plan to go to the range on this lovely Monday off did not happen. I lost my voice about a week ago (which was, coincidentally, about two weeks from receiving the latest round of military-mandated the flu mist), and started developing a pretty wicked chest cold on Friday. I am now squarely in the “drainage” phase. Pleasant, I know, but I decided that trying to go to the range today would end up being an exercise in frustration due to inability to breathe and the other undesirable effects of a cold.

But, having a “down day” did afford me the opportunity to take a look at a book I had almost forgotten about. A friend of mine had borrowed it years ago, and just recently returned it to me before he moved to a new base. The pages are yellowed, and the cover is sun-bleached, but the information is just as riveting and useful.

Mastery, by George Leonard, was written twenty two years ago. And while some of the cultural elements and sports icons he references throughout the book date the writing, the underlying message is the same. If we are to truly embark on a journey of mastery in a given area of our lives, then we must dedicate ourselves to the enjoyment of that journey for the sake of taking it, not necessarily because there is an end goal in sight.

Let me explain. Leonard writes that goals are important, as they help us push our edge just a little further and break new ground, but singular and obsessive focus on those goals can be destructive. Part of any journey to becoming a master will involve spending considerable amounts of time on the ‘plateau’ of progression, where there is seemingly little to no progress being made. Those who are too goal-obsessive may become frustrated with lack of progress, and begin to ignore the fundamentals and basics in order to chase the next high. This may work, but it will probably also harm long-term gains by sacrificing a strong foundation to work from. Others may disengage entirely, and go find a new goal to pursue. In the end, neither will become masters.

This is seen in the shooting community quite a bit. Sometimes we have a tendency to look for that next widget or gizmo that helps us shoot faster or more accurately without requiring any additional practice time. We chase after certain shooting styles and disciplines that reward us for speed while having very generous accuracy standards. But, as many a shooting master have said before, good shooting is good execution of the fundamentals. Great shooting is great execution of the fundamentals. We have been conditioned by our culture to expect life to be a never-ending series of climaxes. Commercials and movies show quick montages of practice and training in a matter of seconds or minutes, often to arousing music, that give the impression that attaining a high level of skill is easier and faster than it actually is.

We are conditioned to think that if we only want it bad enough, it will come to us. Men’s Health magazine is famous for always showing a man with a rippling midsection on the cover, accompanied by a headline along the lines of, “Great abs in just 15 minutes!” Reality, is of course, different. That cover model most certainly did NOT get his abs in 15 minutes. We don’t see the lifelong dedication to eating right, working out, or the weeks of “prep time” leading up to that photo shoot where the model was dehydrated and starving in order to present just the right image. And that is all before it was photoshopped. I use these cultural elements to illustrate why many of us have troubles staying dedicated to a goal when it seems we are not making progress towards it. I used to say “stagnation is death” to illustrate how I approached a lot of elements in my life. But this is incorrect. Stagnation is part of mastery, it is necessary.

Leonard emphasizes that when we hit that plateau of stagnation, we should be happy that it gives us time to continue focusing and practicing on those fundamentals we have been so hard at work building. With repetition and application, we will eventually break that plateau and incrementally continue climbing the ladder of mastery. I can think of no skill worth a damn that can be mastered in a short amount of time. Professional musicians have practiced the same scales hundreds of thousands of times for years. Martial artists, like George Leonard, will spend their entire lives gaining experience and continuously learning. Professional athletes rarely got where they are based on raw talent alone, but through a lifetime intense and focused practice of the fundamentals. There was no montage, no inspirational theme music, and probably not even a medal at the end of it. Learn to love that plateau of skill, and keep practicing because it’s what you love to do.

Leonard also offers five keys to attaining mastery: instruction, practice, surrender, intentionality, and the edge.

Instruction is pretty self explanatory. Everyone needs to have something to learn from. The best instruction will always be tailored to the ability level of the student, and provide feedback to the student on how they are performing on their path. Many of do not have the luxury of professional instruction for things that we deem to be hobbies, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to learn. There are books, videos, message boards, and many sources of feedback available if we take advantage of them.

Practice is vital, and was covered earlier.

Surrender means being willing to sacrifice some of your gained ability, or pride, in order to seek better gains long term. My students will sometimes complain about the things that I make them do over and over again that their peers do not have to put up with. Sometimes the things that I make them do leave them feeling inadequate compared to others. But, they do not have the advantage of perspective. Without failure, those elements that I make them practice (the fundamentals, really) make them better in the long term. But it takes a willing effort on their part to surrender their misgivings and do things my way. I think this is an important element for anyone to realize. We should be spending time practicing the things we perceive to be our weaknesses, but we often just practice the things we believe are our strengths. We do this because doing things well is more fun that doing things not-so-well. We get a stronger “rush” from success. In the shooting world, that means we slap on our red dot sights and shoot at targets that are 15 yards away and call it “combat accurate.” Or we prop our rifles on to bipods and bench rests in order to shoot tiny groups at range, testing the guns accuracy more than our own ability. It was a desire to overcome these behaviors that drove me to start this whole marksmanship journey at the beginning of the year.

Intentionality, in Leonard’s terms, is closely aligned with the visualization practices that Lanny Bassham advocates in his book, With Winning in Mind.

Lastly, the edge is the importance of finding a balance between goal-less dedication to enjoyment of the fundamentals, and the desire to chase new and tantalizing feats of mastery- to break that plateau and reach a new level.

There are other interesting elements of the book, such as why making changes in one’s life is so challenging, and what to do about it. But they are for another time. I will add this book to my reading list.

4 thoughts on “Revisiting the Path to Mastery”

  1. I enjoyed your post. I agree that most of my time is spent within a plateau. After the first few years the learning curve really flattens out and it takes a lot more effort to gain a smaller percentage of gain. Better gear does help… so long as one has the skill to appreciate it.

    You need to get yourself some montage music though. The MSA Sordins are great ear protection, and they let you live your montage in slow motion. Just plug your phone in and your there.

    1. Thanks! It means a lot to me that you like it!

      I think you highlighted something that’s important about better gear. I don’t want to discount the value of those “widgets and gizmos,” as they can be a huge force multiplier in the hands of someone who has mastered the requisite fundamentals. But I think there is a tendency for some to try and shortcut developing those requisite fundamentals by buying better gear. And when the marginal increase in capability that new gear offers is no longer exciting, they want to buy another piece of gear. That isn’t the path to mastery, but a path to never-ending gear hoarding (which was where I was heading).


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