Mastery. We know it when we see it—that air of confidence, control, and serene capability that emanates from someone who has achieved it. I first encountered the idea of mastery when practicing the martial art of Aikido, and, later, Tae Kwon Do. Someone who seeks to be really, really good at something arrives at the pinnacle of mastery as a result of putting in the time and effort to get there.
How is this done? Let’s say there are 1,000 elements needed to master something. Anything. Martial arts. Medical practice. Animal training. Cooking. Whatever. At the outset, the learning curve is sweeping. Gaining altitude on the peak of Mastery is pretty easy and passes quickly. It’s not a stretch to gain, say, 500 of the steps to mastery. The results feel good. It’s easy to continue.
Then comes that middle phase. You’re getting pretty adept. People further back in the process look to you for inspiration and advice. You achieve a couple hundred more of the 1,000 steps, but they don’t tick by nearly as conveniently. The learning curve steepens. The path becomes increasingly elusive, the demands more challenging. It requires slogging through many too-familiar lessons (yet again) to uncover the next gem that signifies another step earned.
At some point, you are either completely sucked into the process—or you decide to move aside, find a different path. Begin again, somewhere else. (An important note: this is not wrong or bad. It’s honest. Dabbling—trying new things—is a great way to broaden and discover who you really are.) Only the certain few destined to achieve mastery persist. These people dig deep and have tenacious commitment.
To earn my black belt in Aikido, I needed to demonstrate to my teacher, my sensei, 1,000 capabilities. When I did that, yes, I got the black belt—and that was when I discovered the next important lesson. All the black belt signified was that I had learned the basics. A new path lay ahead. It’s what mountaineers call a false summit. The discovery that none of us is ever truly done mastering something can be disappointing—a deal-breaker, for some. But I think, Yes! This is juicy! This is life! It’s the same as re-arriving at a starting point when you walk a stage to grasp a well-earned diploma at commencement—so called because the graduation signifies the start of the next phase just as much as it signifies a conclusion.
So nowadays, when I witness a master at his or her craft, I know that person is on a continuum, just like the rest of us. Some might wonder, why bother, if arriving at the pinnacle doesn’t actually happen?
I say: is the pinnacle honestly the goal? Perhaps it is, for some. Many people sigh and act resigned when such a lofty goal seems too hard, too far away. Why bother? For one thing, even though only a few will ever reach the top, there’s great credit to those who try. After all, you have to spend your time on this earth somehow. Why not do something really, really well? Why not work on achieving mastery over something that captures your fancy?
Perhaps it’s an odd contradiction, but maybe what matters most is not the seemingly-ultimate prize of reaching the top. True masters seem to understand that they cannot seek just that distant goal to measure success. They somehow learn that the actions and results from each individual day are what matter. The real essence of any path to that distant destination called mastery is the “here-and-now” as it slips by under the feet. They realize that focusing on the next step, the one right in front of them, is the best way (with luck and enough time) to lure mastery in, so it gets closer every time they pause and look up.
Only the rare few ever gather in all 1,000 elements of mastery. You know these people when you see them. They are adept, confident, easy in their skins. They are our heroes, and they give us hope. They have gained something impossible to buy or cheat their way into. The question is what should get the credit: the journey, or the final destination?
To me, down here on the lower reaches of that mountain, what matters most is to celebrate each day of effort. This day. This here and now. The people who seem most content are those who recognize the value and joy of the journey. Mastery may be the happy ultimate result (or not), but that step-by-step piece? That’s the part that spends its days with you.