Mastery as an Attainable Concept
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 gains altitude pretty swiftly. On the foothills of Mastery the going can be relatively easy, and might pass quickly. It’s no a stretch to gain, say, the first couple of hundred of the steps up that hill called mastery. The results feel good.
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 somehow they don’t tick by nearly as readily. The learning curve steepens. The path becomes increasingly elusive. The demands are more challenging. Movement involves slogging through many too-familiar lessons (yet again) to uncover the next gem that signifies the completion of another step.
At some point, a person either gets completely sucked into the process, or decides to move aside, find a different path, maybe seek a different mountain to climb. It feels more right to begin again, somewhere else. (Importantly, 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 a few are ever destined to achieve mastery. They get there because, largely, they persist. They 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. A black belt only signifies that the wearer has learned the basics. A whole new path lies ahead! It’s what mountaineers call a false summit. The discovery that none of us is ever truly finished 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 across a stage to take hold of a well-earned diploma. They call it “commencement” because any graduation simply signifies the start of the next phase while also signifying 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 one never seems to arrive at the pinnacle?
I say: is the pinnacle honestly the goal? Perhaps it is for some. But even though only a few ever truly become masters, there’s great credit to those who try. We all have to spend our time on this earth somehow. Why not do something really, really well? Why not work on achieving mastery over something that captures your fancy?
Maybe what matters most is not the seemingly-ultimate prize of reaching the top. True masters learn that the actions and results from each separate day are what matter. The real essence of any path to a distant destination is the “here-and-now” as it slips under the feet. Focusing on the next step, the one right in front of them, they know, is the best way (with luck and time).
Only the rare few achieve true mastery. You know these people when you see them. They are adept, confident, easy in their skins. They are our heroes. They give us hope. They have gained something that is impossible to buy or cheat their way into.
The question is: what should get the credit: the journey, or the final destination? Those who seem most content 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.