Mastery is something sought by many people in many situations. It could be a musician learning to play Mozart on an instrument. It can be a chef trying to find the perfect combination of spices for a soup. It can be a husband and wife trying to work together to become wonderful parents.
Mastery is a journey, one which has no destination.
Mastery is a life long journey (5). There are many places one can go to find how to be the best in any area of studying. However, in order to master a skill, talent, habit, or principle, they need to learn different disciplines in order to assist them on their journey.
In the book titled, Mastery:the Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment written by George Leonard, he calls these disciplines “keys” (53-54). Leonard suggests five keys in this book which will help those on the journey of mastery.
The first key to master is instruction.
Instruction comes in many forms: teachers, books, the internet, and almost any other source of knowledge (56). Instruction is an important part of mastery because it gives a standard and a starting place.
George Leonard says, “Most, however, have spent their lives reinventing the wheel, then refusing to concede that it’s out of round. Even those who will some day overthrow conventional ways of thinking or doing need to know what it is they are overthrowing” (55).
Instruction is needed to understand the basic principles of whatever it is being mastered. A baker cannot create delicious new bread, if he or she does not even know what ingredients go into bread. While it is good to think outside the box, knowledge of what is inside the box is needed beforehand.
The second key to mastery is practice.
This may seem like a simple idea, but the author suggests viewing this word as a noun, and not a verb (74). He explains, “A practice (as a noun) can be anything you practice on a regular basis as an integral part of your life—not in order to gain something else, but for its own sake” (74).
How is this different than just practicing the trumpet or flute for thirty minutes a day, o reciting Latin verbs? Practicing as a noun is something you make as part of your life. Eventually you become one with your practice. It no longer is something you schedule and grudgingly do, or something you decide to put off until tomorrow.
Those who truly what to master any skill, habit, or principle will practice because they love whatever they are practicing (75).
The author explained this situation by telling the story of a woman who received her black belt in Aikido. Even though she put in many hours of work and was awarded the highest honour, she still went class. When questioned why she still attended classes, the woman explained that she was on an “endless path” and she would continue to learn as long as she lived (75).
The third key of mastery is surrender.
This includes giving up your own ways and listening to your teacher. This includes giving up your time so you can meet the demands required to master a skill or talent (81). This key requires humility.A student will not get far in the journey if he or she is unwilling to give up their own knowledge or ways for the better.
The author told a story of a man who wished to become a swordsman. He found a master, and asked the master every day to teach him. Every day for a year, the swordsman turned the young man away. The master hesitantly let the young man in, but did not teach him about sword mastery.
Instead the master asked the young man to do chores around the house. The student faithfully fulfilled these tasks. One day the master attacked the young man with a sword, to teach alertness (83-84).
This whole time this young man has been surrendering himself to his desired skill. It was not the way he envisioned learning, but it is the way the master taught. If the young man had not surrendered to the master’s offer, and left when asked to complete household chores, he never would have become a swordsman.
The fourth key to mastery is intentionality.
On this subject the author says, “It joins old words with new—character, willpower, attitude, imagining, the mental game…” (89).
“The mental game” (89), why is this vital to the mastery journey? Isn’t practicing and learning about the skill enough? The author goes on to explain, “Intentionality fuels the master’s journey. Every master is a master of vision” (96).
Vision is the idea in the key of intentionality. In order to accomplish a skill, a master must see him or herself mastery that skill (96). The words “yes, I can do it!” and “I am important” and “I am a winner” are constantly in his or her mind (91). Intentionality is a fuel because it provides the student with purpose. They see what they want to achieve, and for what reason, and then they keep that picture of themselves in their mind. Then that vision is always there for them. When times get hard or the practicing is boring, they can always rely on the vision to keep them going.
The fifth and final key to mastery is the edge.
The edge is the last key, because it takes some time before it can be used. Instruction, practice, surrendering, and intentionality all lead up to it. Once a student has come as far as they can with those first four keys, then it is time to use the edge.
This means a student pushes the limit. They do not settle for an okay or good performance. They do not even settle for the best performance. They strive to become better than their best performance (97-98).
One example of this is the way my parents explained how my sister practices the piano. “She does not practice until she knows the song perfectly. She practices until she cannot make a mistake.”
Even when she reaches that height, she continues to practice. My sister understands that in order to master a song, it does require practice, but it also requires more. In order to perform flawlessly, she needs to learn the music inside out and backwards. She needs to become one with the piano, and she needs to understand what she is playing.
The author explains, “Playing the edge is a balancing act. It demands the awareness to know when you’re pushing yourself beyond safe limits”(99). There are times when pushing yourself in a skill is unsafe or risky. If runners injure themselves the day before a race, should they continue, or should they choose to rest? A situation like this is one a student needs to be aware may have drastic consequences.
In one way, pushing the edge is good, because they would feel more confident in their running. However, it can also be bad. The runners could injure themselves even more in the race and in an extreme case never be able to run again. As the author explains, using this key does require balance, but that is all part of mastery.
These five tools are simple to comprehend, but do require much mastery on their own part. While mastery of a skill is ultimately the student’s goal, he or she needs to master these five keys in order to progress on his or her journey. Instruction, practice, surrender, intentionality, and the edge all work together to build the master. Mastery of these five principles will help a student master any skill, talent, or habit.