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What does it mean to master a skill?

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John Sherman
2016-08-03

What does it mean when people talk about mastering a skill?

What makes the difference between proficiency and mastery?

Most of us have heard about the 10,000 Hour Rule popularized by writer Malcolm Gladwell, which states that to become world-class in any field it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. But is this the only path to mastery? Does it all come down to endless repetition?

One expert doesn’t think so. In his book, Mastery, author Robert Greene claims that there is a specific journey that most of us take to becoming true masters in any field. According to Greene, this is as true for painters and sculptors as it is for salespeople and entrepreneurs.

Greene claims that the first step in your journey is about discovery— exploring your natural talents and finding out what your strengths and weaknesses are. For some people this process begins by rebelling against a particular individual or social institution (picture the young man who chooses to go to art school because his father wants him to be a lawyer).

During this stage it’s critical that you are aware of your primary talents. Mozart, for example, knew as a child that his natural abilities were of the musical variety. Once the skill itself is chosen then the second step on your journey begins.

Now that you know what it is you wish to master, you must begin discovering how you learn. Not everyone acquires and applies knowledge the same way: some people spend years in passive observation, while others take a more active and hands-on approach to learning right from the beginning.  Either way, during this stage it’s very critical to identify the patterns of thinking and inefficient processes that hold you back.

In order to be better than 99% of the population at any one thing, you must know how to keep going when others give up. For some people, an apprenticeship will provide the guidance needed to move effectively through the second stage of mastery.  Sometimes you will make accelerated breakthroughs in your skills, while other times you will need to embrace the tedium that comes from practicing your craft.

As you move forward with your journey, you may need to alter your perspective. You may need to step outside of yourself and watch your learning process from the perspective of an outside observer. At this point you will take a critical eye to the details of your learning process and eliminate the things that are holding you back—while at the same time adding to the ones that are helping you improve..

After you have begun your apprenticeship and you’ve started to discover how you learn, it’s time to go deeper into the processes themselves. If you have chosen a mentor you will begin molding their ideas into your own and there will be a healthy back and forth exchange that will help you gauge your progress as you develop. This is what great coaches do for their athletes, providing them with continuous feedback in their technique and conditioning to help them stay on the path to success.

The fourth stage of mastery is all about social intelligence. Now that you’ve acquired the specific processes necessary for developing your skills, you’ll need to learn how to navigate your social environment effectively. Great artists, for example, must learn how to market themselves to gallery owners and interact with the public in a way that helps them build a following. Entrepreneurs must learn how to court investors and managers must learn how to get the best out of their people.

During this stage it’s absolutely critical that you avoid the Seven Deadly Sins of social intelligence: envy, conformism, rigidity, self-obsessiveness, laziness, flightiness, and passive aggression. You must also learn how to read people effectively so that you can identify who will help and who will hinder you on your journey. Finally, you must understand how to develop the appropriate persona that will draw people to you.

The final stage of mastery is about activating and accelerating your creative learning process. You must avoid becoming complacent with your skills and knowledge and continue to give your mind the fuel it needs to make new associations between different ideas. By this time you will have internalized, shaped, and modified the rules to fit your unique personality and strengths.

At this point you will be adept with the creative process and understand how to focus on both the strategies and tactics required to make you the best of the best. Picture any athlete, filmmaker, artist or businessperson at the height of their career and you’ll understand what the results of this level of mastery can be. Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel, Michael Jordan leading the Chicago Bulls, Charles Darwin developing his revolutionary theories—these are all examples of what true mastery can accomplish.

Many people give up at one of these stages, which is why true mastery is such a rare thing. Some people are content with a certain level of proficiency while others lack the focus or commitment required to move on to the next stage. If you want to become a true master of anything then you’ll need to be able to keep moving forward when the vast majority of people give up. It isn’t easy, but the end result is more than worth it.

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