On Mastery

Stumbling around the intertubes I’ve recently come across a number of articles on the topic of mastery. The one to spark it off was Hugh Macleod’s article. Then there was Buster Benson on his blog. Finally yesterday my friend Ahsan from college wrote a post titled “The Speed of Masters”. Additionally I’ve been following Cal Newport’s Study Hacks for a good few years now and he has a lot to say on the topic of mastery and finding your passion.

Going through all that it became very clear that people have a lot of different ideas about what mastery consists and how to best go about it. Those ideas are widely different and often contradictory. While I’m no philosopher or psychologist, mastery is a topic that is important to me. I’m in a PhD program so I’m supposed to be spending the next few years (asymptotically) approaching mastery in my research area.

Keeping all that in mind I’m going to collect some of my thoughts here in the hopes that someone will find them useful. maybe it’ll spark some interesting discussion. (And writing things out is a surprisingly good way of actually thinking about them.)

What is mastery?

Good question. Very good question. There are multiple definitions but the ones I’m partial to are: “full command and understanding of a subject” and “outstanding skill; expertise”. I like these because they elucidate different aspects of mastery.

First, you must have full command and mastery of a subject. You can’t half-ass your way to mastery. This gets to the heart of my objections to notions like programmers don’t need to know computer science. If you want to be a master programmer, you must know how the machine works. All the way. Period. You have to understand algorithms, garbage collection, cache hierarchies, data-structure tradeoffs, network protocols, the whole lot. You can’t be expected to know it all from the get go, but if you don’t know it eventually, don’t expect to be a master.

The second definition answers the question: what can you be a master of? You can master a particular skill. Your skill has to be definite: something where it’s clear what mastery means. For a chef it’s Michelin Stars. For a scientist it’s a solid publication record. This means that if you want to be a generalist like an entrepreneur or “problem solver” then mastery is harder to define. But even then I suspect it’s possible: look for people with similar goals and ideals and look at their track record. Masters can be quiet and humble, but they certainly have a track record. You can’t be a master without producing great work.

Why mastery?

Now that is a harder question for me to answer. It’s been claimed that mastery is a worthy pursuit in and of itself. That it matters more than money and success. I don’t really buy that, at least not for myself. I think this is a personal question that everyone needs to answer for themselves. For me, mastery is a means to an end. Being a master programmer (or engineer/scientists) means that I’ll be in a much better position to identify and tackle important problems and maybe even have a chance of solving them. Mastery is not disjoint from money or success. Being wealthy or successful makes it much easier to work on and solve the problems you’re really interested in, if for no other reason than that you spend less time worrying about making ends meet. Of course it’s easy to let the pursuit of money or success get in the way of achieving mastery, but that’s a different matter.

How do I get there?

I often seen the idea of mastery linked to notions of passion and finding your calling. The popular reasoning is that once you know your passion you’ll have the motivation to work hard and long. And once you work long at hard at what you’re passionate at you’ll become a master at it. Romantic and inspiring as this view of mastery might be, I think it’s backwards.

Cal Newport has a different take on mastery that is probably closer to the truth. Passion is not what comes first. Competence in a particular area comes first and passion follows from it. It’s easier to become deeply interested in something if you’re already good at it. Of course this doesn’t mean that you’ll like whatever you’re good at or that you can’t decide to do something and put in the effort to master it.

The important thing to remember is that you can’t sit around waiting for your passion to fall into your lap. You have to go out there and seek it out – act with agency. And once you’ve decided what you want to master, plan out the path to mastery. Though hard and long work is necessary for mastery, I doubt it’s sufficient. As studies on deliberate practice show, the best musicians aren’t necessarily the ones that play the most – they’re ones that practice the right things every day with an eye towards constant improvement. Gaining mastery is hard work, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be smart about it.

The best way to figure out how to master an area is to see how people who are already masters have gotten there. Be careful though, since media attention can easily obscure the details of their actual journey. Do your own research and verify your sources.

In conclusion

Mastery involves the acquisition of a complex skill and complete understanding of a subject. Your reasons for wanting to master something can be deeply personal, but it’s important to know what they are. Mastery must be actively pursued. If you don’t know what you want to master try out different things, gain basic competence and see which one appeals to you. Study the paths of previous masters and learn from their lives and track records.

The question I have for you, dear reader, is: What are you trying to master? How are you getting there?

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