No matter how far and fast you run, you’re always the same distance from the horizon.


Nine Thoughts On Mastery

Yesterday, in a discussion concerning the “10,000 Hours” standard for excellence, the following post appeared in the discussion:
“Many times I was better at things after getting a handle on what was going on than people who’d been doing it for years. But I get lazy and don’t try to improve on that innate ability, I’m never going to be an expert at the thing.”
(I’m going to assume the person meant “IF I get lazy…”)
This touches on so many issues about excellence, life paths, emotional focus, and so forth that I wanted to re-visit this entire area.  I am hugely grateful to teachers, friends and role models such as Steve Muhammad, George Leonard, Dawn Callan, Mushtaq Ali Al Ansari, Larry Niven, and  Harley Reagan for components of the following observations:
1) “Mastery” is here defined as unconscious control of the “basics” or elementary components of the skill, such that you can, under pressure, spontaneously create self-expressive actions.
2) Because an expert generally develops his capacity to criticize his work FASTER than his ability to flow and create, it is important to suspend judgement at times and just let it happen.  His work will never be perfect, and the self-critical faculty can be DEVASTATING, creating word stoppage (for instance: “writer’s block”).
3) If we define “Mastery” as a verb as well as a noun, there can be great advantage.    Consider a path of daily action, daily commitment.  A lifetime commitment to this path is a commitment to “Mastery.”  You are a “Master” when you have absorbed your basics, and commit to practicing daily (or multiple times a week) for the rest of your life.
4) This doesn’t mean that you are the best.    Or even speak specifically to some objective standard of excellence.  There will ALWAYS be people further along the path.  But you know what?  They are the same distance from the horizon that you are, and probably excoriate themselves for flaws in their work that you can’t even see.  Get the joke, and enjoy the ride.
5) Some people have greater “natural” skill…or better teachers and opportunities…or better “timing” in terms of the doors of learning, performance and perception that open and close at different times in their lives.   Every martial arts student knows about the “born black belt” who walks in the school with athleticism and attitude that are just absurd, and whips through the curriculum at mach speed.   If you let this discourage you, you will never reach YOUR excellence, which is your only task.
6) If YOU are one of those who learn (initially) at Mach speed, don’t let it get to your head.  Sooner or later you will hit the performance wall, and progress will start coming more slowly.  Further, if you let your initial success go to your head, you will slack off on practice, and eventually be out-performed by the “tortoises” in the world who simply plod their way to victory.  The reason so few people reach true excellence is that most don’t have the emotional juice to keep going when they hit this plateau.
7) At some point you will transform.  If you work at any discipline deeply enough, honestly enough, you will learn new things about the world, and yourself.   The ego will resist this transformation: it means ego-death.    It will never give you direct warning that this is what is happening. Rather, it will distract you with “boredom”, repel you with “fear”, entice you with other opportunities, convince you that you never really wanted it in the first place.
IT IS 100% PREDICTABLE that you will be challenged in this way at some point in your journey.  Get ready for it.
8) In other words, a “Master” isn’t better than someone else.  They are better than they used to be, have absorbed the fundamentals of their art or discipline so that they can execute without thought (opening the doorway to emotional expression), accept the fears and doubts that stop others, and have embraced their discipline for life.
9) I personally have seen these aspects in every discipline I have committed to: writer, teacher, husband, father, martial artist, yogi.
The same stuff. The same traps. One of the reasons it is critical to commit to multiple arenas of discipline is so that you can learn the ego traps, see them from multiple directions, and begin to recognize your demons no matter what reasonable guise they may appear in.
It is my belief that we should all aspire to mastery in some arena of our lives, to choose a mountain to climb and take at least one more step every day.  One more step along the path.
And although there will be countless others ahead of you, the others walking the same road will likely bid you welcome, and wish you well.
So long as you commit to doing the same for those who follow you.

Mastery is a verb, not a noun. A process, not a position. A path, not a destination.


Thoughts on Mastery


In a few hours I climb into the truck and start driving back to Cali.  Tonight, I’ll sleep in a little town called Monroe, Louisiana.  Tomorrow, Maybe Abilene Texas (as long as they have AMC.  I’m not missing Breaking Bad!).


I’ll be listening to Sherlock Holmes short stories, and the multidisciplinary Big History audios (my favorite Teaching Company lessons, covering the history of the entire universe.  Yow!) and thinking. A lot.


Who am I now?  What do I want to do with my life?   What do I want to teach?  Write?   If I was emptying myself out, the most important 20% first, what would that be?  What is the most important gift I can give the world, as a way of saying “thank you” for giving me everything I ever wanted as a child?

So strange.   As a boy I wanted to master martial arts and writing, and the art of loving and living with another human being.


To do that, I had to define what “mastery” was.  Tricky subject, because of the media images we accept in such arenas. But having been around people considered in the top .1% of various fields, people totally committed to their crafts, people who other experts consider “masters” I began to compare what they were saying about it, this sacred thing, this holy grail of human performance.


Because that was what I wanted.  And a few things kept cropping up in common between all arenas of human life, things said by these “masters” and more importantly…by the people who were clear and powerful enough to lift others up to this almost mythical level.


1) Mastery isn’t a noun.  It is a verb.  It is a path, and those who are committed to that path, wherever they are upon it, may be masters.


2) Mastery isn’t about complicated skills.  It is about simple skills, drilled to the point of unconscious competence, such that they can be re-combined into complex patterns even under stress.

3) Mastery isn’t a mask, not something you “put on”.  It is a natural expression of who and what you are.   You write the way you talk.  You fight the way you live.   You love others as you love yourself.  It isn’t a big deal.  It’s just what you are.


4) Mastery isn’t a matter of learning something new.   It is more a matter of cutting away the inessential.  In that sense, in life there is a point of gathering together, and another point of throwing away.   And while masters continue to learn their entire lives, it isn’t that they are learning “more stuff”.  They are seeing deeper and deeper connections within and between the things they already know.


5) Masters see the path, not themselves.   They know that the concept of “mastery” is a joke if it is supposed to mean you are complete.  Hell, in martial arts, most beginning students think a black belt is the end of a process.  Yeah, the process of being a beginner.  It is analogous to “touch typing”—you know where your fingers and thumbs go on the keyboard, but that doesn’t make you a writer.


6) Masters don’t compare themselves with other people.  Not often. When they do, they are slipping out of that state, and into ego.  Mastery comes from the real you, the hidden you, the unconscious you.  Oh, you can certainly piss a master off and get that ego going, but they often are somewhat embarrassed afterward.  They know that no matter how far or how fast you go, everyone is the same distance from the horizon.


7) Masters are somewhat embarrassed by the term “master.” They know what it meant to them when they began the process.  And now that they have surpassed their original dreams, all they see is how much more they don’t know.


I remember years back, after a morning martial arts class, I went to breakfast with my classmates, and was grousing about my performance. One of the other students, a black belt in another system who thought highly of my skills, stopped me.   “Steve, don’t say that,” she said. “If someone as good as you are still feels insecure, what hope is there for the rest of us?”


And I got it.  While the process of growth is endless, and the labels without ultimate meaning, the concept that someone can spend forty years practicing a discipline with all the heart and energy you have, and still feel like a beginner can be depressing to someone who is not learning the inner game.  Who is building a wall around their insecurity.


About thirteen years ago I was teaching a martial arts workshop with a fine young black belt.   Afterwards, we were talking, and he got very quiet.   “When will I stop feeling like a fraud?” He asked.  “When will I believe in myself?”


I had no answer.   About seven months later, he blew his brains out.  When I heard, I realized the depths of his misery, of the “impostor syndrome” that was crippling him, of the fact that he had armor-plated his fear rather than actually draining the swamp.  And the demons had simply bred in the dark until they destroyed him.


And grasped that so many of us seek a way out of that darkness. We seek masters, the golden few who have achieved some standard of skill, or strength, or happiness.  We don’t want to know about their insecurities.  Don’t want to know about their sadness.  We want to know how they got there, and that it is worth the journey.


So…the term “master” isn’t about the master.  It is about the student.   About the need to believe in something worth fighting for in life.


And I know that despite all of the struggle, the sense of incompletion, the failures and heart-crushing setbacks…that my life is wonderful.  I have my soul-mate, even if she drives me crazy sometimes.   I have my writing career, all of the fans and money and awards and acclaim…even if there are ups and downs and side-ways ripples.  I have my martial arts, even if I surround myself with people so much better than I am that it feels like I know nothing. But they accept me as a brother on the path of mastery.  If I accept the gifts they have given me, I don’t have the right to luxuriate in insecurity.


Wow.   I will never walk away from my family.   Never stop writing and teaching.  Never stop practicing the martial arts I love.


I guess that makes me a master, whether I laugh myself silly thinking about it or not.  And all I want to say to others is that you really can achieve your dreams, but grasp that the doubting voices will never shut the @#$$ up completely.   It’s their job to natter.   It is yours to walk the Path.


In other words: sharks and icebergs and undertow and all…come on in.  The water’s fine.




Mastery And Flow

TUESDAY, JULY 19, 2011

Focused Flow
In asking people for suggestions for my Writer’s Block project, I realized that my perspective on the problem is an inability to freely shift between editing and flow modes. That “Focused Flow” is, for about 80% of people, the real issue–everything else is removing obstacles to this quality, and letting your best self issue forth.

Last Sunday I was speaking with the greatest martial artist it has been my honor to know personally, the phenomenal Steve Muhammad. And the topic of how to help students enter this critical mental/emotional state while maintaining technical precision was central to the discussion. Specifically, I asked this man, who has more right to the term “master of his craft” than anyone I’ve been able to observe closely, over time, how he would define “master.” Paraphrasing slightly, he said: “mastery is command of your basics sufficiently to create spontaneously, under pressure.”

Combining this with comments on Mastery from such thinkers as George Leonard, I offer the following thoughts on Mastery:

1) Mastery is a verb, not a noun. A process, not a position.
2) Masters are eternal students. They generally laugh at the idea that they are “masters” in the sense the beginner uses the term. But they accept the term because students need something to strive toward. We used to have Saturday morning Silat classes in Vancouver Washington under Stevan Plinck. Afterwards, many of us would go to breakfast. I was at breakfast, grousing about my performance when another student snapped at me: “stop that, Steven! If someone at your level isn’t happy with your skills, what are the rest of us supposed to think and feel?” And…I got it. All I see, really, is how far I have to go. I forget how far I’ve come.
3) No matter how far and how fast you run, the horizon is always the same distance away.

What happens if I combine these thoughts? Well…my conclusion is that:
1) Once you have command of your basics and
2) Have committed to your path for a lifetime

You are as much a “Master” as anyone else on the path, no matter how much “better” than you they are, or how much farther along the path. There is just…the Path. Stop comparing yourself to others.

The key to remaining engaged for a lifetime is relishing the Flow.

In martial arts, sexuality, driving, writing…countless disciplines the question is how to have the basic skills at Unconscious Competence so that flow can be entered, and you can just…well, enjoy the ride.

This “Focused Flow” is the lowest level of the esoteric mind, the doorway to your highest performance. To access it there must be a balance between challenge and familiarity, pain and pleasure, attention and intention. It is here that your instinct and education blend to create an artistic response…and I don’t think it would be too much to say that every student I’ve ever had has, in one way or another, sought it.

The first step is to ADMIT YOU DESIRE IT. Then you can define how it would look and feel, and begin to identify the quality when and where it already appears in your life, and people who have greater amounts of it than you…and then begin to model them.

That means adding some behaviors, removing others, and modifying some. It will be a combination of emotions, mental focus, physical energy, and environmental design. It is your doorway to excellence.
Whatever your abilities, whatever your potential, whatever “mastery” means in your life…this is absolutely a component. Embrace it!