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Go For Mastery

December 2, 2016

How do we become exceptional? How do we make the leap from technical virtuoisity to unique creativity? The real art in learning takes place as we move beyond proficiency, when our work becomes and expression of our essence.

The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin

The park scene from the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer"

One day a six-year-old boy was walking with his mother through Washington Park in New York City. The boy--who at the time was passionate about Spiderman, sharks and dinosaurs--usually amused himself by pretending he was Tarzan as he swung on the monkey bars. But on this day something felt different. He looked over his shoulder and saw two men hunched over a chess board, and he was transfixed by the mysterious figurines. As the men nimbly pushed the pieces around the board, the boy felt like he was seeing living animals endowed with strange magic. He was absolutely enraptured. Something about what he saw was deeply familiar and made sense. Then a crowd gathered around the board and blocked his view. (1, 2,3)

A few days later the boy observed some older kids playing chess at school, and without know why, he felt certain that he could do it. Later that day the boy and his mom went for a walk in the park, and the boy made a beeline for a grey bearded man sitting alone at a chess board. The man eyed the boy suspiciously then asked, “Wanna play?” The boy’s mother, flustered after catching up, apologized, saying that the boy didn’t know how to play. The old man said that it was fine, he had time to kill. So the boy sat down and the two started a game. When it was his turn to move, the boy sat dead still in his funny thinking face—eyes stern and tongue pressed against his lip—pondering what to do. Meanwhile, the man read a newspaper, only glancing at the board briefly when it came his turn. But then something amazing happened. This boy, who had never played chess before, began—as if remembering a forgotten memory—to understand the relationship of the pieces. He felt a a peace, a sense that this was what he was meant to do, and he began to string together a coordinated attack.

When the old man saw what was happening on the board, he was momentarily angered, thinking that he was being hustled. But setting aside his newspaper so that he could focus on the game, he realized he was witnessing something special. A crowd formed around the table whispering, “Young Fischer.” The old man ended up winning the game, but not without a fight. He asked the boy for his name, and scribbled it on a scrap of paper. “I’m gonna read about you in the paper someday,” he said.

From that day forward the boy was enthralled with chess, and almost every waking moment was spent learning everything he could about it. Washington Park became his second home. Hour after hour he would sit across from scruffy men and battle over games of speed chess. He became an unlikely installation in the scene, along with the alcoholics, homeless hustlers, and wealthy gamblers. One Saturday he was playing and a tall man edged up to watch. After the game the man introduced himself to the boy’s father. His name was Bruce Padonlfini, and he was a master-level chess player. He said that the boy was gifted and offered to give him lessons. Thus began the chess career of Josh Waitzkin, a prodigy who went on to win his first national championship at the age of nine, drew a simultaneous exhibition game against the World Champion Garry Kasporov at age eleven, became a National Master at age thirteen, and was appointed an International Master at age sixteen (29). In 1993, Waitzkin’s story was featured in the film, “Searching for Bobby Fischer.”

Over two decades ago, Ellen Winner—presently the chair of the psychology department at Boston College and a leading authority on art in education—coined the term “the rage to master” to describe the furious drive to learn found in preconsciously talented children (1). As an example, Winner presented the case of Peter, who began drawing at ten months of age, in contrast to the typical age of two. When Peter discovered that he could make marks on paper, he wanted to draw all the time. As Winner described:

Soon he was waking up in the mornings and bellowing for paper and markers before getting out of bed. He drew before breakfast, during breakfast, while getting ready for school, while being driven to school, and as soon as he returned home from school…. When friends came over to play, he would bore them by making them pose for him, or by insisting that they draw with him.

A similar compulsion to learn was found in children who were highly talented in math, music, chess and reading. These children didn’t need to be prodded to do math drills or practice piano scales; in fact, their parents reported the opposite: it was next to impossible to get these kids to stop studying. Winner suggested that “high levels of ability” lead to a strong drive to master one’s domain. Talented kids work around the clock to learn and improve because it’s rewarding (2).

My experience talking to creative people has led me to see that the “rage to master” is not just found in ultra-talented kids. If fact, it’s common for children to be suddenly taken with a subject. For me it was computers. In ninth grade I came upon a tattered copy of Byte Magazine, and from that day forward I had to know everything I could about computers. I sold my electric guitar so that I could buy a used Tandy TRS-80 Model I and spent countless hours scripting games and experimenting with algorithms. Similar examples of childhood obsessions have been reported by many of the people I spoke with when writing this book, including: Ellen, who at age ten became so fascinated with the Sienfeld Show that she recorded every episode on VHS, memorized their storyline and dialog, and posted a web blog summarizing the timeline, plot, and cast; Nick, who in eleventh grade became captivated by animal tracking, and spent an entire summer exploring a local state park to locate and map its furry inhabitants; and Tom, who in high school became possessed with 1960 Chevys, and spent hours each afternoon rebuilding engines, studying Edmond’s manuals and scanning the classifieds for junkers and parts.

Most everyone has felt the furious urge to learn about some new hobby or interest. You become so fascinated that an ordinary approach to learning is not enough. You want to go deep and commit yourself to knowing everything you can, and become as skilled as you can possibly be. In short, you strive for mastery.

 

If you don’t care enough about your work to want to master it, then you’re doing the wrong thing. It may be time to quit and try something else.

 

Go Narrow, Go Deep

A lot of people are put-off by the term mastery, because it sounds like it relates to superhuman knowledge and ability. But if you look into the etymology of the term, you’ll find that it has more inclusive origins. Mastery is related to the Medieval Latin term magister, meaning having the authority to teach. In this sense, to be a master is to have the necessary expertise to instruct others (think school master). Medieval guilds were led by masters who were adept at practices distinct to their guild. Due to the specialization of the trades, a city might have as many as a hundred different guilds, each with its own master. A master carpenter (house builder) had expertise in woodworking techniques that were distinct from those of a master joiner (furniture making) or master turner (woodwork using lathes). Even within a given trade—for example violin makers-each guild had its own secrete practices and forms. A master luthier from the guild of the Italian Antonio Stradivari would be accomplished in different methods (e.g. the varnish formula, the patterns used for the violin’s body and neck, the decorative styles employed) than a master from the guild of the Austrian Jakob Stainer.

With the historical origins of the term “mastery” in mind, we can say that a master is someone who is highly competent in a narrow set of practices. You don’t have to be a genius at everything, but you do need to be very, very good at the specific work that you do. The great news is that this means that mastery is something we can all strive for. Few of us have the luxury of time to spend 10,000 hours practicing our craft. But we can all pick a manageable corner of our field in which we endeavor to become an authority and create with confidence. If you’re a hobbyist beermaker, you can set out to become a master of German style pilsners. If you’re passionate about gardening, you can aspire to be a master cultivator of Malaysian ornamentals. If you love tinkering with vintage cars, you can aim to become a master restorer of mid-seventies Alpha Romeos. The key thing is that by choosing a niche in your field, it provides the possibility of going deep. The power of mastery comes not from knowing everything, but from knowing a few things extremely well.

When you commit to becoming a master of your craft, it changes your experience. Your aimless, half-hearted efforts become laser-focused and charged with vitality. You begin to care about every component of work—your tools, materials, domain knowledge, technique, tradition, workspace, creative ideas, artistic voice. (I talk about each of these in later sections). It’s a lot like falling in love—your fiery passion for mastery brings a glow to every aspect of your life, including your identity, perceptions and relationships. Going for mastery is not just a way to get better at your work. It’s also one of the most powerful and universally assessable ways to bring deeper purpose to your life.

References

[1] Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning: a journey in the pursuit of excellence. Free Press, 2007. (P. 3-7).

[2] HBKFilms, Interview with Josh Waitzkin, on The Art of Learning. Apr 17, 2007. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lj1gxz5puaQ

[3] Josh Waizkin, personal website, bio: http://www.joshwaitzkin.com/josh/

[1] Winner, Ellen. “The rage to master: The decisive case for talent in the visual arts.”  In K. A. Ericsson

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