Despite all the learning we do in school, we’re never shown the principles of being high achiever and reaching mastery. Ignorant of the key principles behind long-term learning and getting good, we’re left feeling disempowered and unable to continue learning as adults.
Add the mainstream myths surrounding competency, and we’re destined for failure.
Here I’ll look at the big picture of becoming a high achiever, whether it’s art, music, writing, sewing, handicrafts, speaking or cooking. I’ll share five fundamental, high-level principles of mastery.
In essence, being a high achiever is incredibly simple. There are no fancy equations, concepts or calculations involved. But many false ideas about learning and improvement circulate, so many fears contaminate our mind, and we are highly impatient – meaning articles like this are much-needed.
I write this article as much to remind myself of what true competency looks like. Though I’ve learned these principles through many years of trial and error and have reached enviable levels of competence in several areas in life, I’m human. I forget! You will too – but now you have a remedy.
A warning: much of this article might seem negative and pessimistic. Let me tell you, being a high achiever is a wonderful journey. I’ve gone a little overboard with the realism because too many are hypnotised by their fantasises of achievement. I want to thoroughly dispel some common delusions.
With that clear, let’s start with some cold-bucket-of-water-over-the-head treatment.
Be a High Achiever – Principle 1: Right Mentality
This is where I slap you across the face and shout “Think straight!”.
When you first embark on a new journey towards competence, your mentality is all you have. If it’s not solid, you’ll collapse like a house of cards.
Here are some home truths to guide your beginning.
The first is that you need to ignore your seeming lack of talent.
Talent is not important. Almost irrelevant. Any example of a child prodigy you can think of has trained for thousands of hours to achieve their fame. I don’t care if they had a natural inclination for their field or not. Natural inclinations come to nothing without application and discipline. But nobody wants to hear that, do they? It’s much sexier to think that a world-class symphony flowed from Mozart’s fingers the first time he sat at a piano.
Let me tell you a little story. When I was three years old, I could routinely read the numbers on buses as they drove by. I could tell the time and connect it to the routine at nursery. I don’t know why, but I just “got it”. Numbers just made sense to me. My friends’ parents were astonished. The school inspectors wondered if it was a set up. My parents thought I was an alien.
So you could say I had a certain aptitude for maths from a young age. And now I look back on those times with a top STEM degree and years of private teaching experience. I’ve always been a mathematical anomaly. On the surface, I’m a “talented” mathematician.
But did it all fall on my lap? Hell no. I watered, tilled and weeded that inclination, spilling blood, sweat and tears along the way. I’ve put thousands of hours into mastering the craft and made thousands of mistakes.
Even in other areas of life where I’ve reached a good level, I had very little initial “talent”. Yet EVERYONE thinks I became a high achiever by accident.
Take your ideas about talent and just leave them behind. They do nothing but disempower you, make you procrastinate, and have you believe you simply “can’t do it”.
You’re not talentless – you’re a newbie. We’re all newbies! We come to this life unable to eat, walk, talk and use the toilet, much less hold down responsibilities, raise children and maintain friendships. When you’re new to a field, you’re a baby again. Accept it.
Okay, that was my first slap. Close your eyes and brace for another.
Getting good is hard. It’s not sexy. Especially at the beginning. You’ll be fumbling around, clueless. As I said, you’re a baby – what do you expect?
Not only that, your initial excitement will wane. Guaranteed. This is the need for newness biting you in the backside. You’re excited? Great. Use that to get some momentum. But know it won’t last.
You’re going to doubt yourself. You’ll wonder why you ever thought learning French was a good idea and see you’re not as good at chess as you thought. You’ll realise that pumping iron also makes your makeup run and your hair greasy.
Just expect that it will be hard. It’s best to overshoot here. The good news is that once you build some confidence and competence, the practice will become more enjoyable. And eventually you’ll become inseparable from the craft itself, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
Be a High Achiever – Principle 2: Become Marine-like
If you’re not willing to experience frustration and pain, you’ll likely never become proficient at anything.
To become seriously good at something, you have to develop an almost sadistic love for the learning struggle. Think of yourself like a marine. You’re crawling with armour on, there’s screaming and shouting and gunshots, dirt is flying everywhere, but you keep going regardless.
Hopefully there won’t be actual screaming, shouting and gunshots, but your own fears, limiting beliefs and impatience will have a comparable effect. No matter how strong your intention is, they will try to distract you. You have to become a master at navigating them and build defences against their bombardments.
The struggle is most evident in the early days, when you’re developing rudimentary competency. The first few hundred hours of practice are the most critical. You feel like a newbie, you aren’t enjoying the practice, and there seems to be more sweat than smiles. Your commitment will be put to the test.
This is where you have to keep going regardless, like the marine. You fight off the resistance and keep inching forward, you don’t look around for easier or more exciting things to learn. The shiny new option on the horizon is a hoax. Stick with it. Force the skills to come through sheer diligence and application.
With time, you expect to feel the struggle as you take on a new endeavour. And you begin to accept and love it.
Be a High Achiever– Principle 3: Practice And Persist
This is the key to mastery right here. When I said mastery was easy, I wasn’t kidding. All it really entails is hours and hours of practice. If you’re a painter, it’s hours and hours of painting. If you’re a writer, it’s hours and hours of writing. For guitarists, it’s hours and hours of playing the guitar.
Don’t look for fancy shortcuts. Remember that the practice itself is simple, especially once you reach a certain level. The hard part is keeping your emotions and impatience in check and doing enough practice to reap the fruits.
A concept George Leonard talks about is that of plateaus. Essentially, the learning curve is not linear. Instead it’s like a staircase with short jumps and relatively long steps or plateaus. Progress is incremental, not exponential.
Plateaus are the weeks and months when you practice for hour after hour but see little yield. They can be dangerous, so here are three tips to help you navigate them.
First off, learn to love the plateaus. Soak into them, as though time never existed. Feel the mundanity and repetitiveness and live there. Don’t focus on improving – focus on the practice.
Second tip: be aware of your impatience and restlessness. Watch them, and you will be their master.
Finally, keep yourself inspired. When you’re playing out the familiar old learning routines you’ve built up, it can be easy to fall into autopilot and forget the purpose of your learning. Think deeply about why you’re doing this and reconnect with that desire.
After years of practice and dozens of plateuas, you eventually you become your craft. The boundaries between you and your beloved collapse.
Where does your hand end and the paintbrush begin? There’s no answer. Are you cooking, or is the whole process like a joyous dance, your body, the food and your equipment all in sync? Are you running, or are you being run?
Be a High Achiever – Principle 4: Think Like A Master
Mastery is like marriage. It sounds great in theory, but when you really contemplate it you retreat in horror, wondering why on earth anyone in their right mind would take it on.
Take writing, for example. On the surface, becoming a wordsmith sounds cool, sexy. It will all be splish and splosh, slap, dab, type, done – one wonderful essay after another. And all with a smile on your face.
The myth of sexy learning is perpetuated by sense-stimulating TV ads composed of orgasmic moments, shiny objects and upbeat music.
Writing might sound like fun and games. But have you ever contemplated what master writers like Hemmingway, Proust, Dickens, Shakespeare and the Brontë sisters really went through to achieve what they did?
Forget flow and flair. What wordsmithery entails is hours spent pouring over your commas, collocations and semi-colons. It’s years of en-dashes, hyphens and parentheses. It’s realising again and again that what you thought was a polished sentence more closely resembles a rotten potato.
You see, the actual moment-to-moment experience of writing is like washing the dishes – rather mundane. And the same goes for any learning journey.
You can’t escape the long hours of repetitive practice. All fields have certain principles we need to master – and it takes time. Granted, there are moments of joy. Sometimes moments of sheer exhiliration. But most of the time it’s not flashy.
Fortunately for you, there are antidotes to the monotony of long-term learning. And the king of them all is the world-class mindset.
Overcoming Monotony On The Path Of Achievement
After enough time on the journey, there comes a point where you fall in love with the rudimentary aspects of the craft. The monotonous becomes magical. You see beauty in the mundane. You pay attention to the tiny details that seem innocuous, that no mere mortal would ever notice.
It becomes apparent that every minute detail of the craft conseals a kaleidoscope of possibilities.
I watch and play snooker, and there’s a snooker commentator who really inspires me to love the humdrum. He lights up even the dullest of duels. He loves seemingly insignificant shots and knows all the tricks in the book. Even the standard shots make him giddy like a schoolchild. He lives every single moment of the match. The white ball moves an inch further than expected, and this guy goes wild.
To the amateur, he might have lost his marbles. To the master, he is savouring the minutiae of the craft.
This is what’s required to reach true competency. Stop looking around for something more exciting to learn. You won’t find anything. Instead, become like a wine taster. Savour the product, detect the fine notes, and marvel over the beauty in the simple.
Be a High Achiever – Principle 5: Kill The Buddha After Achievement
I’m stealing this final principle from Buddhism.
Our desire to learn is often underpinned by the dream of a dramatic finale or orgasmic climax when we slay the dragon and reach the peak.
And that is a useful goal. If it motivates you to take action, fantastic.
But the climaxes are never as good as you might imagine. And in any case, when you reach your goal, you realise it was only the first way station on an endless mountain trail.
There is no final destination. Every time you reach a “destination”, you realise how little you know. You realise how puny your previous destination was, like when as a child you revelled over reaching four feet tall and now you’re six foot three.
To me, the feeling that we’ve reached a final destination is a false sense of mastery. You’re a big fish in a small pond. Kill that Buddha – destroy the sense that you’ve “made it”. The George Leonard quote above beautifully describes the dynamic here.
Always look to improve. Not to a pathological degree, but simply for your love of the craft, for your love of life.