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Mastery of Skills: Your Fail-Proof Guide

Let’s look at the essential principles of the process of mastery of skills. If you want to get good in your pursuits – whether it’s a new language, instrument, sport or handicraft – you simply must follow these principles. Ignore them and you’re setting yourself up for failure.

We often view mastery as mysterious, ethereal, magical, not realising that millions have walked the path to high performance and followed certain principles on their journey. The mastery of skills is not a mystery – it has certain essential elements, and if you find yourself struggling to get good at things, it’s likely you’re not adhering to them.

Let’s start by looking at what mastery is.

What is Mastery?

I habitually associate mastery with a state, an endpoint, the final destination, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Yet it’s more than this: it’s also a process. The process is what leads to the state, and only by successfully navigating it do we conquer the dragon. To be clear:

The process of mastery is the process of learning, of long-term dedication to a field or pursuit.

The state of mastery is the state of high-performance we attain after tons of learning.

But don’t be fooled – the state isn’t really a final destination. Even after they’ve climbed the mountain, true masters keep going. Not only for the accolades and rewards, but for the sake of the discipline itself. They simply love what they do. They do it for its own sake, and they love expanding their knowledge.

Besides, any worthwhile skill or field of knowledge is endless. There is no state of mastery, simply because there’s no end to what you can master. If you’re just starting out, this might seem like an abstract nicety. But it’s eminently practical. Knowing this fact helps you keep learning even when you think you’ve reached the summit. This could be crucial for your hobbies, career or personal life.

For one who is on the master’s journey… the word [practice] is best conceived of as a noun, not as something you do, but as something you have.

George Leonard

What’s Behind The Mastery of Skills?

Now let’s look at several key elements of the mastery of skills, starting with the idea of talent.

The Talent Myth

Since we’re discussing learning and high performance, we simply have to discuss the talent myth.

Here’s the issue. When we speak about elite performers, whether sportspeople, musicians, speakers or writers, we tend to describe them as “talented”, “naturally gifted”, or “blessed”, as though they came out of the womb with their ability. Seriously, listen to commentators, critics and pundits talking about these high performers. This is their parlance.

But this view of talent is remarkably flawed. We forget that elites dedicate their life to their art. Read a few of their biographies and you’ll find that most of them have spent decades doing little else but learning their craft. How could they not be amazing at it?

You see, the grace, the naturalness, the ease of their performance hypnotise us into believing their skill is inbuilt, innate inside them. This is an optical illusion. This grace and flow comes after a long journey on the learning path, not before.

Talent Does Exist, But It’s a Tiny Headstart

The reality is, some people might have a headstart, but this headstart means nothing in the grand scheme of things. Often the headstart is a tiny piece of ability. It looks dazzling to amateurs, but nondescript to pros.

My favourite and most familiar example is Stephen Hendry. For those of you outside the UK, Hendry was a snooker player – one of the greatest ever, and among the most influential in the sport. Okay, he still is a pro, but he’s long past his best. In his short spell at the top of the sport, he scored 775 century breaks and won the World Championship seven times. How did he reach such dizzing heights?

Hendry started learning his craft as a 13-year-old, on a quarter-size table, the kind you could fit in a small bedroom. After a fortnight or so, he was making 50 breaks, a feat that novices never achieve in their entire life.

Hendry acknowledges how much work he did to get to the top – during his professional years, he practiced six hours a day, seven days a week. But he’s also convinced that without his little headstart, he’d never have achieved what he did.

But here’s the problem. His talent – his inherent, innate snooker skill – seemingly amounted to those 50 breaks he achieved in ultra-quick time. Sure, these are tricky for non-players, but a pro makes dozens of 50 breaks every day – on a full-size table. They’re routine and insignificant. On a quarter-size table? Forget it. They make century breaks with one hand.

My point? Hendry had a little headstart, a jolt in the right direction. But he massively overvalues it, and undervalues his long years of gruelling practice.

Mastery is not a function of genius or talent. It is a function of time and intense focus applied to a particular field of knowledge.

Robert Greene

My Headstart

I had a headstart in maths. I quickly learned how to tell the time and identify bus numbers, a feat which dazzled my parents and nursery teachers. But let’s be honest, these skills only looked amazing because I was two years old. If an adult can’t tell the time or read numbers, it’s usually because they’re blind or have special needs. That’s no disrespect to those groups, but an indicator that past a certain age these skills are second-nature, unremarkable, just like Hendry’s 50 breaks.

My point? Talent and inherent competence is over-rated and blown up beyond all proportion. It might get you slightly ahead of novices on the learning path, but it can’t get you to elite level.

And if you don’t have any talent, you can still get there. It might take a little longer at the beginning, but once you’re over the beginner’s hump, you’ll be on the same track as the gifted.

Stop believing in talent. Stop talking about talent. Don’t even use the word! It does nothing but disempower you.

10,000-hour rule

What does get you there is lots and lots of practice. Many have attempted to quantify just how much practice, and repeatedly they’ve found that 10,000 is the magic number for elite performance in any pursuit.

To give you an idea, 10,000 hours of practice is 1 hour of learning a day, 5 days a week, for nearly 40 years. Make it four hours a day, and we’re talking just over nine and a half years.

That said, don’t get fixated on this figure. Sure, it seems that 10,000 hours is a good barometer for budding professionals, but we can get pretty damn good with much less. We don’t have to give up our job or obligations to reach mastery in a field. A few thousands hours of learning is enough for high-level performance.

The other reason you shouldn’t get obsessed with this figure is that this rule is more nuanced than it seems at first. It’s not enough to simply build up all those hours in any shape or form – you have to invest them in a special kind of practice.

Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice is a crucial aspect of the 10,000-hour rule, yet most people ignore it. Unsurprisingly, to get really good we can’t rely on any old kind of practice – it has to be focused on learning, improvement, pushing our level, developing new skills within our pursuit. This is deliberate practice.

On the learning path, you’ll be tempted to stay at your current level, protect it and build a home there. Your current level feels familiar, nice, comfortable. You don’t have to push yourself, face your fears, or admit lack of competence. You just soar along, carefree.

Tonnes more tips on learning and the mastery of skills in my video on the three dysfunctional types of learners.

Sure, it feels nice in a way, but this comfort and ease prevents you from moving forward. You must take the opposite approach by constantly scrutinising your work, identifying weak areas, and learning more. All of this widens your circle of competence and takes you closer to elite performance, to true mastery. Ideally you should continue to do deliberate practice throughout your time in the pursuit.

And at some point, you’ll truly realise there is no final destination. The further you travel, the bigger the territory gets. And discovering more of it whets your appetite and makes you feel alive. Why maintain the illusion of arrival when you can continue learning?

We’ve looked at three key aspects of the learning path in the abstract. Now let’s drill down into the practical. How does the path look, smell and taste?

The Practical Side of The Mastery of Skills

Mastery of Skills Means Habits

To reach mastery, you must build strong learning and practice habits. These habits should be related to the areas you wish to improve. Repeat them so much that they become ingrained. You no longer have to think about practicing the violin, you just do it. There’s a seamless transition between practice and non-practice.

I highly recommend you have a fixed practice schedule and a record of all your practice sessions. That way, you know exactly what to practice and for how long you’ve practiced.

And when you’ve mastered a skill, swap it out for another crucial element of your craft. Do this for months and years, and you’ll notice huge leaps forward in your skill level.

Learning Means Repetition

As you walk the learning path, you’ll find your skills start to go on autopilot. This is what happens when you repeat a movement or technique hundreds and thousands of times: it becomes ingrained as a habit in your mind and body, and it starts feeling natural, effortless. What looks amazing to others feels automatic to you.

To practice regularly, even when you seem to be getting nowhere, might at first seem onerous. But the day eventually comes when practicing becomes a treasured part of your life. You settle into it as if into your favorite easy chair, unaware of time and the turbulence of the world.

George Leonard

So don’t just practice a technique once or twice. Do it hundreds, thousands of times until it’s second-nature, a permanent part of your repertoire. At that point, you have truly internalised the skill, and will be able to reproduce it at will.

Here’s another practice titbit: practice makes permanent, not perfect. This means that repetition is about ingraining, and whatever you ingrain becomes your habit.

If you practice a song on piano incorrectly, you’ll automate the wrong version. Not only will you then play the wrong version of the song, you’ll find it doubly difficult to learn the right one. The key is to practice accurately, programming the correct steps into your habit system.

genius demands effort with scrabble pieces. description of path of mastery

The Ideal Mindset for the Mastery of Skills

You simply can’t reach mastery without the right mindset. You need to believe in your ability and overcome your fears. Otherwise, you won’t do the reps, you won’t spend hours practicing, and you’ll only be half-committed to high performance.

I recently wrote an entire article on mindset, Mentality & Mindset: Your Ticket to Mastery in Learning, and highly recommend you read it if you repeatedly fall off the path.

Persistence and the Mastery of Skills

If I had to give you one piece of advice for the mastery of skills, it would be this: persist, don’t give up, keep going even if it feels impossible.

I’ve found that people love talking about the journey. They get all excited about new equipment, the best teachers, time-saving techniques and other accoutrements, but they’re forgetting about the most important thing: practice, done persistently, over years. You simply can’t beat it, no matter how good your setup is.

Persistence is the universal solution to incompetence. Look back on any master’s journey, and you’ll find that persistence was the main factor behind their success.

The road to mastery requires patience. You will have to keep your focus on five or ten years down the road, when you will reap the rewards of your efforts.

Robert Greene

Mastery of Skills: Features of the Path

Now that we’ve spoken in broad terms about how to walk the path of mastery and reach the mastery state, let’s touch on the look and feel of the mastery state.

Keep in mind that these characterists aren’t inbuilt. They come after years of dedication to your craft.

Mastery of Skills Means Flow

Flow is a state of effortless doing, of selfless absorption, of utter presence, of perfect execution. We can experience flow states when we’ve reached a certain level of competence and find ourselves in situations of moderate challenge – not so tricky as to be impossible, not so easy as to be boring.

My flow states feel like out-of-body experiences. My most obvious recent flow state occurred when I was running. I was on a normal 10k route, finding it challenging but doable. I had around 3k to go. All of a sudden, it was as though my consciousness separated from my mind and body. My body was running itself, and though I could still feel the muscle strain, I felt perfectly present and was launched into a state of joy.

Here’s the key to flow states: you can’t force them. They’re spontaneous. Forcing is the enemy. In fact, I claim that the best flow states are those you aren’t aware of, in the sense that there is no self-reflective thoughts like “Oh, I’m in a flow state.” You’re simply there, absorbed, without conscious recognition. So forget about flow states, don’t will them, but take them as a good sign when they spontaneously arrive in the post.

Mastery of Skills Means Effortlessness

Effortlessness isn’t limited to flow states, either. I find that it’s a common experience once you’ve done enough practice. Sure, since we do deliberate practice throughout the journey, not all our experiences are effortless. But when repeating techniques and skills we’ve already acquired, we have a feeling of lightness, relaxation. It just happens, and perfectly. There’s no straining, willing, fighting.

Attention to Details

Another facet of mastery is the ability to detect and savour the microscopic details of your craft. Having mastered so many skills, you can now look deep into the mechanics behind them. What is simply imperceptible to novices is obvious to you. You can look at one element from several angles and explain it many ways, with caveats and anomalies too. In fact, this level of knowledge is an antidote against boredom and stagnation on the path of mastery.

the Mastery of Skills and Seeing Beyond

As beginners, we’re unable to question the ideas we learn. We believe our teachers are sharing unalterable facts, rather than their own opinion or point of view, which might be contaminated.

But as we progress, we begin to form our own opinion on things. We question our training and the prevailing ideas in our field. We rebel against people who seem to put more stock in habit and tradition than creativity and flexibility. Through practice and experience, we develop our own style, our own take on our craft.

After experiencing this in several fields, I’ve found it useful to distinguish between conventions and rules. A convention is something we can choose to follow, while a rule is something we must follow. The two are different, and if you want to stamp your mark on your work, it’s crucial you start telling one from the other.

For example, a rule in writing is that we put a full stop at the end of the sentence, then begin the next sentence with a capital letter. Makes sense, right? If I hadn’t followed this rule in writing this article, it would be an unreadable gloop of words. Sure, there are times when it’s unnecessary or unadvisable. But in texts like this, it’s crucial I follow this rule.

A convention in writing, on the other hand, is the use of commas. There are few hard-and-fast rules for comma use, but people often confuse comma “rules” for mere conventions, turning guidelines into commandments and making poor writing decisions as a result.

By distinguishing between rules and conventions in our field of expertise, we can see beyond – question the norms, manipulate them, and ultimately develop our own style. If we don’t, we remain bound to our limited training and the style of others.

Love for Learning

We can’t skip over this one. This love seems far off at the beginning when we’re struggling with the basics. And there are times when our affection for our pursuit is put to the test.

Though the mastery of skills is bittersweet, we usually end up loving our craft. After all, it becomes a part of us. It’s integrated into our lives. It might even be our livelihood. How couldn’t we love it?

Know that this is the result of long-term dedication to your field. Your craft is no longer foreign, distant, daunting – it becomes familiar and friendly.