Mastery: Greatness as the Way

By 
Eric Linhares

How to become an expert.


We tend to conceive mastery as a level of attainment reserved for those world-class practitioners who devoted years and years of their lives to the development of a certain skill, like playing the violin, and perhaps overlook the common elements of the mindset that pervaded their training sessions and periods of rest. For the purposes of self-improvement, let’s discuss mastery as a mindset.

Meet Jiro Ono

After introducing this post with a call for the discussion of mastery as a mindset, it’s almost facetious to mention the perfect model for mastery as an outcome. It would be if Jiro wasn’t also a sage who’s willing to pass his wisdom on to newer generations.

Jiro, born in 1925, started working at a restaurant when he was seven years old. In an interview with René Redzepi, he claimed to have felt he was an expert sushi chef after 50 years of work. At the age of 93, he’s still the head chef of his own restaurant, the Sukiyabashi Jiro, based in Tokyo, awarded 3 stars by the Michelin Guide. He’s considered by some food critics and renowned chefs the greatest sushi craftsman alive.

Jiro takes the Japanese work ethic to new heights.

He opens David Gelb’s wonderful documentary about his life and work with the revealing quote: “I would make sushi in my dreams. I would jump out of bed at night with ideas.” and follows it with his recipe for success: “once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably.”

At least part of his strict mindset can be attributed to his difficult childhood in World War II Japan. Job openings were scarce and the competition was rough. As a child, he was told he didn’t have a home go back to if he failed, a phrase he repeated to his younger son when he set out to open his own restaurant after being trained by his father.

Jiro claims he never questioned his career path and thought only of improving his skills. He embodies the concept of Shokunin. On the surface, the word means craftsman. Its usage includes the ethical connotation of working his best for the benefit of society.

Jiro dislikes holidays, as they bore him with idleness. “I feel ecstatic all day. I love making sushi.”

Since mastery is one of the greatest sources of job satisfaction, how can we be more like Jiro?

Mastery: The Key to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, by George Leonard

In line with this philosophy, Leonard maintains mastery is about practicing out of love for the practice, rather than the result that would only come to Jiro, according to his own appraisal, fifty years later. The road is paved with failures and plateaus, in which progress appears to have stagnated, but if you keep going, you’ll realize learning was taking place subconsciously and, at some point, you’ll manifest a new level of skill seemingly out of the blue.

He defines mastery as the process in which an initially difficult task becomes progressively easier and more enjoyable as you practice. Resting in the knowledge that this result will come about if you persist, you can overcome the self-doubt that eats at the confidence of most beginners.

Leonard opposes the quick fix mentality. He believes it destroys individuals and societies by fostering vices that are anathema to reliable progress and fulfillment. You can’t medicate yourself to health if sickness is your way of being.

Mastery takes dedication and time.

The Three Wrong Mindsets

To illustrate the most common ways people fail to achieve mastery, he describes three types.

1. The Dabbler

The Dabbler relies on the initial enthusiasm for a new interest to make progress, then gives up once plateaus bore him. He takes up another activity to reignite the lost thrill and gives it up for the same reason.

2. The Obsessive

The Obsessive relies on self-pressure to make quick and constant progress, then gives up once his fight against the inevitability of plateaus burns him out. The increasing pressure the Obsessive puts upon himself becomes unbearable when he feels like it isn’t paying out continuously or quickly enough.

3. The Hacker

The Hacker doesn’t completely give up, he becomes self-complacent once he reaches a certain plateau, no longer willing to put in effort to attain a higher level.

The Five Keys to Mastery

Leonard proceeds to describe how to achieve mastery.

1. Instruction

  • First-rate instruction helps the practitioner avoid mistakes that hinder his progress.
  • You know the quality of an instructor by his students.
  • “The best teacher generally strives to point out what the student is doing right at least as frequently as what she or he is doing wrong.”
  • Pick a master of teaching as an instructor.
  • Know when to say goodbye to a teacher.

2. Practice

  • Practice as something you have, as something you are, is more useful to mastery as a mindset than our usual notion of practice as something you do.
  • Practice as a noun is an integral part of your life.
  • “For a master, the rewards gained along the way are fine, but they are not the main reason for the journey.”
  • The people we know as masters love to practice. “The master of any game is generally a master of practice.”
  • “Mastery is practice. Mastery is staying on the path.”

3. Surrender

  • The master must surrender to the discipline, to the teacher and sometimes his proficiency to attain a higher level.
  • You should also surrender to reason when it clearly contradicts the above.
  • Accept that failure is a necessary part of the learning process.
  • You will look foolish from time to time.
  • Ultimately, there are no experts, only learners.

4. Intentionality

  • Visualize perfect execution. It improves performance in real time.
  • Mental training is real training.
  • The more vivid the image, the better.
  • “All I know is that the first step is to create a vision, because when you see the vision – the beautiful vision – that creates the want power.” Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • “Every master is a master of vision.”

5. The Edge

  • “Almost without exception, those we know as masters are dedicated to the fundamentals of their calling.”
  • Masters push the envelope.
  • Progress is endless, but we must test ourselves at every stage of the path.
  • “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
  • Playing the edge “demands the awareness to know when you’re pushing yourself beyond safe limits.”

Before we become masters of our craft, we must become masters of mastery. Can you decide to fall in love?