Tag: mastery

No Masters, Just Mastery

Last month I travelled to Crosby for a bi-annual five day retreat with my local Zen group. Three times a day, along with hours of sitting, we would chant sutras while I struck a wooden percussion instrument called a mokugyo to maintain rhythm. Back in Liverpool I would play the instrument almost every week for service in our usual place so I think by that point I was in a stage of unconscious competence. Then, on the fourth day, the Ino, our lead chanter, praised my mokugyo skills and proclaimed, in part jest, that I was a mokugyo master. While I was pleased to be complimented I also noticed a small thought afterwards that said, now because people saw me as a master, I better not mess up.

In her book Mindset Carol Dweck proposes a two part model for success and achievement which has caught on in education and sport: fixed mindset and growth mindset. Growth mindset allows you to make the inevitable mistakes that will help you grow and eventually succeed. When a teacher compliments a student for being clever, that praise can induce a fixed mindset and hamper learning because now this student, like me, feels that they have something to lose: their standing with the teacher. If the teacher were to praise the effort instead, what’s there to lose?

Perhaps it’s not so important to be recognised as a master as it is to stay on the path of mastery? Fortunately the path goes on forever.

Dare to Be Stupid

In her essay “Copying to Create: The Role of Imitation and Emulation in Developing Haiku Craft” Michele Root-Bernstein quotes Picasso on the importance of copying and imitation:

“You should constantly try to paint like someone else. But the thing is, you can’t! You would like to. You try. But it turns out to be a botch… and it’s at the very moment you make a botch of it that you’re yourself.”

These days I don’t like to botch anything. Even though I’m aware from books on performance and deliberate practice that mistakes and blunders made in the direction of improvement are what result in the improvement sought, I hesitate. It feels counter-intuitive and wrong because it’s hard (and if it’s hard that means I’m doing it wrong, right?). No, as it turns out.

In Tip #5 (“Be Willing to Be Stupid”) of The Little Book of Talent Daniel Coyle writes:

“Feeling stupid is no fun. But being willing to be stupid – in other words, being willing to risk the emotional pain of making mistakes – is absolutely essential, because reaching, failing, and reaching again is the way your brain grows and forms new connections.”

Cal Newport recalls a story in So Good They Can’t Ignore You about Jordan Tice, a successful professional guitar player, and his deliberate practice. Like Jordan Cal also started playing guitar in his teens and toured with a band but unlike Jordan he soon plateaued because he didn’t want to push himself further. “There’s a mental strain,” Cal says, “that accompanies feeling your way through a tune that’s not ingrained in muscle memory, and I hated that feeling.” But Jordan learnt to enjoy the strain and the initial clumsiness of early attempts.

So keep reaching. Be stupid and learn.