• David Unger PhD

Mastery



I have written about some of my personal challenges when it comes to being a learner. I am not very accepting of being a beginner when I am first learning to do something. That makes learning something new more difficult than it needs to be. I have to be diligent about holding my own hand and letting myself know it is okay not to automatically know how to do something. I endeavor to support myself and when my judgmental, critical self pops up I can say – “Oh. Hi there judgmental critical voice. Not so good to hear from you again. But there you are, so hello and now please leave and let me carry on learning.”


You might think that someone who has a hard time not being as accomplished as they would like might have some difficulty with mastery. Doesn’t mastery take a lot of dedicated effort which is going to involve hurdles, setbacks, things you do well and things you don’t do so well? The pathway to mastery can’t be that easy to walk, and yet I am going to share that path with you.


I suppose we could look at people who are the best in their field and say they have mastered their endeavor. Yet, those people will tell you that as good as they are, they haven’t really mastered anything. For what is a master? Someone who rules over someone or something. As good as you may be at something very few people are ever perfect and if they are it usually isn’t for long. The best baseball players only bat 300 which means they fail way more than they succeed. Surely no one has been able to master the game. Or any game for that matter. Nor can anyone master an art. Plenty a painter has thrown away a picture, a songwriter thrown out a lyric and a writer deleted a sentence.


Mastery is not about perfection. While perfection may be a direction, it isn't a goal. To my mind mastery of something really means you have an ongoing relationship with it and your abilities and skills evolve as they would with any relationship. You master the ability to get yourself to continue to engage. If you keep coming back despite the ups and downs that are inherent in any relationship than you are in state of mastery. It may not be a permanent state, but when you get up and do it again you are mastering the art of involvement.


Let’s say you have a hobby or want to have a hobby that you do intermittently, but which over time sees the improvement of your skills and enjoyment. You want to get better and feel better about what you are doing. But, let’s say you just don’t think you have the time to commit to fully engage so you can perform at your highest level.


Today I spoke to such a client who told me he had written a non-fiction book, but had a fiction book in him that he could just not get out. He didn’t think he had the time and energy right now to make it happen. So I told him something I learned from a music teacher where I work. One of this teacher’s complaints is his students don’t always do their homework. Many teachers have this complaint. Often students say they don’t have time to do all the homework. Parents and teachers push back and say it seems you have sufficient time to be on social media and play games for a good part of your life.


I work at a school that has high investment in academic achievement. Students go to the school in large part because they think it will help them get into a good college and to do that they mostly need good grades. The music teacher’s course does not have the same academic cache as the more core courses so students often prioritize the other assignments and don’t practice every night. He wants them to practice 20 minutes every night, but some nights that seems too much to them.


So he tells them to do 5 minutes a night. Most of us can devote 5 minutes a day or most days to do something. If you have a hobby, skill or something you want to learn or get better at you probably could find 5 minutes most days to do something. So, make a commitment to devote 5 minutes as often as possible (and by that I mean aim for at least 3 times a week).


I think we all know 5 minutes is not going to get you far, but it is going to get you farther. And getting further is going to get you further. And usually when you get further into something and are enjoying it you want to devote more time to it because the rewards of doing it are also getting better.


Here is the hidden truth. Most people when they do 5 minutes of something usually end up doing closer to 20. But if you stop after 5 minutes it can be guilt free. You only have to do 5, but once you get your toe into the water most people want to swim around for awhile. That is what the music teacher found out and what I shared with the client who wanted to write fiction. Give it 5 minutes now and then and you may just find that 5 minutes extends itself and you gain a better sense of mastery. If mastery is about involvement, it can be easier to lower the bar to a short time so you are more willing to engage.


For myself I found that if I give myself 5 minutes to do something and I am struggling because I am not doing it all that well, it is a lot easier to endure my imperfections for shorter periods of time. I give myself bonus points for allowing myself to participate in something that I don't do all that well. And, no big revelation here, but the more I allow myself to do something the more comfortable I become doing it and my skill level seems to improve.


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