M – Motivated by Mastery

What Mastery is:

Mastery is a never-ending road. It’s a perpetual pursuit of proficiency in an area. Mastery is a conscious and conscientious effort at improvement in a specific domain. It emphasizes a process over an outcome. Mastery is something that is earned through effort and attention. Mastery is practice over performance. It is up to you to pursue. It is not something that can be bought or something with which you’re born. Mastery is a choice. It can’t be imposed. You enroll and earn your mastery of a subject. It doesn’t just show up. Mastery may seem like a mystery but follows a proven path. Mastery is a steady evolution of excellence in an area. A mastery mentality is one where devotion to development is prioritized. The passion is for practice, for process. Sure, wins and victories are nice, but more so because they validate the value of mastery.

Mastery becomes a form of intrinsic motivation. It lasts, is sustainable, and can grow over time. It’s doing something mostly for the pleasure the activity itself provides. It’s not because of external rewards that may accrue like recognition, status, or money. Those that pursue mastery do so independent of the external benefits achieved. Mastery is content commitment or delighted dedication. It’s a purposeful pursuit that’s pleasant. Those engaged in the effort of mastery are more likely to find flow states. Mastery looks like pleasant effort. Mastery presents itself as complete concentration in an activity. It is seen in someone that seems to be right where they want to be.

The English writer, Henry Miller, observed, “The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” The mindset of mastery is born in delighting in the depth of a domain. Those afflicted with the drive for mastery have wandered into a wormhole of wonder. They’ve found content that captures their curiosity. The drive of mastery makes the person come alive.

Unfortunately, the virtue of mastery has been sidelined as advertisers promote the vice of immediate gratification. Short-term pleasure is prioritized over long-term effort. Effort is for chumps. Those we admire and are encouraged to emulate seem to live a life of one amazingly satisfying moment after another with no effort required. Perpetual pleasure is being promoted as our birthright. Our medicines offer immediate relief. Quick fixes and short cuts are the exact opposite of the patient plodding associated with those choosing the path of mastery. Life is a process. It’s not an outcome. So, too, it is with mastery. In Mastery, George Leonard encourages us to consider, “Where in our upbringing, our schooling, our career are we explicitly taught to value, to enjoy, even to love the plateau, the long stretch of diligent effort with no seeming progress?”

Those that seek to master something have fallen in love with learning. They have a deep and powerful inclination toward a particular subject. It’s the drive and passion fueling the pursuit of masters that stands out above their raw intellect or genetic capabilities. Those that become masters are moved by the material. They are drawn to the subject. They feel compelled by their curiosity. It is a force pulling them to get better. They are driven by some kind of never-ending internal fuel towards mastering their material.

The German philosopher Nietzsche noted of masters that, “they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.”

What Mastery looks like:

What does mastery look like in the moment? Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow experience from research he and others undertook in the 80s and 90s seeking to study what optimal experiences looked like. Flow is the result of having your attention so absorbed on something that you lose track of time and yourself. You, effectively, become one with the activity. It is a positive feeling that includes involvement, concentration, and fulfillment. People feel most alive and powerful when in this state. Flow is the result of complete concentration and focus. Distractions drift into the background and problems evaporate. It’s just the person and their activity. All of one’s senses are aligned and coordinated in pursuit of the activity. Thoughts and feelings, too, are connected to the desired outcome. Finding flow can make what looks like effortful activity to others seem deeply enjoyable to the participant. Finding flow is what masters seek regularly. The feeling of flow becomes a magnetic force pulling the participant back to the activity day after day.

Moreover, masters remain motivated in the face of challenge. They don’t give up when things get tough. As the German poet Goethe observed, “Everything on this earth has its difficult sides! Only some inner drive—pleasure, love—can help us overcome obstacles, prepare a path, and lift us out of the narrow circle in which others tread out their anguished, miserable existences!”

Benefits of Mastery:

Mastery is one of the core components for life satisfaction according to SDT or Self-determination theory. As previously noted, the philosopher Karl Popper observed, “The best thing that can happen to a human being is to find a problem, to fall in love with that problem, and to live trying to solve that problem, unless another problem even more lovable appears.” It’s fun and fulfilling to be consumed by curiosity on a subject. Leonard concurs writing, “If there is any sure route to success and fulfillment in life, it is to be found in the long-term, essentially goalless process of mastery.” Leonard continues noting, “the real juice of life, whether it be sweet or bitter, is to be found not nearly so much in the products of our efforts as in the process of living itself, in how it feels to be alive.”

Developing a Mastery Mindset:

How do we fall in love with something so that we’re moved to master it? It starts as seeing yourself as having a passion living somewhere inside of you not just waiting but aching to emerge. Seeking mastery is a positive purpose. We must be willing to look inside to find the thing that makes us tick. A notable thing of many masters is the clarity with which they find their subject early in life. Our childhoods offer clues to what may have captured our curiosity. To what were you drawn? What were the activities or experiences that are most memorable for you of your childhood? Have you felt pulled to pursue something?

Our innate curiosity as kids encounters a separate powerful force outside of us in the form of social pressure to conform. Our individual desires meet peer pressure as we grow and interact more with others. We wage a personal war of our inner voice against external pressures. Masters mature by embracing their inner voice. The masses grow up stifled by the impositions of others. Masters are active, the masses are passive. Masters know themselves and grow themselves in order to show themselves. The masses look outside their inner voice to be led and directed by the crowd. Masters avoid the number one regret of the dying. The masses marinate in the misery later in life of realizing they didn’t live a life true to themselves. Masters listen to themselves. The masses listen to parents, peers, professors in choosing career direction. Masters choose passion or purpose over practicality.

In looking for your desired domain to master, you’ve got to separate yourself from external influences and dig deep within. It’s not necessarily a linear line that is easily found. You may have to move from subject to subject. This is a natural part of the process. You may stumble across a subject that captures your interest. You’ll know you’re on to something not because it brings you wealth or status but because it brings you a deep sense of satisfaction. You’re motivated to learn for the love of the subject matter. You’ll feel that you’re right where you are meant to be. Time spent on the subject won’t deplete your energy but will invigorate you. It will feel like you’re fulfilling your natural purpose. You’ll benefit from a cascading cycle of competence. As you embrace your subject and improve your skills, your confidence will soar. This will fuel further efforts catapulting you upwards in your field. It feels good to be good.

George Leonard in his book, Mastery, proposed Five Keys to Mastery: Instruction, Practice, Surrender, Intentionality, and The Edge.

Instruction: The only shortcut to learning is gaining direction from those who have come before and know what you’re seeking to learn. Expert instruction can accelerate our learning. Experts can objectively demonstrate both credential and lineage. They’ve earned their education and they’ve delivered their expertise to others successfully. Those motivated by mastery are intent on improvement and seek guidance to accelerate their development.

Practice: practice is something we do with an aim for improvement. To masters, purposeful practice is a priority. Practice, to masters, is the point. Practice is the core to who a master is. Both the Japanese and Chinese words for practice relate to the road or the path. It isn’t an end but a means. Masters are in love with the process. They joy in the journey. A mantra of mastery that has stood the test of time originating amongst martial arts from Japan sums up the focus on the fundamentals inherent to the path, “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”

Surrender: To surrender is to give yourself to the process. It’s recognizing the utility of humility. It’s an acceptance that you don’t have the answers. That what you know is much less than what there remains to learn. It’s about embracing uncertainty and being a student. It’s the opposite of ego. It’s being willing to face feedback. It’s accepting that improvement isn’t smooth. The path to proficiency is littered with obstacles which can only be met with sweat and struggle. Surrender is welcoming repetition and routine. It’s appreciating that boring is beautiful. Surrender is recognizing that learning isn’t linear. Sometimes we must break things down and go backwards before we can go forwards. Surrender is acknowledging as Leonard notes, “There are no experts. There are only learners.”

Intentionality: Expertise isn’t luck. Skill is built through purposeful effort. Masters seek to act with intent. Anders Erikson considers expertise as the ability to create a clear mental representation of an action and then executing in line with that representation. The best have the clearest image in their mind’s eye of what it is they are trying to accomplish. Golf legend Jack Nicklaus always saw the shot he was about to hit in his mind first. He visualized the ball flight, its landing, and where it would end up. He performed this act of visualizing prior to each shot. The quality of his mental representation was reflected in the quality of his physical shots. Nicklaus himself broke down a golf shot into being 50% visualization, 40% set up, and only 10% being physical execution.

The Edge: In spite of being devoted to practice and focused on fine-tuning fundamental skills, masters also seek to explore the edge of their field. They, over time, become willing to test their limits against what’s been done in their game. They want to go places no one else has ever gone. They want to expand the universe of their activity. Masters are committed to eXtending eXcellence by Zeroing in on their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).


Seeking improvement is a uniquely human attribute. As Matthew Syed observed in Rebel Ideas, “Chimps and orangutans do not improve as they get older. Once their brains have reached maturity at age three, that is as good as they will ever get.” So, too, it is with other animals. Their physical maturity caps their mental maturity. They aren’t ambitious or aiming to improve. They are content with survival today. Humans have hope. Humans seek to better their conditions today, tomorrow, and for future generations. Being motivated by mastery is how we demonstrate being intent on improvement. Dr. George Sheehan acknowledged, “Everything I do must be aimed at that, aimed at being a masterpiece. The things I write, the races I run, each day I live. There can be no other way.” Perhaps, it’s time to melt your molt of mediocrity and manufacture some mastery?