Wednesday, July 30, 2008

MASTERY, by George Leonard

One of our two required "leadership readings" for the Reach Pre-Service Summer Coursework, Mastery is a short and elegantly-written book in which George Leonard -- former Army Air Force flight instructor and Aikido master -- puts forth a set of deceptively simple rules on how to live your life. He points out that most people, upon trying to learn a new skill, fall into one of three categories:

  1. The Dabbler: Jumps into a new venture with great enthusiasm, but loses interest when he soon hits a "plateau" of acheivement. Discouraged, he abandons the enterprise, only to jump into the next thing that strikes his fancy and repeat the process.
  2. The Obsessive: Impatient with the "plateaus" of achievement, the Obsessive pushes herself night and day in an effort to recapture the sudden burst of growth that she first experienced. Her performance becomes erratic as she tries to rush the process of improvement, until eventually she burns out -- physically, emotionally, or both.
  3. The Hacker: The Hacker doesn't care about pursuing excellence; he just wants to play around with the skill. Unlike the Dabbler, he doesn't get discouraged when he hits a plateau, but he doesn't push himself keep learning and growing either; beyond a certain point, his performance remains flat. He may only practice his skills occasionally, enough to maintain that plateau where he leveled off but not enough to press onward. He's content to "know enough to be dangerous" without going deeper into the pursuit in question.
Leonard puts forth an alternative to all of these paths: the path of Mastery. The Master sets up a regular practice in the skill in question and pursues that practice for its own sake. The discipline itself becomes its own reward. Along the way, the Master encounters bursts of measurable improvement followed by long periods on the plateaus; but rather than give up, obsess over continued improvement, or become content with mediocrity, the Master continues the regular, steady discipline, embracing growth when it occurs but also embracing the periods of apparent stagnation (which are actually the points when you're integrating everything you've learned to the point where it becomes second nature -- an essential step on the road to further improvement).

As Leonard points out, you can apply these different "paths" to any pursuit in life, and you needn't follow the same path in everything. Looking at my own life, I can see that I've been a Dabbler at art and a Hacker at guitar-playing. I'd like to say I've approached my writing in accordance with the path of mastery, but I've been a bit too erratic in my writing schedule for that to be strictly true; I think I alternate between periods of Mastery and Hackerdom where writing is concerned. The important thing is to recognize the pursuits that you really care about being better at and then pursuing the path of mastery in those disciplines, because that's the only way to keep improving over long periods of time without getting burned out.

One of the most eye-opening parts of the book was chapter three, "America's War Against Mastery." Leonard pointed out that our entire popular culture is based around a value system that scorns the path of mastery. This is particularly obvious in commercial advertisements and television shows:

"Keep watcing, and an underlying pattern will emerge. About half of the commercials, whatever the subject mater, are based on a climactic moment: The cake has already been baked; the family and guests, their faces all aglow, are gathered around to watch an adorable three-year-old blow out the candles. The race is run and won; beautiful young people jump up and down in ecstasy as they reach for frosted cans of diet cola. Men are shown working at their jobs for all of a second and a half, then it's Miller time. Life at its best, these commercials teach, is an endless series of climactic moments.
"...In all of this, the specific content isn't nearly as destructive to mastery as is the rhythm. One epiphany follows another. One fantasy is crowded out by the next. Climax is piled upon climax. There's no plateau." (pp. 23-29)

This fantasy of endless upward progress is insidious because it doesn't match up with the way things actually work in reality. Driven to find the sort of life that we see on TV, we either work ourselves to exhaustion or seek shortcuts to excellence. The recent steroid scandal in baseball and the collapse of the mortgage industry are both examples of what can happen when people follow the siren song of Better, Faster, More!

I found this book greatly inspiring because of the firm but gentle way it encourages the reader to get on the path to mastery and stay on it. The acknowledgement that we can't (and won't) keep growing in a steady upward rise is refreshing and liberating; it's right and natural to find yourself "stuck on the plateau." The admonishment to keep pressing onward, to find your rewards in the daily practice of your craft rather than losing heart or obsessing over the next burst of improvement, is a lesson that can be applied to any area of life. It's a lesson that I plan to embrace as I move forward with my career as a teacher.

1 comment:

Victoria said...

I'm definitely with you on the whole writing path. One of my goals this year is to try and apply more "mastery" thinking to my writing throughout the year, and learn to "love the plateau" as much as I can.

Welcome to California!