At one time success – indeed, survival – depended on developing mastery in some area. We don’t spend much time thinking or talking about mastery anymore, but we should.
Today’s world worships the generalist. The person who can make a product, shoot the photograph, write the copy, post it on social media, and then go make a sales call. After hours she does the books, follows up on customer email, and reviews contracts. Today’s business person does a lot, but feels like she accomplishes little. Lack of time to focus on mastery is at the heart of this.
If you spend all your time skimming the surface of a thousand tasks, you won’t find happiness or success. The mind needs times of intense focus, times of reaching just beyond its capacity to develop new skills, and this type of focus doesn’t occur when we spend 20 minutes on one thing and 18 minutes on another.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (chick-sent-me-high) expressed this best in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990).
“It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.”
We often hear the phrase “do what you love, and you’ll find success.” I believe it’s true, but with an important caveat. If you are doing what you love, but only as 1/50th of all the things you do to make a living, it won’t sustain you. Does this mean you should just drop the other 49 things? Not if you want to pay the rent. So what can you do?
First, you identify your desired mastery. You can pick anything you like! It could be your chosen craft, writing copy, becoming the best diagnostician; just pick something that interests you with enough depth that you have to work hard to master it. You probably already know what it is – it’s the thing you always wish you had more time for. It’s the thing you naturally enjoy when you get into it. Find something that requires your deep concentration, something that forces you to stretch, something that you can focus on for an hour or two at a time, something you can lose yourself in.
Next, set aside time for mastery. Perhaps it’s an uninterrupted hour each day, perhaps it’s a block of three hours once a week. You think there’s not enough time to do that? Just consider how many hours you spend doing things that don’t involve any real commitment: watching T.V., playing around on social media, scrolling through news headlines, shopping, clubbing, hanging out at a coffee shop. I have yet to meet a person who has no wasted hours in a week.
Don’t get me wrong- I love my wasted hours! I bookend my days with sipping coffee in the morning and skimming my phone or watching a bit of TV in the evening. I consider these my rejuvenation times. But when I realized I had slipped away from the pursuit of mastery, I reconsidered those activities carefully. My morning coffee time is genuinely restorative to me; my only time of meditation. But my evening time didn’t have the same benefits. I was relaxed, but I wasn’t engaged. I traded half of my evening lounge time for writing time, and found new pieces of myself in the process.
People often think that the reason they feel so stale or anxious (or both) is that they aren’t making the kind of money they wanted to (expected to, need to) make. But people who are engaged in pursuing mastery don’t report the same feelings of malaise. This tells me that how we invest ourselves ultimately matters more than how much we earn.
Some types of mastery take a lifetime to achieve, others merely years. It’s not critical that you pick something that can take a lifetime. It’s enough to always be working on mastery. When you find you are no longer challenged enough, it’s a sign that you have learned what you can learn. Identify something new to master and get on with it.