The Psychology and Principles of Mastery

“Nobody can build the bridge for you to walk across the river of life, no one but you yourself alone. There are, to be sure, countless paths and bridges and demi-gods which would carry you across this river; but only at the cost of yourself; you would pawn yourself and lose. There is in the world only one way, on which nobody can go, except you: where does it lead?” (Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations)

Life presents each of us with a myriad of possibilities; the potential paths we can proceed upon are endless. Yet the goal is the same for all: the attainment of a full and vibrant life.

With this recognition we are confronted with a riddle. If we all share the same goal of attaining a rich and full life, why do so many fail to achieve this end? Why, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, do “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”?

While the reasons for this are many and varied there are undoubtedly social conditions which contribute to this state of affairs.

The modern schooling system, for example, plays a large role in generating a potentially pathological attitude of passivity by instilling in us at a young age the idea that obedience, conformity, and unquestioned submission to authority are virtues. As a result of this indoctrination, many fail to cultivate a healthy dose of self-reliance, becoming passive victims of life instead of active sculptors of meaning and seekers of significance.

In his book Angel in Armor, Ernest Becker described the all-too-common path of passivity.

“Take the average man who has to stage in his own way the life drama of his own worth and significance. As a youth he, like everyone else, feels that deep down he has a special talent, an indefinable but real something to contribute to the richness and success of life in the universe. But, like almost everyone else, he doesn’t seem to hit on the unfolding of this special something; his life takes on the character of a series of accidents and encounters that carry him along, willy-nilly, into new experiences and responsibilities. Career, marriage, family, approaching old age – all these happen to him, he doesn’t command them. Instead of his staging the drama of his own significance, he himself is staged, programmed by the standard scenario laid down by his society.” (Angel in Armor, Ernest Becker)

When our passivity leads us to follow the collectively sanctioned life-paths, and when these paths prove to stimulate quiet desperation and hopeless despair, we must seek out alternative paths and systems of value.

One such alternative is the path of mastery. To proceed upon this life-path is to discover an activity, craft, or subject which appeals to your interests, and through years of sustained and deliberate effort, strive to become a master in your chosen endeavor.

In the 19th century, Goethe explained the appeal of this path; noting its potential to lift one out of a life of quiet desperation into one constituted by a more a frequent engagement in meaningful activity:

“What man in the world would not find his situation intolerable if he chooses a craft, an art, indeed any form of life, without experiencing an inner calling?… 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!” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

The path of mastery is often overlooked, largely due to the age-old conviction that great performers, in any field, are blessed with innate talent and natural capabilities, and that without these inborn “gifts” would have been unable to attain the heights they have scaled.

As the Swedish Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, the world’s leading authority on human performance and expertise, explained in his book Peak:

“It is one of the most enduring and deep-seated of all beliefs about human nature—that natural talent plays a major role in determining ability. This belief holds that some people are born with natural endowments that make it easier for them to become outstanding athletes or musicians or chess players or writers or mathematicians or whatever. While they may still need a certain amount of practice to develop their skills, they need far less than others who are not as talented, and they can ultimately reach much greater heights.” (Peak, Anders Ericsson)

This deep-seated belief about human nature stretches back to at least the time of the Ancient Greeks, who believed the gods to be responsible for bestowing natural talent upon those with extraordinary abilities. In the 5th century BC the poet Pindar wrote: “All means of mortal excellence come from the gods; for it is they who make men naturally wise and strong and eloquent.”

In the 19th century this belief retained its efficacy, but instead of the gods bestowing excellence on individuals, it was believed to be inherited and therefore innate. Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin and an accomplished thinker in his own right, scoured the obituaries of gifted judges, poets, musicians, painters, and wrestlers, among others, in order to show, in his words, “how large is the number of instances in which men who are more or less illustrious have eminent kinsfolk.” (Francis Galton)

The conviction that innate talent is required to rise to the top of any field, inhibits many from choosing the path of mastery. For if the ability to achieve greatness is dependent on inborn talent, either one has the potential for mastery or one does not; and no amount of persistence, passion, and hard work can change the constraints imposed by one’s nature.

This belief about human nature was challenged in 1993, when K. Anders Ericsson and a team of researchers put forth a paper called “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”. Upon reviewing an enormous amount of research, they concluded: “the search for stable heritable characteristics that could predict or at least account for the superior performance of eminent individuals has been surprisingly unsuccessful.”

Ericsson’s paper spawned a proliferation of studies on the nature of expert performance, and to this day the general consensus coincides with its conclusion: innate talent cannot account for the greatness attained by individuals who have climbed to the top of their respective fields.

Inherited and innate abilities obviously do exist; some are naturally stronger, quicker, more intelligent, creative, or resourceful than others. But contemporary research has shown that the effects of natural talent are only apparent in the initial stages, when one first engages in a craft or activity. Due to the existence of innate talents, some are able to pick up certain skills with greater ease than others, and so become more proficient at a quicker rate.

But when one turns their attention from beginners to experts, modern research has shown that innate talent plays little to no role in determining how high experts have climbed. Instead, the key factor is the amount of time one has engaged in what is called “deliberate practice”.

“Speak not of gifts, or innate talents! One can name all kinds of great men who were not very gifted. But they acquired greatness, became ‘geniuses’.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, all too Human)

Deliberate practice is radically different from the type of practice most people engage in. As research has shown, many people learn a skill or activity for a hobby or career, and once they reach a certain level of competence enter into a comfort zone, perform and practice more or less automatically, reach a plateau and stop improving.

In contrast, deliberate practice is specifically designed to push one’s limits and capabilities to ever higher levels. It does this by isolating and improving one’s weaknesses through repetition, increasingly difficult standards, and access to continuous feedback.

Because of this it is highly demanding and too exhausting to sustain for long periods of time. Researchers claim there is an upper limit of 4 or 5 hours per day one can engage in deliberate practice, and that this should be staggered in practice sessions of 90 minutes, at most.

And if it’s not apparent already, deliberate practice, in the words of Ericsson, “is not inherently enjoyable”. It is often frustrating and mentally demanding, not only because of the intense and sustained focus required, but because of the hours – day after day, and year after year – that one must work on their craft to even come close to approaching greatness.

The fact that deliberate practice is not always enjoyable may lead some to question why anyone would choose the path of mastery. To help understand its appeal, we can delineate two general ways in which it is possible to attain feelings of satisfaction and pleasure: one of them passive by nature, the other active.

The passive way of obtaining satisfaction is the way of immediate gratification: for example, having a couple drinks, eating junk food, or lounging around watching television. While the way of immediate gratification requires little to no effort and involves minimal frustration, the sense of satisfaction it instills in us is fleeting, and often “negative” in that it merely removes feelings of anxiety and discomfort.

The active way of obtaining satisfaction entails frustration and requires not only hard work, but the existence of obstacles and resistances to overcome. In deliberate practice, for example, one is forced to confront one’s limitations on a daily basis, resulting in frequent states of frustration. But as these limitations are overcome through focused and sustained effort, one is rewarded with the feeling that one’s powers and abilities are increasing – that mastery is being approached. This type of satisfaction is not only more rewarding but also longer lasting than the fleeting satisfaction of immediate gratification.

But more importantly, the appeal of mastery as a life-path lies in the fact that it allows one to take control of one’s life. As a species we are distinguished from our ancestors in our ability to devote ourselves to the long-term goal of becoming a master in a chosen field, and through the process of striving towards such a goal, sculpt our character and shape our destiny. In the words of Anders Ericsson:

“The classic conception of human nature is captured in the name we gave ourselves as a species, Homo sapiens….We call ourselves “knowing man” because we see ourselves as distinguished from our ancestors by our vast amount of knowledge. But perhaps a better way to see ourselves would be as Homo exercens, or “practicing man,” the species that takes control of its life through practice and makes of itself what it will.” (Peak, Anders Ericsson)