In Defense of Mastery

August 24, 2014

Things have never been better, and everybody's miserable.

-Louis CK

The modern world has brought us more choices in almost every facet of our lives. From our choice of which cereal to eat in the morning to what sport to do in our spare time to which career to pick. We make more decisions in our lives than our ancestors ever did. While this is, for the most part, beneficial, there are downsides to it. One of those downsides is the fact fewer and fewer of us seem to take the time to learn anything well.

There was a time when, if you were, say, a shoemaker, shoemaking was your preoccupation for most hours for most your days. And you'd be damn good at it. Today, there are very few economic incentives for spending the time and effort to become a master at something. The average, middle-class person grows up in comfortable suburbia, probably goes to a college where (s)he may sample courses from several different areas and then gets a comfortable 9-5 job. And it really is a 9-5. Anyone who has ever worked in a typical white-collared work environment knows that at 5:01 you can hear a pin drop. Nobody is really interested in the work - just in putting in their hours and getting through the day. What happens after the 5pm is "fun". The evening activity regularly changes. In the winter, if, like yours truly, you're lucky to live in a place with ski resorts nearby, it may be skiing; in the summer, it may be going out for a run. (In fact, doing a seasonal sport already puts you ahead of the curve; most people spend "fun" time sedating themselves with television or other frivolous entertainment). Occasionally, our white-collared worker friend may join some sport team that plays once a week.

I propose, dear reader, that this is a waste of human potential - so many people spending their lives in such an adhoc manner. We are all living with the results of the work of people who are, basically, incompetent at what they do. But even more importantly, these people themselves are missing out on one of the most enlightening and meaningful experiences that a human being can have - finding the limits of what it is you're truly capable of helps you know yourself like nothing else I am aware of (except psychedelics - those are good, too).

To make matters worse, there are a group of people (the esteemed Tim Ferriss among them) who promote the idea of being generalists - being capable of doing as many things as possible to some degree without worrying too much about perfecting any of them. While I think some of the rationale behind this mindset is sound, I think the advice overall is bad.

Without further ado, here are my top 5 reasons for pursuing mastery in at least 1 thing in your life:

  1. Jack of all trades master of none.

    Tim is right that this is an artificial pairing, but it is realistic in that it's what happens when people don't care about mastery. As a society, we don't have a problem of having too many people who are only good at one thing. The problem is having too many people who aren't good at anything. To tell people that they should aim to constantly jump ship is not useful advice. What most people need is the discipline to stick to one thing long enough that they can, in fact, master it.

  2. Reduces ego.

    It has been said there are 4 stages in the process of mastering something:

    • unconscious incompetence: you're not in the loop at this stage
    • Conscious incompetence: you still don't know what you're doing but you know enough to know that you don't know what you're doing.
    • Conscious competence: you're getting good, but you have to think about it.
    • Unconscious competence: you have so much experience that the skill is not second nature to you - you don't even have to think about it.

    I would argue that these stages are not just linear. Mastery is going through these stages over and over, in a loop. Every time you achieve unconscious competence, you will also achieve conscious incompetence in a more refined way. Going through this loop several times teaches you that there'll always be more to the art than that which you can learn. That knowledge stops you from building an ego around your skill. It's an ego-crushing process, and going through it is very difficult. But it's teaches you to go through life with a student's mind - always open to learning.

  3. Most people don't want to be in a leadership position because they don't wanna take on the risk. Being a master is the best way of securing employment.

    One of the arguments often put forth for being a generalist is that it's better for being in a leadership position. Again, this ties in with my first point: why is this advice relevant to most people? And why is it not accompanied with a caveat? Be a generalist if you care about being in a leadership position. Not everyone wants to be in a leadership position. We all pick our battles. If you don't want to be in a leadership position, I'd still say your life experiece will be greatly enriched by mastering something - anything.

  4. Boredom is failure.

    This is one of Tim's points which I totally agree with. But the solution to someone being bored isn't sampling many different things. Unlike what Tim implies, I have never seen someone who was a true master at something but was bored. In fact, the opposite seems to be true: masters are naturally more interested in learning. In my experience, there are two kinds of people that get bored:

    • people who have some competence but have built an ego around it: these people have not gone through the loop mentioned above more than once - maybe not even once. They were motivated to learn by all the wrong reasons (think someone who gets a PhD just because they like being referred to as "doctor" - of course, nobody admits this or is aware of it) and once they achieved their true goal, they stopped learning.
    • people who are just not interested in anything. I think this problem is endemic in our society. We keep telling kids "do something you like doing". Of course, they don't like doing things they're not good at, so they do nothing. We never tell them about the importance of going through the whole learning process, about embracing failure. By the time these kids are adults, they just throw up their hands and say "well, I don't particularly like doing anything". They do only what they have to, and in their free time, television and pop culture are there to sedate them.
  5. **Being a master of one thing and being good at many things are not mutually exclusive. **

    As I repeatedly mentioned above, mastery breeds a learning mindset. In martial arts, you see this all the time. Find any great teacher in one art, and I promise they're good friends with a handful of good teachers in other arts. For example, Hirokazu Kanazawa, a world-renowned master of Shotokan Karate, spent a few months learning from Gozo Shioda, the founder of Yoshinkan Aikido. But even in arts that are totally irrelevant to each other, the principles of mastery are often the same, and having learned one thing well is the best way one can equip oneself to learn a new skill. The key is going through the journey to mastery for the right reasons, fully committed, but without an attachment to the outcome. Otherwise, whatever you learn, it's not mastery, just a pretense.