The Master's Work is Invisible

February 3, 2018

“Why are you squeezing my arms!? It’s way too much force! It needs to be much more subtle.”

I had been taking dance lessons for several months and I was now getting into the difficult stuff. In this lesson, I had to learn to guide my partner’s head while softly holding the hands. It was not easy. As a beginner, I had watched experienced dancers do this many times before and it made perfect sense - like a mechanical inevitability. Reproducing it was a different story. I was doing my best to copy the shape I had observed the teacher make, but the technique required a much more intricate movement than what I could observe. Before I could do this movement, I had to feel how it worked rather than observe.

This is a theme that comes up often when one is learning something new. To the non-practitioner, things either look too mysterious, magical, and overwhelming, or they look much simpler than they actually are. Rarely can the non-practitioner dissect the elements that make the end result great.

In this situation, there are two erroneous reaction that outside observers or novice practitioners have when they observe a master:

  • They're overwhelmed by the master's achievement and they can't fathom the steps that would take them to the same level of mastery. This kind of thinking leads them to undue admiration of the master or simply giving up the pursuit in desperation.
  • They attribute the overall success to one small component that they can understand. This, in turn, leads them to either belittle the overall accomplishment by claiming that the one understandable component is not that special, or, if they are novice practitioners trying to reproduce the master’s result, they might focus on doing more of the thing they can understand. With time and attention, however, the practitioner’s field of vision expands to detect more of the nuance and the intricacies. Their attention during practice can then shift to the new areas that they’ve become aware of. This is how they can approach mastery.

Imagine that a master chef begins using a rare ingredient in a new recipe. He does this because he understands how this ingredient interacts with all the others and the impact it might have, considering its place in the meal among the other courses. A less skilled chef who’s aspiring to be great may see this, and he may decide he wants to use the exact same ingredient. But since his understanding of the ingredient and its place in the big picture is not as comprehensive as the master’s, he might use this ingredient in a way that is jarring to his patron or not as well considered.

Conversely, a second type of error can occur in outside observers. Let’s say the less skilled chef is the first to pioneer this rare ingredient. While he might score some points for boldness, his output is still commensurate to his skill level. If the master chef then adopts this new ingredient in his own recipe, an untrained outside observer may fault him for being a copycat. The urge to do this among people who are not experts is particularly strong due to tall poppy syndrome.

I got thinking about this after the last product announcements from Apple. As they always do after an event like this, the detractors came out in droves to explain how Apple had built things that were available in Samsung products earlier. What these detractors miss is that the individual features that they’re focusing on are akin to ingredients in a recipe. We don’t set our expectations for a recipe solely on the basis of the ingredients used in them, but on the basis of who the chef is and their track record. A master chef can use an ingredient tastefully and to great effect. A mediocre one can use the same recipes indiscriminately and with poor results.

From martial arts, to technology products, to dance, I’ve observed these two errors in nearly every field I’ve been involved with, it pays to be conscious of them and to detect them in ourselves and others. Misattribute success to one invalid trait and you set your training back by years. Listen to a critic who bases their judgement on bad heuristics and their commentary can cost you more than it helps.