I’m a huge fan of writing a reflective journal. The practise is relatively new for me, after several failed attempts to get the habit going. The solution turned out to be how I was journalling, not the practise itself (one for another blog post I think). Anyway, I write every evening, and I will also jot down thoughts and reflections in the mornings as well.
I recently spent an afternoon re-reading a few of these reflections and scribblings, wondering whether there were patterns or whether I still agreed with the thoughts and beliefs I’d written down. One of the things that was striking was how often the concept of mastery came up.
In many ways, this isn’t surprising. Mastery is hugely meaningful to me. Mastery is how we stand out, how we achieve our potential and how, fundamentally, we effect change in the world. Mastery is something I strive for in so many facets of my life that it isn’t surprising that I tend to reflect on it regularly. Given how central it is to my approach and my belief structure, I thought it might be worth collating a few of my thoughts around the question of mastery here.
Mastery can never be fully achieved. I have said many times that mastery is about the journey. It reflects a mindset and a way of approaching learning. Anyone who believes that they have learned everything they will ever need to know in their field is, in my opinion, not even on the path to mastery, let alone having achieved it.
The more you know about your subject, the more you engage with it and ask questions and seek to understand the mechanisms and relationships and processes underlying the basics of your field, the more you understand that it is intimately related with so many other fields of expertise.
To take a science example, once you start to develop expertise in biology, you being to realise that you need a firm grounding in chemistry. Once you have a strong understanding of chemistry, you realise that it is all based on physics. If you try to delve into understanding the complexities of physics, you begin to understand that it’s all really just applied maths.
Every subject has others it interacts with and ever more levels to which your understanding can be applied. It’s not to say that you can’t master an understanding of biology without also being an expert mathematician, but it does demonstrate the way in which there’s always another level to your field.
True mastery is characterised by an enthusiasm for these connections and a fascination with learning.
Mastery is also an acknowledgement that is bestowed upon you, not something you can claim for yourself. I believe that mastery comes with a set of obligations, which must be both offered to you by others and willingly accepted by you. The genuine masters stand out a mile. They are the ones who live their values. They have the integrity and the emotional balance to be an example to others. In a martial arts context, the real masters are those who have high moral and ethical standards for their students, not those who are mostly interested in filling classes.
Honestly, I think we all know mastery when we see it, especially in others.
I mentioned the obligations inherent in mastery. Others may not always agree, but I firmly believe that mastery within a field carries with it and obligation to advocate for and within that field and to be an example to others.
For me, the concepts of mastery and leadership are inextricably linked. Within the guilds such as the stonemasons of the medieval period, only a master could proclaim another master. This meant that mastery carried with it a responsibility for the standards and reputation of the entire profession. It may be less formalised now, but echoes of that obligation certainly remain.
These are just a few of my musings on the topic of mastery. I will certainly have more to say on the subject soon, but I would like to add a final thought that seems to be the crux of the issue for me.
We’ve been talking about mastery within your specific field or area of expertise, but the most important mastery is mastery of yourself. Understanding yourself, having control of yourself and taking full responsibility for yourself is the only path to mastery of any other aspect of life.
And even mastery of yourself is a journey!