Society seems to favor mass production from its citizens. We dress alike, behave similarly, and speak with a common vernacular. Thanks to the gifts of the digital age, anyone today can become an “expert.”
But this leaves me wondering where the master craftsmen are today. Where are the unusual, custom-built leaders and artists who seek to rise above the fray rather than run with the pack?
Asking an expert about experts
I decided to ask New York Times bestselling author Daniel Pink that very question. A former speechwriter to then Vice President Al Gore, he has studied social trends and the science of success in the twenty-first century.
His books include Drive and A Whole New Mind. If anyone could answer my question on mastery, I figured Daniel Pink could.
KC: In today’s 24/7 media culture, “experts” are a dime a dozen. In contrast, a true master craftsman remains rare and valuable. How do we master our strengths to maximize our impact?
DP: It’s a mix of factors.
First, one of the most important things in achieving mastery is to recognize how you think about it in the first place. That is, when you look at your own capabilities, do you see them as fixed, unchangeable, and simply part of your DNA, like eye color? Or do you look at them as actually malleable, things you can improve, you can get better at?
Too many of us take that first view — that being good at some- thing depends on whether you have it or you don’t. The problem with that belief, as Carol Dweck and others have taught us, is that’s incorrect. It’s not how mastery works.
Indeed, if you start with that belief—that you’re either good at something or you’re not — you won’t achieve mastery. Period. But if you think you are capable of getting better at something, then you have a shot.
Second, along with thinking about mastery in the right way, the next component is what you actually do — because true mastery is really, really hard.
I think that’s one reason why few people achieve it. It requires enormous amounts of work and persistence. It requires time. It requires grit. It requires effort. It requires setbacks. And many of us aren’t willing to accept that deal.
We want to achieve mastery without pain. And that’s not possible.
Third, you also have to wrap your mind around this unhappy fact: you can never actually achieve mastery. You may remember the word “asymptote” from algebra.
Imagine a curved line that can come close to reach a horizontal line but never actually touches it. That untouchable horizontal line is the asymptote. You can get closer and closer and closer to it, but you can never reach it. That’s the nature of mastery.
I do not care how good you are at something, how blessed you are with the opportunity to improve, no one can ever achieve full mastery. Picasso never achieved full mastery. Marian Anderson never achieved full mastery. Kobe Bryant has never achieved full mastery.
Mastery is an asymptote, and that makes it simultaneously frustrating and alluring.
So I think the way we can get better at achieving mastery is just to get real about what it takes. And what it takes is thinking about your ability as something you can change. It requires a lot of pain, effort, and hard work, and it brings a certain amount of frustration in realizing that you can never actually achieve it fully.
From giftedness to mastery
Pink’s words transcend insight and enter the realm of encouragement. He reminds us that gifts are malleable and fluid.
Yes, we’re all born with certain gifts. But those gifts can grow, mature, and develop. Great men and women in any field recognize their natural gifts but then hone those gifts over time.
If we believe that our level of mastery is only a function of our innate makeup, we will never reach our fullest potential. Professional athletes were born with great talent, but without developing that talent, they would have remained average amateurs.
You can always get better. A master carpenter or professional baseball player will always tell you that no matter one’s level of success, he can always build a better product or play a better game.
If you could resurrect Leonardo da Vinci or Vincent van Gogh and ask him what his perfect work of art was, I doubt he would be able to name a single painting or sculpture. Perfection is impossible.
The cost of excellence
We must also accept that the process of development is painstaking. Thanks to films, we often get the impression that a great businessman or soldier or artist becomes who he is in an hour and a half rather than through months and years of practice.
Larry Bird spent hours shooting three-pointers before and after practice. Tiger Woods hit thousands of golf balls as he refined his swing. Because humans’ default mode is complacency, many fail to commit to developing their natural gifts.
People fail to achieve mastery not because they aren’t talented, but because they aren’t disciplined. [Tweet that]
You have within you a few strengths that, if honed, will empower you to impact your world. The potential exists. You need only to locate those gifts, work hard at developing them, and never stop pushing higher and farther.
Even if others recognize that you are very good at what you do, never forget that you can always get better. The things that spring from your hands will not be perfect, but, like the works of master craftsmen, they’ll stand the test of time.
What do you think? Can anyone achieve mastery? What would it take in your field or industry? Share in the comments.