Whether you want to become a great writer, a successful business owner, an innovative graphic designer, or develop high-level skills in some other discipline, the principles that underlie the path to mastery are the same. These hard-won principles can be learned, instilled, and taught to others.
History's most celebrated achievers did not possess some form of innate rarified talent or mystical spark of genius. If anything, it was tangible, down-to-earth qualities like curiosity, passionate interest, obsession, and relentlessness that often led them down the path towards greatness. These qualities can be gradually adapted and integrated into one's identity. This happens through process, and through practice. You or I may not become the next Da Vinci or Mozart, but their methodologies can instruct and propel us towards ever higher levels of accomplishment, in whatever area we choose.
But first, we need to dissuade ourselves of the notion that we can never attain levels of mastery, that such attainment is reserved only for the "chosen". As Seth Godin says:
"No one is going to pick you. Pick yourself."
The road towards mastery is filled with obstacles, both real and imagined. Frustration, self-doubt, complacency, plateaus, and the desire to impress others all threaten to sideline our efforts and irrevocably stall our progress.
Following these 3 essential steps will ensure that mastery remains within reach.
1) Seek Out a Rigorous Apprenticeship
Skilled artists, entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists have all gone through a period of apprenticeship. It is where they learn the foundation of their craft, hone their capabilities, and learn from other, more experienced practitioners. Apprenticeships can be overt or covert, linear or sporadic, guided or self-directed. They are integral to the process of internalizing the rules of a discipline.
Eric Barone, the polymath video game designer who single-handedly designed, programmed, and composed the soundtrack for the smash hit Stardew Valley, had a multifaceted apprenticeship. While he began his journey completing a computer science degree, it was through his intense, self-directed learning that he learned the visual art, storytelling, and game design skills that would enable him to complete his project.
For the groundbreaking 19th century scientist Michael Faraday, his apprenticeship was two-fold. While he was working as a bookbinding apprentice as a young man, he came across a book called The Improvement of the Mind by Isaac Watts. The book promoted active inquiry and experimentation, and Faraday read it several times, finding it inspirational. Later, when he met the renowned chemist Humphrey Davy, he did everything in his power to learn from him. He eventually secured a job as his lab assistant, and made tremendous progress under Davy's tutelage.
The ideal apprenticeship is intense, offers immediate and valuable feedback, and is, above all else, purposeful. Robert Greene, in his exceptional book Mastery, writes:
"The goal of an apprenticeship is not money, a good position, a title, or a diploma, but rather the transformation of your mind and character."
When considering how best to go about apprenticing for your craft, consider these questions:
2) Engage in Deliberate Practice
In his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist who has studied some of the world's top performers, differentiates between naive and deliberate practice. Naive practice involves repeating a particular task or discipline automatically in the hopes that you will get better at it. After many years of playing countless chess games, I never really improved. It was only recently that I thought to ask why. The answer: naive practice.
Deliberate practice, on the other hand, forces the learner to step outside of their comfort zone, struggle to improve one narrow slice of a particular skill, and rely on feedback to determine whether or not progress is being made. In chess, this might mean working on endgames, thinking through challenging puzzles, or scrutinizing older games. This often involves more struggle, discomfort and frustration, but the sporadic improvements and positive feedback make it completely worthwhile.
Crucially, this doesn't mean that you must cease having fun in order to completely deconstruct a discipline. You can shift back and forth between modes: enjoyable play and purposeful practice. In fact, according to research out of the University of Santa Barbara's Meta Lab, you may be able to generate more novel, creative insights from completing low-intensity tasks, where the mind can wander more freely. Deliberate practice, however, is the driving force behind the stellar progress that so many high performers have made.
3) Embrace the Right Mindset
While some physical, genetic limitations may hold you or I back from becoming superstar athletes, it is largely our mindsets that determine the amount of progress we are willing and able to make towards mastery.
For cultivating a positive mindset, Carol Dweck's incredible book by that name is invaluable. It sheds light on a stark divide: those with a fixed mindset, believing that their talents are mostly stable and immutable, give up on complex challenges fairly quickly, while those with a growth mindset actively seek out opportunities for deliberate practice, and persist when facing setbacks.
While we all possess a mix of growth and fixed mindset tendencies, we can consciously shift our thinking and values towards what Josh Waitzkin calls an incremental improvement mindset.
It is this shift in thinking that separates those who stop trying and those who keep going despite the odds.
How far you take these 3 approaches is up to you. Happy practicing!