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George Leonard on mastery: loving the plateau

… genius, no matter how bright, will come to naught or swiftly burn out if you don’t choose the master’s journey.

This journey will take you along a path that is both arduous and exhilarating. It will bring you unexpected heartaches and unexpected rewards, and you will never reach a final destination. (It would be a paltry skill indeed that could be finally, completely mastered.) You’ll probably end up learning as much about yourself as about the skill you’re pursuing.

And although you’ll often be surprised at what and how you learn, your progress towards mastery will almost always take on a characteristic rhythm that looks something like this:

via David B. Glover

There’s really no way around it. Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it.

The curve above is necessarily idealized. In the actual learning experience, progress is less regular; the upward spurts vary; the plateaus have their own dips and rises along the way. But the general progression is almost always the same. To take the master’s journey, you have to practice diligently, striving to hone your skills, to attain new levels of competence. But while doing so—and this is the inexorable fact of the journey—you also have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.

… those upward surges on the mastery curve are by no means the only time anything significant or exciting is happening. Learning generally occurs in stages. A stage ends when the habitual system has been programmed to the new task, and the cognitive and effort systems have withdrawn. This means you can perform the task without making a special effort to think of its separate parts. At this point, there’s an apparent spurt of learning. But this learning has been going on all along.

How do you best move toward mastery? To put it simply, you practice diligently, but you practice primarily for the sake of the practice itself. Rather than being frustrated while on the plateau, you learn to appreciate and enjoy it just as much as you do the upward surges.

Contingencies, no doubt, are important. The achievement of goals is important. But the real juice of life, whether it be sweet or bitter, is to be found not nearly so much in the products of our efforts as in the process of living itself, of how it feels to be alive.

We are taught in countless ways to value the product, the prize, the climactic moment. But even after we’ve just caught the winning pass in the Superbowl, there’s always tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. If our life is a good one, a life of mastery, most of it will be spent on the plateau. If not, a large part of it may well be spent in restless, distracted, ultimately self-destructive attempts to escape the plateau.

The question remains: Where in our upbringing, our schooling, our career, are we explicitly taught to value, to enjoy, even to love the plateau, the long stretch of diligent effort without progress?

George Leonard – Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment [amazon / audible]

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